Thursday, 19 February 2015

Going beyond the tourist trail in Zaragoza

The Aragonese capital of Zaragoza isn't a place that features highly on many tourists' agendas. Best known for its lively autumn festival Las Fiestas del Pilar, Zaragoza has plenty of year-round attractions too: the brightly-coloured domes of the Basilica del Pilar, the ornate interior of the cathedral, the best-preserved Moorish monument outside of Andalucía and Roman ruins aplenty. There's also a lively tapas scene in the tangle of streets known as El Tubo, and a healthy injection of nightlife thanks to its university. Now that Zaragoza has a quick connection to both Barcelona and Madrid on the high-speed AVE train, you'd think the visitors would be flooding in.


Zaragoza's Basilica del Pilar


My first visit to Zaragoza was a trip to Las Fiestas del Pilar, when the city was alive with music, dancing and revelry. There was still time to soak up the sights and tour the Basilica and La Seo (as the cathedral is known) and to have a whistle-stop tour to El Tubo. Returning a few years later for Rough Guides, I plied myself with local information thanks to a maña friend and a fellow Brit who lived in Zaragoza for a year. With these tips plus a full tourist itinerary, my days were packed and my stomach was satisfied. But returning in January expecting to enjoy Zaragoza just as much as my previous visits, I was underwhelmed. And dare I say it, a bit bored. There's no getting around the fact that Zaragoza is cold in winter, and on any given day of the year you run the risk of getting wind-whipped and utterly despeinado thanks to the bitter gusts of El Cierzo. So by going in low season, I wasn't seeing the city at its best. But the centre is also pretty small, and lacks a beautiful casco antiguo that so many Spanish cities spoil us with.

So, is Zaragoza worth visiting? Yes. Go once, even go twice. But three times? I'm not convinced.

Here's a guide to seeing Zaragoza: both the obvious and the not-so-obvious, thanks to local tips.

The obvious

Sights

Zaragoza's focal point is the Plaza del Pilar, a long, rectangular 'square' (yes mathematicians, I know that makes no sense but take it up with Zaragoza's town planners) which is home to some of the city's key sights. The baroque Basilica del Pilar is more impressive outside than in, with its turrets and domes topped with multicoloured tiles. For €3 you can take a lift to the top for views of the domes themselves, the Rio Ebro alongside and across the city. It's free to visit the interior, where you can catch a glimpse of the famous 'pilar' (pillar), which St James apparently saw the Virgin Mary descend on back in AD40.

La Seo, Zaragoza


More impressive inside is La Seo, the cathedral, which lies at the other end of the square. Built on top of the city's old mosque, the current edifice is a mix of styles, with plenty of chapels to explore. The €4 entry fee also allows you access to the Tapestry Museum: sounds deathly dull, but with over 60 Flemish tapestries, it's one of the biggest collections in the world, and the detail and life that springs from the cloth is striking.

The colours have been edited, but the tapestries are still pretty damn impressive

La Plaza del Pilar is also home to the Caesaraugusta Forum Museum, which showcases the ruins of a Roman market and the city forum, Brought to life through multimedia displays, it's one of the key sights on the Roman route that runs through Zaragoza, and includes Roman walls, the Caesaraugusta Public Baths Museum, the Caesaraugusta River Port Museum and the Caesaraugusta Theatre Museum. Visiting each sight (apart from the walls, which are free) costs €3, or a ticket for all of them will set you back €7.

In (slightly) more modern times, La Aljafería was built by the Moors as a palace-cum-fortress in the 11th century, and like so many other Moorish monuments, it was added to by the Catholic Monarchs in the 15th century. A 15-minute walk from the Plaza del Pilar, La Aljafería is impressively well-preserved, with pretty prayer niches, calligraphy on the walls and mudejar ceilings. Admission costs €5, or visit on Sunday when it's free.

La Aljaferia

Eats

When it comes to dining in Zaragoza, El Tubo is the obvious place to head: and for good reason. With a high concentration of tapas bars in its pedestrianized streets, you can pick and choose depending on your tastes. Two classics include El Champi, famous for its mushrooms (what else, with that name?) and Taberna Doña Casta, known for its variety of croquetas and its huevos rotos. The former I can vouch for, particularly the arroz negro version; the latter just looked like a plate of slop to me, but my fellow diners seemed to be loving it.

The not-so-obvious

Sights


Despite being more commonly associated with Madrid, one of Spain's most famous painters was Aragonese by birth. Goya grew up on Fuendetodos near Zaragoza. Although many of his famous works are now in world-famous museums such as the Prado, the Museo Ibercaja Camón Aznar holds an impressive collection of his prints, focusing on the Disasters of War, Caprices, Bullfighting and Follies. In addition, there are also a few of his paintings, plus works by other Spanish artists. Entry to the museum is free, and it's housed in a beautiful Renaissance casa-palacio. 

As an early convert to the city bike craze, Zaragoza's a fairly green city. It also has its fair share of parks, including the impressive Parque Grande near Emperor Carlos V tram stop. As the name suggests, it's a big old space, with plenty of grassy areas, landscaped gardens and in summer, there are several cafes and bars, plus an open-air swimming pool next door. Back in town, the Río Ebro is lined by running and cycling tracks, although it's not as well-used as Madrid Rio, say.

Eats

On Jordán de Urries, a narrow alley close to the Plaza del Pilar, you'll find a pocket-sized tapas bar serving a small selection of Argentinian and Japanese tapas. El Angel del Pincho focuses on empanadas (small savoury pies) and tempura; and you can find delicious (if deep-fried) meat, fish and vegetarian versions. Great value with a good choice of local wines, you can see why this place is always packed – go early to grab enough elbow room to chow down on your empanada

Moussaka at Baobab


Zaragoza has a decent choice for vegetarians, too. While vegetarian bar (yes, apparently that's a thing) Birostra wasn't my cup of green tea (too hippy, too slow), chic Baobab is a jamón-free eaterie which puts on a spread delicious enough to pack the place out with Spaniards. On weekday lunchtimes, two courses will set you back €8.30 and 3, €13.30, but at other times you can enjoy dishes such as artichoke hearts stuffed with boletus mushrooms and caramelized onion topped with a poached quail's egg and truffle oil (what a mouthful), vegan lasagne filled with pine nuts, mushrooms, Thai-style squash, tomato and a boletus bechamel. There's no hemp here, just linen tablecloths and great food. Try the Incredible Hulk smoothie, a refreshing combo of frozen banana, avocado, coconut milk, lemon, apple, spinach and spirulina.

Shopping

In addition to the usual selection of Spanish chains, Zaragoza has a decent vintage scene in La Magdalena, an alternative barrio east of Plaza del Pilar. You'll find a few independent boutiques and secondhand stores, the real highlight of which is Grey Gardens on Calle Órgano. Run by a friendly team, the shop is well-curated with a carefully-selected range of clothes and accessories. It's more inviting than your average vintage store thanks to delicate lighting and a distinct absence of that musty old clothes smell. I purchased an unworn Italian jumper for just €8.


Grey Gardens vintage store

La Magdalena is worth exploring for its alternative bar scene, which picks up late afternoon and carried on into the evening. It's also close to Parque Bruil and the canal if you fancy a little more greenery.

Bright walls in Magdalena

Zaragoza's certainly got enough to sustain visitors for a few weekends. Although I'm not in a hurry to rush back, it's a pleasantly low-key city with a friendly vibe, good food and low prices. Personally, impressive as its monuments are, I found going beyond 'the obvious' to be more rewarding.

Have you visited Zaragoza? What did you think of it? If you're a local, what are your Zaragoza tips?


2 comments :

  1. Great post, Kate! Zaragoza sounds like a fun day trip for sure, and I hope to get there the next time I head down to Barcelona! Thanks for all the great restaurant tips, and I LOVE the sound of Grey Garden!!!

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    Replies
    1. Thanks, Christy! It's definitely worth a day trip or overnight stay. Grey Gardens is also worth looking up - that area is small but fun!

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