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Route of the castles and battles of Jaén

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  • Castle of Baños de la Encina © Turespaña

    Castle of Baños de la Encina © Turespaña

  • Santa Catalina Castle © Turespaña

    Santa Catalina Castle © Turespaña

  • La Mota Castle, Alcalá la Real © Turespaña

    La Mota Castle, Alcalá la Real © Turespaña


Amid olive trees and castles

The route passes through the province of Jaén and through part of the provinces of Ciudad Real and Granada. However our itinerary focuses primarily on the section which runs through Jaén, and takes a tour of the remains of structures involved in important military events of the past. These occurred first during the war between Hannibal's Carthaginians and the Roman Empire, then between Muslims and Christians during the Reconquest, and finally between the troops of Napoleon Bonaparte and the Spanish army during the Peninsular War.

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The route we follow on this itinerary on its way through Jaén is the one with the greatest number of monuments. The full visit will require at least two days, as many of the structures are located on hills and ridges some way off the beaten path. We begin our visit beside the Despeñaperros pass, the natural passage between the Castilian plateau and Andalusia, in the heart of the Sierra Morena mountains.

This is very near the site of the battle of Navas de Tolosa (1212), which marked the last time the Christian kingdoms came together to fight against their common Muslim enemy. The defeat of the Muslim forces was the key to their entry in the territory of Andalusia. Of the two important enclaves dating from that time, the ruins of the castles of Castro Ferral (Santa Elena), Navas de Tolosa (La Carolina) and Vilches can still be seen. This district is also home to the ruins of Giribaile castle.

We then continue on to the city of Linares, about half an hour away by car. As well as the ruins of the town's castle, this district is also home to the castle of Santa Eufemia, located beside the site of ancient Cástulo, one of the most prosperous Andalusian cities of antiquity. Cástulo was also the birthplace of Princess Himilce, who became the wife of Hannibal, the Carthaginian general. The decisive battle of Baécula took place nearby during the second Punic War (208 B.C.), in which the Romans vanquished the Carthaginians and took control of this important coalfield.

The area of La Tobaruela is the site of an outstanding castle-palace dating from the 15th century. We then come to Baños de la Encina, located about 20 kilometres away. Its castle was founded in the 10th century by the peoples of Al-Andalus, and is a magnificent structure with 14 crenellated towers and a large keep.

About 10 kilometres towards the south is the city of Bailén. The plains surrounding it were the site of Napoleon Bonaparte's first major defeat (19 July 1808) in the various wars he was waging in Europe at the time. The news of his defeat at the hands of the allied Spanish and English forces shortly after the start of the Peninsular War (1808-1814) spread like wildfire around the old continent and destroyed the myth of French invincibility.

We now leave the slopes of the Sierra Morena behind us and move deep into the rural area around Jaén. This area is popularly known as the sea of olive trees due to its undulating hills cloaked in olive trees which stretch as far as the eye can see. In the distance we can see the city of Andújar, on the banks of the Guadalquivir river, which still conserves part of its mediaeval walls.

We now cross Andalusia's great river as we continue on towards Arjonilla and Arjona, located about 20 kilometres away. In Arjonilla stands the castle of El Trovador Macías, which was remodelled by the Order of Calatrava after the Reconquest. Its name evokes the romantic and desperate love affair of old between the troubadour and his beloved. Arjona, with the surviving remains of its Arab walls, is the birthplace of the first Nasrid king of Granada, who reigned as Muhammad I.

We then continue on to Lopera, with its castle built by the Order of Calatrava (13th century), and Porcuna, which conserves from that time the imposing Boabdil tower, so-called because it is said to have served as a prison for the last Nasrid king of Granada.

On the way to Jaén, about 45 kilometres outside Porcuna, it is worth stopping to visit the remains of El Berrueco castle (12th century). The capital, Jaén, is presided by the castle of Santa Catalina, an ancient Arab citadel transformed by the Christians after the conquest of the city in the 13th century.

We now head towards the south. In about half an hour we come to Torredonjimeno, once again the site of a Muslim castle (12th-13th century) reformed by the Order of Calatrava after the Christian conquest, and converted into a palace-residence in the 15th century. Very nearby, Martos, the descendent of the ancient Ibero-Roman city of Tucci, is home to the remains of the ancient castles of La Peña and La Villa.

We leave behind the olive tree capital (Martos) and, after a visit to the ruins of Víboras castle, we come to Alcaudete, famous for its mantecados and polvorones, typical Spanish sweets whose origins date from Arab times. Its castle, which started life as a Muslim fortress and then passed to the Order of Calatrava before becoming a palace-residence, is one of the best conserved in the whole of Andalusia.

Our last visit before entering the lands of Granada: Alcalá la Real, at a distance of a little over 20 kilometres. Its impressive fortress of La Mota was not only an important defensive complex, but also housed a genuine Muslim city, with a fortress and great mosque, residential zone and commercial area.


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