But it wasn’t always this way.
|Panoramic view of the city from the castle|
Once within the city limits, we parked, dashed across a brand-new but never-used tram line (apparently the bus company objected after construction was finished), and sought out the foreigners’ office, which was in the modern, ugly Franco-era part of town. An hour or so of standing in line, paperwork-signing, and finger-printing, and we were heading back to Úbeda in the center of the province. Safe to say, immigration bureaucracy probably didn’t care nearly as much about my opinion of Jaén as the tourism board would have.
|Probably the ugliest stretch of street in Spain|
The tour ended with a stroll through Jaén’s Renaissance-era cathedral, a monumental construction that completely dwarfs all other buildings in town. I didn’t think much of it at the time—once you’ve seen one cathedral, you seen them all, as they say—and was annoyed that taking pictures was prohibited (at least officially). At the time, I wished I was in a different city altogether, touring Córdoba’s Mosque-Cathedral with the Córdoba assistants; I had wanted so badly to be placed in a school in the neighboring province and was disappointed when I found out that backwater Andalucía was to be my
But I came back.
I began to see Jaén as not just the-city-that-happened-to-have-the-provincial-government but as an alluring Spanish city in its own right and a quiet but highly-underrated big city in the Moorish-tinted south.
|Castillo de Jaén|
But that’s not to say I found no connections to Muslim al-Andalus in the city; far from it! Although the area around the Hill of Santa Catalina has been inhabited since time immemorial, it wasn’t until Moorish times that the city really took off. Then called Yayyan, meaning “crossroads” in Arabic, Jaén and its eponymous province still sit in a strategic location within Spain: between highways that connect Madrid and Granada as well as the train line that links Sevilla with Barcelona.
People stopped bathing here long ago, however. Making the 45-minute climb up the hill to the Castle of Santa Catalina, I found a plaque on the fancy Parador or fancy state-run hotel that proclaimed that it was here, in the year 1246, that the Pact of Jaén was signed between the Castilian king Fernando III and the Moorish ruler Muhammad ibn Nasr “al-Ahmar.”
This treaty effectively halted one of the most expansive periods of the Reconquista or medieval Christian “re-conquest” of the Iberian Peninsula from Muslim rulers. But, more importantly, it also drew the borders of the new Nasrid Kingdom of Granada, establishing the final remnant of the once-mighty al-Andalus as a mere vassal state to the crown of Castilla. Two centuries of peace would hold until Ferdinand and Isabella took charge and annexed the crescent-shaped territory that stretched from Málaga to Almería in the late 15th century.
This significant act in history happened here, on this hill—I thought while gazing across the city from the summit. Behind me silently stood the mountains of the Mystical Range, a natural boundary between Catholic Spain and once-Muslim Granada.
The local cuisine in Jaén offered me a welcome surprise: bars and restaurants served free tapas with any drink I ordered: small plates of potato salad, olives, or cured ham and crackers. A quick, garnishing flick of the oil bottle added a fruity, yet savory, complexity to these samples from the jienense kitchen. One such tapas bar behind the cathedral, La Manchega, has stuck around in a cool, narrow lane since the late 19th century, a glimpse into the longstanding food traditions that stretch back past the Renaissance, past Moorish al-Andalus, past even the Roman Empire to, at the very least, the very first drops of oil that were squeezed from an Iberian olive.
In the spring I would have to say hasta luego to Jaén—“until later”—rather than adiós, “goodbye.” What was initially my least favorite city in Spain (as I tweeted in October) had become my secret lover, a new friend in an old land, and a microcosm of the province I called home for eight months. Jaén, ya te echo de menos; Jaén, I already miss you, but I will be back someday.
Has a city ever grown on you after a bad first impression? Tell me about it in the comments below.
For more pictures, check out my sets on Flickr here and here.