From Nuevalos and the Stone monastery, we continued our journey east through Aragon, heading ultimately for Barcelona. Our next stop was the interesting and lively city of Zaragoza. It name derives from that of the founder of the Roman city that once stood here: Caesaraugusta. The Romans established their city here in the 14th century BC, along the banks of the great Ebro River and the city boasts a large number of historical sites from the Roman, Islamic and Christian eras.
Catedral-Basílica de Nuestra Señora del Pilar
We headed initially for the main square, the vast and impressive Plaza del Pilar, and stepped inside the imposing Cathedral-Basilica of Our Lady of the Pillar.
Outside, four towering spires define the corners of the building, between which sit a huge central dome and ten smaller domes, their vibrant blue, green, white and yellow tiles providing a striking contrast to the smooth stone below. Inside, it is cavernous and completely over the top, with elaborate painted ceilings and plenty of ornate baroque detailing. Apologies for the lack of photos, but none were allowed inside.
The story behind its existence is that on 2 January in the year 40AD, the Virgin Mary apparently appeared to Santiago (St. James), one of the original twelve apostles who, after Jesus’s death and resurrection, travelled to Spain to preach. She appeared before him atop a pillar, surrounded by angels and assured him that eventually the people would be converted to Christianity and their faith would be as strong as the pillar on which she stood. She gave him the pillar and a wooden symbol of herself and instructed him to build a Chapel there. Since then the pillar has had ever more elaborate chapels built around it, culminating in the enormous Basilica that stands here today. All that you can see of the pillar today is a tiny part of it, surrounded by an oval-shaped gold frame. People queue up to touch it or kiss it or just kneel before it What incredible devotion.
Once we had visited the Basilica, we crossed the nearby stone bridge over the River Ebro, from where you get the best views of the Basilica’s many domes and spires.
At the eastern end of the Plaza del Pilar is La Seo (the Cathedral of the Saviour), which stands on the site of the old Islamic mosque and before that the Roman forum. It has an interesting mix of architectural styles, including Romanesque, Baroque, Neo-Classical, Mudéjar and Gothic. One of its most striking and beautiful features is its Mudéjar-style wall of dark brickwork and colourful ceramic tiles in wonderful geometric patterns.
After that we walked through the town to seek out the Origami Museum, which sounded really interesting. Unfortunately for us it was closed for a few days whilst they changed over the exhibition, but from the video showing in the reception, it looked great.
Our final visit was to the Goya Museum. Francisco José de Goya y Lucientes (1746–1828) is regarded as the most important Spanish artist of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. We have heard his name so often on our travels around Spain and we wanted to see what all the fuss was about. Goya was born in Aragon and this museum holds a range of his work, including a significant series of prints. We probably didn’t give it the time and attention it deserved as we were all really tired at this point and ready to head back to the caravan. But the museum makes an interesting introduction to Goya and frames his work within the styles and influences of the time with paintings by artists who came before and after him.
All in all, we had found Zaragoza to be a very pleasant, clean and attractive city. Apart from the graffiti. I still can’t get used to the amount of graffiti that there is here in Spain. It covers everything from walls, doors and benches to lampposts and bins. Some people seem to try to prevent their shop front or garage doors from being targeted by having their own graffiti artwork painted and in general these don’t seem to be daubed with other slogans or words. We chatted to an artist who was doing just this, painting the wall of his friend’s shop. He was from Zaragoza but had been living in Canada and was enjoying the Spanish spring weather as he worked. To me it seems to make areas feel much rougher than they really are and often spoils beautiful monuments or public spaces. Despite all the time we have spent in Spain it still dismays me to see it.
Our intention had been to spend longer in the area and explore the countryside around the city, but unfortunately Zaragoza’s city-run campsite was possibly the worst we have stayed on during our 5 months in Spain. Not only was it dirty and unkempt with dog poo everywhere, but it felt like we were pitched in a car park and we didn’t feel particularly safe. So the following morning we packed up and headed off towards Barcelona and our last few nights in Spain.