If your extra virgin olive oil is from Spain, it may very well be from the region around Baena—it’s at the geographic center of Andalusia and it’s the heart of the olive oil industry. You might even find this name on your bottle. Like vine, olives have a terroir and Baena is a “Denominación de Origen”, meaning that its unique location and production techniques justify a name that is a designation of quality.
We stayed at the small white town of Zuheros located about 10 km (6 miles) south of Baena and surrounded by olive trees. This is a view from our hotel window; you may be able to see the larger town of Baena in the distance (center of photo). It’s really hard to imagine the number of olive trees—they cover every slope in this region. Along the road there is one olive mill business after another. Even the small village of Zuheros has one (see lower right side of the photo). You can pick your own olives and then have them pressed, but it’s a minimum quantity of 500 kg (that’s half a ton!). For 70 euros, though, that’s a really good deal and you will have enough to last you all year!
Like all of the white towns, Zuheros has a fortification on a rock promontory that is—you guessed it—made out of limestone.
Below is a view to the southeast from the castle’s tower. This is pretty much the whole town, with a sheer limestone wall behind it. At the top of the mountain is La Cueva de Los Murciélogos (bat cave) that we visited. It was different then any caves we’ve seen before. The stalactite formations are linear because they form only where there are fractures in the rock—the only places water can seep downward. We didn’t see any bats, but we did see rock paintings on the walls that have been radiocarbon dated at 4000 years B.P. (Neolithic period). A buried human skeleton and other human artifacts, including the oldest toasted grains in Europe, were also found here.
Beside olive oil, this agricultural region produces many artisanal foods and wines. We particularly enjoyed the varieties of goat cheeses. At the edge of town is a farm with a large goat herd (probably several hundred) that amused us with juveniles playing and this particularly silly goat who was standing on the feeding stand, where he could get a better view of the farmers preparing his dinner.
For its size, Zuheros has some excellent restaurants, including one adjacent to the castle with a magnificent view of the valley. We were fortunate to be there on a Saturday, when many Spaniards from Córdoba were spending the day in a charming mountain town, seeing the sites and eating together. The cave tour was fun, with our group of several families that included young children.
Another attraction of Zuheros is its location along the “Via Verde” (green path—it’s the path extending through the middle of the top photo). Like in the U.S., former railroad right-of-ways have been turned into paths for hikers and bikers. This one extends for almost 200 km and goes through one small, scenic town after another. Just when we thought we would be the only non-Spanish tourists, a group of 20 U.S. bicyclists on a 6-day tour came through town and stopped for a brief respite. They were enjoying their trip, and we would definitely return to this region for biking. There is also an extensive network of trails for hiking. We hiked a small part of the Via Verde to the adjacent town. Along the way Jay was able to thoughtfully pursue the noble olive.