The Secret Backstreets of Baeza

So now that I am leaving Baeza, I realize that I have not done it justice in any way, especially in how I have described it to family and friends, and I want to make note of a few things about the town that really are just remarkable.

Compared to La Puerta de Segura and its 2,600 residents, Baeza feels huge, but in reality, it’s really a very small place. With only about 16,000 inhabitants and with Úbeda (population 30,000) as its only close neighbor, Baeza has an incredibly sheltered and somewhat isolated feel to it. Add to that the fact that it is perched on the edge of a cliff surrounded by miles of olive orchards and enclosed by the snowy peaks of the Cazorla and Sierra Magina mountain ranges, and it is incredibly easy to forget about the outside world and get caught up in the magic of Baeza’s oldness. The town is a radiant example of some of Spain’s finest Italian-Renaissance architecture, and if it were not for the bi-weekly bus rides I take out of here and the hundreds of compact cars that litter the streets, I would really feel like I had stepped back in time.

One of the most incredible parts of the city is the old center, whose name should in no way imply that the rest of the town is not old. Everything in Baeza is old, but the area with the greatest concentration of monuments (cathedral, ayuntamiento, etc) is so perfectly preserved and was so well designed that in 2003, it, along with the old center of Úbeda, was declared a UNESCO world heritage site.

Baeza’s preservation and its status as one of the finest examples of Renaissance architecture in all of Spain is due to a string of historical successes and failures. Baeza, first known as Biatia or Beatia, has existed in some form since Roman times, maybe even earlier. But things really picked up for Baeza when the Muslims took over in the eighth century, renaming the place Bayyasa. At that time there were supposedly about 50,000 people inhabiting the city; over three times the number that now live here. But of course, the town was taken back by Catholic Spain in 1227 as one of the earliests victories for the crown in the southern region of the peninsula (then known as Al-Andalus, which is where Andalucía comes from), preceding Cordoba in 1236, Sevilla in 1248, and finally, the stronghold of the Kingdom of Granada in 1492. When I think of 1492 my mind unavoidably goes to Columbus and that Spain, and I think it is so interesting that Granada was still a Muslim kingdom that very same year. Anyways, Baeza was in a pretty important position being on the front lines of the advancing Ferdinand III and his like-minded successors, and the fact that it was perched on a cliff overlooking a large flat plain surrounded by perilous mountains made it a rather strategic post for the forward-marching Castilians.

Of course, most of that past history was wiped out, with the exception of a few fragments of the Moorish city wall and a gate or two. What got UNESCO’s attention was the stuff that was built in Baeza’s second little golden age. In the 16th century, the people living in Baeza got rich. Way rich. They made textiles, and for one reason or another, they made them really well. The families all lived in palaces, which are still standing all around the city, and they supposedly had some pretty crazy feuds among themselves. Anyways, these rich people wanted really, really nice palaces, churches, and fountains and stuff, so they hired an architect who had trained in Italy named Andrés de Vandelvira, and it turns out that he was great at his job. He ended up creating two beautiful, excellently planned cities in Úbeda and Baeza, as well as a really nice (actually shockingly nice considering the rest of the city) cathedral in Jaén.

Baeza feels very clean, bright, and golden compared to other Spanish cities that I’ve been to, and I mean that in a strictly architectural sense. If you read about Baeza, you will read everywhere that it feels more like Italy than Spain, and it’s true (if you’re just considering the buildings, of course). When the weather is warm the stones seriously radiate gold. It looks like everything in the city is warm to the touch when the sun hits it. At night, the fog rolls in around the tower of the cathedral, the bats come out, and things get creepy. Like, I-feel-like-I-might-get-the-plague creepy. It doesn’t help that there are several people that travel by horse and/or carriage on a regular basis around town. Hearing the he sound of hooves on cobblestones is sure to make you feel like you are in the 16th century in this town. That is, until a Fiat hatchback driven by a guy with a mullet and plucked eyebrows blasting Pitbull out his open windows drives by after the horse. Happens.

Well, the 17th century brought about the collapse of the textile industry in Baeza and the golden age was over. So was the building boom. At the time, I am sure that sucked, but it worked out well for us today because that is precisely what kept the town so well preserved. No one had the money for new construction, so what buildings there are in the town today are all from the same era. Then the town  seems to have jumped directly into the 1970s for a year or two, during which a smattering of hideous buildings were erected. Luckily, you don’t notice these too much. Which brings me to my point. The confusing and semi-scary streets around the cathedral.

All of these photos were taken in the tiny little streets that wind around the backside of the cathedral. One section of these little roads is bordered by tall, windowless stone walls that extend straight up from the sides of the street. At intervals there are little bridges that are clearly made for moving from one side to the other , though you can’t tell where the bridges come from or go because you can’t see over the walls. The pictures below show the little bridges I am talking about. It honestly seems like they were made so that people (who, I do not know) could move around the different properties of the church without having to leave the grounds and enter the street. There is no explanation for them anywhere, and most of the surrounding areas that are enclosed by the walls seem to be undergoing some kind of continuous restoration, which is probably bureaucratically delayed in an attempt to keep things in line for the UNESCO status that they absolutely adore here. It’s a mystery that I would like to solve. Or maybe not.

One of the other auxiliars heard a cryptic, poorly translated explanation that involved Opus Dei, and since that is exactly the type of explanation I want to find for these little secret-looking passages, I have decided not to look into it further. Instead, I will keep it a mystery so that whatever boring, quotidian, explanation that might exist never ruins the magic for me. So if you know what they are, don’t tell me! Unless it’s exciting and magical, of course.

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2 thoughts on “The Secret Backstreets of Baeza

  1. Ed B says:

    Thanks for the pictures and info … looks like a place to put on my list of places to hopefully see one day !
    Ed

    • jesshoolko says:

      No problem! Hopefully there are more to come. It really is a beautiful place to visit. Not a ton of things to do, but a great stop if you’re in Andalucía and well worth a day or two!

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