The first thing I took note of in Zaragoza was as we were walking from the train station to our hotel and passed Caesar Augustus Square. Mark observed that the city was founded during the reign of Augustus and in fact was originally named “Caesaraugusta” which, if you say it enough times becomes “Zaragoza” or, as it was known in English for many years, Saragossa.
The city sits on the Ebro River, a favorite for crossword puzzle writers, and is today Spain’s fifth largest city. Over the centuries the Romans, Moors, and Spaniards all left their distinctive marks. We really enjoyed the city; though there was nothing explosively fabulous about it and we didn’t exactly start looking at real estate, it just had a great feel to it. There were lots of really attractive little plazas where for a couple bucks you could sit with coffee or sparkling water, read, and just watch a very pleasant life go by.
Here are some of Zaragoza’s hits and misses.
The first big site is the Basílica de Nuestra Señora del Pilar, the Basilica of our Lady of the Pilar. The story, though I’m modestly skeptical, is that soon after the crucifixion (January 2, 40 AD to be precise) the apostle James was preaching in Spain, frustrated by his lack of progress. As he was deep in prayers by the Ebro River Mary – who was still very much alive – appeared, having been carried by angels to Spain. She told James to hang in there (or something to that effect) and gave him a pillar around which he was to build a church in her honor. According to legend that very pillar is still a part of the church, purportedly the first church in all of Christendom to be dedicated to Mary.
Now, admittedly I’m a skeptic, but the church itself is stunning. The current building dates from the 17th and 18th centuries in the Baroque style, but the exterior, with its huge dome and 10 smaller tiled domes has a distinctly Byzantine feel to it. Not only is the view from street level wonderful, you can take and elevator part way up one of the towers and then climb the rest of the way for great views across the city. A site not to be missed.
Next on the list, and surprisingly close, is La Seo, the Cathedral. Why you need a second huge Catholic church almost literally a stone’s throw away from the Basilica is another of those mysteries, but there it is. On the site of what was once Zaragoza’s main mosque – itself built on the onetime site of a Roman temple – the Cathedral dates from the 12th century, though extensive changes have been made over the centuries giving it quite a mishmash of architectural styles. Along with other buildings throughout Aragon, La Seo is part of the UNESCO Mudéjar Architecture of Aragon World Heritage site.
A third major site in Zaragoza is the Aljafería Place, built originally for the region’s Islamic rulers and later converted for use by the Catholic Monarchs, Ferdinand & Isabella. Another part of UNESCO’s Mudéjar World Heritage site, it is one of the oldest and largest remaining pieces of Spanish Islamic architecture. Until not that many years ago it lay mostly in ruins but over the last several decades the building has been beautifully restored. And interestingly today, the Aragonese legislature meets in a wing of the building.
Part of the city’s attraction for me was the Ebro River. They’ve built great walking/biking/running trails along both banks of the river, just inviting you down to enjoy it. As I would follow the river eastbound just a mile-and-a-half from the center of the city, suddenly you were out in the country on a little dirt road, just a great change from urban life. Cities were built on rivers, of course, for the transportation and trade opportunities but these days I love a city that has embraced its river for more pedestrian purposes.
Another great part of the city was Parque Grande, a huge public park maybe a mile-and-a-half south of the city center. The park has everything, including big fountains, long walkways, big hills and trees and just everything you could want in a park. One of the higher, more remote areas became my favorite afternoon reading spots.
As mentioned above, the city’s many plazas and squares were a big part of the joy of Zaragoza. I spent decades of my life wondering who these people were who could just sit at cafés sipping coffee, whiling away the hours, while I was always too busy. Well, now I’ve become one of them (minus the coffee) and I rather enjoy it.
Finally, the city’s Roman ruins – a theater, the remains of the Forum, public baths, and even the city’s river port – are allegedly part of the city’s attraction. Maybe I’m just spoiled but the ruins were really modest. As Mark put it after touring the Forum, they were the kind of ruins that make you hate touring ruins. So OK, no city is perfect.
Not perfect, no, but Zaragoza was really nice. Very pleasant. Now it’s on to Barcelona, a city we know based on plenty of experience that we will love.