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?

Top Tips for Visiting Catalonia

Catalonia is without a doubt one of Spain’s most beautiful regions, home to the splendid Pyrenees mountain range, striking medieval villages, breathtaking scenery and of course vibrant and culturally rich cities such as Barcelona, Girona, and Tarragona. With this in mind, here are some top tips to help you make up your mind whilst visiting this delightful Spanish region.

Visit the city of Barcelona


When visiting Catalonia a visit to Spain’s second largest city is a must. You will have the chance to explore this visually stunning and incredibly exciting city, admire Gaudi’s impressive architecture and enjoy attractions such as Montjuïc’s Magic Fountain and Port Vell. Spend a few days here to truly experience the vibe of the city, you will be able to find your room in Barcelona through this page.

Admire the Costa Brava


The beautiful Costa Brava begins in Blanes and stretches for miles on end before reaching the French Coast. Visitors are able to explore quaint Catalan villages such as Begur and Tossa del Mar before taking a dip in the crystal clear waters or relaxing on the beach. The Costa Brava is also lined by delightful restaurants and bars making it a wonderful place to enjoy a little Spanish nightlife.

Explore medieval Montblanc

Montblanc is located in the Catalan region just one hour’s drive from the city of Barcelona. Legend tells that it was here where St. Jordi killed the ferocious dragon back in the medieval times. The medieval village itself is well worth a visit due to its spectacular ancient defences, splendid architecture, colourful past and extraordinary Catalan panoramas.

Marvel at Tarragona’s Poblet Monastery


If you are passionate about architecture you will almost certainly want to visit Bargués’ fabulous monastery. The monastery has been considered a UNESCO World Heritage Site for more than two decades and attracts a staggering number of visitors each year. This is one of Spain’s most historically significant buildings as it was once the royal pantheon of the almighty kings of Aragón.

Discover the Delta de l’Ebre


This spectacular nature reserve is also home to Spain’s rice growing plantations. If you are a keen bird watcher you will be delighted to admire the region’s many migratory species from the specially constructed birding stations. Nearby visitors are able to visit a number of museums dedicated to the Battle of the Ebro, the longest battle of the dramatic Spanish Civil War.

Catalonia not only boasts awe-inspiring architecture, natural beauty and a fascinating history, but this Spanish region is also celebrated for its divine cuisine, exquisite shopping and vivacious nightlife meaning that there really is something for everybody!

Check back in a few months when I delve even deeper into Cataluña (a region I really like, despite not clicking with Barcelona) as a part of my 17 Spanish Regions series! For the first two installments, click here.

What are your top tips for Catalonia?

Spain Snapshots: A Visit to Spain’s Highest Point, el Teide

The Megane steadily climbed out of Santa Cruz de Tenerife, past La Laguna and into the plush interior of the island. The pines and windy roads took me back to Colorado, but with an occasional glimpse of Atlantic waters.

Gua guas pushed up the hill slowly, and Forrest swerved around them, comfortable as he shifted into third in our rental car and rode the mountain up. Tenerife was formed by an underground volcano 30 to 50 million years ago, and its highest point, Teide, actually gives the island its name: tene (mountain) and ife (white), joined by an /r/ during the colonial period. The entire island is formed from volcanic rock, in fact, evident from the steep ride up and down, and the white-capped mountain is visible from seemingly every rincón of the largest island in the archipelago. 

Once we reached the national park and UNESCO World Heritage site, we parked the car and took the gondola up the mountain. Most tourists don’t venture up to the top, standing nearly 3800 meters above sea level, despite Teide being one of the most visited sites in Spain. The landscape is almost barren, and the only sign off life we saw after starting our ascent were lizards.

Steep rock stairs have been carved into the rock face, but we still scrambled over boulders, stopping for vistas and water breaks every 10 steps because the air was so thin. 

The great crater caused by multiple eruptions in visible from just about everywhere on the island, but seeing it from a bird’s-eye-view was insanely cool.

From the very top, you can see Gran Canaria to the east and la Gomera to the west. We actually hiked above the cloud level that covers the occidental side of the island, watching them get burned off by the warm midday sun.

If you go: Visitors can take the gondola up the mountain at the cost of 25€. If you want to hike to the top, you’ll need to print off an access pass on the national park’s main page. It’s free, but you’ll have to bring a form of ID.

Be sure to dress in layers, as it’s cold at the top, and wear comfortable shoes. Bring sunscreen, sunglasses and plenty of water, as there are no facilities after leaving the visitors center.

Have you ever visited a national park in Spain?

My rental car was graciously provided by Car Rentals UK. All opinions (as well as the memories of my stomach dropping during the hairpin turns) are my own.

Spain Snapshots: The Carnavales de Cádiz

If andaluces are considered Spain’s most affable folk, it’s believed that the gaditanos, those from Cádiz, are blessed with the gift of wit. At no time in the year is this trait so celebrated as during the Carnavales de Cádiz.

Based (very) loosely on Venice’s extravagant Carnivale, this pre-Lenten festival is a huge tourist draw in Andalucía in which choirs, called coros, entertain city dwellers from flatbed trucks around the historic center. There’s also a song competition between chirigotas, or small, satirical musical groups who compose their own verses about whatever happens to be controversial each year.

But because it’s before Lent, why not add a pagan element to the festivities? Cádiz’s city center fills with young people who dress in costumes and carry around bottles of booze on Saturday night.

My first Carnaval experience was insane – partying with my Erasmus friends from Seville and Huelva, dressed up as an Indian with a kid’s costume I bought for 8€, endless amounts of tinto de verano and strong mixed drinks. I even ripped my shoes up on the broken glass that littered the streets.

Returning home at 6am and pulling into Plaza de Cuba just before 8, I slept the entire day, waking only for feul and a groggy Skype date with my parents.

Carnaval, you kicked my culo (but I blame the cheap tinto de verano).

For the next few years, I happened to always be out-of-town for the festivities (though I did make it to Cologne for their classed-up Carnival). In 2011, I joined a few friends, this year dressed for the weather and better rested.

The serpentine streets that wrap around town hall, the port and the cathedral held even more people than I remembered, pre-crisis. Like the chirigotas, revelers dress in sarcastic guises, or something that pokes fun at politicians or current events.

In 2011, everyone was hasta el moño with the government limiting freedoms, like pirating music and driving too fast on the highway. My personal favorite? When costumes are scandalous and obnoxious. Case in point: 

Being smarter this time around, we spent the night making friends and reliving our college days. No broken glass, lost friends or cold limbs!

Interested in attending the Carnavales?

March 1st and 8th are the huge party nights in 2014. Be sure to reserve travel and accommodation as far ahead as possible, as the city of Cádiz is quite small and everything gets booked up quite quickly. It’s not advisable to go by car, as parking is limited. You could also get a ticket with a student travel company and stay up all night.

Bring enough cash, as ATMs will run out of small bills, and you’ll probably be tempted to buy something to snack on from a street vendor. Dress for the weather – the nights will get chilly along the coast.

You can also consider attending a less-chaotic carnival in other towns around Spain, like Sanlúcar de la Barrameda or Chipiona. Plus, the choirs and chirigotas are a treat, and there is plenty of ambiance during the daytime.

Love festivals? Check out my articles on other Spanish Fiestas:

Spain’s Best Parties (Part 1) // The Tomatina // The Feria de Sevilla

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!

Spain Snapshots: My 2014 Spain Wish List

The great thing about living in Spain is that I have an entire country to explore. Although I’ve been to each of Spain’s 17 autonomous regions, there are still so many more places that I’d like to visit.

2013 had me in various new places in Spain: Calpe, Avilés, rural Galicia as I walked the Camino de Santiago, and I have one trip booked for 2014 to Tenerife. There are several other places I’m hoping to visit this year:

Trujillo

Cradle of the conquerors, Trujillo is a medieval town crowned with castle ruins near Cáceres. I’ve seen it a dozen times from a car window, at the A-5 highway passes nearby, but have never been able to stop in Pizarro’s birthplace for so much as a coffee, much less a walk around. Plus, they have an entire festival to CHEESE.

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Thankfully, I’ll have the chance to see Trujillo later this year, thanks to winning a contest through Trujillo Villas for writing about my most memorable meal in Spain.

Jaén

Despite my major allergy to olive blossoms, I’ve always wanted to see Jaén and its rolling fields of olivos and enormous cathedral. In fact, it’s called the city of liquid gold, due to the immense amount of olive oil that’s produced here.

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While in Jaén, I’d also like to visit the Renaissance villages of Úbeda and Baeza, which are also UNESCO World Heritage Sites, and perhaps visit Cazorla to hike. It’s moments like these when I’m thrilled to have a car.

Ceuta

Ceuta is an autonomous Spanish enclave in Morocco where both Spanish and Arabic are spoken. I have a few friends from Ceuta, and I’m interested in seeing how a Spanish city on the African continent lives its day-to-day life. And the food clearly interests me!

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While not in mainland Spain, Ceuta is reachable by ferry from Tarifa and Algeciras. The Novio’s friend Ana has a boyfriend living there, so we really have no excuse.

Mallorca

Laugh all you want – I have never been to Mallorca, save a few airport visits (I have, however, partied in Ibiza and lived to tell the tale…if only I could remember!). Mallorca is famous for its beaches and calas, island culture and Rada Nadal.

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I skipped my chance to go to Menorca with a friend last summer, and have regretted it ever since. Who knew water could be so blue? Air Berlin flies directly from Seville, so there are plenty of chances each week to escape.

What are the places you’d like to visit in Spain? Have you been to any of the places on my list and have places to suggest to eat and sleep?

Disclaimer: these photos are clearly not mine because I have never been to these destinations. If you are the author and would like the photo removed, please contact me directly.

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