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On a beautiful mid-November Saturday, my friend Lea and I headed southeast to Zaragoza, the capital of Navarra’s neighbor state of Aragon. Many of our friends had gone a few weeks earlier during the Fiesta de Pilar, but Lea had a visitor at the time and I was in Madrid, so it was just the two of us this time. As with Bilbao, we hadn’t heard glowing reviews of Zaragoza before coming. First, I was told that there wasn’t much to do there other than walk around and shop. When I confronted them with what I’d found out online – that Zaragoza has several world heritage sites and an amazing cathedral, they sighed and said, “Well, other than those, there’s not much to do.” – I guess some people can never be satisfied.

The Arabic Palace

Our first stop on arrival was la Aljafaria – Arabic for the House of Jaffar (a bit funny for those who grew up watching Disney’s Aladdin.) The palace is more than a thousand years old and is perhaps the best example of Islamic architecture from the period of the independent kingdoms in Spain, and is the only such building outside of Andalucia in the far south of Spain. Although it was altered several times – from Arabic palace to the royal residence of Catholic kings to a military base and even a hospital, it preserves much of the intricate Muslim decoration I hadn’t hoped to find so far north. The building seems to be all graceful arches, impossibly complex stone carvings and the play of sun and shadows. In keeping with it’s multi-purpose past, today the Aljafaria is not only a popular tourist destination, it also houses Aragon’s regional parliament.

Next, we took a walk through the streets of Zaragoza, where the first Christmas decorations had already been put  up. We wandered in vague search of some Asian cuisine, but somehow found ourselves at a pintxos bar instead – apparently Zaragoza is almost as well known for this close cousin to tapas as Pamplona and the Basque Country. Between the two of us, we managed to consume a total of 16 different pintxos, most of them quite tasty, although perhaps a bit heavy on mashed potatoes.

The Two Cathedrals

After lunch we made for the epicenter of Zaragoza’s attractions, the Plaza de Nuestra Señora del Pilar. As Mary is considered the patron saint of Spain, as well as all Hispanic people, a reflecting pool and a fountain on the western side combine to form a mirror like map of the Americas from Mexico down to Argentina – this is the Fuente de Hispanidad, or the Fountain of Hispanic Identity. The rest of the plaza is mostly empty, with plenty of room for the striking shadows of the churches that surround it on three sides. Two of these are cathedrals – la Seo, and the famous Basilica.

The Basilica is a huge building that dominates the view of Zaragoza for kilometers along the river. It is built in the Arab-influenced Mudejar style and includes brightly coloured domes. Inside, the ceilings are covered with frescoes by Francisco Goya, and you can see the pillar and image of Mary that she was said to give to St. James during her only apparition prior to her death. Equally miraculous is the church’s survival through the Spanish civil war – three bombs were dropped on it, but none of them exploded, and the basilica stands to this day.

Afternoon Wanderings

With Zaragoza’s most mandatory sites out of the way, both Lea and I had something in the area that sparked our curiosity. Lea wanted to see the sight of the Expo 2008, which was hosted by Zaragoza, while I wanted to hop a bus to neighboring Utebo to see another element of the Mudejar World Heritage Site, a lovely tower. We headed to the Expo first, as the sun was sinking fast and we needed light to see the old water park. The site of the Expo is in some disrepair, and looks like it hasn’t been touched since the day the party ended. Still, I didn’t regret the leisurely walk along the banks of the river to get there. Zaragoza may be the fifth most populous city in Spain, but it still didn’t feel too metropolitan – we passed a group of men fishing under the shadow of the cathedral, for example, and the lawns around the Expo are now a sort of park, where a few families were walking or picnicking. A piece of interpretive art nearby played strange music from some underwater world – remixed whale calls and flowing water, and we spent half an hour listening to it while lying on our backs looking up at the late afternoon sky.

We had just enough time before our bus ride home to get over to Utebo to see my tower. It was as beautiful as I had imagined, and I was happy to get to see it. There wasn’t much else to do in Utebo, though, so it might not be worth the effort to everyone. On the way back through, we stopped at a greasy little stand where I had the best churros of my time in Spain so far – a sweet end to a lovely day.

Published in: on November 23, 2010 at 21:15  Leave a Comment  
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