In the mid 90’s I spent a year in Zaragoza as an Eramus student and had one of the best years in my life. Since then, I have only been back a couple of times, last time about 17 years ago, so it was obvious to go back for a weekend now that I was in the neighborhood so to speak.
Zaragoza is Spain’s 5th largest city with over 600,000 inhabitants, and is the capital of Catalonia’s neighboring region: Aragón. There are also close historical ties between the two regions that were connected through the centuries by marriage between the two then kingdoms in what was called then: the Corona de Aragón.
The city has a long history, dating back from its founding in the year 14 by the Roman Emperor Augustus under the name: Caesaraugusta. The city started as a settlement for 3 Roman legions: VI – Victrix, X – Gémina and IV – Macedónica, veterans of the war in Cantabria. It is estimated that over 25,000 emigrated to the city. The same legions helped build the city, and due to the location by one of Spain’s largest rivers: the Ebro, it quickly became a trade hub in the Roman province.
For over 300 years, Zaragoza was an important Roman city, but with the Roman empire declining, the city was later conquered by the Visigoths. It was conquered later again by the Moors, and became the capital of that part of the Moorish empire. In 1118, in the beginning of the Christian Reconquest of the Iberian Peninsula – la Reconquista, the city was reclaimed by the Christian king Alfonso I. Thus, Zaragoza contains lots of traces of the Romans, the Moors and the Christian Middle Age.
You will find something very special in Zaragoza, but also in the rest of Aragon, especially the southern part, and that is a specific building style called “mudéjar”. The term Mudéjar originally refers to the moors who stayed in Spain after la Reconquista, and is the blend of Muslim and Christian architecture and aesthetics – for example as seen in the beautiful white and green glass decorations of the church tower of the Iglesia de la Magdalena.
Worth seeing in Zaragoza are:
- Catedral de Pilar – one of the cathedrals of the city and home to Zaragoza’s patron saint: Pilar. The legend says that it was in this place of the church that the Apostle James, on January 21 in year 40, saw the Virgin Mary descending from heaven on top of a marble column or “pilar”. James was missioning in Spain, and apparently needed a little encouragement in order to continue his work. With the virgen’s descent followed a bidding to use the “pilar” in the construction of a church. Thus a chapel was built on the site, which over time became a church culminating later in this beautiful Baroque-style cathedral. It is large, majestic and beautifully decorated, ex. Francisco Goya has decorated one of the arches. In the church you can greet the Virgen Pilar and you can stand in queue to kiss the famous “pilar”. You can also access a elevator at one of the corners of the cathedral and take the trip up in the northern tower. The trip is a bit nerve wrecking, but it’s all worth it, because you will get the most beautiful 360 degree view of Zaragoza, as well as you can see the beautiful church roof from above. The day for the Saint Pilar is October 12, which is celebrated with a week’s festivities – “Fiestas del Pilar”. It’s quite a party and definitely worth participating in!
- La Seo del Salvador – it’s very unusual for a city to have two cathedrals, but Zaragoza has two, and La Seo is the other. The cathedral was built between the 12th and 17th centuries and is therefore a mix of different styles from the Romanesque to the Baroque. Inside the church is simple, with beautiful arches and different baroque chapels. It was restored not that long ago, so it seems (almost) as new. Pay particularly attention to the outside part of the church, which is typical Mudéjar style and very beautifully decorated.
- Puente de Piedra – an older, but beautiful Gothic bridge over the Ebro, and with the lions at the end “guarding” the bridge. There has been a bridge here since the Romans, but the present one is from the 15th century – and the view of the Catedral del Pilar here is amazing.
- Aljafería – a Moorish palace, which today is also the home of the Aragonese regional government. In fact, it’s a mixture of several “palaces” – a Moorish, one from the Middle ages, one from “los Reyes Católicos” or the Catholic Monarchs who finished “la Reconquista” and a more modern part, which was a former citadel. Originally, it was built in the 11th century as a summer palace for the Moorish regent, later it was expanded by Christian kings, especially the Catholic Monarchs in the 15th century – it from that period, the very beautiful ceilings are from. Curiously, the Catholic Monarchs built a large part of their “palace” on top of the Moorish part to signal their (Christian) superiority and victory. A large part of the palace is also in mudéjar style. Aljafería is a beautiful building with a fantastic history, all within walking distance of Zaragoza’s center, definitely worth a visit!
If you like museums, you will also find some small, but fine museums in Zaragoza. They have two main focuses: the Roman Zaragoza (Caesaraugusta) or the world famous painter: Francisco Goya, born in Fuendetodos just outside Zaragoza:
- Museo de Zaragoza – a small town Museum, where you will find a fine exhibition of artifacts from Roman Zaragoza, especially the mosaics are incredibly beautiful and worth seeing. You will also find a small exhibition with pictures and some prints by Goya.
- Museo de Goya – a museum located in a beautiful building in the center of Zaragoza dedicated to Goya. It contains – besides Goya – an exhibition of art before Goya and of Goya’s associates. Are you new to Goya, that is you have not yet seen Museo del Prado in Madrid (the best and largest Goya collection), you will find here a nice introduction to Goya. Most interesting, in my opinion, are the complete sets of his amazing prints, including Los Desastres de Guerra (Disasters of War), which unfortunately still makes sense in our modern times.
- The 4 small museums that focus entirely on Roman Zaragoza. There are more important Roman ruins in Spain, including in Mérida and Tarragona, but together, and not least thanks to modern audio-visual techniques, the museums actually works quite well. It is possible to buy a ticket for all 4 museums, and if you plan a little, you can actually see them all in one morning or afternoon – but remember also to check the remains of the Roman wall and the statue of the emperor Augustus at the end of Plaza del Pilar, opposite of La Seo.
1. Museo del Teatro de Caesaraugusta – which is a beautiful Roman theater in the middle of the city. In its grandeur, there have been 6000 people here enjoying themselves. You can see the theater from the street, but it is something special to walk around in it. The covering roof marks how high and big the theater were back in the days. There is also a smaller museum in connection with the theater.
2. Museo del Puerto Fluvial – a small museum that shows the ruins of the former port that during the time was connected to the forum. An excellent video shows how sailing was done along the Ebro River and life in general at the harbor.
3. Museo de las Termas Públicas – the smallest Roman museum with ruins of what was once Zaragoza’s public bath. A nice video describes how the baths were. As a curiosity you can also see the latrines …
4. Museo del Foro de Caesaraugusta – in the ugly building on Plaza del Pilar. Here you can see the remains of Zaragoza’s forum, which was the city’s political, religious, economic and administrative center. Here you can see the ruins of shops and the sewage system, as well as an interesting collection of various artifacts that show life around the forum.
It was a pleasure to be back in Zaragoza again. It is perhaps not as flashy as many other Spanish cities, and is thus a little underestimated, but it is definitely a lovely city. At times, you will encounter some boring 70’s and 80’s architecture, but there is a beautiful center with lovely streets and squares. And most importantly: there is a nice atmosphere.
The rumors say that some of the kindest Spaniards are from Aragón, and the rumors are true. They are lovely! They enjoy life and therefore you will find plenty of bars, restaurants and clubs in the city center – for example in “El Tubo” or “El Temple”, where I spent a lot of fun hours in my student days. Zaragoza is a pleasant city and just ideal for a weekend trip – and I promise that I will be back sooner that in 17 years!
From Barcelona, you can easily reach Zaragoza by the high-speed train, AVE, from Estación de Sants, taking just 2 hours. Arrived at the station in Zaragoza, you can just as easy take a city bus to the city center.
You can read more about Zaragoza at the website of tourist office.