Zaragoza Trip Report
Zaragoza is the 5th largest city in Spain and is located in the province of Aragon, between Madrid and Barcelona. We always wanted to go there , so we went. Zaragoza seems to be off the beaten path and the connections by air with Malaga are not very frequent, so it was difficult to plan a trip. The city is not the center of massive tourism, like Malaga. When we got there, I noticed that the airport was small and the terminal was old, and needing much more space for visitors. Zaragoza is going to host an expo in 2008, and 10 million visitors are expected. I was told that a new airport is being built now for this expected crowd. There will be at least 80 countries represented in the expo, and the purpose of the expo is to tell the world that Zaragoza exists.
I found a very good hotel, the Melia Zaragoza (a 5 star hotel) at a very reasonable price, and the location downtown was excellent, within walking distance to almost everything important to see. The room was big and modern and the bed sheets were changed everyday. They had a breakfast buffet which was very good. The people working in the hotel were very friendly and professional, so we were very pleased in choosing this hotel.
The first day we were there, my wife Margarita talked to a policeman guarding a government building and asked him to recommend a good restaurant to eat. He told us about “El Verrugon” and how to get there. The coincidence is that the restaurant was located behind our hotel. The name of the restaurant means a man who has a wart, and apparently there are masks made of this man to scare children. The restaurant was clean, with white table cloths. They had a menu of the day for 9.50€ only. There were 16 selections for the first plate and 16 for the second and the menu included dessert and a drink. I chose paella for my first plate and grilled salmon for the second. I also asked for white wine, and they brought me a whole bottle.
The paella was impressive, with expensive seafood and chicken, and I devoured this completely. My salmon came and it was also delicious. For dessert I chose a peach stewed in red wine, and this was out of the world! The wine sauce was incredibly good. For the quality of the meal, I would have had to pay about 40€ in another restaurant. We were delighted to find this restaurant and we went there everyday. On weekends the price goes up to 15€. The selections on the menu changed everyday and the most exquisite dishes in the Spanish repertoire could be found there, some of them being very labor intensive. Needless to say, the restaurant filled up everyday, because the price was amazingly low for the quality. I would have to say that we had some of our best meals in Spain in this restaurant. The only negative thing I have to say about this place is that our waiter never smiled and he seemed to have personal problems and was cranky.
There are no roses without thorns!
All the other people we met in the city were kind and the educational level seems to be higher here than in other Spanish cities. All the taxi drivers were well informed (they have to take a course given by the tourism department), and they always tried to save us money. The biggest fare we paid was 4€. They would ask us if they could drop us across the street from our destination, so that they would not have to take a longer course to leave us at the door of our destination, and this way we would save a few pennies! This was incredible, because taxi drivers in most parts of the world like to give you the longest route, since as a tourist you really do not know the city and cannot complain. Here they all tried to save us money! Really incredible! Things like this make you think that the human race is worth saving!
Also the people working at tourist sites know all the history about the places they work in and are very happy to explain to you what they know. This includes the security guards too. This also impressed me. In other parts of Spain, the job of these people is only a job for them and they know NOTHING about the building or the art work, and are not in the least interested to know anything. So they are bored and use their time to chat on their cell phones, and they may even give you a frown if you attempt to ask them anything and disrupt their conversation on the cell phone.
Augustus Caesar founded Zaragoza in 24 BC and is the only city that has his name, which at that time was called Caesaraugusta. The first residents were the legions of Caesar who fought with him in the Cantabrian wars. The city grew and became very important, with 30,000 inhabitants, and they had baths, running water in houses, sewers, a theater, temples, a port, and a forum. The city is beside the Ebro, one of the largest rivers in Spain.
Later the Visigoths took over and stayed here for 300 years. The Moors invaded the city in 714 and renamed it Saraqusta. One of their kings built a beautiful palace in the 11th century, called the Aljaferia. King Alfonso I of Aragon reconquered the city for the Christians in 1118 and the mosque became the cathedral. The city prospered and became the 4th largest city in Spain.
During the time of Napoleon, French troops besieged the city twice, and destroyed a large part of the city in house to house fighting, because the people did not want to belong to France.
Today Zaragoza is a modern city and the surrounding area has a lot of industry. There is a large Opel manufacturing plant, a large military school, so the city is quite affluent. The city is between Madrid and Barcelona, between Bilbao and Valencia, and France is only 250 kilometers away, so the location is very good for industry. Since Zaragoza was the seat of the kings of Aragon, there are many historic and beautiful buildings located here.
The Basilica del Pilar
The church is one of the biggest and most important in Spain. The story is that there is a pillar in the church and the Virgin is said to have descended from heaven onto the pillar in an apparition to St. James the Apostle. The church was built in the late 17th century. There are large corner towers and a central dome surrounded by ten brightly tiled cupolas.
There is a small statue of the Virgin, about 1 foot tall, on the pillar, and this is located in a small chapel at the back of the church. Thousands of pilgrims go to the back of the statue to touch the pillar. Pilgrims go here because it is said that the Virgin has caused a lot of miracles here. The statue of the virgin is adorned with many different capes, depending on the occasion.
There is a small museum where you can see some of the jewelry donated by people asking the Virgin for help. This is quite interesting, because you can see how jewelry has progressed from the 16th century to today. There are a lot of small crowns filled with jewels, donated by kings and queens, and prominent citizens. Today’s donations include many large and beautiful diamonds. I am surprised that no robbers have attempted to steal these jewels, because there is only one old guard there. In movies there would be a caper to steal the jewels.
Outside the church there is a huge plaza filled with beautiful fountains (many with modern themes) and beautiful sculpture. There are many flowers and it is a beautiful place to walk.
La Seo Cathedral
Beside the basilica is the cathedral, which has recently been restored. While the basilica is impressive, the cathedral is even more impressive. The church is huge and everything inside is white. The church was built in 1316 and the style is Gothic-Mudejar. There are additions in Baroque and Plateresque styles. The high altarpiece or retable, is in gold and was done by the German Renaissance sculptor Hans of Swabia, and this is really impressive. They play very relaxing Gregorian music all the time in the church, and the music keeps visitors quiet.
All over the church there are lighted panels that explain every feature of an altar or sculpture,
giving its history and importance in the art world. This explanation is very useful for the tourist, and
one learns a lot this way. Besides that, the church is filled with light. Many of Aragon’s kings and queens are buried in this church. The Unesco in 2001 declared the church as a World Heritage site. This church is a joy to visit.
The Moors built one of the most beautiful palaces in Zaragoza, and it is called the Aljaferia. It is a huge palace surrounded by a large moat. Today the moat is empty of water and filled with gardens and shrubs. What visitors can see is the patio built by the Moorish kings. When the Christian kings reconquered the city, they built many additions to the palace. Today the parliament of the province meets here, in modernized parts of the palace.
What is impressive of the patio are the many arches that surround the garden. The arches are scalloped and adorned with very impressive plaster work. There is a niche of the mihrab, the most important portion of the building where prayers were said. There is a very high Moorish ceiling, also beautiful. This palace predates the Alhambra palace in Granada and the Alcazar of Sevilla. Its originality probably influenced the building of those other palaces.
When we went to visit the palace, there was a large group of senior protesters outside, surrounded by police. The protesters had all sorts of sirens and noise makers with them, and they made a lot of noise to call attention. It probably never came to their minds that that infernal noise they were making was hurting their ears and making them deaf! I doubt that any of the legislators meeting inside could hear the racket.
Pablo Gargallo Museum
There is a renaissance palace, called the Argilio Palace, that houses the sculpture of Pablo Gargallo. The palace has been restored beautifully and is built around a central patio. Gargallo was one of the most important early 20th century Aragonese sculptors, and his work was influenced by Rodin and Picasso. Gargallo belonged to the avant garde at that time and worked in Paris. In my opinion, he made beautiful sculpture that is easy to understand. He sculpted bronze horses and male and female nudes. His most beautiful sculpture was art deco, a piece called Kiki de Montparnasse. This is a mask of a beautiful woman. You can see the short hairdo, one eye, half of the lips and nose, as everything else has been cut out. The bronze work has a highly reflective surface. The sculpture is very modern and the mind of the viewer fills in all the surfaces cut out.
The Forum Museum
Beneath the plaza containing the cathedral and basilica is the museum of the Roman forum. The plaza was built atop the ruins of the forum. Later excavations revealed the forum and now it is a museum. One can see the columns used in the forum, a lot of pottery dug up, and parts of the sewer. These are lead pipes with a diameter of about 9 inches. They were soldered together and they had ceramic pieces to join the pipes, which were about 3 meters long.
The museum had very good explanations about the sewers and the running water in the city, brought to the city by aqueducts. Lead pipes brought water to every house. I read recently in a book that recent excavations in Pompey show that the Romans had water meters, to measure how much water a house used, and the house was billed appropriately! The Romans were very good architects, engineers, and builders.
Another interesting explanation was about dyes used by women to color their hair. The museum shows glass and alabaster containers that had the dyes. Apparently Roman women and men appreciated blond hair, so a lot of them dyed their hair blond. However only prostitutes dyed their
hair red, so these women stood out and did not have to advertise!
Primo de Rivera Park
Not too far from downtown is the biggest park in the city, named after Primo de Rivera, a politician from the 1920s. We enjoyed the landscaped gardens, very Italian in design. At the top of a hill is a giant statue of Jaime the Conqueror, one of the kings of Aragon. Below the statue is a very impressive fountain that cascades all the way down the hill in beautiful designs, surrounded by a double staircase. At night everything is lighted.
At the bottom of the hill is a huge round fountain that leads to twin paths surrounded by landscaped gardens. There are smaller fountains all over the place. The borders of this section of the gardens are all small evergreen trees. The overall design is beautiful and magnificent. There are many benches on each side so that people can rest and enjoy the views. Rose bushes are planted everywhere, amid evergreen hedges that are manicured. This garden is really impressive and is a must see for the visitor to the city.
Palacio de Sastago
Downtown there is another renaissance palace that has been restored and is used for government offices. Inside the patio is an art gallery which changes exhibitions all the time. The renaissance building has a very impressive design.
Patio de las Infantas
Infantas are Spanish princesses. The biggest bank in Aragon is the Ibercaja and beside the El Corte Ingles store, they have a huge office tower. In one wing to the side they have the Patio de las Infantas, which is the patio of a renaissance building. The patio was dismantled from its original place and brought to France in the 19th century by a very rich Frenchman. In the 20th century, Ibercaja bought the patio and brought it back to Zaragoza and put it into the bank, in one wing. So in the very modern bank, you do not expect to see this beautiful renaissance patio. The patio is now used as an art gallery, with a permanent collection of 14 very important Goyas. Goya was a native of Aragon. One of the paintings is his self portrait.
Church of the Sacred Heart
Near the cathedral is a church that has something very original. This is the Rosario de Cristal (meaning the crystal rosary). During the religious feast of the city, they have a large procession along the main streets downtown, where they display scenes of religious buildings like the basilica, on wheeled carts. The parade floats are all made of crystal and stained glass, and are lighted from the inside. The people in the procession recite the rosary.
This church contains the floats with the exhibits of crystal and stained glass and has a show. The loudspeaker in the church explains each float and the float lights up. So you go from one float to the other and get the whole story. I was impressed by this show, which requires a lot of organization. The floats are about 10 feet long by 6 feet high. After the show we saw a short video showing the procession. The most impressive float was a copy of the basilica in crystal.
Camon Aznar Museum
Downtown is another restored renaissance palace that now belongs to the Ibercaja bank. A prominent professor named Camon Aznar donated his 800 works of art to the museum. One can find all the important Spanish artists in the collection, from El Greco to Goya. Unfortunately many of the works of art have not been restored, so they are dark and dirty. If they restored the artworks, it could be a very important collection.
Huesca is a small city about 100 kilometers north of Zaragoza. We decided to see it, using the bus, and the trip takes about an hour. Along the way you see hundreds of modern windmills, atop the ridges of the hills. Did you know that Spain leads in the design and construction of these windmills?
We reached Huesca and started climbing the tall hill where the cathedral sits. The cathedral is from the 16th century and is a mixture of all of the styles. It is small and not impressive at all, especially since it has not been restored.
Nearby is the municipal museum, housed in a renaissance building. It has part of a gothic palace in it. The museum is modern and built around a beautiful patio. The exhibits are archeological, from the first traces of man in Aragon, through the periods of the Romans, Visigoths, Moors, and Christians. Later we find the art produced by the Aragonese. All of the art work has been restored and is very impressive, and the exhibits have wonderful explanations with big lettering that is easy to read. The lighting in the museum was very good. This is probably one of the best municipal museums in Spain.
Zaragoza is a beautiful city with a sense of human scale. There are no skyscrapers in this city. Almost every street has trees and every square has trees and benches. There are many parks all over the city, filled with fountains, trees, flowers, and sculpture. You have greenery wherever you go.
One of the main avenues is the Paseo de la Independencia. It is a very wide avenue and the sidewalks are huge. On each side of the avenue there are beautiful buildings, most of them of the same height. On the ground floor of each building, there are covered arcades so that pedestrians are protected from rain or sun. There are shade trees lining the street. The best stores line this street and it is a pleasure to wander around this street.
The city is filled with churches, both historic and modern. People are more traditional here than in other parts of Spain, which I think is very good. They have not lost themselves trying to be modern.
In conclusion, I would have no problem living in Zaragoza. I think that all travelers will enjoy this city and you can see almost everything just walking, because the sights are all concentrated in the center of the city.