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Drumbeats in Baena

sunny 28 °C
View Andalusia Spain on Jenniferklm's travel map.

We said a fond farewell to Esperjo, fueled by a lovely breakfast at Casa Amara and equipped with more certainty about our route courtesy of our very knowledgeable host, Ivan. We were eagerly anticipating our eventual cycle along part of the Olive Oil Route that Ivan told us about but before reaching it we would have one more stopover in another small hilltop village, Baena.


The early morning mist was soon pierced by warm sun as we cycled across the main town plaza, down the steep street and back out into the countryside. As we exited the town, we were observed by several cats sitting atop a pile of olive wood and and we admired the extensive potted-up garden of one villager. Even if you don’t have a yard, you can surround your home with plants!


Our ride to Baena would be 32.5 km on a lovely Andalusian spring day with temps of 28C. It would be hilly resulting in a total elevation climb of 617 meters. But the scenery more than made the effort worthwhile.

As we were in the heart of olive oil production, Ivan had suggested we might be able to tour the processing plant of his neighbours on the town outskirts but when he inquired, they told him they were finished for the season. We stopped to take a picture of the plant as we headed up the quiet Co-4204 road, leaving Espejo behind us with its hilltop castle and brilliant white houses.

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The road wound its way through a gorgeous landscape of rolling hills perfectly planted with olives. It was pruning season and we waved to a few people in the groves working with hand and gas power tools, lopping off branches to promote production for the coming season.

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We stopped to investigate a large abandoned house along the road, with its crumbling stone walls, broken tile roof and broken doors and shutters. What lives were lived here and what led to its demise?


We had a break in a very old olive grove on the top of a hill after a climb. I love the twisted split shapes of these old trees. We could see Baena below. It was hot now - 28C. Winter in the hills of Andalucia.


What lay ahead was the most amazing descent down the road we were on into Baena, a series of switchbacks of about 4 km down to the valley floor. There was no traffic on this very good road so the only challenge was to not go too fast! It was so exhilarating - and so nice to be going down and not up! Riding up that descent would have been a whole other experience.


As we rode into the lower part of Baena, we realized this village had the steepest streets of any hilltop town we had yet been in. It was an effort to even push our bikes up, much less ride. When we arrived at our accommodation, there was nowhere flat outside the door of Guesthouse Jazmines Mozárabes to unload the bikes so we parked them on a cross street above and carried our panniers to the door.


We were warmly greeted by Marie Chantel, the owner who is French but has lived in Spain for many years. She told us she bought this little house for 28,000€ a few years ago and hadn’t planned a bed & breakfast but is gradually renovating her house to provide more rooms. She caters to a lot of people walking the Camino route and asked if we were pilgrims. As it turned out, additional guests who were walking part of the Camino arrived later that evening and we met them at breakfast the next morning.

Our bedroom and adjoining bathroom was at the back of the house through a small inner courtyard where we were able to put the bikes. After a little rest and change of clothing, we headed out to explore this old village of 20,000 residents.


The old town continued to advance up the hill above us to 405 meters and so did we, eventually finding ourselves in the very large Plaza de la Constitución bordered on one side by a very grand public building with a restaurant on the lower level. It was actually the only restaurant we saw in the village though Marie Chantel mentioned several others. There would be more shops and services in the new town area that we did not go to. We managed to have an late lunch/early dinner, sitting on the terrace overlooking the almost emply square. That would change very dramatically later in the evening.


The historic quarter of the village has various churches including Santa María la Mayor, from the 16th century (although some evidence suggests that it dates back to the 13th century), the Madre de Dios church and convent, founded in 1510, and the old castle-citadel, from the 9th century, with several gateways to the walled enclosure.

There is evidence of occupation from the 6th century B.C. after a nearby hilltop town was destroyed in the 1st C. This was perhaps considered a more defendable location. The town was fought over by Iberians, Romans, Moors and Christians and changed hands several times. It was the site of the Roman town known Baniana or Biniana and in the 1800s a subterranean vault was found with twelve cinerary urns with inscriptions commemorating members of the Pompeian family. It was an important stronghold during the Moslem occupation and in the 8th century, the town grew around the castle. Following the demise of the Caliphate of Córdoba, the town was ravaged by Berbers, bringing its prosperity to an end. In the Reconquest, the Catholic monarch, Ferdinand III rapidly acquired a number of towns in the area, including Baena in 1241.

Turmoil continued as in most of Spain. At the beginning of the Spanish Civil War, Baena was the scene of the Baena Massacre, a mass-execution of Spanish republicans where about 700 loyalists were murdered by the orders of rebel Colonel Sáenz de Buruaga.

Though we did not have a chance to visit either place, there is a Museo Histórico Municipal with many archeological finds and a Museo del Olivar y el Aceite, in an old mill with most of the mill machinery dating from the middle of the 19th century, and a collection of over 3,000 olive oli labels.
Grain and olive oil were the principal articles of commerce in the 19th century and Baena is still surrounded by gorgeous farmland with cereal crops and high-quality olive oil being major economic drivers. Sierras Subbéticas Natural Park is located to the south of the town where there would be some great hiking.

Later in the evening, we went out gain to explore further. We heard drumming and saw two men in red jackets standing outside a shop, each beating a deafening rhythm on a drum. As we walked around, we encountered more red coated adults and even children beating drums and walking towards the big plaza. It hurt our ears and we tried to avoid them but they were everywhere, walking slowly towards the square. When we returned from looking at the hilltop citadel, the plaza was full of hundreds of people, all beating drums, just off the terrace where we had eaten a few hours before.

We watched for awhile but finally retreated as we were seriously worried about our hearing. We figured it was some kind of rehearsal for Holy Week and Marie Chantel confirmed this. The drums are manufactured in Baena from goat skins and pig intestine membranes which give them a distinctive sound. Uh huh!

We learned that the tamboradas are part of the Catholic Holy Week celebrations and are a big cultural ritual in Baena. We just happened to catch a practice for what was to come on the eve of St Joseph’s Day, this year on March 19 during Lent, that celebrates the father of Jesus, followed by Holy Week. During Holy Week, as I understand it, people will drum all day and night throughout the town, dressed in the red, embroidered jackets that we saw, but also wearing elaborate, plumed brass headdresses from which long swathes of black or white horsehair hangs. These costumes denote the Coliblancos (white-tailed) and the Colinegros (black-tailed) Jews.

So Jesus was a Jew, crucified by the Romans in 30 BC. I was very confused about the references to Jews in many of the Christian Holy Week descriptions I read in Spain and the role Jews play in these Holy Week rituals. How do Jews feel about these huge Holy Week events that reference them? How does this align with the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492 by the Catholic monarchs and the following Spanish Inquisition, which targeted those thought to be secretly practicing Jewish religious rituals? I read that the processions that are such an important feature of Catholic culture in Spain are a world-wide custom going back to Catholicism’s Jewish roots, as a form of pilgrimage first undertaken by the Jews to represent important historical events.

From my brief online investigation of this, the problem with Holy Week and the role of “the Jews” in the death of Christ seems to be a basic one we continue to encounter in our modern world - don’t believe everything you read (or hear) and context is everything. In this case, the issue seems to lie in the New Testament Gospel text and the words of Matthew, John, Peter and Paul which ignore the political context for Jesus’ death, at the hands of the Romans but then blame all Jews. Even the Catholic Church repudiated this in 1965 when the Second Vatican Council, in the declaration Nostra Aetate “What happened in His passion,” said Christ’s death, “cannot be charged against all the Jews, without distinction, then alive, nor against the Jews of today.” I can’t do justice to the issue here and I don’t know how this is addressed in Spain when it comes to Holy Week but If you are interested, there are many articles about this. But these seem to be ever more important questions in our increasingly divided and violent world. Some links below.


At any rate, we certainly got a sense of how the tamboradas drum-playing rituals create an intense community experience. Fascinating as this was to stumble upon, I would not want to experience the all day, all night cacophony of eardrum-destroying sound of which we got a taste. But wandering the steep narrow streets of Baena at night with the drummers moving inexorably towards te plaza was incredibly atmospheric and other- worldly.


Posted by Jenniferklm 13:00 Archived in Spain

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