Aragon in Spain is a land of distinctive landscapes from its snowy Pyrenean peaks and rust-coloured plains to its lush green valleys, and yet it is often overlooked by the tourist throngs. Its terrain is harsh and dramatic; its scenery breath-taking and impressive. It is remotely serene and more peaceful than the heaving Costas, whilst providing a host of activities – if you only know where to find them!
Geographically located in the North East of Spain, Aragon is made up of three provinces: Zaragoza, Huesca and Teruel. Like the landscape, the weather can be varied: freezing in winter and blistering in summer. However, there is much to see here apart from its famous mountains including medieval towns and castles and handsome Mudéjar architecture. Certainly, the influence of the Moors cannot be ignored in this region, most notably in the architecture of religious buildings and towers.
Historically the famous children of Aragon have included kings and queens – in particular, a certain Katherine of Aragon (wife to Henry VIII) whose father was Ferdinand. It was, of course, Ferdinand’s marriage to Isabella of Castile that led to the creation of a united Spain in the fifteenth century.
Going back a bit further in time and something of interest to dinosaur enthusiasts, is the geological history of Aragon where some of the oldest dinosaur remains in Europe have been found. Indeed, tere are many dinosaur footprints to be found in this region, as well as cave paintings.
A great place to take the kids is Dinopolis (a major attraction in Teruel) where you can spend a full day wandering around looking at dinosaurs! Although the films are mostly in Spanish, you can still enjoy the exhibits, and there are various rides and an amusement park included.
Zaragoza is the capital of Aragon and the famous Plaza de la Seo is monumental, not only in size but also because of the fine statuary that embellishes it. With a host of people milling around, many of them pilgrims, it is the very pulse of the city. Imposing over the square is the majestic cathedral, the Basilica de Nuestra Señora del Pilar which has an impressive eleven cupolas and four towers (best viewed from the other side of the Ebro River). It is a magnificent sight. Inside, the view is just as glorious, complete with works by Goya and Velázquez. However, if that is not to your taste, walk a little further and try La Seo, otherwise known as the Catedral del San Salvador – yes, Zaragoza has two cathedrals! La Seo is an interesting mix of many architectural styles, reflecting the changes over the centuries, complete with Flemish tapestries on display inside.
In its heyday Zaragoza was an important Roman centre and the remains of Roman walls can still be seen, as can the forum and baths. Turning the corner from the Roman walls, you can wander through the bustling food market, marvel at the low prices, and perhaps be tempted by the delicious Calanda peaches.
Not to be outshone, on the outskirts of the city is the beautiful Aljafería palace, formerly a fortified medieval Islamic palace, complete with mosque and courtyard. It was home to Spanish royalty and is now the local parliament. It has seen many changes over the years but remains a stunning reminder of Hispanic-Muslim architecture.
But to find the real rural Spain, you need to head out of the city for the mountains with one notable village being Peñarroyas, 2,000m above sea level (just follow the road for the village -until it stops!). Walking into Peñarroyas certainly feels like you are at the end of the earth, with its surging mountain peaks making as if you are in the Lost World!
If you are lucky enough to stumble upon the rather wonderful Casa Ambrosio in Peñarroyas you won’t be sorry; a sumptuous feast awaits; with delicious, inventive food that will surprise and satisfy, especially the desserts. On the day we visited, the local orchestra from neighbouring Montalbán was playing an outdoor concert, serenading as we embarked upon a quick trek into the mountains for some stunning scenery, ancient cave engravings and an old farm. There are many trails around Peñarroyas and, whilst we abandoned ours when the rain would not relent, on a clearer day the views would be amazing.
Whilst Teruel is the capital of Aragón Province, you won’t find too many tourists here and it’s a very understated place – even though it is recognised by UNESCO for its Mudéjar architecture. This is particularly evident at the cathedral and towers of San Martín and San Salvador (if you fancy a climb, head for San Martín).
The symbol for the Tereul is a tiny bull, which sits at the very top of a tall column known as El Torico, in the centre of the main square which, strangely enough is not quite square-shaped.
Teruel is the home of the thirteenth century lovers Diego Martinez and Isabella Segura. The story goes that Isabella’s father did not approve of Diego, believing him to be too poor for his beautiful daughter. However, Diego persuaded Isabella’s father to give him 5 years in which to make his fortune. After 5 years he returned a wealthy man but, on the very same day that he returned, Isabella had been forced to marry, believing that Diego had failed in his quest. Diego begged her for a kiss, she refused and poor Diego died instantly. At the funeral Isabella finally kissed him and she too fell down dead. The town was so struck by this story that they demanded the two lovers be buried next to each other, uniting them in death. As the story became famous across Spain, the bodies were exhumed and placed in the beautiful marble tombs that are still there today, sculpted by Juan de Ávalos. Every year there is a festival where the story is re-enacted and televised.
During the Easter festivals the local brotherhoods pound the streets, dressed in their long robes and drumming their hearts out. Las Tamboradas walk around beating drums in mourning for Christ. They can play for hours, until their arms ache and fingers bleed which is seen to be a sign of devotion. Many a youngster follows at their heels, clutching their own drums, keen to join in the festivities. The drumming sessions are a spectacular sight, especially when different brotherhoods meet up and all join in a mass explosion of sound.
The jewel of the crown in this region is certainly the medieval town of Albaracín, with its sweeping views and hidden courtyards, tiny shops and bars. There is plenty of character here, with the balconied houses and narrow, cobbled streets all adding to the charming medieval atmosphere of the garrison town. You can climb to see the old city gates and gain a spectacular view and, looking at the surrounding cliffs, you will see why this area is popular with climbers.
And lest we forget, the shadow of the civil war is plain to see with the village of Belchite badly damaged after the battle of that name in 1937. On Franco’s orders it was left unrepaired, as a reminder of war with the remains of damaged buildings half-standing with bullet holes clearly visible. Modern Spain has also left its imprint in this area, with its ghost train stations that were almost completed before the recent incoming government abandoned them despite the stations being almost finished. Now there is a train track going nowhere…
Let’s hope the government can get the country back on track and make sure that beautiful Aragon remains unspoilt and one of the glorious ‘secrets’ of Spain – a continuing tribute to the varied and wonderful culture of Spain!
GREAT READING ABOUT ARAGON
Vanished Kingdoms by Norman Davies
Katherine of Aragon by Julia Fox
The Maid and the Queen by Nancy Goldstone
The Last Queen by C. W. Gortner
Blood and Faith by Matthew Carr
Catherine of Aragon by Giles Tremlett
FURTHER RELEVANT INFORMATION