Santa Elena is the closest town to the Despeñaperros Pass, famously termed the “Gateway to Andalusia”. It is also the most northerly village in Jaén province (and Andalusia) when leaving or arriving in the region on the A-4 Madrid motorway. The town overlooks the site of the Battle of Navas de Toloso and is one of the least agricultural municipalities of Andalusia, with only 1% of land farmed; the economy is instead based on mountain activities such as forestry, mushroom-gathering and pig-rearing. It has about 890 inhabitants.
The area has been inhabited since prehistoric times, as evidenced by 5,000-year-old local cave paintings, which were declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1998. Unfortunately, these paintings in Cueva de los Escolares have suffered serious damage.
In the time of the Iberians, one of area’s great centres of worship, the Collado de los Jardines Sanctuary, was located in the vicinity of Santa Elena, in which a large number of Iberian votive offerings (small statuettes offered to the gods) appeared. In the upper area of this settlement, on a plateau, there is a large set of structures that must have formed a town in the Iberian, Roman and medieval times. The sanctuary is also known as the “Cueva de los Muñecos” (Cave of the Dolls) and was used by the Romans for religious worship until the end of the fourth century. More>
The A4 Autovia de Andalucia passes close by the town. Leave the A4 at km 258, enter the village and head first for the main square.
If you're not in a hurry, take the quiet, old, windy road (J-6110) through Despeñaperros. If heading north, leave the A4 at km 256; at km 250 the old road crosses under the motorway and hangs on the west side of the gorge. Look out for the small lay-by and viewpoint you can climb up to. There is also a café with a wonderful viewing terrace at the back and a small tourist office kiosk, whose opening times are unpredictable.
If travelling south from Madrid, leave the A4 at km 243 by the roadside hamlet Venta de Cardenas (the last in Castilla La Mancha), where there are some shops, hostals and restaurants and even a roadside "driver's" church which dates from 1971 called Iglesia del Conductor Maria Reina.
The main plaza, which was the original village square, is now called Plaza de la Constitucion. Apart from the villagers' houses, there were three principal buildings: 'La Casa de Consejo' (Local Council building), the granary and the church. Now there is also a post office.
Iglesia de la Emperatriz Santa Elena
This colonial-style church dates from 1793 the period when the Nuevas Poblaciones were founded in this area, including La Carolina. It was built on the site of the original chapel, erected by order of King Alfonso VIII to celebrate the victory of the Battle of Las Navas de Tolosa in 1212 - the chapel housed trophies from the battle. On the church wall you can see a bas-relief sandstone tablet commissioned by King Charles IV some years after the new church was built, to ensure the old chapel and the reason for its existence would not be forgotten.
This church is simple with a classical white façade. Above the entrance is a semicircular arch on imposts (blocks on which an arch rests) flanked by Tuscan style pilasters (slightly projecting ornamental column built into a wall). The entrance is capped by a front-facing triangular masonry. Slightly higher up are two round windows with stained-glass image of Empress Santa Elena. At the side are two Doric columns (one of three ancient Greek orders; the others were Ionic and Corinthian).
Above the front-facing cornice (horizontal crowning decorative mounding) is a sandstone steeple with three pyramid-shaped layers bearing pinnacles (small spires) at each end. In the centre are two arches for the bells.
Inside a single aisle and high dome-shaped plastered ceiling are coupled by double half-moon shapes on both sides, and several burial niches. On the right are a chapel and a sacristy (room for keeping vestments - church robes). There is an entrance to the rectory on the left.
Antiguo Pósito Labradores - Granary
During the colonisation of the area (see La Carolina) the 1768 Agricultural Reform Bill for Andalucia stated that each northern European settler family receive a house with 33 hectares of land, as well as livestock, crops and equipment: a pig, six hens and a rooster, 20 fanegas (1100 litres) of wheat, six fanegas of barley, a wild hoe, a slim hoe, a plough, and two allotment patches, plus a range of social services.
This 1794 building was firstly a dry granary to store the grain for the settlers, but also served as an advice centre for them - a superintendant was based there to assist those unfamiliar with the fallowing system (crop rotation). Since then the building has housed various institutions. It is currently used as a retirement home, the Martin Halaja Adult Education Centre, and Guadalinfo municipal internet centre. Notice the engraved stone name plaque above the door. Why do certain words appear to have been chiselled out?
In the original building, the local policeman and his family lived on the ground floor, above were municipal offices, and at the rear was the jail. It was rebuilt in 1991, retaining the facades to the plaza and Jaen Street; the metal bell assembly is a modern recreation of the original design. The building still houses municipal offices and a post office. The magistrates' court has been moved to a different building.
Statue of Charles III
In the centre of the square is a modern bronze statue of King Charles III, the founder of the 18th-century new towns of the Sierra Morena. See history of La Carolina.
Battle of Las Navas de Tolosa monument
At the entrance to the village, by the exit of the motorway, is a recent monument to the Battle of Las Navas de Tolosa.
The town has a small bullring on the eastern side which can be visited. Lengths of steel railway lines have been used to support the terrace.
To the west of the village is the site of the Battle of Las Navas de Tolosa, and visitors' centres for both the battle, and the Despeñaperros Natural Park.
Collado de los Jardines
On the J6110 local road near to Aldeaquemada at km 6,3 (38.38N and -3.50W) you can find the historic Iberian Sanctuario Iberico del Collado de los Jardines in a cave now called "Cueva de los Munecos" (dolls' cave) This place was used for worship until the fourth century AD. The ancient burial remains were excavated in 1916.
There are also sections of the original Roman cobbled road which was part of Via Hercules linking Castuelo (Linares) with Toledo.
To the north of Santa Elena is the Natural Park of Despeñaperros, named after the mountain pass.
Los Organos is a natural monument in the Despeñaperros gorge - a cliff face where the vertical rock structure rocks resemble organ pipes. They can be seen from the mirador on the old road (see orientation above). The new motorway is tunnelled under this rock.
There is a camp site with swimming pool in the north-east of the village, offering easy access to the motorway.
|Routes to Jaen-Madrid, stopping at Mengibar, Bailen, Guarroman, Carboneras, La Carolina, Navas de Tolosa, Santa Elena, Venta Cardenas and other stops to Madrid.|
|Routes to Linares and Aldeaquemada|
Additionally the 631 and 619 operates three more daily buses to Jaen.
These include the Romería de San Isidro on 15 May, and the Fiestas Patronales in honour of Santa Elena on 18 August. Other ones are La Candelaria and the Carnaval in February.
There is a tourist information kiosk, Los Jardinillos, by the cafe on the old road at km246 of the A7 (unpredictable opening hours).
Just to the west of the town, at A7 exit 257, is Puerta de Andalucia visitors' centre, with free WIFI, restaurant, a shop selling DO iberico products, and a specialist olive oil store with an impressive selection of DO products from four provinces in Andalucia - Jaen, Malaga, Sevilla and Granada.
Also nearby is the museum dedicated to the Battle de las Naves de Tolosa.
On the J6110 local road to Aldeaquemada at km 6.3 is the Visitors Centre for the natural park of Despeñaperros.
Nearby villages are Las Navas de Tolosa and La Carolina