Ave Imperator! Insha'alla! Ave Maria!


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Europe » Spain » Aragon » Zaragoza
October 25th 2011
Published: October 26th 2011
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A triplet of historically appropriate greetings from the next stop on our travels – Zaragoza, the capital of the province of Aragon. And what a surprising little gem this place is. While not likely to replace a number of Spain's tourist hotspots, Zaragoza is a quiet achiever, and we have had little difficulty occupying ourselves during our five days here, albeit we have not been going at it at a cracking pace either; like the town we have been quietly achieving. Within our first 15 minutes here we were introduced to the main elements that define Zaragoza – from our arrival at the huge Delicias transport intermodal (aptly described in the guidebooks as “Space age but sterile”), our taxi ride past the Aljaferia castle – the northern stronghold of the muslim empire built before the Alhambra in Granada – around a section of the original roman walls and a statue of Caesar Augusta (whose name was given to the original roman town here, and which subsequently morphed into the name Zaragoza) that are just at the foot of the street in which our hotel is located, and our initial excursion out from our hotel with a 3 minute walk to the
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The real deal - a glass and iron framed market
massive Plaza del Pilar with its Cathedral del Seo and Basilica del Pilar. Roman, Muslim, Christian and Contemporary all in one neat package.

One of the first things that strikes me about Zaragoza is how very spanish it feels, which seems an odd thing to say, and even more difficult for me to define. Perhaps this is purely a consequence of us having just come from the basque country where there is such a layering of cultures and language – basque, spanish and a solid dash of french given its proximity to the border (we met a young french/australian couple there who had driven across the border for some lunch and shopping) – or the contrast between Zaragoza and the cosmopolitan mix of Madrid, although I feel that there is something more fundamental at work here. Perhaps it is that despite the number of shops around the Plaza del Pilar selling souvenirs (which primarily revolve around Nuestra Senora del Pilar) the town is primarily a place where people go about their daily business of living, with tourism a secondary aspect. The town has a fabulous municipal market right in the centre of the old town (just next to he
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Plaza del Pilar shines by night as well as day
roman walls near our hotel), a proper iron and glass market with the full range of vendors, and multiple vendors of the similar items that keep the competition pretty hot, and matrons with their Rollser shopping trolleys who ensure that you keep your wits about you or suffer consequent serious ankle damage. In the evenings it has a very clear time for paseo in the Plaza del Pilar, Calle Alfonso and the surrounding tangle of alleyways and streets that run off them. And the town has a more gentle rhythm about it that suits its provincial (and I don't use this in a negative sense) status. There is also a certain pragmatism among the residents here too which is evident even in the simple things like the way a beer is poured in a bar. In Madrid and San Sebastian a beer is pulled and then there is a lot of fancy fluffing about to put a large frothy head on it, even if this means running the glass over by a substantial amount (what a waste). In Zaragoza (and Bilbao too for that matter) beers are pulled pretty much exact, right amount of head, no messing around, no further
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CaesarAugusta's roman theatre rediscovered in the 1970's
fuss, and certainly no waste; it is the zen of beer. In cafes and bars voices aren't raised even when there is a crush of people in them, and there is certainly a strong respect and pride for the fruits of the land here – meat, game, vegetables and fruit, plus wines from the Somontano and Aragon region (although Navarra and Rioja also get an occasional look in). And at no stage during our stay here have I had cause to pull on the cranky pants in response to attitude afforded to us by the locals – this has not been the case in both Madrid and San Sebastian – however this may be more a reflection of our increasingly relaxed state than the local character, but I don't believe this to be true.

During our time here we have taken the time to delve deeper into the layers of time that we experienced during our initial 15 minute introduction to the city. Our first day we opt to start with a Christian aspect, visiting the Le Seo cathedral at the bottom end of the Plaza del Pilar - an impressive building with a variety of architectural styles in
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Muslim era gem that became a model for Granada and Sevilla
its body proper and in its multiplicity of chapels. It is in excellent condition and very well lit with natural light so that it avoids the funerial gloom of some cathedrals. It also has a tapestry museum which has some excellent examples of flemish tapestries from the 15th century onwards. The next day is a day for things roman – some extensive excavations and interpretations of a substantial forum, baths, a port area connecting the vital trade artery of the Ebro river with the town, and a roman theatre; the original CaesarAugusta was a clearly a strategic stronghold in roman Hispania. A number of them were not uncovered until the 1970's, which has the advantage of their restoration being undertaken in a high quality fashion. Interestingly, despite two millenia since the departure of the romans the streets in the older section of the town still bear the curving influence of the original roman theatre, a theatre that could seat an audience of 6000. This persistence is amazing given the ravages of time since the roman occupation, with this particular area becoming part of the muslim quarter, then the jewish sector, and also a general dumping ground and infill area during
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Dianne discovers that bull flesh at Bar Victorinos is not only confined to the tapas on the counter top
the christian reconquest and more contemporary growth periods. It was discovered during excavations for a 1970's car park.

For the sake of completeness and balance it is then a day for the muslim era that has left a definite stamp upon the town. The Aljaferia is a stunning piece of mudejar architecture that was only preceded by Cordoba's mezquita; it was apparently a model for buildings in both Granada and Sevilla, and certainly (like a number of aspects of Zaragoza) while not as grand or extensive as other individual examples in Spain, the quality and representativeness is excellent (that quiet achievement again). And of course grafted on to it is a reconquest christian palace, built by the catholic monarchs Ferdinand and Isabelle as an acknowledgment of the aesthetic quality of the muslim palace, and a clear statement of christian supremacy. Am I sensing a theme that is still playing out globally (and taking lives) today? And the muslim influence lives on in the local cuisine, where at a tapas bar called Los Victorinos (the name of one the local fighting bull breeders especially known for their fierceness; we discover that the fighting bull breeders association was originally formalised here
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Street art in the El Tubo area
in Zaragoza) with bulls heads and bandilleras above us, we sample mixtures of traditional meats (solomillo, quail and morcilla) mixed with fruits and spices that suggest tajines and other exotic arabic dishes. A delicious fusion.

And we complete our time here with a visit to the first lady of this city – Nuestra Senora del Pilar. It was her feast day (or rather week) here two weeks ago and the town still bears vestiges of this including billboards for a coca cola and cinzano mix (a Chizposa!) wishing the La Senora well on her feast – a mix of religion and commercialism is always a delicious cocktail. The story goes that the Virgin swung by Zarogoza (from Jerusalem – as you do) in 40 AD to give Santiago a bit of a morale boost with his conversion of the locals, and brought a marble pillar with her to help build the church – an interesting version of BYO. The 'Pilar' remains today in the church and on it stands a richly bejewelled image of the Senora of the pillar. And in one of those ironic twists of fate and legend, it was Santiago who appeared as Santiago Matamoros (the moor slayer) to the christian commander prior to the battle of Clavijo, the encounter that was the key turning point in the christian reconquest of Spain, including the fall of Zaragoza as the northern stronghold of the moorish Spain.

But before we close this post it is important for us to talk a little about the contemporary aspects of Zaragoza. There is certainly a sense that the International Expo here in 2008 gave quite a boost to the town, and its legacy still resonates with exposition centres and business parks, fine fountains (the expo theme was water) and street sculptures dotted around the town, and development still continuing apace, including the building of a tramway system that has turned a number of the main streets in town into construction zones and had our taxi driver ranting as he made multiple detours to get us to our hotel. The two local heroes here on the arts scene are Goya – his birthplace is 40 kilometres out of town – and 20th century sculptor Pablo Gargallo, a number of whose works including his famous Gran Profeta, are housed in a delightful palacio museum in the centre of town. There is also a less august but no less interesting street art movement here, associated I'm guessing with a vibrant university life here. The university's students gather in the El Tubo sector at places like Bar Texas, Vinos Nicolas, and some very edgy looking cabaret venues (think gothic make up plus cross dressing in traditional aragonese costumes and playing a piano accordion).

And so it is that we prepare to leave Zaragoza, which for many is merely a mid-point stop on the train or bus journey between Barcelona and Madrid, but for us turned out to be quite the surprising and rewarding stop. Our next destination is Madrid, a return to our starting point here in Spain and a short prelude to our return to our original starting point in Sydney, which will happen all too soon. Until our next post, we send our warmest wishes to you all.

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27th October 2011

What a gem. And the town sounds like a find too!
Wonderful blog Peter. Hope your writing talents find other outlets, very engaging, had me recalling the smell of spanish dust in Cordoba, Regards Julies bloke David

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