I bet very few of you have ever heard of Bailén, a 20,000-inhabitant town located in Andalucía, southern Spain. Yet this calm and peaceful town was honoured with a privilege very few towns have: it has a title of its own. It's called "The Very Noble and Loyal City of Bailén". Indeed, with only 20,000 inhabitants, people ask why Bailén was given such a glorious title and was named a City by the King himself. It's because Bailén became a key battlefield 210 years ago, when a Spanish militia-army under the orders of General Reding defeated for the first time in history a professional Napoleonic army on European ground. This signified the start of the Spanish War of Independence and demonstrated to the whole world that, despite their aura of invincibility, the French could be defeated.
The Governments of Sevilla and Granada had ordered the recruitment of soldiers to form two armies, one under the command of General Castaños, in Cádiz, and the other one in Granada under the orders of Theodor Reding, including many volunteer recruits from the Army of Andalucía. The French General Dupont marched south from Madrid and was harassed by numerous guerrilla-groups on the way. On july 19, 1808, the armies of Dupont and Reding encountered each other at the gates of Bailén, a small peaceful village in Jaén. The Spanish were about 20,000 while the French army is estimated at around 16,000 professional and experienced soldiers. Both armies fought well but the Spanish, with better artillery and backed by the town folk, who supplied them with constant water on a summer day remembered as particularly hot, forced Dupont to surrender, after the French general's last heroic attack had been repelled by the Spanish militia. María Bellido is still remembered as one of the great heroes of the battle. She was a woman from the town admired by the Spanish soldiers for having had the courage to bring them water during the battle, up to the front lines -the saying goes that a bullet even broke the ceramic jar she was carrying the water in, which didn't stop her from coming back to battle.
The feasts and celebration in Bailen
Every 19th of July, Bailén turns into a great feast and party town. The older ones put on their army costumes and turn into children again: they ride horses, fire guns and canons while the women bring them water and take care of the wounded and the children run around while they too pretend to be soldiers. Every year, a famous personality from the region or a descendant of a battle hero comes to deliver a speech at the Town Hall (Plaza del Ayuntamiento) and honours the memory of the soldiers who fought and died in 1808, consecrating a celebration that ends with music and fireworks.
Bailén is mostly remembered for the famous battle, but leaving aside its historic interest it is also a very charming town with wonderful people and a rich brick-making culture. It might not be as beautiful as Úbeda or Baeza, two wonderful historic towns that attract a lot of people into the region, but that will not keep me from telling you more about this underdog in a coming article, as I am certain that Bailén can and will surprise you if you decide to stop by Jaén.
If you're interested in war and historic battles you should know that just about 30km to the north of Bailén is the enclave where the famous Battle of the Navas de Tolosa (1212) took place. According to the History Channel, it's one of the greatest battles in history. Here's the museum if you want to check that out:
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