By Paul Shoul
Walking downtown Zaragoza, Spain, something out of place caught my eye. I am a photographer and naturally look for patterns and the things that break them.
The Burger King across the street definitely did not fit in. It was empty inside; the glowing neon sign was awkward and garish compared to the subtleties of the aged wooden facades on the other cafes around it.
The cafes were full of people at the end of the working day, talking loudly, laughing, eating tapas and drinking wine.
I said to my friend Anna from the Spanish tourism office, who was born here, “I notice that there is nobody in there?”
“Where, in The Burger King?” she said, “Only children go in. Why would you? Fast food does not fit in with our culture, it leaves no room for la sobremesa.”
My ears perked up,” What’s that?” I asked.
Anna smiled. “It is the endless conversation the happens after you are done eating. It is part of the meal, you cannot have one without the other.
“You eat, then you have a coffee, a little pastry you talk and suddenly four hours later you realize that you are all still at the table, so maybe another coffee… And on and on… That is la sobremesa.”
That one little statement crystallizes why I love this country so much. There is a pace of living and respect for traditions that give room for the good things in life — the important simple little huge things that we sometimes miss over here in the USA as we rush to chow down our whoppers.
This was my third trip to Spain. Like many other foreign travelers, I had been to the more popular destinations of Bilbao, Madrid, and Barcelona, but had skipped by Spain’s fifth largest city, the capital of the autonomous community of Aragon, that lies almost directly in the middle of the three cities in the valley of the River Ebro.
The New Bilbao
Flying into Zaragoza [also known as Saragossa in English] you see a patchwork landscape of beautiful brown and green rolling hills, dotted with sheep leading up to an ancient city surrounded by wind farms.
This city has been a crossroads since 24 BCE when Roman legions named it for their emperor Caesar Augustus. More of a trading center than a destination, some are calling Zaragoza the new Bilbao.
Zaragoza is Spain’s oldest settlement. There is a lot of history to immerse yourself in, as well a lively cultural scene, beautiful landscape, fantastic local cuisine and wine, and little villages mostly untouched by tourism.
It has been inhabited for over 2000 years and the influence of Rome, the Moors, Jewish and Christians can be felt everywhere in the architecture and archeological remains and monuments. Here are a few suggestions of places to check out in the city:
The Basilica de Pilar
Plaza del Pilar, s/n 50003 Zaragoza
Tel. +34 976397497
Constructed in the 18th century, this baroque cathedral is one of the most important Roman Catholic religious pilgrimages. It is spectacular with eleven colored cupolas. Pilgrims line up to kiss the exposed marble where legend has it that the Virgin Mary appeared in the year 40 AD.
We climbed one of the towers up a long winding staircase that taxed our lungs, but we were well rewarded with a sweeping view of the river and the city.
Located next door right on the expansive Plaza de Pilar, you will also find La Seo, the region’s oldest cathedral with medieval, baroque and renaissance influence and La Lonja Palace, the old 16th-century currency exchange. The Plaza is huge with fountains and a statue of Goya and a cool place to hang out when you need a rest after all this history.
Museo de Zaragoza
Plaza de los Sitios, 6 50001 Zaragoza
Tel. +34 976222181 Tel. +34 976225682 / Fax +34 976222378 Located close by in the Plaza DE Los Sitios, it is divided into two sections of archaeology and fine art You can see numerous canvases by Goya and his contemporary artists as well as artifacts from prehistory to the Moorish period.
Palacio de la Aljafería
Calle de los Diputados, s/n 50071 Zaragoza
Tel. +34 976289683 Tel. +34 976289685 / Fax +34 976289686
This is a spectacular 11th century fortified Muslim Palace and also houses the current regional parliament of Aragon. Huge towers ring the palace, which surrounded by a moat. It is a World Heritage site and an important example of Islamic architecture. Definitely a must-see.
Museo del Teatro de Caesaraugusta
Discovered in 1972 during construction, this Roman theater is accessed by a walkway that allows you to stroll through the past. There is a display of artifacts found during its uncovering and really cool multimedia presentations of life during the time of Caesar.
Trips Around Zaragoza:
In 1937, the city of Belchite was the last obstacle in the way of the Franco Fascists taking over Zaragoza. Six thousand people were killed during the fight for the city. After its destruction, Franco left the bombed-out city standing as a monument to his victory in Spain and built a new town in tribute to himself alongside it with the labor of political prisoners from the civil war.
About 30 miles southeast from Zaragoza, you can wander through the town. There are no gates and little information to guide you, but the deteriorating buildings and ghost town feeling needs no explanation.
It is not a tribute to victory; it is a harsh and important reminder of a great failure. A friend told me that they have left tape recorders in the town at night and swears that you can hear the voices of the dead.
The ancient villages, the landscape, brilliant light, the faces of weathered Aragon shepherds all beg to be painted, photographed, or captured in poetry.
Ayuntamiento de Fuendetodos
c/ Cortes de Aragón, 7 50.142 Zaragoza Tfno.: 976 143 867
Just 26 miles from Zaragoza this small town is the birthplace of Goya. You can visit the house where he lived until he was a teenager, and visit the etching museum that holds some of his most important work. It is an incredibly picturesque town that feels like time stood still.
In the Town of Muel near Zaragoza is the Chapel of La Virgen de la Fuente. It is a small beautiful place perched on the side of hill overlooking a river where a young Goya was commissioned to do five paintings that are well preserved to this day. Apparently, he was not satisfied with his payment and in one painting he depicted an angel with his ass facing forward.
Also in Muel is the Museo de Cerámica (pottery museum)
Carretera de Valencia, Km.468
Phone: 976 14 52 25
Muel is famous for its pottery tradition this is a museum, workshop and pottery school. You can watch them work, get a lesson of the history of the craft and buy some of their amazing work.
Aragon is blessed with perfect soil for wine. I found that the wines I liked were the earthy and deep ones, a little rugged, just like the landscape. They were a perfect accompaniment for the pork and hardy lamb dishes that the region is famous for. Everything in Aragon has a lot of flavors.
About 40 miles from the city is Carinena. Sixty percent of the land here is in wine vineyards and more than 60 producing companies contribute to this official DO (Denominacion de Origen) growing Carinena (Yes, it is a town, a region, and a grape variety) Garnacha Tinta Tempranillo and Viura grape varieties. Everybody here has worked or works in the vineyards. They have been growing wine here since the middle ages.
The House of Vine and Wine (Casa de la Vina y del Vino)
This is both the headquarters for the control board of the DO Carinena and a museum; it is a tribute to all that is wine. There is a library of wine culture, a museum of winemaking implements, a wine cellar where the local producers store their own collections and complete step-by-step graphic presentations of the entire winemaking process.
I learned a lot from my time there, like the fact that the older vines have deeper roots, and although they do not produce as much wine as the younger ones, it is sweeter and more intense. I’m personally trying to emulate that.
And, Finally, the Food:
Zaragoza has a vibrant food scene with restaurants and tapas bars that celebrate the local products of the region: wine, pork, mushrooms, baby lamb, borraja, a local celery-like vegetable, potatoes, as well as produce from the whole of Spain.
Before heading back to the city, I had one of the best meals I have ever had the honor of eating that is indicative of the local fare.
In a small town down a side street, in a small unassuming building that used to be a pharmacy is the Restaurant Rebotica (c/San José 3, in Cariñena, Tel: 976 62 06 56).
It feels like yesterday inside, like it has been here forever, like a home. The people inside are locals here for a late lunch. The plaster walls are warm colored, the tables are ancient wood, and there are not many of them. Historic photos adorn the walls. Bits of wine history is everywhere.
We start with a local Care chardonnay and a salt cod coquet in Piquio pepper sauce. Then, platters of Jamon de Teruel, one of the beautiful Spanish hams that blow your mind, sliced dry, and another platter with local olive oil.
Next was a mushroom mousse with truffle oil and chanterelles. My god, this was light, fluffy and intensely mushroom flavored!
We switched to another local wine from down the street, a selection from Groupo RSV Carinena 801 that was an earthy Cabernet and Merlot mix. This paired well with the incredibly rich blood sausage lasagna and tomato sauce that came out next.
We were not done: cod meatballs in a creamy wild asparagus sauce and then lamb in a wine reduction.
For desert we had grappa, apple brandy, and each of the eight people at the table were given a plate with four different pastries, none of which were the same as anyone else’s. Come on people, this was amazing.
In the city you have to allow some time to check out the Mercado Central, Avenida de Cesar Augusto. There has been a market on this spot since the 13th century. It is a wonderful display of all the great foods of the region and from all of Spain.
Zaragoza Restaurant Suggestions:
Plaza del Carmen, 1-2-3, Zaragoza, 50004
# Phone: +34 976 15 8100
Restaurante Argonia Paradis
at the Palafox Goya Hotel
Spectacular food, Try the lamb cooked for 20 hours in olive oil
Cinco de Marzo, 5
Tel. +34 976 229331
Fax. +34 976 232154
Taberna Dona Casta
Estebanes 6 (El Tubo)
El Festin de Babel
Calle San Antonio Maria Claret
Tel: 34 976 56 03 90
Gran Taberna Bilbilis
Ponzano, 10 50004 Zaragoza
Tel. 976 231 300
Where to Stay:
Hotel Silken Zentro Zaragoza
C/ Coso, 86, 50001 Saragossa Spain
T.+34 976 70 33 00 • F.+34 976 70 33 01
Great place, centrally located, very nice rooms. Cool bar and coffee shop and the sister hotel next door, Silken Reino DE Aragon Hotel, has a fine restaurant.
How to Get There:
Iberia Airlines. I wish all Airlines were as good as Iberia. I have not one complaint. That’s a lot to say in these days of substandard, cattle-driving flights.
Further info on Zaragoza:
Paul Shoul is a Northampton, MA-based photographer who doubles as a staff writer for GoNOMAD. For thirty years he’s lived in the Pioneer Valley and chronicled life there through his work in the Valley Advocate. He’s also been seen in the Boston Globe, New York Times, BBC, the Chronicle of Higher Education and many other publications. Today as well as shooting around the world for GoNOMAD he works for local nonprofits, banks and advertising agencies.