On the seventh day of our 2-week road trip through Spain, Travis and I woke up in Collado Mediano. It was time to pack our things and start making our way back to Switzerland. We were pretty sad about having to say goodbye to our friend AG, who had been traveling with us for the past few days. I didn’t really want to leave Spain, ever), and I half-heartedly stuffed clothes back in my luggage. It was late morning before we finally left AG’s summer home in Collado Mediano.
Briefly stopping in Madrid, we dropped AG off at her apartment. Thanking her parents again for their hospitality, we pressed them all to come visit us in Switzerland. On the way out the door, they gave us a glossy travel brochure for the city of Zaragoza, recommending it as a beautiful place to visit. We decided it would be our next destination on the way home through Andorra, a tiny country smushed between Spain and France. AG walked us to our car to see us off, and we waved as we drove off down her pretty little tree-lined street in Madrid.
Leaving the city center, we tried to navigate to a Corte Inglés – one of Europe’s biggest department stores that’s based in Madrid – so we could stock up on foodstuffs for the trip home. After passing through the seedy outskirts of the city, we finally arrived at our “store.” Unfortunately, it turned out to be a massive distribution center in a deserted area closed to the public. Instead of just turning around and heading back to the main highway, we thought we’d angle back that direction and “see new sights.”
Take note that an adventurous spirit doesn’t always pay off.
A series of wrong turns, dead ends, and intermittent cussing accompanied us until we found our way back to the main highway. With relief, we were once again Zaragoza-bound!
The city of Zaragoza, sometimes referred to as Saragossa in English, has known a host of names throughout its long history. Early Iberians who inhabited what was then just a small village called it Salduie. In all his modesty, Augustus Caesar dubbed it Caesaraugusta in the decades preceding the birth of Christ. When Arabs conquered the region in the 700s, it became known as Saraqusta for the next few centuries while under Islamic rule. The current name morphed from Caesar’s designation. If you slur Caesaraugusta quickly, you hear “Zaragoza.”
The etymology of the city’s name corresponds with its history of battles, conquests, and alliances between the Muslims and Christians. Ultimately, the city would be retaken by Christians and held against further Muslim invasion, but its roots were seeded from a Roman Catholic origin. This is possibly most visible in the very heart of Zaragoza where the Baroque cathedral, the Basilica de Nuestra Señora del Pilar, rises high above the Río Ebro.
Known as the first church to be built in honor of the Virgin Mary, locals believe that she appeared to Saint James where he was praying along the banks of the Ebro River in 40 AD. Appealing to him to build her a fitting home where she could forever reside, she gave him a statue of her seated on a jasper column with the baby Jesus in her arms. She promised that if the church were constructed in her name, Jesus would grant grace to the faithful who spoke her name at this holy site. The basilica was thus named the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Pillar.
A series of churches – Gothic and Romanesque – has since stood in this same place, growing ever larger and more grand. The current basilica is predominantly Baroque. It features a large central dome, 4 corner spires, and 10 smaller domes capped with stunning blue, yellow, green, and white tiles in geometric patterns.
The cathedral continues to shelter a small statue of the Virgin. Fervent believers claim it’s the original and that it has survived with little sign of wear for 1900 years. Others find it likely that the original was burned in a fire in the 1400s and has been replaced. Either way, the faithful travel to the church to kiss the statue, to ask for blessings for their children, and to pray to the Virgin Mary.
As with other attractions we visited on this trip, photos are prohibited inside the cathedral. Moments after we took a picture of the high altar, a “bouncer” aggressively descended on another woman photographing it. I’m not sure what he said, but I can imagine. From the expression on her face, he wasn’t gentle. Feeling a bit stifled suddenly and disappointed with their ban on photography, we left earlier than we otherwise would have. Ice cream was suddenly a more enticing option.
With numerous shops and eateries lining the plaza across from the cathedral, we had a host of options. The giant purple ice cream cone in front of Ferretti Gelato beckoned us inside, and the caramel and chocolate drizzled bins of gelato sealed the deal. Much cheered, we left a few minutes later with dulce de leche and cappuccino batidos (milkshakes) to explore the rest of the plaza.
Partially tucked behind a hotel, we encountered the Catedral del Salvador, another Roman Catholic church but one with a very different style from the Basilica. Often referred to simply as La Seo, it was built on the same site as a Moorish mosque that was partially deconstructed when the Muslims were expelled from the city in 1121. Remnants of the minarets are still visible in the current tower.
We wandered around the shallow pools and the many statues of Goya and other famous Spanish historical figures before rounding the plaza. We were rewarded with a nice view of the Basilica.
Reaching the far end of the Basilica, we looked back at the entire 130-meter length of it, which consequently is quite a bit longer than an American football field (not that that’s how I typically measure famous cultural sites).
And then we saw the Fuente de la Hispanidad.
Translation – Fountain of Hispanicity? Fountain of Spanishness?
Located at the far end of the plaza, it was simply fantastic, with cascading water flowing into a catch basin on one side of a walkway and a shallow pool on the other.
It’s impossible to see from the ground, but from the air or on a map, the entire water feature is shaped like Latin America. The raised portion represents the Yucatán and Central America. It’s separated from the pool in the foreground – South America – by a paved walkway, or peninsula, in between.
Perhaps it was the warm evening air, the fresh breezes mixed with the tinkling of cascading water, or the sweetness of our batidos, but the fountain surpassed all other attractions of the day for me.
Walking back to our car several blocks up the Ebro River, I marveled again that we’d found parking so close for less than 2 euros.
Oh Spain, I don’t want to leave you!
But we had to. A parking lot is no place to live, even if it is next to a friendly little plaza surrounded by palatial brick buildings. Several cars were double parked behind us, waiting for a spot. They made room for me to Austin Powers my way out, then one of them wung into our spot while the driver threw us a grateful wave.
Leaving Zaragoza turned out to be less simple than finding our way in. Using MapsMe, Trav directed me to turn right at a wonky intersection. I wasn’t immediately concerned that this put us driving directly down a set of railroad tracks since this isn’t uncommon in Switzerland – or at least it’s not in Basel where the trains “share the road” much like bicycles do in Oregon. However, when I realized a train was actually on the tracks up ahead and appeared to be facing our direction, we scoped out the lay of the land with a sinking feeling. We needed to vacate our current location, and quickly.
To our surprise, paralleling us on the right was a large van with a concerned Zaragozan half hanging out the window, gesticulating to us madly with his arms, his face contorted. Though we had already pretty much summed up the urgency of our situation, we weren’t sure how to get off the tracks, which were bracketed with barriers. When the van driver abruptly slammed on his brakes and waved us over, I Pensked that b**** a full lane over without even tapping the brakes. A thank-you wave hardly seemed sufficient, but it was all I could muster.
Is it any surprise we were relieved to leave the insanity of city driving in Zaragoza for the open road? With only castles and giant well-hung bull statues to keep us company, we made for Andorra.
Know Before You Go
Entrance to the Basilica de Nuestra Señora del Pilar is free.
A visit to the tower costs 3 euros. The church museum costs 2 euros.