A Winter Trip to Spain Days 7 and 8: Why didn’t anyone tell me about Zaragoza?

After a disappointing lunch in Biarritz, I’m in a grumpy mood as we cross the border and head for Zaragoza, an unplanned stopover we’ve added as a result of our car woes keeping us in France for four extra nights.

En route, there is an outbreak of of navigational niggling. Tissy gets berated for not knowing that Pamplona is on the way to Zaragoza. “It’d help if you’d read the guidebook,” I observe, obviously in a spirit of constructive criticism.

The verdant and craggy-edged scenery of the Basque interior stirs fond memories of Abruzzo, the mountainous hinterland of Rome where we spent many happy weekends blithely ignoring the risk of earthquakes, which killed several hundred people during our 2014-18 stay in Italy.

As this gives way to the arid landscape of Aragon we let James, 3, choose the music and we all begin to cheer up listening and singing along to the Beat Bugs playing The Beatles.

All You Need is Love, indeed. The improving ambience is helped by Hugh being in a doubly good mood because there are only four sleeps to his 6th birthday and he has had some secret sweets while his brother was asleep.

Seeing Zaragoza for the first time, swaddled in early evening sunshine, I feel a pang of what the young people call FOMO (Fear of Missing Out).

We haven’t missed out. We’re here and it is lovely. But it was a close-run thing. But for temperamental Volvo, we could have easily whizzed past on the way to the coast. And if we could bypass Zaragoza, how many other fabulous places are we going to miss on this trip for lack of research or time?

The Basilica of Our Lady of the Pillar, in Spanish Basilica de Nuestra Señora del Pilar. One of Spain’s most important churches and a place of pilgrimage because of a belief that the Virgin Mary descended from heaven (like Fireman Sam) via the church’s centrepiece pillar in an apparition before St James the Apostle.
James, known as San Tiago, is believed to be buried at Santiago de Compostela. Having a son called James, the etymology is fascinating: From what can discern on the Interweb, the Hebrew Ya-akov became Iakobos in ancient Greek which then in turn became, in Latin, Iacobus. Then Iacomus, still in Latin. When Latin morphed into French, Iacomus was shortened into Gemmes, which is where the English James comes from. Possibly too the Scots/Irish Gaelic Seumas, which is our James’s cousin’s name. Meanwhile in Spanish, the Latin Iacomus was shortened to Iaco and then Iago, then lengthened again to Tiago, with the variant Diego (some say Diego had a different root linked to the word didactic). In French the New Testament book of James is the book of Jacques … and Jack in English (another cousin’s name), is often regarded as a derivative of John, my father’s name, so go figure.
The Mudéjar wall on Zaragoza’s Catedral de San Salvador, known as La Seo

Hughsie was quite taken with how a facade had been added to La Seo and made a little video of it. Zaragoza, with its smooth stone plazas, is a fabulous place to have a scooter.
The work of Islamic craftsmen on La Seo cathedral in Zaragoza.

‘Why didn’t I know about this/find out about this/act on this?’ is a familiar feeling to me.If only I’d bought another flat/a bigger flat in London in 1993, when I knew that the rental yield/interest rate ratio was ludicrously attractive, and we had a deposit sitting in the building society. The constant search for things to regret is hard-wired into me: it’s the product of a glass-half-empty outlook that either makes me susceptible to depression or is a product of it. It isn’t an entirely negative trait. At least where investment is concerned, regret over past mistakes is a powerful learning tool. And I’ve always managed to surround myself with glass-half-full types, so the impact has been minimised.

By coincidence, on the day I was thinking about this, Tissy’s Mum shared this on Facebook:

Getting back to Zaragoza: If you want an insight into how the creativity encouraged under the tolerant rule of the Moors helped to make Spain a global power, you could do worse than sidestepping the crowds of Granada, Seville and Cordoba in favour of time spent exploring the Aljaferia, a magnificent Moorish palace, and the lingering influence of Mudéjar craftsmen on the city’s Christian-era architecture.

The Aljaferia, below, was extensively remodelled by the reconquista kings of Aragon between the 12th and 15th Centuries, making its Moorish roots less evident than they are now. Behind the sections that are open to the public the building houses the Aragon regional parliament.

“Just like a giant sand castle,” observed Hugh on his first glimpse of the Aljaferia. “Can we kick it over,” added James.

The Patio de Santa Isabella, the centrepiece of the Aljaferia Palace. It is lovely, if not as spectacular as some of the courtyards within the Alhambra. The key thing is however that you can enjoy it virtually on your own, which may never be possible again in Granada.

Inside the Aljaferia

Historical monuments are never easy with children but the Aljaferia kept our boys captivated for a good hour. You could spend a lot longer and it would be great to have an informed guide to tell you all about the covering-up and then the unravelling of the place’s history.
The mosque inside the Aljaferia palace, which predates the Alhambra in Granada and Seville’s Alcazar.

So, how to sum up Zaragoza?. In a way there’s nothing much to say other than “Just Go.” It really is a terrific city, stuffed full of fascinating history and delightful public spaces. “Unjustly neglected” says the Rough Guide to Spain. We’d agree. Just don’t all come at once!

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