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Jaén is Andalusia´s gateway to the rest of the world. Travellers come from far and wide to visit its many natural parks and olive groves. This is farming country, from which olive oil is distributed all over the world. After a long day, farmers take their siesta in the shade of one of the hundreds of Christian and Moorish watchtowers.

By:  María Vázquez
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Travel NotesFind out more about this city with our insider guide.
Small inland capital surrounded by fascinating landscapes
Population: 117,000 inhabitants, 220,000 in the metropolitan area
Area: 422 km2, altitude between 1,872 and 280 m
Stands out for: the mountains of Cazorla, the cathedral, olive oil

The voice of Jaén is the sound of the lands that comprise it. The province of Jaén is predominantly rural, and only a third of its landmass is urban. The rest consists of mountains that rise into the sky, drop back down into the olive groves, only to rise up again. With such an expanse of land, the city is proud to be the most important producer of olive oil in Spain. It also has the largest area of protected natural parks in the country.

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It is impossible to understand the city of Jaén outwith the context of its province, home to farmers, experts in rural tourism and the extensive netwoks of rural trails which attract tourism to the area. The capital and the province work side by side, one in the fields and the other in the office, to continue voicing the message of the land: “Jaén, world capital of olive oil, an inland paradise”. You´d have to ask around to find out why the younger generation don´t want to work the land. It is only a matter of time before the university (built 15 years ago) will create incentives to companies allowing them to market a natural line of cosmetic hydrating creams made from 100% olive oil, a competitive product in both the Spanish and foreign market. This is what they are focusing on right now.

However, their dependence on the land also prevents them from expanding the city. There just isn´t any land available. They would have to cut down olive groves or go and live in the mountains to make space. Neither does the city clean up the historic part of town to help attract young and new residents. The authorities prefer to build boulevards in the suburbs and, only if absolutely necessary, between the olive groves and the motorways. Speculation is also rampant, and only a handful of people are seeing the benefits. It seems crazy that noone pays any attention when they tear down city walls more than eight centuries old.

The history of Jaén resembles that of other Andalusian provinces, a place to see first hand the Spain of Three Cultures. Its difference lies in the fact that Jaén was Moorish in the face of Christians, and Castilian in the face of Almohads. They even say that the line separating the Castile kingdom and that of Granada used to divide the lands of Jaén.

The city still conserves signs of its medieval past which serve to confirm the coexistence of three cultures; Christians, Muslims and Jews. The largest Arab baths in Europe were transformed into a castle that looms over the city from above. First built as an Arab fortress, they added a church which gave the fortress its name. Today it´s a state-run hotel. From here, towering over the city, you can catch the best views.




Jaén is one of the oldest cities in Spain. It was born VI B.C. with the arrival of the Iberians, who settled in the Sierra de Cazorla (also known as Alto Guadalquivir). It is the Spanish city with the most remains from Iberian villages, thereby making it the perfect site for the International Museum of Iberian Art. Due to its strategic location, Jaén was also home to Greek, Phoenician and Roman settlements. The latter named the city Aurgi, which at the time was located around today’s Mary Magdalene historical district. In the 10th century, named Yayyan, was the capital of the Arab kingdom of Diyaryan. This was her golden era.

In the Battle of Navas de Tolosa (1212), Iahen was conquered by the King of Castile, Fernando III, nicknamed The Saint. Since then it was a strategic location for battles against the Nazarite kingdom of Granada until the victroy of the Catholic Kings in 1492. It was then they started construction work on the cathedral, which would go on until 1802. Some of the city walls from this era are still preserved, though this won´t stop future development to the north of the city.

Jaén was revived from oblivion with the arrival of the 20th century by the part it played in the agricultural wars during the Civil War.


Manuel Ángeles Ortiz - painter - member of the Generation of 27 who illustrated much of the poetry by friends such as Federico García Lorca or Rafael Alberti. He took part in organizing Lorca´s now famous Concurso de Cante Jondo.

Antonio Lara de Gavilán - illustrator and cartoonist - also known as Tono, Antonio de Lara is best remembered for the work he produced in Paris and in collaboration with Miguel Mihura on plays written during the Civil War.

Hasday ibn Shaprut (915 - 990) - physician and diplomat - Influential Jewish personality of al-Andalus. An active figure on behalf of his religion, he marks the beginnings of what was to become a flourishing Andalusian Jewish culture, as well as stimulating the study of Hebrew literature and grammar.

Contemporary people

Rosario Pardo - actress - became known thanks to Crónicas Marcianas, a TV show in which she impersonated several characters. She has also been cast in roles for other show such as Cuéntame cómo pasó and films such as Atún y chocolate by Pablo Carbonell.

Karina - singer - María Isabel Bárbara Llaudés Santiago known for the song El baúl de los recuerdos, and who won second place in the Eurovision song contest in 1971.


In 2007, the Spanish Socialist Party (PSOE) won the townhall of Jaén for the first time in ten years. The city had been conservative in politics since the mid-nineties. It has followed the Spanish trend almost to a tee: that of the two-party system involving the PSOE and the PP (People’s Party). The socialists were predominant throughout the eighties, and since the nineties the conservatives took power. In the rest of the province, the socialists are in a majority.


The economy of Jaén has been on the up since the end of the 80s, when the agricultural sector focused its energy on olive production, and an industry for its byproducts was born. Bottling and labeling factories are scattered all over the province; it goes as far as the cultivation of ecological oil. Organizations have been created to control the marketing of Andalusian olive oil on a global scale, such as the Futures Market of Olive Oil (MFAO), based in Jaén.

A serious rethink of the local service sector was brought into play at the same time. By putting into action an extensive network of natural and rural routes based on the theme of olive oil, and crossing varous cites of particular cultural interest, they have created what is known as green tourism.

This economic rebirth should have been accompanied with an increase in population in the city. However this has not been the case. This is the main challenge for the next few years. While the population has indeed grown in the last twenty years, from 100,000 to 600,000, it has now come to a standstill.


Even the local media belong to the larger entities: Diario Jaén and Ideal de Jaén (Correo Group). Onda Jaén is one of two local television stations and it belongs to the town hall. Canal 23 broadcasts local news until midnight every day.


More than 4,000 immigrant workers arrive in Jaén between November and February to take on agricultural work. The worry lies in whether the children of these workers are getting proper schooling. The public education authorities are calling for an equal division of the children of seasonal immigrant workers, between public and state-assisted schools to avoid concentrations in certain areas. Obviously these children will find it more difficult due to language barriers and the lack of correspondence with their ages and educational qualifications.

At fifteen years, Jaén has the youngest university in Spain. With 15,000 students and postgraduates (the majority being students of law, humanities and engineering) the creation of this university has brought with it the creation of new companies and has helped fight off the brain drain to other cities.


One of the touchy subjects is sustainable development in both the cultivation of the olive groves and green zones. Agriculturists and ecologists are the main protagonists in this debate. In order to yield the largest amount of olive oil, and therefore receive the longed-for assistance from Europe, the farmers have expanded their fields and increased production. The ecologists deem this to be one of the main reasons for the decrease in natural resources (soil and water) and the reason for the loss of biodiversity and landscape.

The farmers know that the traditional low-yielding olive grove is beneficial to the environment (landscape, biodiversity, firebreaks) but they also know that the European subsidies do not favour these systems. The dilemma is whether to increase intensification or to give up. Where is the limit? This is the same dilema being faced by park rangers confronted with the increased rural tourism in recent years.


The town hall has been talking about remodelling the old town since the 90s. The old town is home to one of the most beautiful, yet depressed, southern areas of the capital. The main problems for its inhabitants are unemployment, so-called marginality and social exclusion. The neglect and closing down of many buildings has not helped either.

Although the local land authorities have been working for years on the construction of new housing and renovation, young people simply have no desire to settle in the area. There are no shops, businesses, or even decent road access; in other words, it is lifeless. However there is certainly no lack of tourists lost in the Jewish Quarter, in search of the Arab baths and the monasteries. Fortunately, remodelling has respected the look and spirit of the area.

In order to improve the pedestrianisation in the city centre, the local and regional governments have approved the construction of a tramway for 2009. This public transport service, which would run for 5 kilometres around the city, is a controversial project. The ecologists and inhabitants suggest remodelling the urban bus system (with more routes, greater frequency, and use of biodiesel and electricity). They don’t believe this economic and environmental investment will pay off in such a small city.


These books related to Jaén may interest you.


These films related to Jaén may interest you.



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