A Guided Tour of Úbeda, Spain

So far, I’ve written an homage to Úbeda—the city where I lived for eight months while teaching English in southern Spain—as well as a post outlining my favorite restaurants in town. To conclude Úbeda Week on the blog, I’d like to present a (free!) guided tour of this really nice village I once called home. Famous for its Renaissance architecture, its tradition of pottery that dates back to Moorish times, and its bottles overflowing with high-quality olive oil, Úbeda is a small city with plenty to keep you occupied.

Úbeda, Spain
Holy Chapel of El Salvador

So I’ve put together three itineraries in this post that you can follow, combine, or rearrange if you like. Obviously, opening and closing hours may not always correspond with the given path, but hopefully these routes give you an idea of what there is to see in town so you can put together your own personalized plan of attack.

A Tourist Map of Úbeda by yours truly (click to enlarge)

I’ve also drawn up a map of Úbeda (thanks Google Maps!) with the routes through town highlighted in red, brown, and blue, so you can follow along as you read below. The old town still conserves its medieval mess of streets and alleyways, so don’t feel bad if you get lost—it’s part of the adventure.

I’ve made a fancy new interactive Google Maps Engine map with all these cafés, restaurants, and more you can check out here!

Itinerary #1: Monuments

Úbeda, Spain
Roof of one of the towers of the Hospital de Santiago

Start at the bus station (estación de autobuses) in the west part of town and walk due east on the main drag, Avenida Cristo Rey, which quickly becomes Calle Obispo Cobos. Look to the north (your left), and gaze up at the Hospital de Santiago. Finished in 1575, this former hospital (surprise, surprise) is the first work on our itinerary by Andrés de Vandelvira, a Spanish architect who single-handedly brought the Italian Renaissance to southern Spain. Two huge towers define the space on the east and the west, and behind the central patio is a soaring chapel that is now used for the town’s musical concerts. Úbeda’s bullring is directly to the south, hidden by a residential block.

Úbeda, Spain
Plaza de Andalucía with the clock tower

Continue walking east on C/ Obispo Cobos, which forms the main shopping street along with C/ Mesones. You’ll soon reach the exact center of town, the Plaza de Andalucía. In medieval times, the area this lively square occupies today would have directed you to the Puerta de Toledo (Toledo Gate) at the northwest corner of the old walled city. Although that gateway is now gone, the tall defensive tower that would have stood guard near it today functions as a clock tower.

Úbeda, Spain
Church of the Santísima Trinidad

In the northeast corner of the plaza is the Church of the Santísima Trinidad (“Most Holy Trinity”). This church is a Baroque anomaly in typically Renaissance Úbeda, but go to the west façade and you’ll be greeted by a riot of swoops, shields, and swirls. Fun fact: the two cloisters of this church’s former monastery now serve as an elementary school, and the town’s post office sits on what once was the third cloister.

Úbeda, Spain
Plaza 1º de Mayo

Now, take the narrow winding street near the clock tower and the BBVA bank. Soon you’ll be heading down the hill along what was once the main commercial street but is now a hotspot for bars, cafés, and restaurants—C/ Real. Turn east (left) at C/ María de Molina and continue on into the Plaza 1º de Mayo (“May 1st”—a.k.a. Labor Day). The site of the medieval market and later the place for spectators to watch bullfights and Inquisition executions, this center of the historic walled town still is a popular place to hang out even though Úbeda’s center of gravity has clearly shifted to the Plaza de Andalucía. Observe the façades of the houses that look into the plaza; although they are all similarly designed, they add a Plaza-Mayor-of-Madrid air of respectability to the square.

Úbeda, Spain
Old town hall

At the southwest corner you can find the old town hall (antiguas casas consistoriales), currently a musical conservatory. A square Renaissance structure with a pleasant, double-arcaded façade, it housed the town council until it moved to its present seat in 1869. It’s always nice to walk by it in the afternoon and hear piano notes drifting out from the upper balcony, where hundreds of years ago dignitaries would have watched toreros fight bulls and heretics, uh, burn. Moving on…

Church of San Pablo

The Church of San Pablo covers the northern edge of the Plaza 1º de Mayo and is a combination of Gothic and Renaissance styles, the (Late) Gothic being particularly evident in the south portal’s pretty archivolts, or successive curves in the pointy arch. The church is one of the oldest in Úbeda—dating back to the 1200s—and is thus very significant to the town’s religious life. Don’t forget to look up at the bell tower’s roof, a fun splash of bright red in the otherwise drab sandstone.

Úbeda, Spain
Plaza del Ayuntamiento

Once you’ve made a loop around the plaza, head south and then west into the Plaza del Ayuntamiento (“Town Hall Square”), which contains an orderly grid of orange fruit trees and the north façade of, you guessed it, the Town Hall. In May, when the naranjos are in full bloom, the fragrance that perfumes this plaza will have you swooning—so take a seat on the benches.

Now, close your eyes, take C/ Juan Montilla south, and open them once you’ve passed the town hall. BOOM. The Plaza Vázquez de Molina is the climax of this route, and really shows how Spaniards are such experts at public spaces. Let’s take it bit by bit.

Úbeda, Spain
Town hall

First, you’ve got the southern façade of the town hall, also called the Palace of Juan Vázquez de Molina and the Palace of the Chains (Palacio de las Cadenas). Designed as an ideal Renaissance palace by Vandelvira, it was the personal residence of Juan Vázquez de Molina, secretary of state to King Felipe II. Classical columns and pediments abound, and the interior courtyard is surrounded by stacked, skinny arches. After Vázquez de Molina died in the late 16th century, this building was given to a community of Dominican nuns and thus renamed the Convent of Madre de Dios de las Cadenas. The Cadenas part—“chains”—refers to the now-dismantled mighty chains that delimited the monastic market that occupied the part of the plaza immediately south of the current building.

In 1869, however, the city seized this palace from the Church as part of a 19th-century trend of anticlerical confiscations. The town council soon moved here from the old casas consistoriales, and it has served as the town hall ever since.

Úbeda, Spain
Church of Santa María de los Reales Alcázares

Second, to the south sits the Church of Santa María de los Reales Alcázares (“St. Mary of the Royal Alcázars”). The most important church in town was constructed over the Grand Mosque of Úbeda after the Reconquista passed through town in 1233, but was tweaked and updated over almost 600 years such that the church’s architectural style is at once Gothic, Mudéjar, Renaissance, Baroque, and Gothic Revival—wow!

If you enter the church via the angled north façade, you’re actually facing Mecca; the cloister that you’re now in was once the ablutions courtyard for the old mosque. But once you enter the main naves of the church, things are reoriented toward Jerusalem and the rising of the sun. Look up—the marvelous, geometric ceiling was crafted in the Mudéjar style, an architectural period in which Christian Spaniards imitated Islamic trends. The dome over the main altar is decidedly Baroque.

Wrap around, glancing at an old palace which now houses the police station. Further south of here is the old Jewish quarter, where you can still see a house or two with a Jewish star engraved on its lintel.

Úbeda, Spain
Parador and Holy Chapel of El Salvador

Next, you can find the city’s Parador—fancy state-run hotel in a historic setting—in the northern edge of the plaza. Officially called the Deán Ortega Palace, it was built at the same time as the Holy Chapel of El Salvador (see below) to house the chapel’s first chaplain, Fernando Ortega, who was also the choirmaster of the Sta. María church and the dean of Málaga’s cathedral.

This Renaissance palace, again designed by Andrés de Vandelvira, lodged King Alfonso XIII in 1926 on a royal visit to Úbeda, a visit that prompted the state to convert the building into the country’s second official Parador hotel in 1930. I can’t think of a more romantic or historic setting to stay at in town, although you will have to shell out the big bucks, of course.

Úbeda, Spain
Interior of the chapel

Finally, the triumph of Renaissance Úbeda: the Holy Chapel of the Savior (Sacra Capilla del Salvador). The most important work by Vandelvira in town, it was commissioned by local ubetense Francisco de los Cobos y Molina—secretary of state to King Carlos I—as a funerary chapel or mausoleum for him and his family.

The plateresque main façade is completely covered in statuary and sculpture depicting classical and biblical themes. A triumphal arch outlines the western portal and a great, triangular pediment caps everything off. In true Renaissance form, golden rectangles abound, both horizontally and vertically, and give a well-proportioned feel to the whole church.

Úbeda, Spain
Rotunda, Holy Chapel of El Salvador

Inside, you will be utterly dazzled by the totally gilded main altar: the entire rotunda is completely gold, dripping with decoration, and covered by a magnificent dome. Outside, you can look up at the tall bell tower, which is finished off with a playful, onion-shaped dome. This simple but glorious building is a symbol of the city of Úbeda and one of the most important examples of Renaissance architecture in all of Spain.

Itinerary #2: Murallas

Úbeda, Spain

Whew! I’m sure you’re worn out now. Take a breather at the Santa Lucía lookout point (mirador) at the end of C/ Baja del Salvador, directly east of the chapel’s apse. Rest on the walls and take in the views: the hills of Úbeda, endless olive groves, and the mountains of Cazorla in the distance.

Úbeda, Spain
The southern edge of town

Now head south (right) on C/ Redonda de Miradores and hug the path of the old city walls (murallas) down and around. It’s a nice little walk that really shows off the beauty of Jaén province, with even more olive groves that roll out the red carpet to the feet of the Sierra Mágina mountains, the “Mystical Range.” Far out are half a dozen villages that at night glow like so many scattered coals.

Look up at the old walls. They protect a formidable outcropping, but today said hilltop is mostly empty, for in 1507 the Catholic Monarchs—Ferdinand and Isabella—ordered the local alcázar (Moorish-era palace) destroyed because rival bands of nobles were using it as a fortress during a period of fighting that lasted over a hundred years. One can only wonder what the city profile would look like today had the alcázar not been demolished.

Úbeda, Spain
Granada Gate

Finish this brief jaunt at the Granada Gate (Puerta de Granada). Stand right outside this weighty entrance and orient yourself directly south. Yes, past thousands of olive groves, over the formidable mountains, and across the plains lies the great city of Granada.

Alternate route: Instead of turning right at the lookout point, head left through the Gate of Santa Lucía and hug the formidable city walls to the north. They’ve built a really nice shaded park with some trails and gardens that are relaxing to walk through, and a Moorish tower from the Almohad era juts out at a corner. You’ll end up at the Losal Gate (see below), a pointy Mudéjar-style entryway into the old town.

Itinerary #3: Museums

Úbeda, Spain
House-Museum of Andalusian Art

Start at the House-Museum of Andalusian Art (Casa-Museo de Arte Andalusí), Nº 11 on C/ Narváez. This private museum is housed in a colonnaded Renaissance palace and houses all sorts of artifacts, from traditional pottery to Islamic furniture and even massive, crumbling multicolor doors.

At C/ Roque Rojas, Nº 2, the Synagogue of Water (Sinagoga del Agua) is one of the most fascinating—and controversial—sights in Úbeda. Seven years ago, an apartment developer had bought the current property and was in the process of razing the site when, lo and behold, medieval ruins were stumbled upon that looked suspiciously like they would have belonged to a Jewish synagogue. Thankfully, the owner sensibly switched construction excavation for the achaeological kind, and work was done to rebuild the old structure.

What you see today is a recreation of what a synagogue would have looked like, as all the artifacts have been brought in from elsewhere. Although historical records from the time period were lost in an archives fire, and while there is little tangible evidence of a synagogue, a women’s gallery and a subterranean bodega for ritual bathing are nevertheless convincing.

Úbeda, Spain
Archaeology Museum

A pleasant surprise for a town Úbeda’s size, the Archaeological Museum & Mudéjar House (Museo Arqueológico & Casa Mudéjar) is my favorite on this itinerary. Part of Andalucía’s excellent system of archaeological museums, Úbeda’s showcases not only artifacts from prehistoric, Roman, Visigothic, and Moorish times, but also a wonderful house built in the Mudéjar style—hence the four swooping horseshoe arches at the entrance. You can find it on C/ Cervantes, Nº 6, in a quiet corner of the old town.

I know I already mentioned them in my food tour of Úbeda post, but make sure to stop by the Barefoot Carmelites Convent (Convento de Carmelitas Descalzas) on C/ Montiel for some top-notch sweets!

Due west from the Plaza 1º de Mayo, the St. John of the Cross Museum-Oratory (Museo-Oratorio de San Juan de la Cruz) will be interesting to Catholics or anyone interested in the life of St. John of the Cross, author of the famous Christian spiritual work, Dark Night of the Soul. One of Spain’s most important saints, John of the Cross stayed in Úbeda a short time until dying here in 1591. (He was buried up north in Segovia.) This sprawling museum dedicated to his life covers multiple floors of what is also a monastery, houses plenty of relics, and ends in the balcony of a soaring Baroque chapel. I recommend this only if you’re a completionist, a Catholic, or a Spanish-speaker; it’s at C/ Carmen, Nº 13.

Pass out of the old walled city under the Losal Gate (Puerta del Losal)—a double-arched, 14th-century Mudéjar entrance that, according to my guidebook of the city, is a “magnificent example of the Hispano-Muslim constructive tradition that was maintained after the Christian conquest.” It’s flanked to the side by a defensive tower.

Úbeda, Spain
Decorative ceramic plates in traditional Úbeda green

Finally, head down the hill into the Barrio de Alfareros or “Potters’ Neighborhood,” and onto C/ Valencia, stopping at Nº 22 for one of the highlights of Úbeda, the Paco Tito Pottery Museum & Remembrance of the Everyday (Museo de Alfarería Paco Tito y Memoria de lo Cotidiana). The ground floor is a shop that sells Úbeda-green ceramic plates, jars, and bowls, while the upper floors show off the pottery-making process and what ceramic products were used for up until recently—basically everything from cooking to water transport to even childbirth. The basement holds the workshop: you can see Paco Tito at work, spinning his wheel, and outside you have the kiln with dozens of jugs ready for firing. Best of all, this museum is free!

What in Úbeda are you most excited to see now that you’ve been taken on a virtual tour through town? Let me know below in the comments section!

Úbeda, 2012-2013

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