I was heading north from Granada to the largest olive oil producing province in Spain. Dusty brown earth lay regimentally between the silvery green rows of the olive groves.
As far as I could squintingly see, and obviously more, these treelines marched up and down hills in perfect lines. Vivid blue sky mingled with the early morning heat haze. I could imagine the hot blast of Andalucian air when the bus doors parted.
I’d reached Jaén city,(“hi-en”) the little known sister of the more famous Cordoba and Granada, but equally as fascinating. My mouth was dry as I saw it’s first monument come into view El Castillo de Santa Catalina, Castle and Parador. Perched on its elongated hill, silhoutted on the skyline with a white cross on the hilll's edge that twinkled as it reflected the sun, while behind the dramatic Sierra Magina mountain range loomed.
Shuddering to a halt at the bus station, a place in obvious need of some attention - a coat of paint at the very least- the bus doors opened, heat poured in, and my instant sweat system shot into action. I happily left the bus station behind, to be greeted by one of the common features of Andalucia’s Moorish heritage a wonderfully refreshing, spraying fountain - my first stop.
Then after a beer and free tapa in the Cerveceria opposite I headed off uphill, the castle my bearing, hoping for a sign or two for the tourist information office.
My first major stop took less than ten minutes to discover. It was an awe- inspiring Renaissance Cathedral designed by Andres Vandelvira. Its glorious plaza, was buzzing with vibrant people. I sat, after my climb, on a refreshingly cool, weathered, stone carved bench in the shade of a monstrous magnolia tree and shut my eyes.
Human noise easily drowned out the traffic, a tremendous hum of intermingling
voices. There were hand waving conversations, greetings and good-byes. The prolific kissing by all, to all, was a delight.
A tourist office sign beckoned me down a narrow shady lane with handsome old
paving tiles and ornate wrought-iron window bars and balconies. Window boxes
rioted, geraniums with petunias, pelargoniums with verbena, through the hand crafted railings.
I took my tourist board goodies to find another bench and fountain in the shade. Welcomed by prepossessing palms, I pored over the guides and maps. Having so much to offer I began thinking of a stop-over, nothing I’d previously read prepared me for the rich architectural heritage on offer, nor how often I might need to rest in the shade.
What to visit first - the castle or some of the largest Arab baths in Spain? The decision came from the map… a short walk to the baths or a steep marathon to the castle.
For one of the best European examples, and the largest surviving baths in Spain,the Arab baths don’t flaunt themselves. I stood in the small plaza, not realising I was in front of them. They were diabolically signposted.
The Arab baths were once filled with earth and rubble, and the 16th century Palacio de Villardompardo was erected on top. In 1913 a small part of the baths was discovered, and in 1936 restorations of the 11th and 12th century baths began, but due to the civil war restoration wasn't restarted until 1970.
The traditional star-shaped light holes and horseshoe arches have been superbly reconstructed and the reconstruction project won the prestigious Europa Nostra prize in 1984.
Above the baths, in the Palace there’s a brilliant Museo de artes y Costumbres Populares, an interesting museum well worth a visit and also i the Palace is the International Naif art gallery.
The old town was a delight, with its narrow twisting roads, a maze to be undertaken by foot, where cobbles and arches abounded. One of the booklets had a guided walk around the streets and plazas, showing more than thirty monuments of interest, churches, chapels and a working convent.
The climb to the castle is a 3km road that winds through rocky pine covered slopes which reach the castle footings. A Red squirrel scrambled the escarpment. Stone barriers line the roads, with a head spinning steep drop to one side. With the final hairpin bend, an entry archway welcomed me with fluttering flags into the cobbled courtyard of the Parador.
The Parador de Santa Catalina was built in 1965 as an imitation of the old 10th century Moorish Fortress. The interior, like the exterior follows the original design,with massive girthed doors and windows, narrow corridors and even a knight in armour. A feeling of protection or vulnerability? I’m not sure.
A walkway to the edge of the elongated hill brought me to the twinkling white cross, a monument to the Christian King who conquered the fortress and thrust his sword into the ground at this very spot, so the legend says.