It always seems to me that this remarkable landlocked region in northeast Spain next door to Catalonia tends to get curiously short shrift from many visitors from abroad. Granted, there’s a lot of competition for our valuable and limited holiday time – but still, Aragón (more than twice the size of Wales and about two thirds larger than the U.S. state of Maryland) has both an amazing pedigree (it was one of the two founding kingdoms of Spain) and an amazing menu of offerings to appeal to history buffs, foodies, culture vultures (in addition to copious art and architecture, one of Spain’s most classic traditional dances, the jota, originated here), adventure- and eco-seekers, and more. And I’m here today to share some of its highlights with you.
Those who do make it here generally start (and sometimes end) with this autonomous community’s capital (top, historically known in English as Saragossa). Astride the Ebro River, this elegant city of some 700,000 dates back to even before ancient Roman Hispania (there’s even an ancient Roman theatre, baths, and docks open to visitors), and the many layers of history have left it with a wealth of landmarks, most notably the 11th-century Moorish Aljafería Palace. and especially the grandiose Basilica of Our Lady of the Pillar (Nuestra Señora del Pilar), built from the late 17th to late 19th century and home to Spain’s most venerated Madonnas, the Virgen del Pilar. Add to that a number of compelling museums and a lively dining/nightlife scene, and Aragon’s capital is a capital experience for any visitor (for more details, check out this blog’s previous post on Zaragoza and check out Zaragoza.es).
Beyond the capital, there are three provinces with plenty of cool places to see and things to do – plenty more historic and cultural landmarks, but also activities in the great outdoors, stretching from hilly, sparsely populated Teruel Province in the south northward into the Pyrenees Mountains. Some of the most outstanding highlights:
About an hour southwest of Zaragoza, this ancient city is known for its aristocratic houses, Renaissance palaces, and especially its prevalence of Mudéjar style – Christian architecture with lots of brickwork executed in the Middle Ages by formerly Muslim craftsmen (Muslims had previously ruled here for more than 400 years) with a distinctive look reflecting strong Islamic influences (Aragonese Mudéjar collectively landmarked as a UNESCO World Heritage Site). The photo above is of the Mudéjar cloister of the 14th-century church San Pedro de los Francos.
Dating from Iberian times, its name derived from its ancient Roman name Osca, this charming gateway to the Pyrenees of just over 52,000 an hour north of Zaragoza and known for its hilly mediaeval old town, dominated by its Gothic cathedral, built between the 13th and 16th centuries (other landmarks include the Romanesque San Pedro el Viejo Abbey, with cloisters and the tombs of two Aragonese kings, and the hilltop ruins of the 11th-century Montearagón Castle). And if you can manage to visit in mid-August, the Fiesta de San Lorenzo (9-14 August) is the city’s biggest party of the year.
Out in Huesca province, another must is Jaca, a town of 14,000 at the foot of the Pyrenees whose main claims to fame include the 16th-century pentagonal Ciudadela fortress, an 11th-century Romanesque cathedral, and 15th-century Torre del Reloj (Clock Tower). Other fantastic mediaeval towns include Aínsa, Alquézar (also known for adventures such as canyoning, hiking, horseback riding, and mountain biking), Graus, Sabiñánigo, and Sallent de Gállego (also great for outdoorsy pursuits and home of Formigal, one of Spain’s best winter resorts). Meanwhile, lovers of the grape will appreciate the Somontano Wine Route starting in the town of Barbastro, and nature lovers one of Spain’s most alluring national parks, Ordesa and Monte Perdido (which also offers some of Europe’s best autumn leaf peeping).
Fun fact: This region – especially its more rural precincts – is also a holdout of a distinct local language, aragonés (more popularly known as fabla), one of the various Romance languages of Spain, with similarities to Catalan and French Occitan.
A few minutes south of Calatayud, this small town on the Piedra River and La Tranquera Reservoir is not just pretty in appearance and setting but also a fantastic spot for Aragón ecotourism and adventure. The reservoir and the limestone cliffs above the river attract a wide variety of avians, making them magnets for birders both seasonally and all year round, while La Tranquera and the river are also magnets for aficionados of fishing and water sports. On the historical side, Nuévalos’ top landmark is the late-12th-century Cistercian Monasterio de Piedra, now converted into a hotel, whose gorgeous premises include a park and even a waterfall.
Aragón’s fourth largest city, also about an hour from Zaragoza, it’s also known for its Mudéjar buildings and is also a treat for history lovers thanks to its cathedral and other churches, as well as its bishop’s palace, wonderful Gothic town hall, and mediaeval Jewish quarter including Spain’s best preserved hanging balconies. The shopping-inclined will also love browsing its great ceramics shops, and if you can get there on August 27, that’s when its major mediaeval festival, the Cipotegato, is held. The outdoorsy, meanwhile, will enjoy the hiking and biking in the Moncayo Nature Reserve. And for a bewitching little extra, check out the tiny, also mediaeval village of Trasmoz nearby, known for its history of witchcraft and annual July festival celebrated by modern-day witches.
About an hour 45 minutes south of Zaragoza, this town of just over 35,000 boasts a marvelous mediaeval old quarter, including some of Aragón’s best examples of Mudéjar, such as its late-16th-century cathedral Santa María de Mediavilla de Teruel. and 14th-century Church of San Pedro. Furthermore, the latter is home to the city’s most famous attraction: the mausoleum of Diego Marcilla and Isabel Segura, the tragically starcrossed 12th-century Lovers of Teruel – in my book one of Spain’s most romantic destinations.
This area is also known for its jamón serrano (cured ham) and black truffles, other mediaeval towns including Albarracín, Alcañiz (also known as a centre of the jota dance), Cantavieja, Castellote, Mirambel, and Rubielos de Mora. The outdoors-minded might also be interested in a couple of scenic hikes through river gorges about an hour out of town!, as well as skiing/snowboarding and/or warm-weather hiking/mountaineering in winter resorts Valdelinares and Aramón.
More info: TurismodeAragon.com.