What to do or see near Cordoba or Jaen? If you’re already gonna be there, make sure to save a day to visit an off-the-beaten-path, gem-of-a-destination: Santa Elena. It is a little village in Spain between Andalucia and Castile-La Mancha. It was a random stop, 4 hours drive from Jerez, and a little hop over on the way to Madrid for the first day of our summer camping road trip in Europe. Who would have thought that in its’ surrounding mountains was the site of the battle that marked the slow fall of Muslim rule in Spain over 800 years ago? Santa Elena in the province of Jaen—Spain’s biggest olive-producing province, coated with what seemed like hills over rolling hills of olive trees as viewed from the road—was a pleasant surprise.
What to do and see in Santa Elena, Spain?
Christian army once gathered here to reconquer Spain, only to be surrounded by a larger Muslim army. The Christians were doomed. All hope was lost. Then there was a farmer, as the story goes, who showed a passage through the mountains that enabled the outnumbered Christians to outflank the Muslims. Sounds like the movie “300”, between the Persians and the Spartans, doesn’t it? A little piece of crucial information from a farmer-spy changed the course of history.
This Battle of the Las Navas de Tolosa was apparently the first great victory of Christians over a Muslim army since 1187, while at this time Muslims led by Salladin was reconquering Jerusalem. The victory in Santa Elena paved the way for the Christian re-conquest of the Iberian peninsula, aptly captured in this translated text “while the half moon grew in the east, the cross widened in the west,” as shown in the museum of the same name near the actual site, with some sort of Trojan-looking horse at the entrance.
Karol and Kaj (K+K, our kids, then 6 and 3 years old) enjoyed the museum very much to our surprise. Sure we hyped it up; told them about castles, fortresses and… dragons… (ok, ok, I might have oversold it a bit with that one). But they loved seeing the exhibits of swords, shields, horses. More importantly, they loved listening to the stories and running around the museum, yelling “Shield Wall! Arrows. Loose!!!” Of course we could not read all the informative descriptions! There was a tower that provided a 360-degree view of the surrounding mountains to take it all in and replay the ancient stories in our heads.
Of course, the playground helped keep the boys’ interest. Yes, the museum has one, right next to a big covered picnic area with table, benches and beautiful views. The playground has a zipline, various climbing structures and silhouettes of those long forgotten Christian knights and Moorish warriors.
If you have one day in Santa Elena, get up early enough to have a stroll to the main plaza with a church (Iglesia de la Emperatriz Santa Elena) at the southern side of the quiet square (plaza). The church was apparently built to celebrate the victory of the Battle of the Las Navas and contained memorabilias from it. For play, stop by a newly built playground and have some chocolate and churros from a food truck on the way there. Enjoy the quiet, unhurried village life. Of course, don’t forget about the priority: the Museum of the Battle!
Things to do and see near Santa Elena?
You could easily spend a day in Santa Elena and add at least another for nearby places. For you nature lovers, there is a National Park (Parque Natural de Despeñaperros). The best-preserved Renaissance towns of Baeza and Ubeda are only 45 minutes, 63 kilometers away. Would have preferred to stay overnight in either one but the cost of lodging was beyond our budget. The province’s capital, Jaen, is only a 45-minute drive (76 km) away. Farther out is Cordoba (1.5 hour, 140 km). If you are a wine lover, Valdepenas DO is 35 minutes, 56 km. For you music lovers: Linares (30 minutes, 40 km)–the birthplace of classical guitarist Andrés Segovia, and Carmen Linares, one of the finest flamenco singers in Spain and maybe catch a flamenco show… Remember you are on vacation. So, relax. Slow-roll it and enjoy life, unhurried!