By Alicia A. Herrera
The cultural treasures that are Madrid, Barcelona, Sevilla, and Bilbao are usually on a traveler’s itinerary when visiting Spain. Add Aviles and Santiago de Compostella for the religious, and Ibiza for the party animals.
But spare a day to walk through the old Roman town of Zaragoza which has something to satisfy those searching for history, culture, religious significance, and, if you time your trip right, a grand (but still religious) party.
Built on the banks of the Ebro River and almost halfway between Madrid and Barcelona by train, Zaragoza is the capital of northeastern Spain’s Aragon region. Its city center reflects all its rather long history which starts during the time of the Romans.
HISTORY LESSON IN A CATHEDRAL
Founded by Agustus — who named his city Caesaraugusta — on what was a small village sometime between 25 BC and 12 BC, the city existed quite peacefully for several centuries until the Moorish conquest of the Iberian Peninsula, when it came under succeeding Muslim kingdoms for several more centuries until the Christian Reconquest. In 1118 the city was conquered by Alfonso I, and this began the Christian phase of the city’s history which continues to this day.
All of this can be seen reflected in one amazing building, the San Salvador Cathedral. It started out as a Roman structure (the first layer of stones of the outside walls — just outside the cathedral walls is a small glass structure through which one may view the excavation of a Roman temple), on which was built the main mosque (one can see geometric brick and tile decorations), and on top of that was built the Catholic cathedral, an eclectic mix of the Romanesque to the Neoclassical.
Amongst the intricate soaring interiors of the cathedral are a multiplicity of chapels which were added through the centuries. One stands out among all the stunning alabaster, marble, and gold — it is almost completely black and sepulchral. According to our guide, this chapel was kept untouched during an extensive 23-year restoration of the cathedral in the late 20th century in order to show the state of the cathedral before the clean-up began.
The cathedral also houses the Tapestry Museum, with a 63-piece collection of exceedingly rare Flemish tapestries.
San Salvador Cathedral lies at one end of an extensive open plaza that marks the center of the old city of Zaragoza, but it is not the only house of worship there. Also sharing the plaza is the much younger Basilica del Pilar (this, its latest incarnation, was built in 1681). With soaring ceilings (punctuated by a hole from a bomb during the Spanish Civil War), and a multitude of chapels lining the walls, the spiritual center of the church is the Sacred Column (or “Pilar”) of the Virgin which attracts pilgrims from around the world, including, during BusinessWorld’s visit last December, a group of Filipino nuns visiting Spain’s various religious attractions. On the column stands a 15th century image of the Virgin Mary, but it is what she stands on that is the real draw. The basilica is considered to be the very first Marian Temple in the world as the Virgin Mary is supposed to have appeared in Zaragoza to visit James (Santiago) the Apostle before she even ascended to Heaven. She is supposed to have herself brought the jasper column around which the church was built.
Anchoring the far end of the plaza is an 80-meter stretch of the Roman wall which once surrounded the old city. It is not the only Roman structure one can visit — as one strolls through the charming narrow streets of the city, one will find an old Roman theater, the remains of public thermal baths, an old port building, and a marketplace, all of which have their corresponding museums.
SHOPPING AND DINING
But not everything is Roman or religious in Zaragoza. The old town is filled with buildings ranging from 18th century houses to Renaissance palaces which now house shops, restaurants, and bars. From bridal shops, to purveyors of fine leather, to stores focusing on traditional Aragonese costumes, to tiny courtyards with trees, seats and churro stands, there is nary a stretch where one does not find a reason to tarry.
A visit to the Central Market of Zaragoza is an introduction to all the produce that one can find in the area, from rabbit to bull parts, from river fish to fresh vegetables including the borraja or borrage, a popular green in Zaragoza. A bit of interesting trivia — the Central Market occupies the same space as a 13th century market.
At the corner of one major road is Pasteleria Fantoba, a shop that specializes in, as its sign says “pasteles, helados, bombones.” Founded in 1856, the shop shows its age, with walls lined in browning old wallpaper, and the commerce watched over by statues of saints and old daguerreotypes. The only concession to modernity are the refrigerated cabinets filled with marzipan fancies, candied fruits, pastries of all forms, meringues, chocolates in the shapes of olives and sardines, and, since it was December, the traditional Spanish Christmas treat, the turron.
But before tucking into dessert, one should first have lunch at one of the many restaurants offering a world’s worth of dining options. We went to the elegant Restaurante Real, where, after a bit of wine at the light-filled bar area at the ground floor, we followed a tiny twisting stairway to the basement which instead of the coal it used to be filled with in the 16th century, had racks of wine, a modern mural on the ceiling, and elegantly laid out tables. There we indulged in a four-course meal the highlight of which was Costillar asado con patatas a lo pobre, a roast whose meat was falling off the bone. Even more interesting though was the first course, Borraja de nuestra huerta con delicias de cordero — a dish featuring borrage and an unusual cut from the neck of lamb.
OFFERING OF FLOWERS
Emerging from the basement’s low light to the bright winter sun, we walked back to the plaza which was occupied by the rides and booths of the traditional Christmas fair.
Earlier in the year, in the week of Oct. 12, the plaza is host to a very different activity. That is when the Fiestas del Pilar are held in honor of the Virgen del Pilar.
While many events are held during the fiesta, ranging from solemn masses, to shows, to the Comparsa de gigantes y cabezudos (a procession of papier mache giants and big-headed characters), the highlight is the Offering of the Flowers. Throughout the week, devotees dressed in traditional Aragonese costumes lay their flower offerings on a huge pyramidal structure at the apex of which is found the statue of the Virgin Mary.
THE OLD AND THE NEW
Away from the old city center are two areas that reflect both Zaragoza’s past and its future.
One is the Aljaferia Palace, an 11th century structure which was named a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 2001. Once an Islamic palace, this most ancient part of the building features delicate ornamentation, and beautiful interiors, and includes the famous Troubadour Tower which inspired Verdi’s opera Il Trovatore. After the Reconquest, the Aljaferia became the home of the Aragonese monarchs who through the succeeding centuries renovated, expanded, altered, and reinforced the palace fortress. Today the Aljaferia is home to the Regional Assembly of Aragon, which means that the palace is closed to the public on certain days of the week.
Across the river from the ancient palace is a zone of high modernity — this was where Expo Zaragoza was held in 2008 and it is filled with the most contemporary of architecture, from the Bridge Pavilion by Zaha Hadid, to the Convention Center of Zaragoza. Even the bridge itself is an architectural marvel, a raised cable-stayed arc which is the longest in the world.
It is near here, this confluence of history separated and joined by the river Ebro, that one takes the train that brings one to, and takes you away from, Zaragoza.
BusinessWorld visited Spain as a guest of the Spain Tourism Board, Cathay Pacific, and Classic Travelhaus. Cathay Pacific flies to Madrid from Hong Kong four times a week, with connecting flights to Manila. Starting July 1, it will also fly four times a week to Barcelona from Hong Kong. Classic Travelhaus arranges gastronomic tours of Spain in collaboration with MS Foodtrails with chef Myrna Segismundo, inspired by the Lifestyle Network TV show Fork in the Road which was hosted by Ms. Segismundo.