In the southern province of Jaen, in the mythical Andalusia, there are two cities intimately linked through art and history. Two unique enclaves admired for their splendid Renaissance monuments. Úbeda and Baeza were recognized by UNESCO as World Heritage Sites and are favorite travel destinations for those who love the art and culture of the old Spanish empire.
The cultural relevance of Úbeda and Baeza originated during the 16th century, when Spain began to experience a strong nationalist revival and gave birth to its own style, which incorporated the supremacy of the Italian Renaissance into the nascent Hispanic genius.
However, the expansive wealth of these two cities would not have been possible without the influence and patronage of Francisco de los Cobos, Secretary of State of Emperor Charles I of Spain, and the vision of architects such as Pedro Vandelvira and his son Andrew, who developed in this region their best works. Baeza was the showcase for religious architecture while Úbeda was the highest expression of civil architecture and engineering.
There are few historic districts in Spain of such magnitude and architectural richness. The cities’ rich heritage is reflected in every stone, cut and molded by expert stonemasons, centuries ago, to build rich palaces, squares, churches and convents, which remind us of the meticulous efforts made, by its citizens, to preserve them for future generations.
A stroll through the beautiful streets to witness the architectural splendor of the old Spanish empire is a pleasure difficult to express in words. We recommend visiting both cities at once since they are only 8 miles apart. Here, a brief glimpse of what should not be missed when visiting these glorious, unforgettable cities.
The beautiful layout of Úbeda’s urban center will impress even the most experienced traveler. There is a large selection of palaces unveiled at every turn through the town’s cobbled streets. Buildings that reflect the power and wealth of the bourgeoisie and noble families who did not hesitate to hire the most famous architects and artists of the time to build their homes, in perfect synchronicity with the prevailing trends of 16th century Italy. In fact, Úbeda reminds us of northern Italian cities such as Parma, Brescia or Ferrara.
The city of Úbeda was founded in 822 by the Emir Abd ar-Rahman II and conquered by the Christian King Fernando III in 1234. It has a historical and artistic legacy not often seen, which combines the liveliness of Andalusia with the austerity of Castile.
At the city’s entrance, we discover the imposing Hospital de Santiago, a magnificent national monument built in the late 16th century by the architect Andres de Vandelvira after the original plans by his father Pedro. In its long history, it has served as charity hospital, church, palace and even a cemetery, all at once.
The city’s center is the Plaza Vázquez de Molina, a popular square also known as Plaza de Santa María, where there is a comprehensive architectural ensemble. It includes the Holy Chapel of El Salvador, built by Francisco de los Cobos as the family mausoleum; behind is the beautiful hospital Honrados Viejos del Salvador, and next to it, the Palace of Dean Ortega, an Italianate building stamped by the dean of the Cathedral of Malaga. Today, it is a luxury hotel with a prestigious restaurant.
The current City Hall or House of Chains is located in the Vazquez de Molina Palace. A superb three-story building in which Andrés Vandelvira altered the classic Greek order to stamp his own personal touch. From the Archival Hall, one can enjoy a fantastic view of the square and the city.
Beyond Santa Maria square, visitors can admire the Church of the Savior and St. Paul’s Church, the Montiel Palace with a beautiful plateresque style facade, the House of Bishop Canastero and the Palace of Vela de los Cobos.
In Roman, times Baeza was known as Vivatia. The city was under Arab control for centuries until 1227, when it was conquered by the Christian King Fernando III. But, Baeza had to wait, until the 16th century, to reach its full architectural and cultural splendor during the early years of the Spanish Renaissance, a legacy that is still palpable today.
The city center is grand. The best starting point to visit this old town is Pópulo Square with its Lions fountain at its heart. The fountain was built with remnants of archaeological ruins from the ancient Roman town of Cástulo. In the background stands Casa del Pópulo, which served, at some point, as a sort of City Hall. It supports the arches erected to celebrate the visit of the Emperor Charles V on his way to Seville to marry Isabella of Portugal. Across the square stands a former mosque, which became the cathedral in 1227. By the 16th century, it was renovated by the Renaissance architect Andrés de Vandelvira.
There is also an old monastery built in 1660, in whose walls we can still read the cheering messages written by students, with bull´s blood, after passing their exams. Other remarkable structures are Jabalquinto Palace with its splendid facade, a fine example of Elizabethan art, and the town hall, which used to be the old prison.
The University of Baeza was established by a Papal bull from Pope Paul III in 1538, which incited the proliferation new religious orders and an important civil society composed of members of the nobility, gentry, clergy, sages and saints, architects, masons, painters and sculptors, physicians, musicians and poets, who would contribute to make Baeza one of the most important cities in Southern Spain, whose hegemony lasted several centuries.
The old University, built between 1566 and 1593, has a charming courtyard. In the early 20th century, when this building was used as a high school, Antonio Machado, one of the most acclaimed Spanish poets, taught French to the young men of the town. His classroom is still preserved as a museum.
Baeza is also home to Ponce de León Palace, a harmonious 15th century construction that belonged to the family of Juan Ponce de León, the conquistador who claimed Florida for the Spanish Crown. ■