Travelers interested in historic battles have a field day in northern Jaen.
Enthusiasts of battlefields have an imagination which puts them in a class of their own. Show them a quiet wheat field or a windswept hilltop, and it comes alive with the ring of swords, the thunder of cavalry, the rumble of drums.
Battlefield aficionados will find fertile ground in the province of Jaen. The awe inspiring Despeñaperros Pass is the natural gateway between Castile and Andalusia. It was the obligatory route for invading armies, and at its foot warriors clashed.
One of the earliest such encounters, in 208 BC, pitted a Roman army under Publius Cornelius Scipio against the Carthaginians led by Hasdrubal (Hannibals brother) during the Second Punic War. In spite of the Carthaginians use of elephants in the battle they were defeated, paving the way for the Roman conquest of Spain.
In 1212 one of the most decisive battles in Spanish history took place at Navas de Tolosa, when King Alfonso VIIIs army of 110,000 Castilians, Aragonese, Navarrese and Catalans, reinforced by 70,000 crusaders from elsewhere in Europe, defeated a force of 250,000 Moors led by the feared Almohad commander Al-Nasir. The Christians had been guided through Despeñaperros along a secret path marked with a cows skull by a shepherd (he earned the name Cabeza de Vaca, "cows head", and was the ancestor of the Spanish conquistador). The battle, in which 60,000 Moors were killed, marked the beginning of the end of Moorish rule in Spain: within four decades Seville and Cordoba had been conquered, leaving only the Kingdom of Granada under Moorish rule.
Separated from the battle of Navas by 15 miles and six centuries, Bailen was the setting for the first pitched battle between Spain and France during the Napoleonic War. Aided by misunderstandings within the scattered French forces and the relentless summer heat, a hastily-mustered Spanish army of 40,000 men defeated 23,000 highly-trained French troops in July 1808. After several days of fighting in various locations around the town, Frances General Dupont surrendered on July 19. Bailen was an important morale booster for the Spaniards, as this was the first time Napoleons army had been defeated in open battle.
Bailen celebrates the victory with a fiesta every July, and just to show there are no hard feelings a French delegation attended as special guests in 1998, with the notes of La Marseillaise ringing through the streets of Bailen.
Not all invasions here have involved bloodshed. In the 18th century this part of Andalusia was settled by thousands of Germans from Bavaria, invited by Spains King Charles III who wanted to repopulate the desolate foothills of the Sierra Morena, drained by centuries of emigration. The legacy of these settlers shows in the architecture of the new towns they built such as La Carolina (named after the king) and in strange customs such as the Danza de los Locos, a fiesta involving a dancer dressed in a bear skin, in the village of Fuente Carreteros (Cordoba province). Some claim that the famous puff pastries from the village Guarroman, between Bailen and La Carolina, are directly inherited from the Germans (one type of pastry is named "aleman", or German), though others say its roots can be traced back to the Moors.
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Copyright © 2000 An Andalusian Experience. Text by Mark Little - A Freelance Spain production
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