Travel inspiration and insider tips

6 years, 6 months ago

A Seasonal Look at Zaragoza

Autumn’s a travel season unto itself. It’s also a time for bargains, sightseeing (you know, that thing you can’t do during the summer because everyone else had the same idea) and unsung heroes. Breaking from tradition this year, we’re walking away from the ‘late sunshine’ sell and we’re not going to give you some old chat about loving Paris in the fall – rainy season – no, this year we’re heading for Spain’s ‘Kingdom of Aragon’ and Zaragoza, a city less famous than its flashier cousins but no less monumental, mysterious, romantic and pretty wonderful in Autumn.

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We were sold at ‘Kingdom of Aragon’ to be honest, but if you need further persuasion, here’s our brief guide to its capital. Zaragoza’s one of Spain’s pilgrimage cities and we think it’s the perfect place to re-group and breathe before you fall foul of the siren call of Christmas Shopping Trips (NB. selfies from the top of Rockefeller Plaza are not welcome gifts come December 25th).

Under 3 hours from Barcelona to the east and Madrid to the west, Zaragoza is built on the banks of the wide and beautiful, many bridged River Ebro. The city has the Romans to thank for the origins of its name, corrupted next by the Moors and finally settling down to its current form after a few homegrown Spanish skirmishes, a brush with the Inquisition and a Napoleonic siege or two. Much as we frown on invasion as a general rule, we have to admit a huge debt of gratitude to the acquisitive ancients who set their sights on Zaragoza, because the city’s art, architecture, monuments, plazas and even ruins are definitely a legacy worth losing a few fights for.

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To get one of the best perspectives on Zaragoza make your first stop the Puente del Pilar. The bridge spans the River Ebro and gives you an incomparable sense of the grace and serenity of the city built along its length. The skyline’s punctuated by towers and domes and palaces but, stunning as they are, they pale beside Zaragoza’s magnificent Basilica Nuestra Señora del Pilar. With its ten, tiled domes, minaret style towers and vast central cupola, Nuestra Señora del Pilar is one of the most important monuments in Aragon and one of Spain’s loveliest cathedrals. Late afternoon in Autumn, the light on the river is wonderful, the cathedral looks almost ethereal from the outside and the interior is quiet, peaceful and free of crowds.

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Truth is, all over Zaragoza, all autumn, you can be a shameless tourist for days on end. Because although the city’s lively with the people who live and work there, it’s often overlooked by visitors in favour of the coast or the cities of the south like Granada and Seville. Must-see places include: La Seo Cathedral; Plaza del Pilar (grandest of squares but lots of birds, really, lots of birds); Castillo de la Alijaferia; Plaza de Toros (amazing flea market here every Sunday); the gorgeous Patio Infanta for Moorish architecture and the Goyas; the strangely enthralling Museo de Tapices (yes, a tapestry museum); Santa Maria Magdalena for its insanely intricate tower; and, not to leave out the Romans, the beautifully restored and slightly eery Museo del Teatro de Caesaraugusta.

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Famous for lore, legend and mysticism, the region of Aragon is markedly less fey when it comes to eating. The best food is earthy and hearty and dishes to definitely try are: Aragonese Garlic Soup baked in the oven with tomato, pepper, chorizo and bread (be prepared to sleep after a bowl of this); Morcilla (savoury blood sausage with pinenuts and rice); local lamb stew; salt cod, eel and fresh trout. If you’re cooking for yourself make sure you visit Zaragoza’s Lanuza Market – gardens, orchards, small farms and specialist producers thrive all over Aragon and Lanuza is the place to pick up the freshest local ingredients.

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Since we’re talking shopping and it is Autumn – near enough to Christmas for the cold hand of consumerist fear to be gripping even the hardest heart – Zaragoza’s a great place to pick up some early presents. The shops round about Plaza de España and under the colonades of Paseo de la Independencia are smart and elegant – if you’re offered gift wrapping, say yes! Side streets are lined with specialists selling everything from buttons to antique fountain pens, gorgeous Spanish paper and local art – the buildings are worth a visit even if you aren’t buying. And the Plaza del Pilar is where to go if you’re looking for Zaragoza souvenirs of a spiritual nature.

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Spain is not a country to stint on religious festivals, and Zaragoza’s no exception. The city’s strong links to early Christianity go back to the first century and – legend has it – the appearance of the Virgin Mary to Saint James the Great. The Virgin was supposedly standing on a pillar, hence the name of the Zaragoza’s most famous cathedral, El Pilar. To celebrate this vision, Fiesta del Pilar is held in the city every year in October – another excellent reason to visit in Autumn. One of the largest Spanish fiestas, Fiesta del Pilar lasts for 7 days with parades, fireworks, concerts, feasts, parties and, of course, bullfights. Look out for Gigantes y Cabezudos (a procession of huge papier maché carnival figures through the city streets), the magnificent Ofrenda de Flores (the huge cloak made of flowers in offering to the Virgin Mary) and the general all-out-no-holds-barred party atmosphere on October 12th – the focal point of Fiesta del Pilar, held on Columbus Day, a national holiday all over Spain. This year’s Fiesta runs from October 5th to October 13th 2013.

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Zaragoza’s worth visiting any time of year, but for a first time look-see at this beautiful Spanish city we recommend Autumn with one proviso: if you really want to avoid crowds don’t go during the Fiesta del Pilar – but if crowds don’t bother you, definitely do, it’s spectacular.



Featured image by Anvica.

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