From Valéncia (both the city and the state) it was off to Aragon, another of Spain’s 17 “autonomous communities” or effectively states. This one, though, has special appeal based on its history. Back in 1469 when King Ferdinand II of Aragon married Queen Isabella of Castile, they united two of the ancient Spanish kingdoms to form the nucleus of what would become modern Spain.
You’ve probably heard of Ferdinand & Isabella, the royals who sponsored Christopher Columbus. Interestingly, though, they probably thought 1492 was an important year for a very different reason: it was the year they finally defeated the Moors of Granada, the last of the Moslem rulers in Spain thus completing the Christian reconquest. And if that wasn’t enough for one year it was also the year when, needing money to finance all this exploration and conquest, they expelled the Jews from Spain.It’s worth noting that Ferdinand & Isabella had some pretty important descendants as well. Their daughter Catherine – Catherine of Aragon as she was known – was Henry VIII’s first wife. You know that story. When Henry tired of her he tried to get an annulment from the Pope (she’d briefly been married to Henry’s late brother, though she claimed that marriage had never been consummated). And when that failed Henry broke from the Roman Catholic Church. Kind of a big story.
Meanwhile their grandson Charles I succeeded Ferdinand and, because he was the first king to rule Aragon and Castile in his own right (Ferdinand ruled it because of his marriage), he is often described as the first Spanish king. He also inherited the Habsburg holdings and became the Holy Roman Emperor where he was Charles V. As his holdings expanded – Naples, Sicily, Navarre, the Netherlands, much of the New World – they were the first to be described as the empire “on which the sun never sets.”
In other words, Aragon was a big deal.
The first stop was Teruel a nice little city of about 35,000 people some 90 miles northwest of Valencia. Teruel’s big claim to fame is the stunning Mudéjar architecture. What the hell is that, I wondered. Well, mudéjar is the name given to the Spanish Moslems who remained in Spain, without converting, after the reconquest. The architectural result is a beautiful blend of Spanish and Islamic artistry in many of the buildings that remain from the Middle Ages and later; collectively, the Mudéjar Architecture of Aragon is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site.
We spent two days in Teruel and I quite enjoyed it. The number of things to do there is pretty limited; the Cathedral takes 15 minutes to see, there’s a tower to climb and a small museum to enjoy. For me there were two things about Teruel that I loved: admiring the unique architecture and long walks in the country. As such a small town it was easy to get out of town quickly and just walk (or run, in the morning) along very quiet roads. At one point, looking at Google Maps I realized that the two little streams that flowed together where I was walking along was the very start of the Turia River, the river that had been rerouted down in Valencia. Down there it was a big, dangerous river but up here it was a tiny stream.
Unfortunately Mark doesn’t like long country walks as much, so he wasn’t quite as keen on Teruel as I was. I’m sure he would say that he liked it, but not as much as I did. And all that wasn’t helped when we discovered that the two restaurants we identified in TripAdvisor as the places we would like to eat were both closed on both days we were there. Terrible.
Then it was a short bus ride just 25 miles or so to the tiny town of Albarracín, population 1,100. The attraction here is mostly the town itself and the old buildings lining the meandering streets. The town exists on a steep outcrop above a valley carved out by the River Guadalaviar, with ancient walls and a tower protecting it from invasion. Well, sort of protecting it. Though Albarracín was an independent kingdom for most of the 13th century, it was eventually defeated by and incorporated into Aragon.
There’s one sort of corny, overhyped legend from the town of a rich 13th century girl who fell for a poor 13th century boy. Her father refused his request for her hand as he was poor, so he joined the military to make his fortune with a promise that she would wait five years for his return. His military career was apparently more successful than mine, since just more than five years later he returned a wealthy young man. Unfortunately her father had married her off by then and, when she refused him just one kiss, he died of a broken heart. When she went to his funeral the next day she collapsed on his coffin, kissed his corpse, and proceeded to die as well. True or not (not), the story is a big deal in Albarracín and there’s a museum and statues and all sorts of references to it around town.
Otherwise there really wasn’t much to do in Albarracín except those long country walks that I love. Most of the modest sites in town – a castle, a cathedral, a museum – require you to tour with a guide and we pretty much hate touring with guides. So we just hung out. And oddly, though there are a number of restaurants in the city, they were almost all closed the entire two days we were there. No signs indicating days or hours just … closed up tight.
The other strange thing about Albarracín was the weather. The first day was just fine but the second – holy cow. Cold and overcast. Then a cold rain. Then, just as we were heading home after lunch, a hail storm. The rest of the afternoon was bizarre. Big thunderstorms then sunshine followed by rain, more thunder, more sunshine, more rain. And on and on.
OK, four days was enough to experience small-town Aragon. Next stop Zaragoza, Aragon’s capital.