Z is for Zaragoza


THE SENSE OF DISCOVERY while traveling is always greatest when one has never been to a place before, or heard anything about it, or even seen pictures of it. For me, Zaragoza, heart of Spain’s Aragon province, was such a place.


Again, my visit was a 24-hour whirlwind – just about long enough to get a sense of the city. My train from Cordoba passed first through green hills, then brown flatlands, before arriving at Zaragoza’s brutally modern Delicias station, above, about 7PM. Zaragoza prides itself on its avant garde architecture, but I seem to gravitate to the oldest part of any city, often narrow, crooked streets, usually on a river.


In Zaragoza, the river is the Ebro; its Renaissance Basilica del Pilar, below, is the chief monument that gives the skyline its dignified character. (There are Goyas inside; I missed them.)


Surprisingly, I also found ‘modernismo’ in Zaragoza — Art Nouveau-inspired, very early 20th century modernism, of which my hotel, Catalonia el Pilar, below, is a fine example. As in Madrid, my renovated room was cold and dull in contrast to the building’s sumptuous original detail – a lost opportunity, or simply what sells in the Eurozone?


Lobby detail, Hotel Catalonia el Pilar, below.


Another early-modernist building: the majestic iron 1903 produce market hall, above.

Lovely folks at reception sent me to the neighborhood known as El Tubo in search of sustenance. That’s Zaragoza’s lively tapas district. I was early – it was barely 8PM – so had no troubling finding space to stand at the bar at Bodegas Almau, below, where I ordered a few tapas and a glass of vino tinto. I can’t say that bread with cheese and jam, plus a fried fish ball, some tuna on bread, and a plate of olives made for an elegant dinner, but I loved the atmosphere of the place, particularly as it filled up with a mixed-age crowd.


Bodegas Almau is one of dozens of tapas and wine bars in a warren of ancient streets. To get there, I walked along Calle Alfonso, below, a pedestrian-only passage lined with what I’ve already come to think of as “the usual” chain shops and a couple of historic cafés. The shops were brightly lit and busy, the street hopping. Even elderly people with canes and walkers were out and about as I headed back to the hotel about 10PM for a good long sleep.


Zaragoza in the morning was crisp and clear (weather in the 50s, rain jacket as yet unpacked). My goal was to visit sites associated with the important Roman settlement (the name Zaragoza comes from Caesar Augustus). There are four: the forum, baths, port and theatre. The Foro museum, below, was closed, and the port and baths back in the direction from which I had just come.


I spent time instead at the excavated site of the 1st century amphitheater, Zaragoza’s best preserved Roman monument, and its excellent museum, opened in 2003. The impressively large structure, below, under a modern sunshade, was actually just discovered in the 1970s.


The theatre, several stories tall, was used for over 200 years, mainly for stage entertainment and not gladiatorial contests. It had been partly demolished eons ago, the stones re-purposed for fortifications during the Middle Ages. Then it was buried beneath the Moorish city and later, the Christian, with churches that came and went, all on the same site. This was also the location, I was fascinated to learn, of part of the Jewish quarter (or ghetto – though the word wasn’t used in the museum, the Jewish quarter, as elsewhere in Europe, was separated from Christian residential areas by a high wall, with a gate that was locked at night). There were two synagogues in that same area (of a total of six in Zaragoza by the end of the 14th century), before mass conversions of the Jews and their final expulsion from the Iberian peninsula in 1492.

I looked at old coins and stones and pots, and found some lunch at an old-fashioned café on Calle Alfonso. Then I headed by taxi back to Estazione Delicias, where I sprang for a first-class reservation (only 4 euros more this time) for the four-hour trip to Perpignan. Below, train-station tapas.


Spain, adios. France, je viens.

24 Hours in Cordoba


NOW I’M REALLY solo. For the first few days of my monthlong European trip, I had the company of good friends and I was a known quantity: me. Yesterday, wandering around Cordoba on my own, was an adjustment. I felt like just another nameless tourist with a smartphone, stopping every two seconds to take a picture of an arched doorway or a chunk of Roman wall.


Not that it was a bad day by any means — entirely pleasant, in fact. I arrived in Cordoba by train Monday afternoon from Malaga and took a taxi (7 euro) to my hotel in the historic center, Casa de los Azulejos, (59 euro), above, which couldn’t be lovelier, friendlier or more Spanish in feeling. (With the poor euro falling steadily against the dollar — it’s worth only $1.07 at the moment — everything seems very inexpensive, by the way.)


Cordoba’s heyday was the 10th century, when it was a university and library center under tolerant Muslim rule, with a thriving Jewish community. There are spectacular monuments from every era. With a couple hours of daylight remaining, I headed to the Plaza Corredera, below, an unspoiled 17th century plaza the size of several football fields, and walked around taking photos of Cordoba’s evening storefronts, above. Stores were still open as night fell, and I picked up some grapes as large as plums and sweet oranges for my evening meal, an antidote to several days of feasting in Andalucia.


Tuesday morning, after breakfast in the hotel, I headed to the Mezquita and the Jewish quarter, both of which I’d seen hurriedly before (I refer to you to this post from January 2010 for more photos and information on both, should you want them). Below, a characteristic view into a flower-filled patio courtyard, taken in the Jewish quarter.


This time, I succeeded in actually gaining entry to the Mezquita, below, with its forest of 856 candy-striped arches and marble columns, within which is a Catholic cathedral built between the 14th and 18th centuries. I meandered around the cool dark interior, easily finding quiet corners away from school groups and tourist hordes, marveling at how the light from stained glass windows plays on the marble columns. Somehow, the over-the-top Christian iconography doesn’t detract, or even clash, as much as I thought it would from the monumental Moorish architecture.


Wandering again through the Jewish quarter, which contains a modest synagogue that’s the oldest in Andalucia, I stopped in the Casa Andalusi, below, an intimate 12th century townhouse with high beamed wood ceilings and planted courtyards. On every surface, there’s something for sale: books, tiles, paper products. But the commercialism is not too offensive, and the house has enormous charm.IMG_5806



Back I went toward the Guadalquivir River to check out the Alcazar des Reyes Christianos (Palace of the Kings), below, a massive stone fortress of the Middle Ages with expansive formal gardens and reflecting pools. Unmotivated to get an audio guide, unwilling to carry a guidebook, and with no WiFi connection for my phone, I searched vainly for signs in English to tell me which kings these were, exactly, and when they lived (Ferdinand and Isabella were among them, it turns out).


Lunch worked out serendipitously at the wonderful Taberna Salinas, below, just around the corner from my hotel. I ordered scrambled eggs with asparagus and was surprised when it arrived with big chunks of jamon — ham. Menu didn’t say anything about ham! I sent it back, they took it graciously, and returned with the same dish, this time with shrimp substituted for the ham. Fortunately, I do eat shrimp and didn’t mind it; it was delicious. But vegetarians need to be ever-vigilant here. With a glass of local beer, the bill came to under 10 euro.


Another recommended taverna that’s been around since the early 19th century: Casa el Pisto, below.


In the late afternoon, I taxied back to the train station for the under-three-hour trip to Zaragoza. My global Eurail pass is first class, supposedly (the only way they come), but I have yet to travel first class. Why? Because although the railpass is essentially a hop-on, hop-off ticket, all but the slowest trains still require compulsory advance reservations, and it costs a significant amount to make them. I made a reservation in second class (perfectly comfortable) for 10 euro; a first-class reservation would have cost 24, and that was annoying. The railpass was definitely going to be a savings over point-to-point tickets in first class. In second, I’m not so sure.


Above: Roman wall and columns on calle San Fernando.

I chose Zaragoza for an overnight because it breaks up the journey nicely between the south of Spain and the South of France. Three to four hours on the train is enough time to relax and recharge without eating up an entire day. Zaragoza was completely unknown to me (and to most Americans, I would guess). You’ll be hearing about it next…

Marching Through Malaga


I HAD AN UNEXPECTED TREAT today. My friend Sylvia decided to give me a lift into Malaga, a seaport city of half a million on the Mediterranean coast, and a custom tour of the city’s architectural highlights. Once again, common wisdom (“Malaga? Pfff!” — which I had heard more than once) fails to hold up. Picasso’s birthplace is a suitably colorful city, and a pretty one, with romantic 19th and early 20th century buildings on squares fringed with palm trees.


Marble-paved calle Larios is a pedestrianized street lined with cafes and shops, where we stopped first for coffee and churros (fried dough strips, alright!) and then, like the professional travel writers we both are, made a whirlwind circuit of the historic center in a couple of hours.


Malaga has an extraordinary Renaissance cathedral, below, as well as a Roman amphitheater in a very decent state of preservation, topped with a medieval wall in an even better one — things you just don’t see in the USA.


We stopped into the indoor produce market, a 19th century iron shed with a magnificent stained glass wall (below, market hall on the right).


 Below, Picasso’s birthplace on Plaza de la Merced, now offices of the foundation that bears his name.


We looked into a few intriguing restaurants, like El Pimpi, with a plant-filled atrium and wine barrels signed by well-known visitors, below. But that is for another time.


This time, we lunched outdoors at Vino Mio on a quiet square, below.

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It’s goodbye to Andalucia for now; I’m writing this in Cordoba, an hour north of Malaga by train. Zaragoza’s next. (What’s in Zaragoza? Besides a hotel reservation, damned if I know, but I’ll soon find out.) Though I’ve visited Spain a few times in recent years, mostly on business, I never totally warmed to the country before. With this trip though, I’m definitely getting it.


Andalucia: A Flea Market and a Dinner Party


THE WELL-PLANNED ITINERARY for my four-week trip to Spain, France and Italy has already come undone, and I’m only on Day 5. I stayed an extra day with friends in Andalucia, and a jam-packed day it was. I’d never heard of Nerja before this week; it’s a popular holiday destination for Brits, in particular, some of whom were sunbathing today on the quintessentially Mediterranean beach: crescent-shaped bay, aquamarine water, dramatic rock formations.

It being Sunday, we checked out Nerja’s weekly flea market, which was like flea markets everywhere: Thai jewelry, African wood carvings, loads of crap. I took photos of fancy flamenco dresses and things that seemed a bit more indigenous, and enjoyed the classical Spanish guitar played by two young men.


We strolled along the Balcon de Europa, a tiled promenade with a clifftop view of the sea, walked along the beachfront for a bit, and had some tapas before wending our way back into the hills.


Late in the afternoon, there was a small dinner party down the road from my hosts, at the home of a Dutch-American couple who own two adjoining properties that they operate as vacation rentals. Called Cortijo El Carligto, one villa is compact and modern, the other rambling (4 bedrooms) and more traditional; Both are impeccably designed, decorated and landscaped, with swimming pools, outdoor kitchens, terraces and views unmarred by so much as a telephone wire.


Dinner was largely vegetarian and much to my liking, including pizzas baked in a wood-burning oven, and the company more than congenial.


As if to herald my departure tomorrow from this glorious place, the sunset was especially radiant as we walked the quarter-mile home.



Mucho Gusto, Andalucia


EN EL CAMPO (“in the fields”)… that’s where I am. My monthlong European rail trip is well and truly underway. On Thursday I took an AVE train — Spain’s high-speed rail service — from Madrid to Malaga (2-1/2 hours), then caught a local bus and rode an hour east. For the past couple of days, I have been visiting friends deep in the mountains of Andalucia, in the Axarquia region of Malaga province, a part of Spain that feels so ancient you can easily imagine the narrow roads, even now barely paved in parts, plied by Don Quixote and Sancho Panza on horse- and donkey-back. Rows of olive trees dot the hillsides. as they have for centuries. The Alhambra, the greatest architectural masterwork of the Muslim rulers of Spain during their 800-year reign, is some 75km distant, beyond the cleft in the rock, above.

My friends, Sylvia and Anton, below, are among the many Northern Europeans who have chosen to live in this sunny, relaxed, affordable region. They’re full-time residents here, as are most of their Dutch and British neighbors.

Syl Anton 1A

Their house, below, began as a cortijo, or farmhouse, with thick stone walls, beamed ceilings, and an entry courtyard, and has since been converted to a three-bedroom, two-bath home with a luxury kitchen, a long rear terrace, and views that challenge my supply of superlatives. Breathtaking is an under-statement. Spectacular barely cuts it.



They’re surrounded by some rustic ruins and some newly built or recently renovated homes, owned mostly by ex-pats.


The nearest village is Canillas de Aceituno, below, where we went yesterday for the small produce market and some errands. Turns out Canillas is known for its Mudejar architecture — the arched doorways and stucco houses built by Hispanic non-Muslims after the Christian re-conquest in 1487. It’s a pretty, house-proud village whose inhabitants decorate their exterior walls with glazed ceramic tiles and potted plants.


Today, Saturday, we drove half an hour down to the coast for a look at the Mediterranean. Lunch was a long, leisurely affair at Berebere, a beachfront restaurant with a Moroccan feel, in the resort town of Torre del Mar.


We’ve been walking the hills, playing with the dogs, eating and drinking well. (That’s Sylvia’s paella, below.)


All is good, with the possible exception of the fact that my Visa cards don’t seem to work here. I’ll figure that out on Monday. Right now, life couldn’t be better.