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Country: Spain / World Region: Europe

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      10.08.2010 13:04
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      A less-beaten path to Renaissance Spain.

      Imagine a great beast of Renaissance architecture tramping across southern Spain - a great dome for a head, thunderous columns for limbs and triumphal arches shielding its eyes from the blazing sun. A chateau on its back and a cloth hall for a belly, it scars the scrubby earth with its pilaster-claws and gobbles up the terrain with a red-brick tongue. Greedy and gross, it eats something that disagrees with its delicate innards - a Moorish castle why not - and with a twitch and a gurgle, a shudder and a grumble, it is violently sick, spewing out Renaissance buildings across the hilltop. It belches, shakes its head and slowly shifts its deafening footsteps in a northerly slant.

      This, to paint it in a perhaps unflattering light, is Ubeda, a UNESCO-listed town that, alongside its sibling Baeza, is the chief attraction to tourists visiting Jaen province, one of Andalucía's lesser-seen corners. There is indeed an awful lot of quite wonderful architecture here; as much as most sizeable cities concentrated in a beguiling old town that overhangs views of the nearby Sierra Cazorla, one of Spain's most impressive national parks and mountain ranges.

      The town has historically been an extremely rich, influential one, and this quite literal wealth produced the proverbial abundance of buildings and monuments which draw visitors to Ubeda - the aristocracy electing to build big and beautiful all around them to celebrate the town's prosperity. There's more to the place than pretty architecture, but the aesthetic appeal is perhaps the biggest and best reason to leave the motorway and divert from the popular Seville-Cordoba-Granada triangle. Vazquez de Molina Square is the heart of the old town, and the pulsing centre of this Renaissance trail, to which the tour groups follow raised umbrellas and where rolls of film are expended (or would be, did anyone still use it). The Palaces of Dean Ortega and Vazquez de Molina line the Plaza - the former now a parador (luxury hotels located inside historical buildings) - as do Santa Maria church and the Holy Chapel of the Saviour, each one impressive in the own right, together one of the more picturesque plazas in a country that's pretty big on striking squares.

      The square is at the south-eastern edge of the old town, at the lower end of a hillock that rises up to border the area and provide superlative views over the countryside and not-so-distant mountains. A number of agreeable little bars and restaurants are scattered throughout the area - double thumbs-up for the place on the little square just to the north of Vazquez de Molina that did a delectable orange, raspberry and salted haddock salad; confusing on the taste buds, but better than it sounds. Naturally, eating options are tourist-oriented here, but the appeal to visitors is pretty low-key - you'll pay a little more around the Plaza, but there are some nice places. As ever, head a little further out to find cheaper eating. Tapas is still generally served free with a drink in Jaen province - a tradition that's rarely upheld elsewhere - making for a cheap, easy, leisurely way to try out some of the outstanding flavours of the area. In the middle of olive country, the quality of the oil here is unsurpassed; toasted rolls with liquidised tomatoes and oil make for a wonderful breakfast.

      There's a car park at the park/square on the edge of the old town where Calle del Rastro and Calle de la Corredera de San Fernando meet, but it's cheaper and easier to park up on Avenida de la Ciudad de Linares, the main road into town. Ubeda's small enough that nowhere's much of a walk away, and the fifteen-minute stroll into town takes in some more impressive edifices and allows you to peruse Ubeda's major shopping streets.

      To reach Ubeda, leave the A-44 (Jaen-Granada-coast) motorway just south of its confluence with the A-4 (Seville-Madrid), taking the A-32 east past Linares (a city of no particular interest save for being the home of celebrated guitarist Andres Segovia, with associated museum). Shortly after Linares, a road turns off to the right heading for Baeza, Ubeda's smaller sister - the towns are barely five miles apart, and can easily be seen in a day's combined visit, although it'd be a bit rushed. Staying in Ubeda gives one a chance to explore the two charming, relatively unhurried towns, both of which represent smaller-scale, less manic alternatives to Andalucía's most celebrated centres.

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