Spotlight on Spanish Autonomous Regions: Aragón

Not one to make travel goals, I did make one when coming to Spain: travel to all 17 autonomous communities at least once before going home. While Madrid, Barcelona and Seville are the stars of the tourist dollar show (and my hard-earned euros, let’s not kid around here), I am a champion for Spain’s little-known towns and regions. Having a global view of this country has come through spending ample time in Andalucía, Galicia and Castilla y León – vastly different in their own right – plus extensive travel throughout Spain.

I’m going to go out on a limb and say you’ve probably not heard of March’s comunidad, Aragón. But I’m pretty positive you’ve heard of Christopher Columbus and the Catholic Kings, Ferdinand and Isabel, whose marriage in the mid 15th Century would ultimately lead to Spain’s Golden Age.

Name: Aragón

Population: 1.35 million

Provinces: Aragón is divided into three provinces – Zaragoza, Huesca and Teruel – and really only has two large cities – Zaragoza and Huesca. The region is comprised of a number of small towns and is best-known for its role in forming modern Spain as the Kingdom of Aragón.

When: 15th of 17 regions, March 2012

About Aragón: The region is rich in the historical, architectural and natural senses. Its mudéjar buildings and plush river valleys take a lot of credit, but given how important it has been historically is worth exploring, too. Aragón became a self-proclaimed kingdom over a millennia ago, eventually claiming parts of Italy and Greece, as well as Corsica and a large part of the eastern coast of Iberia. The kingdom grew when Ferdinand of Aragón married Isabel of Castille, becoming one of the powerhouse couples of Spanish history and reconquering Spain from the Moors.

What remains is a region that seems just as seeped in lore as Andalucia, from the traditional costumes and festivals to the devotion for the local virgin, Nuestra Señora del Pilar, whose feast day coincides with Spain’s national festival.

Must-sees: Zaragoza has a number of sites in its old town, from the Basilicia de Nuestra Señora del Pilar and it’s beautifully tiled roof to the modern Expo site across the Ebro. The region’s capital (and the fifth-largest city in Spain) is also home to the Seo church and the Moorish Palacio de Aljafería, which now houses the provincial court system. It’s a city you can experience in a day, to be honest.

 If you’re into castles, history and architecture, check out the castle of Loarre in the Huesca province, the city of Teruel (sí, existe) and the village that has been ranked as one of Spain’s most beautiful, Albecerrín. Jaca is also full of religious museums and temples.

Outdoor lovers, rejoice! Because of the low population density in the autonomía, there is plenty to explore. Huesca is one of Spain’s snowiest zones, and the Pyrenees are home to a number of ski resorts with outdoor activities of every type. Check out the Ordesa and Parque de la Piedra national parks.

My take: The Novio and I went to visit a friend of his from the Air Force Academy who flies a fighter jet at the nearby base. A ceutí by birth and an andaluz at heart, Gon did his duty to show us around Zaragoza during Holy Week. Unfortunately, crap weather and a flu bug had us all indoors, watching TV and ordering takeout for four straight days.

Gonzalo claims that the draw of the province comes from the Pyrenees mountains, the rich gastronomy and the outdoor activities. We didn’t have a car to use that weekend, meaning we were stuck in the capital (and on the couch, ugh). Thanks to its connection on the AVE, it’s a city I’d be interested in seeing again, and I’m eager to see more of the comunidad.

Each month for the next 15, I’ll take a look at Spain’s 17 comunidades autónomas and my travel through them, from A to, um, Valencia. I’d love your take on the good and the bad in each one, so be sure to sign up for my RSS feed to read about each autonomous region at the end of each month!

In case you missed it, I featured Andalucía, the region I live in, in February.

What do you love (or not) about Aragón?

Photo Post of Carmona: The Perfect Little Day Trip from Seville

Nothing says long weekend like a roadtrip, a quick stop in a village and the mass migration of people during the sacred puente. Not wanting to go too far, I settled on taking a day trip to Carmona, one of the province highlights that is often shadowed by Seville (even though, in my opinion, the province doesn’t offer too much by way of historical sites). 

Rain was on the forecast, but it didn’t matter – Phyllis and I grabbed Pequeño Monty and took the A-4 all the way into town. My first trip to Carmona was five years ago on a similar, drizzly morning – I’ve been aching to return since (particularly because that was one of my poorest points of expat life – we didn’t pay to see anything and split two plates of food between five of us).

Most visitors to the city arrive to the Plaza del Estatuto, known to locals as the Plaza de Abajo. The oblong plaza is lined with old man bars. I swooned immediately.

This small city, perched on a hill above acres of wheat and olives, has seen traces of Bronze Age settlers, Roman emperors, Visigoth Kings and the Moors before its conquest in the 13th Century. In pounding the pavement, I felt like we were on the tails of history.

The old center winds up from the Puerta de Sevilla and its imposing city walls and onto Plaza San Fernando towards Calle Prim, called the Plaza de Abajo by locals. Hidden within the gradually steep walls that stretch to the Iglesia de Santiago and the Puerte de Córdoba are tucked-away plazas, convents, grandiose cathedrals and stately palaces. Many alleyways are so slim, you can touch both sides of the walls.

There was little car traffic (it seemed the whole town was either sleeping off the Carnival celebrations or at a wedding at the Priory of Santa María), and we practically had the whole place to ourselves.

Ending the day at the Necrópolis de Carmona (which is free, so you have no excuse to not go), we had gone from lavish renaissance palaces to the ruins of an ancient burial ground by just driving to the other part of town. Laying along the Via Augusta, Carmona has been attracting tourists for millennia.  We were just two unassuming guiris still amazed that such old stuff exists.

Have you been to Carmona? What are you favorite villages in the Sevilla province? I’d recommend the following:

Estepa, Ciudad del Mantecado

Itálica and its Roman Ruins

San Nicolás del Puerto

Visiting Spain’s Archaeological Sites

Spain has an ancient landscape where you can explore ancient human sites that date back to prehistory. The earliest sites, the caves and rock shelters, date back to the Paleolithic (Stone Age). Spain’s oldest archaeology actually pre-date humans; the Orce Basin in the Andalucía of Spain has evidence of the earliest known Homo erectus in Europe, from around 1.6 million years ago.

yes, that’s me in 2009. memories.

Cave of Altamira

The Cave of Altamira is famous for its Upper Paleolithic cave paintings, which date from between 50,000 and 10,000 years ago. This was the first cave in which prehistoric paintings were discovered and helped to change the way we think about prehistoric human beings today. The cave was discovered in 1880 and it is close to Santillana del Mar in Cantabria, which is 30 km to the west of Santander.

Atapuerca

Atapuerca is the site of a series of limestone caves near Burgos in northern Spain. The main site is called Sima del Elefante (“Pit of the Elephant”) and contains fragments of human jawbones and teeth dating back 1.1 to 1.2 million years ago. Nearby is Gran Dolina, which also contains human remains and some early tools from around 800,000 years ago.

Baelo Claudia

Baelo Claudia was a Roman town in Andalusia, close to Tarifa. It is one of the finest ruined Roman towns in Spain. The town developed as an important trading post during the first century BC under the Roman Emperor Claudius. It had a forum, market and theatre. Many of the ruins have been restored and preserved.

Lugo Roman Walls

The Lugo Roman Walls date to between 200AD and 299AD and are one of the finest examples of a late Roman military fortification. They were built to protect the Roman city of Lucus Augusti, now called Lugo, in the north-west of Spain. Lugo is the only city in the world surrounded by a Roman wall (the Ronda da Muralla). The wall has ten gates. The city dates back to the Celtic period and is named after Lugus, a deity of the Celtic pantheon. In 13 BC it was conquered by Paulus Fabius Maximus and renamed Lucus Augusti.

Belchite

Belchite, in Zaragoza, is a relatively modern ruined town. It was destroyed during the Spanish Civil war in 1937 and has been left untouched since. The town was founded in 1122.

Mérida Roman Theatre

The Mérida Roman Theatre was built around 15BC and is the one of most impressive Roman ruins in Spain. When in use it could hold an audience of around 6000 people.

Mérida was known as Emerita Augusta and was the capital of Lusitania. Today you can also find the ruins of the Roman circus, amphitheater and the impressive Temple of Diana and the Alcazaba Fortress.

Castillo del Nicio

Castillo del Nicio sits upon a hilltop called Cerro del Castor in the province of Málaga. It has extensive ruins dating from the late Moorish period. Roman and Bronze Age items have also been discovered at the site.

Ruinas del Castillo de San Luis

Ruinas del Castillo de San Luis is a ruined castle dating back to 1646 on the island of Tierrabomba. It once controlled the entrance to Bocachica, an important trade route during the colonial period.

While most of the Roman and Medieval sites are within towns and cities and can be visited on public transport, it is best to rent private transport to visit the ancient archaeological sites, as rental cars are far more convenient in some areas.

What are your favorite arhcaelogical sites in Spain? Don’t miss Carmona, the dolmens in Valencina or Roman gem Itálica while you’re in Seville!

Seville Snapshots: The Pabellón de Navigación

Seville’s history is intertwined with the sea, despite being inland. It was here that The Catholic Kings gave Christopher Columbus permission and a couple of big boats to go find the East, and subsequently, all of the riches from the New World came through Seville on the Guadalquivir River.

During the Ibero-American Festival of 1992, the land around the Cartuja monastery was transformed into a futuristic city, where technology merged with tradition. Sadly, the city left this corner of Seville untouched for a few decades, and is now beginning to sell buildings to be recycled and re-used – and hopefully revitalize La Cartuja.

Perched on the banks of the Guadalquivir on the southern end of the complex (just opposite the Schindler elevator erected for the Expo’92), the building resembles a capsized boat, whose hull soars over you. The space hosts rotating exhibitions, as well as a permanent exhibit about Seville’s place in maritime history and what it was like to sail the seven seas. Opened in 2011, it’s a beautiful, open space, and worth a quick visit if you’re in Seville. There are plans in motion to open a small bar and offer boat rides on the river, too.

If you go: the Pabellón de la Navegación can be reached by city buses C1 or C2, or the 6, and is a 15 minute walk from Plaza de Armas. Visiting hours are, Tuesday-Saturday from 10am – 17:30 and Sundays and holidays from 10am – 15:00.

Seville Snapshots: The Ceramic Benches of the Plaza de España

I adore Plaza de España.

It was here in 2005 that I sat on one of the ceramic benches and journaled about studying abroad. Eight years later, I’ve made countless visits to the half-moon square with visitors (inlcuding Alex, my blog media naranja from Ifs, Ands & Butts), to photograph Andrea and Carlos’s wedding, and to the dreaded Extranjería for residency issues.

Originally built in 1929 for the Ibero-American Fair, the majestic building and its ceramic tile work crown the María Luisa Park. Roma gypsies peddle fans and tourists rent boats to float around the moat. The colonnades hide several government offices, but the main attraction are the hand-painted tiles that represent each province of Spain and its place in history.

In 2005, I sat at the Valladolid bench, fresh out of my study abroad experience. Moving back to Spain had barely crossed my mind at that point, and much less so, to Seville.

Have you even been to the Plaza de España? What’s your favorite monument in Seville?

Spain Snapshots: The Romanesque Churches of Oviedo

There is little I don’t love about Oviedo, the capital of the Principality of Asturias, nestled between the Picos de Europa and the Cantabrian Sea – the enormous cachopos, the spontaneous rainpours, the colorful plazas with cidra bars and the raucous Calle Gascona.

Gran amigo of Oviedo is the American director Woody Allen. Uvieu has been front and center in a few of his films, and there’s even a statue of Allen in the central part of town.

Claudia assured me I would recognize this famous monument of Oviedo:

Recognize these churches? Perhaps from the film Vicky, Cristina, Barcelona when Juan Antonio takes the women to Oviedo for the weekend to meet his father?

We spent a lazy Sunday morning hiking to the pre-Romanesque churches that rest just outside the city on Mount Naranco. There’s a small visitors center just off the parking lot, but the beauty is really in the details of the two churches – completed in the late 9th Century. Santa María del Naranco was built as part of a large palace complex to the Virgin Mary, with San Miguel de Lillo, 100 meters downhill, though both were converted into worship places.

It’s easy to see why – the views from Monte Naranco of the picos are incredible. Clau and I spent easily an hour there, looking out over the capital.

If you go: You can drive to Monte Naranco by following signs leading away from the train and bus stations in Oviedo, or you can also take the local bus numbered 10 from the city center, getting off at the stop marked ‘Cruce.’ Follow the signs uphill until you reach San Miguel. Santa María is just 100 meters on. There are a number of bars in the area with great views and sandwiches.

San Miguel is currently not open, though guided tours will take you to Santa María to explain its history, construction and patrimony every morning but Monday. The structures can be visited year-round.

What’s your favorite UNESCO World Heritage Site, either in Spain or beyond?

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