Home Turf March 2024

Los cerros de Úbeda: a wander through Spain´s golden age

Our parents’ golden wedding anniversary offered the opportunity to take the entire family on an adventure into one of the most beautiful yet lesser known southern Spanish cities: Úbeda. Only three and a half hours drive away from Gran Alacant, this small city in Jaén province in Andalucia is best known today for the production of olive oil; however, it is also a UNESCO world heritage site and contains possibly the finest concentration of renaissance buildings anywhere in Iberia.

In the late mediaeval and renaissance period (14th to 16th centuries) the city came to contain literally dozens of noble palaces, often built to the highest standards. The reason why this relatively obscure hilltop city became the focus of so much aristocratic building is possibly linked to the ebb and flow of the reconquest of the south of Spain by the northern christian kings. Keen to encourage people to move to the newly conquered areas the kings offered generous tax and other legal concessions. These attractive tax breaks attracted wealthy families and seems to have turned late mediaeval Úbeda into a sort of early Monaco. Flush with cash and a desire to display their status these families built a series of magnificent palaces, usually built around a courtyard in the classic iberian style.

This hive of ambition and wealth produced men of ability and drive. In the early 16th century two successive members of one local family rose to the highest level of the Imperial Spanish administration as Secretaries of State for both the Emperor Charles and his son King Phillip 2nd. These two men, Francisco de los Cobos and Juan Vázquez de Molina, had access not only to great wealth but also to the finest artisans and builders in Europe and the city of Úbeda gained buildings of the highest quality rivalling those of renaissance Italy. The Molina family buildings are centred around Vázquez de Molina Square and include the family´s palaces and various religious buildings.

Throughout other parts of the city there are further numerous palaces, churches and convents. The striking feature of these buildings is the quality of their design and craftsmanship with their facades covered in carvings and statues often of classical inspiration. The narrow streets of the old city are a wonderful place to wander and explore; as fine as anywhere in Spain. The city’s hilltop site also affords breathtaking views over the local landscape which is dominated by the endless fields of olive trees that give the city its contemporary prosperity. There are so many olive trees that this region represents the largest man made forest anywhere in the world, giving rise to the Spanish saying “wander the hills of Ubeda” meaning to wander off of the point.

The time of our visit coincided with the local festival of tuna music groups. Tunas are musical clubs formed of students from different faculties of Spanish universities, similar to the fraternities of American colleges. Dressed in the historical costumes of the Spanish golden age these groups of strolling players entertain the city with their masterful playing and singing; usually combined with much drinking along the way! The tradition of students playing and serenading in public probably dates back to the early 13th century. The weekend we visited Úbeda the city was full of these groups of young (and not so young) graduates of famous Spanish universities bringing the ancient city to life in a unique and time honoured musical fashion. The music (and drinking) continued late into the night. The combination of the beautiful architecture and charming music made the nighttime city an enchanting place to be.

Our accommodation was also fitting, being an old noble town palace with origins in the 13th century, around the time that the city fell into christian hands. Centred around a galleried courtyard with rooms and gardens leading off in all directions one was transported back in time to an older Spain of dark shadows and bright light glimpsed through archways and shuttered passageways. What a unique experience!

Our weekend in Úbeda passed swiftly and we spent the last day visiting the neighbouring city of Baeza which is also a UNESCO site containing beautiful buildings and streets.
Cities like Seville, Córdoba and Granada take most of the attention of tourists visiting southern Spain. If you want to visit one of the less well known gems of Spain, off the beaten track, we highly recommend Úbeda, a long weekend is sufficient to immerse yourself in the city and travel in time.


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