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…

SPAIN – Day 7: Glimpse of Cordoba


CORDOBA LOOKS LIKE A VERY INTRIGUING PLACE – at least it did in the few hours we had to explore it on Friday. That was the biggest planning error of our trip, IMO — not leaving enough time for Cordoba. By the time we arrived from Granada, three hours away by train, waited for our hotel rooms to be ready, and had some lunch, the day was nearly gone.

There was just enough time to meet our guide, Isabel Martinez Richter, and dash over to the whitewashed Jewish quarter, where the streets are even narrower and zig-zaggier than Seville’s, and peek into the sweet small chapel, that is the only synagogue remaining in Andalusia from the time before the Jews were expelled in 1492. It dates from the 1350s, and was rediscovered and restored in the late 19th century – a high-ceilinged room with clerestory windows, and clear Hebrew Bible inscriptions below later Moorish arches and decoration.


A bronze statue of Maimonides, the 12th century Jewish philospher/physician and author of the wonderfully-titled Guide for the Perplexed, stands in the center of the quarter. Cordoba’s golden age was two centuries earlier, when the city thrived under a tolerant Muslim caliph and had a cosmopolitan population of one million (today it’s 1/3 that).


We raced, literally, from there to the mighty Mezquita, the oldest part of which dates to 785. Isabel begged the guards to let us in for the final 15 minutes, but we weren’t allowed to stray past the entrance and had to view the forest of 856 marble columns, topped by candy-striped arches, from a stationary spot near the door.


We contented ourselves taking pictures of the mosque’s magnificent Patio de los Naranjos (Oranges), which may be the oldest continuously gardened site in Europe.


Whereupon we ducked into a crafts market called Zoco (Spanish for ‘souk’) and several artists’ workshops, where we watched Jesus Rey sculpt modernistic human and animal figures of clay, and his cousin, in another old storefront nearby, work embossed leather in the technique that gave “cordovan” leather its name. Cordoba turned out to be a boon for purposes of my upcoming Budget Travel story on inexpensive but worthy souvenirs.


We stopped briefly in a cobblestone plaza for a peek at Cordoba’s archaeological museum, chock full of Roman statues, fine mosaics, and other artifacts dug up locally. There’s a substantial site in the center of the town where a whole temple’s worth of columns still stands from the 1st century A.D.

When Irvina, my travel partner, and I went out again at 9:30PM (having acclimated ourselves by this point to the late Spanish dinner hour), our walk to dinner took us through an incredible, intact 17th century square, Plaza de la Corredera, which happened to be thronged with families attending Cordoba’s annual three-day medieval fair. Under colorful flag-draped tents and wearing turbans, scarves, harem pants, and caftans, folks were purveying food products, soaps, jewelry and leather craft, and other obviously vetted material in what looked like a high-quality and very popular, even raucous, event. There was also an exhibit of rusted iron torture instruments I walked quickly past.

The medieval fair is not the only famous fair in Cordoba. There’s also the Festival de los Patios for 10 days each May, when 70 or so private courtyards typical of the city (dating from Muslim times, when women used them to get sunshine and fresh air without being seen) are decked out in flowers and open to the public. Homeowners compete for cash prizes that Isabel told us engender heated rivalry. We also passed by old-fashioned shops selling hats for bullfighting and business, fabrics and trims, copperware and antiques, but all were sadly closed.


Dinner at Bodegos Campos, an atmospheric, legendary restaurant that is all you would expect of Spanish restaurant decor (thick stucco walls painted rose red, arched windows, heavy wooden doors, wrought iron lighting, beamed ceilings, framed photos and posters), was not very successful. We shared a rice and vegetable dish that was healthy-tasting, but not in a particularly good way.

We left Cordoba early Saturday morning to catch an 8:03 high-speed AVE train back to Madrid (less than two hours; about 70 euros), in order to make the flight back to New York. I tore myself away from Cordoba regretful and unfulfilled. My list for a return visit: more gardens, including the Medina Alzahara, a 10th century caliph’s palace on the banks of the Guadalquivir River, and the Palacio de Viana, which has a dozen planted courtyards.

No, a day in Cordoba, or a week in Andalusia for that matter, is just not enough.