In the center of the province of Aragon, on the banks of the second longest river in the Iberian Peninsula, the river Ebro, sits the city of Zaragoza. (In Spain, the name is pronounced “Tharagotha.”) The fifth largest city in the country, Zaragoza is comparatively ignored by tourists. Yet the city is well worth a visit. Populated since Roman times, conquered and ruled by the famous warrior, El Cid, and then governed by the Muslim Almoravids until reconquered by Alfonso I, the city has a long and important role in Spanish history.
But all I knew about the place, when I visited, was that it is relatively cheap and relatively close to Madrid. So one puente (a long weekend) in December, I decided to explore the city.
The drive to Zaragoza took us through Soria—“the ugliest part of Spain,” said the driver of my blablacar, who didn’t like the Martian red soil of the province (I disagreed). Zaragoza itself is situated betwixt several mountains, which protect the city from rain but do not shield it from the mist that drifts down during winter. The city huddles around both banks of the Ebro, a wide and powerful river that is periodically spanned by low-lying bridges, connecting both halves of the city.
I arrived fairly late in the day. The city was chilly, a fog hung about the air, some snow had recently fallen but little remained. My Airbnb host recommended a nearby walking path. I took her advice, having more than enough time to explore the city later. This path was called La Alfranca, and quickly led me outside the city and into the fields beyond, following the course of the Ebro going southeast.
This was my first trip alone in Spain. I enjoyed the solitude and the silence of the countryside. The skeletal forms of winter trees, arranged in neat rows, bisected fields of wheat. A lonely man in a tractor dug up a field. Joggers went by occasionally, but for the most part I was alone on the path. La Alfranca stretches 15 kilometers in total but I decided to turn back long before that, returning on the opposite bank of the Ebro.
Walking on in this way, I came back to the city. Eventually the magnificent form of Zaragoza’s famous basilica, Nuestra Señora de Pilar, rose up on the other side of the river, its four towers lit up from underneath with a pale yellow glow. I crossed over the Puente de Piedra, the oldest standing bridge in Zaragoza, which leads directly to the basilica. The design of this bridge is very similar to the Roman bridges that can be found in Spain, such as in Mérida or Córoba or Salamanca, but it was built in 1440, long after the Romans. There was, indeed, a Roman bridge that used to span the Ebro near that spot, but it was destroyed in the ninth century.
I found my way to the Plaza de Pilar, Zaragoza’s central square, which stands in front of the basilica. The place was bustling with life. A Christmas market, selling nativity figurines and specialty foods, surrounded the periphery. In the middle was a life-sized nativity display, fenced off, which you had to pay to enter; there was a long line of eager families waiting. On one end of the square was a skating rink, full of people slipping and circling, and on the other side there was a large artificial hill where children and adolescents could ride down on inflatable red sleds.
I went up to the food stand and ordered “hot wine,” which was warm and sweet, the perfect winter drink, and then I decided to eat dinner there. As I ate, the sound of music attracted my ears. A band, playing a fusion of traditional and rock music, was on stage performing; an accordion and a mandolin player supplemented the usual rock trio. I quite liked it. I stayed to watch the whole performance, and later, when it finished, a big group of amateur flamenco musicians set up chairs below the stage and began to sing and play. I must say I love encountering flamenco in this way, as a genuine part of daily life here in Spain. It is such a raw and gripping music, at once dramatic and unpretentious.
This was my first day in Zaragoza, a lovely walk followed by a lovely encounter with community life in the city. Already I had decided that I quite liked it here.
Day two. Now it was time to explore the city’s monuments. My first stop was, of course, Nuestra Señora de Pilar.
The basilica gets its name from a legend. Saint James the Greater was in Spain, attempting to convert the (then Roman) citizens to Christianity. Dispirited by failure, he began to pray at the banks of the Ebro, and the Virgin Mary appeared to him in a vision, holding in her hand a column of jasper. According to tradition, James then established a small chapel in Spain—the first ever church dedicated to the Virgin Mary. In the center of the beautiful main altar is a small wooden statue of Mary standing atop a small jasper pillar, believed to have been given to James by Mary’s accompanying angles.
One need not believe this story to believe that the basilica has an impressively long history. After Christianity was legalized in the Roman Empire and eventually made the state religion under Constantine, a basilica was built on the spot. This basilica subsequently underwent all the stylistic changes of Spanish history: Romanesque, Gothic, Mudéjar. In the fifteenth century a fire gutted and damaged the previous building; and thus the current edifice mostly owes its shape to the Baroque. Four high towers stand on each corner of the cathedral; a central dome, not quite as tall as the towers, is flanked by several smaller cupolas. The result is undeniably magnificent, giving the impression of tremendous size and elegant design.
The interior is equally grand, with white walls and long naves, flanked by rounded arches and topped with cupolas that let in the daylight. The decoration has none of that excess or horror vacui commonly associated with Baroque; rather the friezes and moldings are neoclassical in their symmetry and restraint. The floor-plan of the building is not a crucifix, but a grid, with several impressive altars nestled in different chapels.
When I entered, mass was being held in one of these, the Chapel of the Virgin. The priest stood before a statue of Mary, as she is carried up to heaven on a cloud, surrounded by a halo of golden sunlight. Along with El Transparente in the Cathedral of Toledo, this whole chapel, by Ventura Rodríguez, is one of the masterpieces of Spanish Baroque, clearly bearing the influence of Bernini.
The insides of the cupolas are decorated with colorful frescos showing scenes of heaven. A young Francisco de Goya was one of the painters who worked on these, though to my ignorant eyes his fresco does not have any of the distinctive marks of his later style. Among this embarrassment of riches, my favorite work was the main altarpiece, a colossal and stunningly intricate carving in alabaster. It is this altar that holds the legendary statue of the Virgin. My mind boggles as I contemplate the amount of time it would take to carve something so big and so finely detailed. One would think a lifetime would be needed for such a task; but the sculptor Damián Forment did it in just six years, from 1512 to 1518, mixing late Gothic and early Renaissance elements in the style.
My next stop was Zaragoza’s cathedral, La Seo. Its real name is the Catedral del Salvador, but it is commonly call “La Seo” (Spanish for “Episcopal see”) to differentiate it from El Pilar. Somewhat unusually, Zaragoza doesn’t have one cathedral; instead El Pilar and La Seo share co-cathedral status.
From the outside La Seo is nothing compared with El Pilar. Indeed for a cathedral it is quite diminutive and inconspicuous. This is not to say that it is unattractive. The main entrance is, admittedly, adorned with a somewhat bland neoclassical façade; but the campanile is really lovely, an elegant Baroque structure whose tan outline cleaved the foggy sky. I particularly liked the floating angels who hold up the central clock. On the other side of the building you will be surprised to find a mudéjar exterior, complete with geometrical patterns and six-pointed stars. About one thousand years ago, a mosque occupied this spot; and the influence of the Moors can be seen still.
This stylistic jumble is a foretaste of what the visitor encounters on the interior. I still feel bitter that I was prevented from taking photos—I don’t know why some monuments prohibit them and others do not—since the chapels in La Seo are some of the most ornate and stunning that I have ever laid eyes upon.
Every chapel is in a world unto itself. Each one is executed in a different style. On the pillars and walls surrounding some were friezes of almost nauseating detail, full of vegetable patterns and gruesome figures, bodies and vines woven around one another in an intricate tapestry (this is called Churrigueresque). Not every chapel was so lavish; other were neat, orderly, and harmonious, and no less visually pleasing. I found myself staring in wonderment, spending a long time at each chapel, doing my best to disentangle the layers of images and commit the chapels to memory.
Considering that the visitor can find examples of so many different styles—Romanesque, Gothic, Mudéjar, Baroque, Churrigueresque, Plateresque, Aragonese Renaissance, and Neoclassical—La Seo is a veritable history of Spanish architecture in miniature. Its interior is just as impressive as the exterior of El Pilar.
My last stop was the Aljafería. This is the Alhambra of the north, a fortified castle that contains a Moorish interior. From the outside it is an imposing military edifice, complete with a moat (empty of water) and high walls. Though impressively massive, there is little to distinguish these walls, in my eyes, from other castles I’ve seen, except for a few horseshoe arches.
But this is far from true of the interior of the palace. Here you will find the greatest example of architecture from the Taifa period of Moorish Spain. This was the period after the fall of the Caliphate in Córdoba (1031), when power in the peninsula was highly decentralized, divided into many small “Taifa” kingdoms. The palace within the walls was mostly constructed between 1065 and 1081, under the auspices of Abú Yafar Al-Muqtadir.
This palace is the most magnificent example from this period in Spain’s history, and each room merits deep study. Unfortunately my ignorance only allowed me to gape with admiration as I walked through, appreciating much but understanding little.
One thing I did notice was that most of the arches were not the typical horseshoe shape I had come to associate with Moorish architecture. Instead, they are pointed arches, with a series of miniature arcs that provide ornamentation. (I believe the technical name is “mixtilinear arch.”) As is typical in Moorish and Mudéjar architecture, intricate stucco-work decorated the walls with fancy geometrical patterns and exotic arabesques; and the ceilings are the elaborate wooden type I have seen in many buildings across Spain. All of these features can be seen in the Golden Hall, the former throne room. Also characteristic was the garden courtyard, a cool interior space adorned with symmetrically arranged plants: this is the Patio de Santa Isabel, named after Isabel, canonized queen of Portugal (1282 – 1325), who was born in the Aljafería.
After inspecting this lovely space, I ascended some stairs and found myself in an entirely different world. This is the adjoining palace of Peter IV of Aragon, a Christian king of the 14th century. (Christians had conquered Zaragoza in 1118.) Though aesthetically quite different—closed spaces as opposed to open-air, for one thing—this palace is quite as lovely as the original, mixing Gothic and Mudéjar styles into a distinctly Spanish combination. The most impressive room is, as usual, the throne room, which is covered with a brilliant coffered ceiling—complete with six-pointed stars and hanging golden pine cones. This is a style of decoration called artesonado, heavily influenced by Moorish precedent and employed in many buildings in Spain.
As you can see, the Aljafería has served as the seat of power for Muslim and Christian rulers alike. And it continues that function today, as the home of the Cortes of Aragón, the province’s regional government. Considering the huge lines that often attend visiting the famous Moorish monuments of the south—the Alhambra, the Alcázar, the Mezquita—I would say that the Aljafería is well worth your time, since there was no line at all.
Now it was lunch time, and I’m afraid my story takes on a farcical tone at this point. I was feeling somewhat lonely, and what’s more I wanted to treat myself, since it was my first trip of the school year. So I went to Zaragoza’s famous eating neighborhood, a street called El Tubo, and found a mall that had an Arrocería (a paella restaurant). I ordered myself paella and some patatas bravas—fried potatoes covered in a mild sauce. But I found that this was far more food than I anticipated. The quantity of potatoes was obviously meant for two people. But I was treating myself, so I decided that I would overeat and try to finish them all. Despite my typically American ability to stuff myself, I couldn’t quite do it; my stomach was full to bursting. After that, I went to get a coffee and cookies.
Uncomfortably bloated and feeling a little sick, I waddled my way to my next stop: the Museo Pablo Gargallo. I actually had no idea what this was, and only went because of its high rating on Trip Advisor—such is modern tourism. Pablo Gargallo (1881 – 1934), it turns out, was one of the greatest sculptors of twentieth century Spain; and his museum, much like the Musée Rodin in Paris, is a grand collection of his works in an attractive historical building (in this case, a former palace).
Gargallo’s style wavered between classicism and modernism, combing traditional and cubist elements. His most famous work, El Profeta, is an excellent example of this: a moving mixture of Picasso and the Old Testament. (There’s a copy of this work in the Reina Sofia.)
But I was in no mood to deeply analyze his work. I was in pain. My stomach felt like it was filled with lead. Bullets of sweat were dripping down my back. Meanwhile, I was faced with an odd assortment of grotesque statues—twisted bodies, fragmented faces, simplified expressions—and I couldn’t help feeling unnerved, as if my suffering was somehow manifest in this museum.
Finally the pain got so bad I had to sit down. I unbuckled my belt and sat back, breathing hard. I couldn’t fool myself any longer: my day was over. When the agony abated somewhat, I got to my feet and left the museum. I was going back to my Airbnb; and since I wasn’t familiar with the public transportation system, I had to walk. So, clutching my belly, I slowly made my way through the winter streets, pausing now and then to recover myself.
About ten minutes into the walk I began to gag. Stomach acid scorched my throat as I choked it down. I knew it would feel good to just empty my innards; but I was surrounded by people and mortified by the possibility of vomiting in broad daylight. The gagging came stronger, I resisted, and it came stronger still. I was determined not to throw up; my belly had the opposite idea. Finally, after a heroic effort, I forced down an eruption. Suddenly the pressure let off; I thought I was in the clear. But then without warning it all came rumbling up, and I emptied my insides all over the street, my shoes, my scarf, and my coat. I was covered in it.
I looked bad, and smelled worse. I began to walk at full speed, keeping my eyes on the ground, determined not to make eye contact with anyone on the street. I still had a ten-minute walk ahead of me. I couldn’t even handle my phone since my hands were sticky and wet. Those minutes passed like hours. My adrenaline was pumping like mad, filling me with a nervous excitement, my fight-or-flight response temporarily suppressing my embarrassment and my disgust.
Finally I got to the apartment. I rushed up the stairs, nearly fell into the bathroom, and threw all my clothes into the shower. After an hour of frantic cleaning, I went wearily to my room, dwelling on my miserable condition.
So ended my trip to Zaragoza. Despite my mishap, I was extremely impressed. The next day I was going to Zaragoza’s famous nature preserve, El Monasterio de Piedra. But that’s for another post.
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