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December 19, 2018

Spain: Zaragoza

The Ebro River reflects Zaragoza’s Cathedral-Basilica of Our Lady of the Pillar.

Located roughly halfway between Barcelona and Madrid, Spain’s top two cities in terms of tourist visits, is the metropolitan city of Zaragoza. It would be easy for travelers going between the two destinations to stop for a few nights in Zaragoza: It is on both the road and rail routes. But most tourists do not stop. Indeed, the first time we were in the area we too drove past Zaragoza. The brown tourist signs along the autovia intrigued us, but it was not enough to draw us in.

During our travels around the Mediterranean in the intervening years we kept finding mentions of Zaragoza. Zaragoza, we learned, was the historical political center of the Crown of Aragon.

Zaragoza’s central plaza

Roof tiles on the domes of Cathedral-Basilica of Our Lady of the Pillar

At its height in the 14th and 15th centuries, the Crown of Aragon was a sea power with a vast Mediterranean empire. Aragonese territory included parts of present-day eastern Spain, bits of southern France, Southern Italy, and numerous Mediterranean islands including the Balearic Islands, Sicily, Corsica, Sardinia, and Malta.

Some of this we discovered as we traveled through Sardinia, where the Aragonese Catalan influences remain this day in Alghero. Uniquely in Italy, Alghero has Catalan as its co-official language, reflecting its time under the Crown of Aragon. In Catalonia, at the Poblet Monastery, we saw burial tombs of Aragon Kings and Queens. In numerous other locales around the Med we learned more about the Crown of Aragon. In the process we became increasingly intrigued about Zaragoza, the Aragonese center of power. A visit for us to Zaragoza became inevitable, even if most tourists pass by on the way to more popular places.

The Moorish Aljafería Palace

An intricately decorated Mudéjar ceiling inside the Aljafería Palace

In the fall of 2017 we made it to Zaragoza and learned more about the city and its past.

Between 25 and 11 BC, the Roman emperor Augustus founded a city called Caesaraugusta in a location along the Erbo River once occupied by the Sedetani, a tribe of ancient Iberians. Caesaraugusta was established to settle the army veterans from the brutal Cantabrian Wars. By the 5th Century AD Roman power waned; the Goths captured Zaragoza peacefully. Centuries later in 712 the Moors captured the city. The Moorish period lasted from the 8th Century to the Reconquista in 1118 when Spanish Christians recaptured the territory.

Zaragoza retains intermittent evidence of its past. While there is little remaining to tell of the times of the Sedentani and the Visigoths, significant Roman ruins can be seen. The ruins, often below the modern street level, are scattered through the historic district. They can be a challenge to find as they are sometimes in the basement of modern buildings.

More ceiling details inside the Aljafería Palace

Remains of the Roman amphitheater can be visited.

The architectural influence of the Moors is also easy to see in Zaragoza. Built in the 11th Century, the Moorish Aljafería Palace is one of the city’s major attractions. With the fall of the Moors the castle became the residence of the Christian Kings of Aragon for centuries.

After the Reconquista Moorish influence continued in the Mudéjar architecture and decoration style. Popular in Spain’s post-Moor Christian era “Mudéjar” refers to a style rich in geometric decorative motifs that were strongly influenced by Moorish aesthetic and craftsmanship. Good examples of Mudéjar ornamentation can be seen inside Aljafería Palace, which UNESCO includes in its “Mudéjar Architecture of Aragon” UNESCO World Heritage listing.

Inside the Aljafería Palace

A modern tramway runs through the center of Zaragoza: Notice the absence of overhead wires here for the electric tram.

With the old there is the new. Zaragoza has its share of modern buildings and an ultra-modern tramway. It is a vibrant, living city with much to see and do.

So are the tourists who whiz past on the train or road making a mistake?

It depends on how much time one has. Zaragoza is a fascinating city. But there is a serious competition for tourist visits in Spain. Zaragoza doesn’t make it onto most top ten lists of tourists’ destinations in Spain not because it is not worthy but instead because there is so much else to see in the country.

A framed view of the Lonja and of the Cathedral-Basilica of Our Lady of the Pillar

The Cathedral-Basilica of Our Lady of the Pillar appears behind a modern tram stop.

But should Zaragoza’s ranking as a tourist attraction matter? Shouldn’t travel be about pausing and experiencing? True travel should not be a competition to see all of the top sights. Sometimes visiting less popular places can provide a better experience and provide a better connection to the culture. As nice as it is, tourists overwhelm Barcelona and negatively impact the quality of life for the tourists and the residents. Zaragoza isn’t nearly as touristy as Barcelona. That’s a good thing.


We stayed for four nights in Zaragoza at the beginning of November 2017.

Heading south from France to the warmer and drier southern European climate as fall turns to winter has become a yearly pattern for us. In early November the average high temps in Zaragoza are around 60˚ F (roughly 15˚ C). It does not rain much: Zaragoza averages a meager 12.7 inches of precipitation a year, significantly less than the amount of rain received in an average year in Los Angeles California. And as expected, the weather was pleasant during our visit.

The Moorish courtyard inside the inside Aljafería Palace: Notice the channels that bring water to the orange trees.

Details inside inside theAljafería Palace

Moorish arches inside Aljafería Palace

Gigi sits on Roman ruins in Zaragoza.

The central plaza at dusk

The entrance to the Caesaraugusta Forum Museum in Zaragoza: The remains of the forum are well below modern street level.

1 Comment »

  1. […] the country, particularly with the changing fall colors, is appealing. It’s a relaxing drive from Zaragoza, save the last section of twisty, difficult to navigate roads climbing up into the old town. Hill […]

    Pingback by Spain: Cuenca | Another Header — December 20, 2018 @ 4:26 am

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