The province of Jaén is one immense olive grove
Keeping its distance from well-worn tourist routes and resorts is the least known of Andalucia’s eight provinces and Spain’s biggest olive grove, Jaén. It is practically impossible to be anywhere in this northern Andalucian province without catching at least a glimpse of acres of neatly planted olive trees covering rolling hills, providing the mainstay of the area’s economy, delicious liquid gold from their fruit.
Whichever way you look at it Jaén is the province for country folk and country fans. If you feel like a change from the symmetrical rows of sturdy gnarled trunks bearing greyish green leaves, the only way out is by getting ever deeper into wild, uncultivated landscapes, for what isn’t olive grove in Jaén is nature reserve, as this province still holds Injun country, vast tracts of unexplored territory in four nature parks.
Travelling south from the endless plains of La Mancha, you are suddenly flung into the midst of a mass of spectacular scenery. Known as the gateway to Andalucia from Castile, to the north, the wild, rocky Despeñaperros Park leaves you in no doubt that you are entering a very special part of the world. Tradition tells us that this narrow pass – the only route to the south for thousands of years – in the Despeñaperros was the one that Arab settlers poured through after the Battle of Navas de Tolosa.
The Sierra de Andújar Nature Park, right in the heart of the Sierra Morena, is a semi-mountainous area which constitutes a magnificent example of the Mediterranean ecosystem. Holm oak, gall oak and cork woods and abundant thickets of myrtle, scarlet oak and cistus provide cover for the deer and wild boar that are so highly prized by hunters. Faithful followers of the Virgin Mary are attracted to this area as there are so many shrines to Christ’s mother here, two of the most outstanding being the one to the ‘Virgin de la Cabeza’ in the town of Andújar. The pilgrimage to this latter shrine is considered to be the oldest Christian festivity in Spain, being mentioned by Miguel de Cervantes in his works. More than 7,000 people congregate annually to honour the Virgin on the last Sunday in April.
The name may not be very original but it is exceedingly apt. The Blue Mountains is the alternative title to the Sierra Mágina Nature Park, with the highest peak in the province at well over 2,000 metres. Rarities such as the golden eagle, the peregrine falcon and the osprey can be spotted swooping above the crags.
The fourth natural environment in Jaén, the Sierra de Cazorla, Segura and Las Villas Nature Park is the largest of all the protected areas in Spain.
The sources of two important rivers, the Guadalquivir and the Segura, are tucked away in these ranges, which also provide the perfect habitat for many species of plant, including some which are endemic in the area, among them the beautiful Cazorla violet. Outstanding among the reptiles is a species of lizard, the valverde, also unique to these mountains. Cazorla is the number one park in Andalucia as far as tourism infrastructure for nature lovers is concerned, with hotels, camp sites and organised excursions which seek out but respect the flora and fauna.
Man himself has also been an important species in these mountains since pre-historic times as is borne out by Palaeolithic caves and cave paintings and the presence of Iberian villages, whose inhabitants worshipped the goddess Astart.
Up on a hill in Jaén stands the imposing Muslim castle. This building along with the great Renaissance cathedral, built in pink stone, are the city’s main monuments, but there are also several churches with fine artistic features. However the real hidden jewels of this province are the towns of Úbeda and Baeza. Situated just a few kilometres apart, the two overflow with exquisite Renaissance architecture in the form of palaces, churches, convents, university colleges and mansions, in spacious squares or medieval streets.
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