One of the best things about Pueblo Español is that it takes you to a town or village that you are unlikely to visit when you travel to Spain on your own, and then you stay there long enough to get to know it and enjoy it with the help of Pueblo Español’s cultural and historical excursions.
The town in which I was lucky to spend my 8 days of the program was Úbeda. Each day exposed a different layer of the town and its history.
Situated in the heart of Jaen, in Andalusia, Úbeda feels like an island in the middle of an ocean of olive groves. Given its commanding hill position, it feels like the master of olive oil.
And for a person who did not grow up with olives trees, our excursion to the olive oil cooperative, led by the extremely knowledgeable and passionate Tomas, was a deep dive into learning about the cultivation of olives and the production of olive oil, from tree to bottle, and its importance to the economy and history of the region. Úbeda is one of the main towns for olive oil production in Jaen, which in total has over 60 million olive trees, and produces 40% of Spain’s olive oil.
We were shown all aspects of the operation, from intake and sorting of the olives, to pressing and to storing and bottling (or canning.) All of this occurs within 24 hours of the olives being picked and shipped to the facility. Extreme care is taken to preserve the character and quality of the oil.
One of the activites included in the Pueblo Español program is an excursion to the “mar de olivos” of Jaen.
To reinforce this, Tomas took us to the Olive Oil Visitor Center in the middle of Úbeda , which serves as a museum, shop and tasting room. Here, the presentation was on the actual olive oil, (extra virgin, of course) preparing us to discern the quality of the olive oils that we would be tasting. The actual tasting led us through the senses of sight, smell, taste and feel, with lists of words that could possibly be used to describe each olive oil.
Olive oil may be termed “liquid gold” because it is essential to the economy of the region, but for me, it is liquid gold because I can’t think of anything that tastes better than the third olive oil that we tried. Each of the olive oils was extra virgin, and one thing I learned is to never use anything other than extra virgin.
The tasting had a lasting impact on me as I now only use very good, extra virgin olive oil, always checking the label to see if it is from Úbeda!
The second thing that makes Úbeda famous is Tito, the grand master of ceramics! Since 1965, Tito has been creating a never-ending display of his talent as a ceramist. More importantly, he remains true to tradition, using ancient techniques and designs, creating every single item in his shop(s) by hand. When you see what may be thousands of items, beautifully glazed, ornately colored and interestingly shaped.
Only a reluctance to carry it stopped me from purchasing my favorite piece, an intricately painted blue and white wine jug. (Luckily, another participant purchased it, giving me another good reason to visit!) But I couldn’t totally resist, so I purchased a cobalt (signifying aristocracy) small bowl as a souvenir. I use it all the time, sometimes for olive oil, and am reminded of chatting away with Tito, in Spanish. Thank you, Pueblo Español for without your program, I would not have been able to have the same exchange with Tito, a true artist!
And actually, thank you Pueblo Español, because at the final ceremony of the program, we all received a gift of a Tito jug.
For a different and somewhat recently discovered piece of Úbeda’s history, we paid a night-time visit the Synagogue of the Water, believed to have come into existence before the fourteenth century. The six rooms contain furniture, paintings, pottery and other objects of the Sephardic culture, giving an insight into how they lived. Much of the building itself is authentic, such as wooden ceilings and paintings, walls, columns, arches, ovens and the seven wells among the six rooms. Possibly the most interesting, was the last room we saw – the Ritual Bath, accessed by a narrow stairway excavated from the rock, filled by natural spring water from underneath it.
Among the interesting items was a replica of the Aboda Zarah, a treaty in the Talmud, which was completed in Úbeda at the end of 1290.
Just walking around Úbeda is a history lesson. There is evidence of a pre-Roman settlement, and archeological sites of it being a Roman settlement. Úbeda was an important site for the Muslim conquest of Spain, and then played a role in the re-conquest by King Ferdinand III in 1233.
The Renaissance is also well represented in Úbeda, making walking around a stroll through the architecture of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. For this, Úbeda has received recognition as a Unesco World Heritage site. Notable buildings include The Sacred Chapel of El Salvador, the church of the church of Santa María de los Reales Alcázares and the Palace of Cadenas, which surround the Plaza Vázquez de Molina. My favorite time to enjoy these buildings was during my morning run, and then again in the warm glow of the early evenings.
And a few blocks beyond is the Church of San Lorenzo, my personal favorite because conveniently located beside it is the café with the best view of the countryside and its hills covered with its olive groves. A good place to relax in the sun, with an afternoon coffee or aperitivo, always speaking Spanish, it is the site that I saw every morning on my run, and again before and/or after dinner.
When, not if, I return to Úbeda, I will do every one of these things again!
GUEST POST: Chris Wildgen. Author of 101 Tips to travel Better and student participant in Pueblo Español from April 8-15, 2016.
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