Aragon ~ heart of eastern Spain

A land of mountains and plateaux

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Castillo de Loarre
Where mountains meet the Ebro basin - stunning Castillo de Loarre
 Landlocked Aragon stretches from the Pyrenees to the borders of the Valencia region and is a land of big horizons and wide open spaces. Like neighbouring Navarre it is one of those parts of Spain that is surprisingly off the tourist trail. Indeed, even for people in Spain, Aragon is a bit of an enigma, and in 2021 Spain's no.2 radio station COPE reported how national TV channels regularly misplaced the region and its cities on their maps!
    In Britain people are more likely to know about Catherine of Aragon, who died in 1536, than about Aragon itself.
    Yet Aragon is one of the great historic regions of Spain. Catherine of Aragon's marriage to King Henry VIII of England  stemmed from the geopolitics of the time, when Spain was a rising power, ruling extensive territories including parts of Greece, southern France, Italy, Sicily and more.  Aragon and Castile formed the nexus of modern Spain, following the marriage of Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabella of Castille in 1469.

Saragossa / Zaragoza

Delicate Mudéjar stucco in the Patio de Santa Isabela in the Aljaferia Palace.
Saragossa is the fifth largest city in Spain, a city full of history and interesting sites, but a city that is far less visited than Spain's other major cities. This is not surprising, since it lies inland and away from other main tourist destinations.
    Saragossa nevertheless is among the top cities in Spain in terms of historic heritage, with some of  Spain's finest examples of Moorish, Mudéjar and Baroque architecture. (Mudéjar is the term used to describe the architecture of medieval Christian buildings in an Islamic style.)
    The city  has two great historic churches. The Cathedral of the Savior, known as the Seo, is the cathedral in which the Kings of Aragon used to be crowned. It has been built, reuilt and extended since medieval times, and is part romanesque, part gothic, part mudejar and part baroque - thus offering a history of Spanish architecture in a single building.  More famous, because more distinctive, is the great Basilica of Our Lady of the Pilar, standing on the banks of the river Ebro. Built in the 16th - 17th centuries on a revered pilgrimage site, this basilica, classed as a co-cathedral, is.a jewel of Spanish Baroque architecture, and among the rich decor of the interior are some large murals by Goya. For a great view over the city and the basilica, there is a lift that takes visitors most of the way to the top of the northwest tower.
    The other great historic building in Saragossa is the Aljafería. Today the seat of the Aragon parliament, it was built in the 11th century as a Moorish palace, and is considered to be one of the three great historic examples of Islamic architecture in Spain – and therefore in Europe. Part of the building, the Troubador Tower, is even older, with elements dating back to the 9th and 10th centuries and the time of Emir Mohammed I of Cordoba. As a showpiece of Moorish architecture, complete with mosque, the Palace is maybe not quite as stunning as Granada's Alhambra - in part because of its location outside the city centre- but it does not get as crowded.
    In addition to these three "must see" sites, there are plenty more things to see and do in Zaragoza. Behind an unassumaing facade, the small Goya museum includes several works by Aragon's most famous painter; more paintings by Goya, along with a larger collection or art and artefacts, can be seen in the city Museum which is housed in a fine early twentieth century building in the city centre.  Also in the old centre is the church of San Pablo Apostol, whose 14th century Mudéjar tower is classed as a UNESCO world heritage site.
      Finally, the quintessential moment of a visit to Zaragoza at the end of a warm sunny day is to walk out across the Ebro on the old stone bridge, now  closed to traffic, and watch the sun go down behind the Pilar basilica or over the river ... as illustrated in the photo at the top of this page.


Teruel plaza
The centre of old Teruel is the triangular shaped Plaza El Torico
Even more off the tourist routes than Zaragoza is the small city of Teruel, standing at an altitude of over 900 metres in the south of Aragon. Yet Teruel is home to the best Mudéjar architecture in Spain, and its intricately decorated medieval Mudéjar church towers were the first to be classed in  UNESCO's Mudéjar architecture world heritage site.
    Old Teruel is on hill between two valleys, and it is easy to walk round the city centre. The city centre is reached over  bridges, one of which is a very fine two-level stone aqueduct which looks Roman, but was in fact built in the sixteenth century. The lower level was built as, and is still used as, a footbridge connecting the city centre to the hillside opposite.
  Albarracin Albarracin
    The four Mudéjar church towers can be easily reached on foot from the town centre, the distinctive triangular Plaza el Torico, with its cafés and restaurants.The UNESCO listed towers are those of the Santa Maria cathedral, and the churches of San Pedro, San Martin and San Salvador. These towers clearly illustrate the genesis of Mudéjar architecture in the 12th and 13th centuries, insofar as they are the towers of Christian churches but look distinctly like the square minarets of Moorish Islamic architecture, as seen in North Africa to this day.
Though Teruel is in the mountains, southern Aragon is in one of the driest parts of Spain, and this has led to Teruel's other claim to fame, which is its airport.  Visitors driving down the A23 "Autovia Mudéjar" from Zaragoza to Valencia may be surprised to see what appears to be a very busy international airport just to the west of the motorway. Indeed, some of BA's  last Boeing 747 passenger jets to leave Heathrow in 2020 were destined for Teruel... but were empty. Teruel's airport is Europe's largest outdoor storage facility for laid-up planes – the dry climate allowing outdoor storage with minimum risk.
    The airport is beside the road from Teruel to the other remarkable site in the area, the small town of Albarracin, lying in the back and beyond some 40 km west of Teruel, and one of the best preserved small walled cities in Spain. Built on the steep side of a narrow valley, Albarracin is essentially for pedestrians only.

Elsewhere in Aragon - from North to South

The vast emptiness of central Aragon
The vast emptiness of southern Aragon.
Over 300 km from north to south, Aragon is a diverse region that divides into three zones. In the North, the Aragon Pyrenees and their foothills. In the middle the Ebro basin, and in the south the uplands of the Sistema Ibérico mountain range. With the exception of the high Pyrenees, the whole region is fairly dry, the driest part being the land to the south of the Ebro basin.
    The Aragon Pyrenees are fairly empty and access from France is only possible via three high passes and some long winding roads. The largest town in the area is Jaca, population 13,000, which has a small 11th century Romanesque cathedral. A smaller and more interesting town some 60 km. to the east is Ainsa, on the road into Spain via the Bielsa tunnel. Old Ainsa is built on a rock overlooking the confluence of two rivers, and comprises a forrtress and small and very attractive historical area, a paved square and Romanesque church.
    The area to the north of Jaca and Ainsa is popular for mountain and outdoor activities, particularly in and around the Ordesa National Park, a UNESCO world heritage area that offers a great choice of hiking trails.
    South of the east-west route running from the border with Navarre in the west to Ainsa in the east (A21 / N260) the area of hills, forests and scrubland is virtually unpopulated except for occasional small villages; but it does contain some exceptioànal places to visit, such as the remarkable Romanesque cloisters of the former monastery of San Juan de la Peña and the "new" monastery nearby,  the stunning rocks of Mallos de Riglos, the Spanish Yosemite, or the magnificently sited medieval Castillo de Loarre, overlooking the lands of the Ebro basin..
The martyred town of Belchite, destroyed by Franquist forces in the Spanish Civil War and never rebuilt. A memorial to a town that died.
    The Ebro basin is one of Spain's rich agricultural  areas, and home to most of the population of Aragon.  Huesca, the area's second city, boasts an impressive fourteenth century Gothic cathedral that is worth a visit. Nearby is the Romanesque abbey of San Pedro el Viejo, with its 12th century cloisters. For something completely different, just south of Huesca on the road to Saragossa is the Aragon Planetarium, a state of the art attraction with its 4-D simulator and part of the Aragon Astronomic Centre set up in 2012.
    South of the Ebro, there are two routes in the direction of Teruel, a western route taken by  the A23 Mudéjar motorway, and an eastern route, and the A222 / N420  road from Burgos de Ebro via Utrillas. Both routes are interesting, but for something exceptional take the eastern route.
    The A222 (that's Aragon 222, not Autovia 222) south from Burgos de Ebro takes you into deepest empty Spain. Much of the centre of Spain is fairly empty, this part is particularly empty, on account of its arid climate which could never support much agriculture. However there are some small towns, and the first of these you reach is Belchite – a town that until recently was not in any guidebooks. And for good reason; Belchite is a ruin, a ghost-town martyred in the Spanish Civil War, destroyed by Franco's troops and never rebuilt. Franco himself demanded that it remain as a witness to the horror of war, and being well off the beaten track, that is how it remained, largely forgotten until the early 21st century. Today the carcasses of its churches and houses are fenced off, but guided tours are organised twice a day in summer.
    South from Belchite, the road rises slowly, reaching summits at over 1400 metres south of Utrillas. Utrillas was once a small coal mining town, the hills in this part of  southern Aragon having rich mineral resources, but today the mines in the area are long gone, leaving just a few signs here and there of the area's industrial past.  A hundred miles after Burgos, the road reaches Teruel..
    The A23 route from Zaragoza to Teruel is faster, but also has at least two points of interest; 45 km south of Zaragoza, the area around Carineña is well-known for its wines, and there are several bodegas that can be visited. Forty kilometres further on and a few miles off the motorway, the small town of Daroca is a jewel, surrounded on all sides by its medieval walls,  and entered through surviving city gates.

    There are many more interesting sites to visit in Aragon;  one final place worth mentioning is Calatayud, a small town on the road towards Madrid. The old town is dominated by the massive fortified remains of the Castillo de Ayyub, a ruined  Moorish fortress dating from the tenth century.   
Other pages of interest : - Andalucia - Extremadura -  Valencia Undiscovered Spain - The coasts of SpainTravel in Spain  -  Food and eating in Spain  -  Driving in Spain  -  Spanish motorway map

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Getting to Aragon:
By car via theToulouse, and the Pyrenean tunnels of Somport or Bielsa, or the Portalet pass, or by motorway via Barcelona.
By ferry: Brittany ferries operate direct ferries from Portsmouth and Plymouth to Bilbao, three hours' drive from Zaragoza.
Fly to Navarre:  the nearest airports with international flights are Barcelona, Girona and Valencia, or else Madrid.
By train: Zaragoza is on the Spanish high-speed train route from Madrid to Barcelona,  which connects with TGVs from Paris.

San Juan de la Pena
Remarkable medieval scuptures at San Juan de la Peña

Mallos de Riglos
Spaion's Yosemite.. Mallos de Riglos

Mudejar Teruel
Delicate  Mudéjar brickwork on the tower of San Martin in Teruel

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Photo Patio Santa Isabela by Francis Rafer
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