ZARAGOZA: PLACE OF PILGRIMAGE & HISTORY
Zaragoza lies in a desert valley beneath the foothills of the Pyrenees, about 300km West of Barcelona. This unassuming town of just under a million inhabitants is the capital of the Spanish region of Aragonia. Compared to Barcelona, Zaragoza is well and truly off the main tourist trail; few international travellers stop here, aside from pilgrims who come to visit the city’s famed Basilica de Nuestra Señora del Pilar. Boy are people missing out though! Zaragoza was small enough to enjoy on foot, but interesting enough that we were kept well entertained for the day. In just one afternoon we travelled through 2,000 years of history and crossed 3 cultures: Roman, Moorish/Islamic, and Spanish/Catholic. Along the way we saw some rather spectacular churches, a lovely Moorish palace, and even a few Roman ruins. Not a bad afternoon’s touristing really…
Leaving Barcelona this morning on one of RENFE’s* high speed AVE trains, we sped through the Catalan landscape at 250km/h, crossing into Aragonia in less than an hour. The train was super comfy and very modern – seems some of that EU money has been well spent here in Spain updating their rail system!
*RENFE, or Redda Nacional de los Ferrocarriles, is the Spanish national railway network operator. From our (admittedly limited) experiences so far they seem to be equal parts modern/efficient and disorganised/chaotic. Our first contact with RENFE was at the Barcelona Sants station the other day when we went in to book our some train seats (despite having a Global Eurail Pass we still have to book, and pay for, seat reservations on virtually all Spanish trains – what a pain!). The station was chaos and the signs confusing, contradictory, or just plain absent. We managed to work out that we needed to grab a number out of the machine and wait our turn at the “Long Distance Train Journeys – Not Today” counter. An hour later we were called up and, using our limited Spanish, proceeded to fumble through booking our seats for the next few train journeys we want to do. We were able to make SOME of the reservations, but 5 out of 8 of them we couldn’t do because there’s a series of strikes planned over the next few weeks on the days we want to travel… Oh, and one of the lines that runs across the Northern part of Spain is currently under renovation and there are no trains available for that part of the country. None at all. What the hell Spain?! Let’s just say it’s obvious we’re in Southern Europe now! Ah well, at least the actual trains are awesome…
As we travelled through Aragonia the landscape got drier and drier, and the colour of the earth shifted from red and orange, to white and yellow. It’s fascinating scenery, but seems a harsh place to live – especially considering summer temperatures around here regularly reach 40-45C.
Aragonia is the remnant of what was, in the Middle Ages, the Kingdom of Aragon. From here the King of Aragon ruled Aragonia, Valencia, Murcia, Catalonia, the Balearic Islands, Venice, the South of Italy, Sicily and some Greek colonies. Aragon was once a very powerful and influential kingdom; it was the marriage of King Ferdinand of Aragon to Queen Isabel of Castille in the 15th century that united their lands to form the Kingdom of Spain. Nowadays, Aragonia, despite its large size, has a population of only 2 million, making it largely uninhabited. The capital, Zaragoza, holds half the region’s population.
Zaragoza has existed for over 2,000 years and has survived out here in this semi-arid land thanks to the waters of the Ebro River, which flows through the town’s centre. Today the city boasts a large university, a number of factories, and numerous businesses. The end result is a big town, with a small town feel.
The city was founded along the Ebro River by the Romans around 20BC. Signs of the city’s Roman origins, when the city was named after Emperor Augustus*, are still visible around Zaragoza’s old town today. Remains of the ancient city’s Forum, Thermal Baths, and Theatre lie scattered around the old town, attesting to the importance of the city during the years of the Roman Empire.
*Zaragoza is a contraction of the name Caesare Augusta.
After the Roman Empire collapsed the city and its surrounds came under Moorish control. In 714 the Umayyad Caliphate took control of the city, bringing it under control of the Emirate of Cordoba.
Over the next 300 years Zaragoza grew to become the biggest Muslim-controlled city of Northern Spain. During the centuries of Muslin occupation Zaragoza became an important city in which art, music, and science flourished.
The Aljaferia Palace was built in the 11th century by the Moors as a base from which to rule this part of their kingdom. It’s a marvellous example of Islamic architecture and decorative art, reminding us so much of the Umayyad and Almoravid palaces we saw in Morocco.
The building is still in use today as the Aragonian regional government’s parliament, though there was no parliamentary sitting on today.
In 1118 the Aragonese conquered the city and made it the capital of the Kingdom of Aragon. A few years later they set to work building the Cathedral of Zaragoza, known today as La Seo. Dominating the eastern end of Plaza del Pilar, La Seo was built between the 12th and 17th centuries and displays a fabulous mixture of architectural styles, from Romanesque to Baroque. The cathedral stands on the site of Islamic Zaragoza’s main mosque (which in turn stood upon the temple of the Roman forum), and is both huge and magnificent in its internal decorations. We couldn’t take any photos inside, but trust us, the alabaster alter piece and internal decorations were incredible!
Zaragoza is fortunate enough to have 2 cathedrals, the other being the Basilica de Nuestra Señora del Pilar (i.e. Basilica of Our Lady of the Pillar). If La Seo was large and ornate, Our Lady of the Pillar was immense and stupendous! This Baroque church was built between 1681 and 1872 and honours the Virgin Mary. According to legend, soon after the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus, Saint James was preaching the Gospel in Spain, but was disheartened because of the failure of his mission. Tradition holds that on 2 January 40AD, while he was deep in prayer by the banks of the River Ebro, Mary appeared to him and gave him a small wooden statue of herself and a column of jasper and instructed him to build a church in her honour.
About a year after this apparition a small chapel in Mary’s honour was built on the site. This first chapel was eventually destroyed, but the statue and the pillar stayed intact under the protection of the people of Zaragoza. It is this statue and pillar that people have been coming to venerate and worship for centuries. There were many people there today, queueing up to kiss the statue (or at least the casing its held in). again, we weren’t allowed to take photos inside, but the exterior will give you an idea of how ornate this monumental building is.
Beyond these grand sights, Zaragoza is also just a nice town to stroll through. The narrow streets and open squares of its old town were lined with tapas bars and cafés, whilst its main shopping street was bustling with weekend shoppers.
It’s been a great day for us, exploring Zaragoza. We’re not here for long but can see it would be great to come back to this area with more time and a car (the public transport infrastructure outside the city is virtually nonexistent), to explore more of Aragonia. For now though we’re continuing on, bound for Spain’s Basque country!