Olive Oil Greenway in Jaén
Two cyclists on the Vía Verde del Aceite in Jaén, close to the viaduct of the River Vívoras in Jaén, Andalusia. Juan Manuel Sanz / © Icex.
Author: Anke van Wijck/©ICEX
The 'Vías Verdes' or Greenways project has rehabilitated abandoned railroads to create a network of cycling and walking routes criss-crossing rural Spain. Anke van Wijck walks down the Olive Oil Greenway in Jaén (Andalusia).
Spain is often said to be a small continent of its own. From snowy peaks to sandy beaches, from rustling creeks to vast plains, from dark forests to rocky mountain ranges, in whichever direction you turn, you'll find a fascinating variety of starkly contrasting, unspoiled, and breathtakingly beautiful landscapes.
In an effort to open up this largely undiscovered treasure trove, in 1993 the Spanish Railway Foundation launched the so called Vías Verdes or Greenways. All throughout Spain and away from noisy cities and crowded beaches, obsolete railroad tracks are being converted into a nationwide network of comfortable, level, well surfaced, and non-motorized walking and cycling paths, in most cases also appropriate for the physically impaired.
Whichever greenway you decide to take, it will no doubt be a feast for the senses. So to whet your appetite, let's travel the emblematic Vía Verde del Aceite (Olive Oil Greenway) that takes us westbound from Jaén, in Andalusia, crossing through seemingly endless sloping olive groves and simultaneously featuring some of the most magnificent vestiges of the three cultures that left their legacy here: Christian, Jewish and Islamic.
The Interior Paradise
In many a mind, Andalusia epitomizes the very image of Spain: Flamenco, Sherry, the Costa del Sol, the Ryder's Cup...; Yet Andalusia has far more to offer than that. Jaén, one of its eight provinces, is a good example, and the Vía Verde that we are about to travel is an excellent opportunity to find out for ourselves why it was appropriately coined Jaén, Paraíso Interior.
Very few of the Spanish Greenways actually start off in a capital city, but Jaén is small and charming enough for this to be an asset. We recommend starting our journey at its very summit: at some 762 m / 2,500 ft on a steep natural outcrop, towering over the town and overlooking its center and the beautiful Renaissance cathedral, lies the 13th century Arab fortress, now Castle of Santa Catalina and the adjacent Parador. It is an unequalled venue to drink in the spectacular views and get acquainted with its fascinating regional cuisine, a centuries-old fusion of the different cultures that enriched these lands and to which a number of interesting monuments in this imminently walkable city, clearly bear witness.
And as we happen to be in the birthplace of the tapa, make sure to sample some in any of the many cafés you'll find along your stroll. Of course noblesse oblige and whenever you order a drink here, it will come with a small tapa courtesy of the house.
The Olive Oil Greenway extends over 55 km / 34 mi right to the edge of the adjacent province of Córdoba from where it continues uninterrupted into the Vía Verde de la Subbética. Our actual route starts next to a modern sports-complex, Las Fuentezuelas, featuring a magnificent swimming pool accessible to all.
As early as nine o'clock, the first few miles of Greenway will be absolutely packed with walkers, many of them mothers who have just dropped off the kids at school. Although our Vía Verde has an incline of at most 3%, the surrounding landscape, from beginning to end, is dominated by never ending - now gently, now steeply - sloping olive groves. It is the proverbial "sea of olive trees,&" only here and there interspersed with picturesque white cortijos (country houses) that seem to be cleaving these grey green waves like ocean liners.
Not surprisingly, the primary purpose of the former railway - and hence of course the name Vía Verde del Aceite ('aceite' comes from the Arab 'az-zeyt' or olive oil) -, was the transportation of olive oil to the markets of southern Spain and the port of Málaga.
The province of Jaén alone makes up for around 50% (some 1.100.000 tons) of Spain's total olive oil production. It is the uncontested kingdom of the Picual variety. 60-70% comes from this olive with a high level of natural anti-oxidants that allow the oil to be raised to higher temperatures more often before it degrades.
Of Church Bells and Watch Towers
Soon we will find the Túnel del Caballico, the first of two long well lit tunnels that of course were built to warrant both a level and rectilinear railroad. Yet even more spectacular are the Greenway's peculiar Viaducts. All nine of them are made of meccano-like metal structures reminiscent of the Eiffel Tower: unsurprising, really, considering they were built by the same engineering firm, Daydé et Pillé.
Now the Vía Verde starts meandering - a means to gain height with the lowest possible incline - and the Peña de Martos, another rock formation topped with the ruins of a fortress, will slowly draw nearer. Paying close attention, all throughout the area we notice that once the landscape was fully controlled from stone watch towers within sight of one another.
The Vía Verde actually enters the town of Martos which features a number of interesting monuments, especially the 16th-century town-hall and the nearby convent of the famous Madres Trinitarias who, like many other orders in Spain, honor the age-old tradition of baking the most delightful, often almond based pastries.
You can order an assortment through a small revolving door and once you have deposited the corresponding amount, you will receive a neat box and get a softly spoken complementary blessing. En route again, like on many Greenways, we will see occasional signs pointing to the intersection with a number of other European and national nature and theme routes, like the Route of the Caliphate.
Meeting Point: La Vía Verde
On our way to the old station of Vado-Jaén, we may find people gently greeting each other while they forage for wild asparagus, young fennel sprouts, wild chard, and other edible greens and herbs. It is another welcome aspect of the Greenways: they enable people to comfortably get to little transited areas where these species abound. The station features a rest-area landscaped with autochthonous varieties like the Árbol del Amor (Tree of Love or Cercis siliquastrum), oleanders, almond and fig trees, etc.
Every third Sunday in May, at this station a 8 km / 5 mi march (4 km / 2.5 mi for wheelchair participants) is organized, that culminates in a collective meal of traditional migas (flour, water, and olive oil are patiently stirred to form crumbs that are served with a salty or sweet accompaniment, from chorizo, garlic and eggs to chocolate or milk and honey) for about 400 hungry walkers. The week prior, they also stage a yearly 67,5 km / 42 mi cycling tour, starting at the Castle in Jaén, all the way to the station of Alcaudete, where a gigantic paella is awaiting the around 300 participants from all over Andalusia.
These Greenway-specific activities, throughout rural Spain Spring and Summer herald the beginning of a myriad popular and gastronomic fests to which of course everybody is most welcome, so be sure to investigate thoroughly before you plan a visit. Just before we reach our end destination in Alcaudete, nature lovers will be particularly rewarded by the beautiful Laguna Honda (Deep Lagoon), at the center of a nature reservoir that is the temporary home to a variety of migrating water birds, like moorhens (Gallinula chloropus), coots (Fulica atra), or mallards (anas platyrhnchos).
We now are approaching the end of our route that takes us to the piece de resistance among the nine metal bridges: the 200 m / 660 ft long Viaduct over the Guadajoz river which marks the frontier between Jaén and Córdoba. Alcaudete itself is a pretty town well worth a stroll. Its main street is lined with nicely rehabilitated town-houses and leads up to the main square where Loli García runs a small store, richly stocked with regional and ecological food products. From there it is a short climb to its magnificent Castle and adjacent Church of Santa María, yet another vantage point offering splendid views!
Before we say Good-Bye
Now time has come to let Jaén seduce us one last time. La Cazuela Andaluza is a small family-run restaurant adjacent to both the Vía Verde del Aceite and the Route of the Caliphate. It is the perfect place for another taste of genuine regional cuisine, always featured on the very affordable daily menu. Not to be missed is the traditional ensalada de naranjas y bacalao, a salad of coarsely diced oranges topped with thin threads of salt cod and crumbs of hardboiled egg, lightly tossed in the always present extra virgin olive-oil.
And being on the subject, how could we possibly leave the area without visiting an almazara or olive mill? Only a few kilometers on our way out of Alcaudete, we find Cortijo El Tobazo in the midst of some 600 ha /1,500 acres of olive groves. Since 1815, the Soler Romero family has grown olives here. Yet in 2000, they took an important step and decided to build their own almazara on the premises. Outfitted with advanced technology, it allows them to stay fully in control of the entire oil producing process and to secure extra virgin Picual olive oil of top quality.
Anke van Wijck Adán is a sociologist and has a Master's degree in gastronomy from Boston University. Her articles have appeared in The Boston Globe.