For hundreds of years, Spain has been producing the best olive oil. DAMIEN NOWICKI takes a journey through the rows of olive trees in the tiny town of Jaen.

If you’re flying down to Andalusia, it’s well worth asking for a window seat. Approach from the north during the day and the bird’s eye view gives you an immediate sense of what this place is all about. As the plane descends, what first appears to be a vast grid pattern slowly comes into focus as endless ordered rows of olive trees stretching from horizon to horizon. The breathtaking scale of what I later discover locals know as the ‘Sea of olives’ makes it easy to imagine you’re in the middle of a sweeping shot from a Hollywood epic.

Those million or so trees help ensure Spain is easily the world’s biggest producer of olive oil, and most of that comes from Jaén, this little-known region. Despite its natural beauty, medieval history and proximity to Granada, the landlocked province is well off the typical overseas tourist’s coastal trail. Jaén’s a relatively quiet place – its airport is actually in Granada; the capital and biggest city, also called Jaén, has a population of just over 100,000; and the landscape is dominated by the vast fruit groves and national parks.

But a programme of building Vía Verdes, or Green Ways, across the country is helping to reveal Spain’s considerable inland charms.

More than 1000km of disused railway lines have been converted into a vast network of paths, enabling walkers and cyclists to criss-cross the country in a leisurely fashion, and many more are planned. When I say leisurely, I mean leisurely – the wide, low gradient and well maintained gravel paths of the Vía Verdes suit the traveller who has relaxation in mind.

Our plan is to follow the Vía Verde del Aceite, a 55km route through a string of small towns and nature reserves. It’s been built on the old ‘oil train’ line that was used for almost 100 years to ship olive oil from the region. The route starts in the capital, a young, bustling city with lively tapas bars and restaurants as well as a historical old town. Surrounded by vast tracts of rolling farmland, the city is densely packed at the foot of a small mountain – there appears to be little interest in urban sprawl in these parts.

Atop the mountain is the Castle of Santa Catalina, which was constructed during the Moorish conquest by the builder of Granada’s stunning Alhambra. Although the castle fell into disrepair, efforts are being made to excavate the site and restore much of the original Moorish design. From up here there are outstanding views out over the city and to the surrounding sierras.

Jaén’s old town is dotted with ancient city walls, gates and a magnificent Renaissance cathedral that is well used by the devout locals. But what is perhaps the city’s highlight is its 11th century Arab Baths, which are unique in Spain. Four hundred years after they were built, when there was rather less curiosity about the Moorish conquerors, some bright spark decided to fill them in and use them as cheap foundations for a palace. Painstaking excavation effort in recent years has revealed the intricate brick and paintwork of the cold, warm and hot chambers, and there’s even some interesting cultural history in the palace above.

By now we’re itching to get onto the trail. We hop on our bikes and follow the path as it winds among the trees. It’s a pleasant route and there are tunnels and bridges to ensure you don’t need to cross the main roads. In the distance there are numerous watchtowers, a reminder how for centuries these were the battle lines for the struggle between the Moors and Christians.

The endless rows of olive trees, stretching for thousands of miles, are just as hypnotic up close, and their short stature makes the sky seem open and vast. But the general outlook is anything but flat and repetitive. The undulating hills are revealed beautifully by the grid patterns of the olive trees, reminiscent of a topographic map.

As we travel along the route, there is little sign of other people bar the occasional local tending to a tree, often with little more than what appears to be a bucket and an umbrella. Despite the scale of the fruit groves, there are few major landowners. Most families in nearby cities have a couple acres of olive trees that they tend to, and the trees require little care. One of my peckish companions reaches out and plucks a black olive from the tree and puts it in his mouth. His face screws up like he’s just bitten into a raw onion and our guide laughs.

The olives are no good to eat unless they’ve been prepared for weeks in a brine,” he explains. The fruit starts off green, and, if all goes to plan, swells up with the winter rains, turns black, is shaken from the trees, collected and pressed into extra virgin olive oil. The only difference between black and green olives is the ripeness of the fruit. Typically, Andalusians only eat the green olives, which are much firmer to bite and taste sharper than what is common elsewhere.

The black olives, meanwhile, are reserved for oil. Olive oil is ‘virgin’ if it is a freshly squeezed juice (extra oil can be extracted in a chemical process), an ‘extra’ designates that it meets stringent taste criteria. Jaén oils are renowned for their fruitiness and bitterness, the latter being a flavour that is considered, somewhat counter-intuitively, as an asset. Much of the stuff you might consider as ‘Italian’ olive oil is actually shipped over from Andalusia and rebranded.

We’ve soon had enough of talking about the food and start looking for somewhere to sample some of it. The towns are modest in these parts, but there are plenty of good places to eat. Over a generous lunch it’s easy to appreciate why Andalusians are passionate about the stuff they call liquid gold. And why the premium oil is so rapidly growing in popularity around the world.

Olive oil adds a delicious fragrance to anything (even an experimental dish of olive oil ice cream that we tried) and most dishes are dripping in the stuff. Bread is generously deployed to ensure every drop is mopped up. And in spite of this oil, the food tastes anything but greasy, and the locals all look extremely healthy. If you like a little culture with your gastronomic delights, then the Vía Verde also offers plenty of options, as we discover when we pass through Martos and Alcaudete, two charming towns with castles atop nearby hills.

For the final leg of our journey, the Vía Verde takes us past the Honda and Del Chinche nature reserves, where wild birds flock at the lagoons for much of the year. There’s not much evidence of the peacocks, sultana birds or loons as we pass, though – the drought has left the wetlands looking like vast patches of dirt. We’re approaching the Southern Sierra and the landscape becomes more rugged. We cruise over a number of bridges and viaducts, which provide evidence of the French engineers (among them Gustave Eiffel, of Paris tower fame) who built the railway line in the 1890s. The end of our trail is appropriately marked by an expansive 200m iron bridge over the Guadajoz river.

The olive oil green way is still something of a work in progress. There are plans for some of the deserted stations we passed to be converted into hotels and restaurants for travellers. In the meantime, the crumbling buildings retain a rustic charm.

Driving homeward as the sun sets, I look back out over the ‘Sea of olives’, and understand how the locals came up with such a poetic name for the landscape. Not only do the hills rise and fall like waves, but the lights of distant towns poke out between the rising and falling horizon, like ships in the ocean.

For more information on the region, see”