Spain´s fifth largest city, Zaragoza, is just a 90-minute train ride from Barcelona. The city has been part of an ongoing joke from business school. On the first day of classes, we had a case about a company based in Zaragoza. The professor asked if anyone was from the city and Tetsuya, a Japanese student, said yes. And thus, the legend of Tetsuya from Zaragoza was born.
Zaragoza has an incredible history. It was founded by the Romans on top of an ancient Iberian city on the Ebro River. In the Middle Ages, the city became the capital of an independent Islamic kingdom. It was then the capital of the Kingdom of Aragon, which controlled most of northeastern Spain including the Balearic Islands and parts of France. The modern Catalan language (plus a few other languages) can trace its history back to the kingdom of Aragon.
Aragon merged with Castille in the famous marriage of Ferdinand and Isabella in the late 1400´s. Since then, it has been part of Spain, albeit with numerous wars along the way.
Nowadays, Zaragoza is the capital of the autonomous community of Aragon.
Having been trying to visit this city for quite some time, I finally pulled the trigger to go on June 13, 2021.
June 13, 2021: Zaragoza
My Madrid-bound AVE train left Barcelona´s Sants station at 8:00 in the morning. I reached Zaragoza´s Delicias Station at 9:30. The train ride was super easy.
Unfortunately, the station is a 40-minute walk from the city center. Taxis are expensive so I decided to take the public bus, which took 20 minutes.
Once in the city center, I had to hurry because I had a tight schedule. The city´s famous churches were only open from 10-12, I pre-booked a tour of the UNESCO-listed Aljaferia Palace at 12:30 and everything in the city closed for the day at 14:00.
My first stop was the city´s main attraction, the Bascilica de Nuestra Señora de Pilar. This is considered one of the most important churches in all of Spain. The basilica itself looks like a mosque with its soaring domes and minaret-like pillars.
Legends state that in the year 40 AD, St. James was preaching in Spain when Mary appeared, gave him a pillar of jasper and told him to build a church. James built the small church in honor of Mary, the first of its kind in the world. The original church burned down and so did many subsequent churches. The current church is the 4th version and was built in 1681. It is considered the co-cathedral of Zaragoza.
The pillar is still there.
The feast of Our Lady of the Pilar is October 12, which happens to be the day that Columbus first landed in the New World. For this reason, this church is tied to the New World. Every Latin American country has donated money to adorning the church and Pope John Paul II declared the church the Mother of the Hispanic Peoples. October 12 is now known as Spain´s National Day (since it is the day Spain became a world power). Therefore, this church is considered a huge symbol of Spanish national pride.
It is possible to take an elevator to the top of the towers, but due to COVID the capacity was restricted, and the next available time did not work for me.
Next to the basilica is Zaragoza´s other co-cathedral, a Gothic-Mudejar church now known as La Seo (Aragonese for see).
The interior of the church is unmistakably Gothic but with ornate Baroque chapels surrounding it. The exterior is Mudejar or Muslim-style. The church is beautiful and has an incredible medieval tapestry collection.
Next, I headed halfway back towards the train station to reach the Aljaferia. This ancient Islamic castle is considered the best example of Mudejar architecture outside of Andalusia. Today, the palace is home to the parliament of Aragon.
The building is very popular and due to COVID, advanced reservations were necessary. Luckily, I booked my entry a few days ahead. Entry is €1.
The inside of the Aljaferia looks like a mini Real Alcazar. The architecture is unmistakably Moorish, but many of the rooms are Catholic/Aragonese. The highlight of the historic part of the palace is the throne room of the Crown of Aragon.
The Parliament operates in an ugly yet unoffensive modern building wedged in the middle of the historic palace. The parliament chamber can be visited. You can even touch the Prime Minister´s desk!
It was now about 1pm and I had one more hour before everything closed. After a 20-minute jog into the city center, I was able to visit the Goya Museum. This museum is named for Zaragoza´s most famous son and one of Spain´s most famous artists: Francisco Goya. Goya lived in the 1700´s and early 1800´s. Originally a court painter, he eventually became disillusioned by politics and fled to France. Many of his early painting are of royals, but his late paintings are about the horrors of war including his famous Black Paintings which are held in Madrid´s Prado.
The Goya Museum has three floors. The first floor contains works before Goya.
The second floor contains one room with about a dozen Goya paintings but numerous side rooms with works by other artists from the same time. Also on this floor was a large room of over 100 Goya drawings. These drawings were the undeniable highlight of the museum.
The third floor contains works that were inspired by Goya.
It was now lunchtime and I had approximately 1 hour before I needed to head to the train station. Zaragoza´s famed tapas district is called El Tubo. I decided to do a little tapa crawl there.
My first stop was a new fancy/chic place where I ate a fried poached egg and ceviche and drank a radler.
My second stop was a simple one-dish restaurant. The one dish is a piece of bread topped with 3 large grilled mushrooms topped with a grilled shrimp. Weirdly enough, I went to a restaurant in Logroño, La Rioja that also served just this one dish.
My final stop was a 100+ year old wine shop. There, I had an okay salmon tapa. For dessert, I ate the most famous tapa in Zaragoza: bread topped with an anchovy, chocolate, cheese, and jam. It was the most disgusting thing I have ever eaten in my life.
Full and tipsy, I then jogged my way back to the train station to head to Barcelona.
Zaragoza is fantastic and is severely underrated. The city is beautiful, foreigner-free and full of life. There are so many museums and churches to see in Zaragoza. I also really enjoyed the food (albeit that one weird dish).
My recommendation for Zaragoza is to spend and entire day and the night. That is because there is too much to see in the 10-14 time window when everything is open. BUT, many museums reopen from 17-20. So, if you stay the night, you can see everything and get two great meals.
The big things I missed were the Roman ruins (multiple sites), the main art museum, and a large park north of the Ebro River.
There is not much to see in the immediate vicinity of Zaragoza, but the Pyrenees Mountains in northern Aragon are some of Spain´s best natural scenery.