Far away from the sea and midway between Barcelona and Madrid, Zaragoza – the capital of Aragon province – is seemingly unaware by many travellers. Many have never even heard of its name. However, Spain’s fifth-largest city is definitely worth a detour thanks to its impressive inheritances and monuments.
For the last 2,000 years, the Romans, the Moors, and then the Christians kings came and built their civilizations along the mighty Ebro River. There were rises and falls, but the vestige of the glorious past is still vivid in the monuments, churches and palaces around the city, including the centuries-old Basílica de Nuestra Señora de Pilar or the Moorish-styled palace, Aljafería. Today, Zaragoza is Spain’s fifth-largest city and one its most desirable living place, with great air quality, low density of population and low living cost.
Basílica de Nuestra Señora del Pilar
Completed in 1754, Basílica de Nuestra Señora del Pilar (better known simply as El Pilar Basilica) is Zaragoza’s most prominent landmarks. Standing next to the river, the multi-domed Cathedral in Baroque style was the first church devoted to honouring the Virgin Mary. It was ground broken in 1681 but was consecrated as early as the first or second century.
Legend said that on the 2nd of January AD 40 the apostle Saint James the Greater was praying on the bank of the Ebro River when the Virgin Mary appeared to him. She gave him a small statue of herself and a column of Jasper and instructed him to erect a church called Our Lady of the Pillar on the spot. As instructed, a chapel was built around the column, followed by a series of expansions, cumulating in the enormous basilica. Inside there are a number of artworks, however, the main attraction is the famous statue of Our Lady of the Pillar, located in the Holy Chapel.
800 years under the rule of the Moors, Spain was filled with many outstanding Islamic architectures. While most of them are gathered in the country’s southern part, Aljafería Palace was built in the northern state of Aragon. With ornate Arabic arches and intricate carvings, the palace is counted as Spain’s finest example for Moorish architecture outside Andalusia. The palace was originally designed as a residence for the Moorish rulers, reflecting the splendour attained by the taifa (an Arab Muslim state in Moorish Aldalucía) of Zaragoza at the height of its grandeur.
After reconquered by the Christians army in 1118, Aljafería Palace became the residence of the Kings of Aragon. It underwent an extensive refurbishment which transformed the Islamic building into the palace of Catholic monarchs. New decorative features are attached, while many of the Islamic architecture was left intact, including the magnificent Golden Hall. This is a rare case because very few Moorish-style buildings were spared by the conquerors.
- Zaragoza is easily accessible by high-speed train AVE from both Madrid and Barcelone. The trip takes approximately 90 minutes.
- Located outside the city centre, Zaragoza’s central station is connected to the city by bus Nr. 34. It cost around 3€.
- Entry to the cathedral is free. However, the lift at the northern tower cost 3€.
- The admission fee to the Aljafería is 3€. It costs only 1€ if you can provide an international student card.
- As Spain’s fifth-largest city, Zaragoza boasts a vibrant nightlife. Restaurants, bars, and pubs are concentrated around Calle del Temple, southwest of the Plaza del Pilar.