It’s too easy to miss out on Andalucia’s mountainous interior, which in some ways is good, as it leaves hidden jewels for the happy few in the know. Ubeda, in the province of Jaen, is a case in point. Because this serene, elegant town packed with mansions and Renaissance churches has a fantastic, centuries-old tradition of pottery and ceramics well worth investigating; the food offerings are excellent too. Altogether you won’t regret a night or two spent here.
As the crow flies, it’s due north of Granada over an undulating sea of olive groves that make up the intense monotony and also economy of Jaen province. If possible by-pass Jaen itself, which has no great interest and where the outskirts are designed to confound even the canniest drivers (me!).
But Ubeda awaits – its Renaissance arms wide open on the beautiful main square, Plaza Vazquez de Molina (top pic) dominated by the ornate church of El Salvador (above). That dazzling western façade in Plateresque style (meaning that it copies intricate silversmithing style) dates from the mid 16th century. Inside, Diego de Siloe’s interior is more sober, until you face the main altar, an orgy of gilt and writhing sculpture including Alonso de Berreguete’s extraordinary altarpiece. Incidentally De Siloe also designed the better known cathedrals of Malaga and Granada.
But in terms of living culture, it’s the ceramics that win out. I was bemused by the fact that nearly every pottery shop I saw (and yes, they are legion, mainly aimed at domestic tourists) was called Tito. All became clear when I finally entered the hallowed workshop of Paco Tito, son of Pablo Tito, and father of another Pablo.
This dynasty of highly talented sculptor-potters has spawned hundreds of functional and decorative pieces over the decades, mostly using Ubeda’s signature moss green glaze. Not only that, there are cousins (more Titos) and a few unofficial Titos too cashing in on the name. The ancient tradition possibly goes back to the 10th century and is said to have been influenced by Persian techniques.
My own theory is that it could easily have derived from the Berbers of southern Morocco via the Almoravid and Almohad dynasties that ruled the caliphate of Al-Andalus (Andalucia) in the 11th- 12th centuries. The town of Tamegroute on the edge of the Sahara produces renowned pottery with a remarkably similar green glaze as well as lattice-style cut-outs – just as in my pic below taken at Tamegroute.
To reach the potters’ barrio in San Millan, leave the walled centre on its northeastern side through the unusual double Moorish arch (above), the Puerta del Losal. From here it’s a short hop downhill to calle Valencia, Ubeda’s pottery hub. At the orriginal Tito’s at no. 22 you’ll find a treasure-trove of craftmanship and, with a bit of luck, Paco himself, now in his mid-70s and still hard at work. Upstairs a charming and informative museum explains and displays unexpected pieces like this ingenious birthing chair – the opening to aid the midwife’s work when the pregnant woman seated on top dropped the babe.
The greatest treasure, however, is the huge walk-in kiln (above), of Arab origin and proof that this workshop goes back at least 900 years, as Ubeda’s Moorish rulers succumbed to the Catholic forces in the mid-13th century. It is one of only six Moorish-era kilns still functioning in Spain today and is looked after by Paco’s son, Pablo. Fired on wood stoked from a room below, it takes 24 hours to heat up – a lengthy process, meaning that it’s not used more than three or four times a year.
When we met, Paco was busy preparing a brunch salad for himself and his pals, chopping vegetables and trickling olive-oil with the same care as he puts into his highly detailed, clay sculptures. Whether you like realism or not, you can’t fail to admire his incredible technique which he uses for busts and full-size figures. Nor is he short of admirers including none other than the former King Juan Carlos & Sofia who popped in a few years ago. Yet in true Andalucian fashion, Paco is relaxed, friendly and egalitarian, only too happy to chat.
And here’s the lattice bowl I brought back with me – and I love it!
Good eats in Ubeda:-
Restaurante Zeitum, calle San Juan de la Cruz, 10, + 34 953 755800 www.zeitum.com/ upscale, sophisticated. modern cocina
Cantina la Estación, Cuesta Rodadera, 1, +34 687 777230 www.facebook.com/cantinalaestacion/ informal tapas or a tasting menu in a restaurant disguised as a train carriage – fun & very local
Taberna Misa de 12, Plaza Primero de Mayo, 7 http://misade12.com/ – high tables & stools outside, tight seating inside, but delicious, quality tapas and raciones – very popular with locals