Known by the Romans as Flavio Aurgitano and Khayyan (crossroads of caravans) by the Moors, Jaen sits high on a foothill of the Santa Catalina mountains.
Its centrepiece is the castle, the 13th Century Castillo de Santa Catalina, part of which is now a Parador hotel. On a high plateau overlooking the city it is easy to understand why the Moors chose this as a vantage point from which to guard their city.
The castle began with a tower called Hannibal’s Tower. Part of this structure is still visible on the site of the Parador Hotel. The Moors started to build during the 8th Century on the western part of the hill. Work carried on, improving and extending the defenses up to the final Siege of Jaen in 1246. The Christian monarchs that followed built the ‘New Castle’ on the eastern part of the hill. During this building phase some of the towers and ramparts of the Moorish fortress were destroyed or rebuilt. Most of the Moorish fortress was finally destroyed in 1965 during construction of the hotel.
Spreading out below the castle to the north, east and south are the steep, winding, narrow streets of the old part of town. To the west the Santa Catalina mountains dominate even this high perch. From the castle it appears only a stone’s throw to the other building that dominates the landscape, the Cathedral of Jaen.
Consecrated in 1724 the Assumption of the Virgin Cathedral is a classic Spanish Renaissance structure built on the site of an Arab Mosque. Construction actually started in 1249 following the re-conquest of Jaen by Castillian forces in 1246 and it played a prominent part persecuting non Christians during the Inquisition. Its blood soaked history continued into the 20th Century when, during the Spanish Civil War, the cathedral was used as an overspill prison for non Republicans who faced execution on a daily basis or the threat of transportation to Madrid by rail in cattle trucks where they were shot by Communists as they reached the outskirts of that city. The city itself was bombed by the German air force on the 1st April 1938. They were practicing for the big event due to start the following year.
Within the cathedral you can see the Veil of Veronica. The legend has it that Saint Veronica, just plain Veronica at the time, came across Jesus on his way to Calvary. Braving the Roman guards she stopped to wipe the sweat and blood from Jesus’ face with her veil. An image of his face was imprinted on the cloth. How it came to be in Jaen is a mystery or maybe a miracle.
Nearby, in the old town, is the 16th Century Palacio de Villardompardo another Renaissance building almost as grand as the cathedral. The galleries contain paintings and sculptures by local Spanish artists but the real treasure is in the basement. Preserved here are the remains of an 11th Century Moorish baths. You enter the central hall through a Moorish arch. Here separate arches take you to the hot and cold rooms. Each room has a domed ceiling studded with star shaped holes that filter daylight into the space below.
The modern town begins immediately outside the perimeter of the old town. Shops, restaurants, bars and plazas crowd the streets and roads that seem to be laid out with no thought for city planning. When wandering from the old town it is only the style of building that warns you have entered the new. One feature of the new town is its Tram system. Built between 2009 and 2011 the light rail system operated for only two weeks before the operators ran out of money. It has been mothballed since and the tracks now provide an unofficial temporary stopping place for vehicles.