Aragón: Compelling Natural Beauty in the Pyrenees
- by Don Harris
Ferdinand of Aragón married Isabel of Castile to create modern Spain, and the echoes of his kingdom are apparent to this day. Modern Aragón borders France in the north, Catalonia and Valencia in the east, Castile-La Mancha in the south, and Castile and Leon, La Rioja and historic Navarre in the west.
The compelling beauty of the region is amazing. We find Aragón to be a fabulous place to get lost in the best of the Pyrenees, while visiting a variety of villages and cities, which have been shielded from the erosion of modern times. Because of its unique geographic position as a crossroads, members of our family have often passed through mountains and their valleys where, in their remoteness, local cultures survive.
Two remote stone towns in Aragón are among our favorites. A few years ago, we decided to investigate the roads heading west from the Mediterranean coast north of Valencia and Castellón de la Plana. As we drove deeper into the rugged and remote Maestrazgo region, we were astonished to see the dramatic walled city of Morella perched on a rock 3,000 feet high. Once, as we walked (or is climbed the better word?) the steep city streets which lead ultimately to the cathedral, we had to duck into the rock-bound doorway of a sweets shop to dodge a small river of swirling water caused by a short cloud burst. The downpour had created a small river that gushed down the street. No need for a street sweeper here!
Sos del Rey Católico is another dramatic village hidden in the rugged mountains of Aragón. It is made completely of stone and has an uncanny medieval flare. When we walked the streets, we felt we were in another century – it was a solid and peaceful experience. Not far away was the timeless San Juan de la Peña – a small monastery carved out of stone in the 10th century, whose cave contained a pantheon of early kings and nobles of Aragón. It was one of the first sites we visited when we began investigating Spain many years ago, and remains a favorite.
We enjoy seeing the many vestiges of Muslim rule, which lasted into the 12th century. Aragón, was the northernmost reach of the Muslim caliphate of Al Andalúz. The city of Teruel has a dramatic setting. Her architecture has many horseshoe arches and beautiful tile inlays, including those in the Mudéjar ceiling of the cathedral and in many of the roofs and towers of the city.
Perhaps the most memorable visit of all was when visited Zaragoza during the festivities surrounding Nuestra Señora de Pilar, which coincides with Día de la Hispanidad, 12 October. It is a combined religious and civic holiday marking the cultural triumph of Spain. Usually members of the royal family are there along with church dignitaries.
We saw hundreds of people coming from the neighboring villages, and, to some extent all of Spain, dancing in traditional dress and carrying huge bouquets to lay at the feet of the Virgin. As you can imagine the offerings soon turned into a mountain of blooms -- several feet high.
Aragón has inherited its rich gastronomy from the different cultures that have passed through the region over the centuries. We enjoy its focus on its local products, which creates a simple, honest cuisine; especially noteworthy are rich and flavorful stews or cocidos. We also savor the way they prepare their slow roasted lamb and grilled lamb chops.
Because of the fertile Ebro River basin, it is a treat to visit the local markets and see the gorgeous pears, apples, cherries, and plums. The local empeltre olives are genuine black olives with a tang – unlike the bland processed black olives with which you may be familiar. Some of the finest arbequina olive oils come from Aragón as well.
"I truly enjoy reading all of your stories. Every time I visit your website I become anxious to return to Spain. Thank you!"
Where are you from in Spain? I am delighted to bring you some happy memories -- but I think the only remedy is to save up some pesetas and return. If that is out of the question, I hope we can bring you flavors of Spain to augment your fond remembrances."
"I haven't been to Zaragosa for over 35 years now but remember it as a friendly place, quite different from the small cities along the southern coast of Spain. We retrrned to Rota for a month long visit this past June and July. Stayed at the same apartment that my wife lived in when I first met her 40 years ago. The present owners Luis and Jose were gracious, and helpful, and of course friendly. We enjoyed our stay immensely."
"What a memorable reunion you must have had. Over the years the town of Rota has gained in stature in my eyes. Many years ago it was a colorful sailor town where many a young person from America learned to love Spain for the first time. Now it ranks with all of the coastal cities which enhance the Spanish experience. I love to return there."
"Don, Thanks for this site and the stories. My mother was born in Zaragoza and grew up in a small village called " Mezalocha". I grew up with the wonderful taste of Spain and as you know it is very hard to get that state side. Your site helps tremendously. As I have family all over Spain, I try to visit every 2 or 3 years. I concur with all your insight of the country and it's people. They truly know how to live. Since you have been to Zaragoza during the celebration of Nuestra Señora Del Pilar. I'm sure you enjoyed the great jotas that were performed. Maybe you could add a music from Spain section to your store. Thanks for bringing the US a little piece of Spain. "
"Good to hear from you, Tom. Jotas are great. One time a few years ago a woman spontaneously danced the jota and burst into song in our store! What a happy time we had!!
"Having grown up in Zaragoza from late primary school through finishing graduate school it is great to see some of its regional products highlighted. My parents are from Andalucía and my mother always joined the "flower parade" on October 12th with the Casa de Andalucía group, dressed in flamenco regalia, and dancing and singing to praise the Virgin, a tradition that my sister who lives in Zaragoza still follows with her children. Geographically speaking Aragón is a wild region of extremes. It is landlocked but it has many of the other climates present in Spain. From Aneto, the highest peak in the Pyrenees, to the lush river basins of Ebro river, the longest in Spain which crosses the heart of the region or the Cinca river where those famous fruits you mention grow, to the extreme desert of the Monegros, Aragón has it all. Historically the region is also rich with pre-Roman Iberian sites, Roman history including Zaragoza named after Cesar Augustus (the name Caesar augusta evolved through the ages into Zaragoza) who donated the lands to veterans from his legions, the Moorish and great history of the Kingdom of Aragón the widest empire in the Late Middle Ages extending through what is now Catalunya, Valencia, the Balearic Islands, Sardinia, Sicily, Southern Italy up to Naples and territories in Greece. In the Seo Cathedral in Zaragoza you can see all those layers of an old Mosque on top of which a church in evolving styles was built, first Romanesque, Gothic and Mudejar the style of the Moors that stayed in Christian land. Suckling lamb is deservedly famous and shocking how little. Jamón Serrano from the highlands in Teruel and some of the ones I've recently tried from Somontano on the foothills of the Pyrenees is on par with any non-iberico ham. Wines from the region, once terrible oxidized messes with extremely high alcohol upwards to 18% natural alcohol, have gone through an incredible technological revolution and are now taking full advantage of extremely old vineyards at very high elevations with low natural yields and on very diverse soils. Regions like Campo de Borja, Calatayud, Cariñena and Somontano to name a few deliver incredible values in their respective price ranges. Thanks for sharing your experiences of the authentic spirit of Spain, Don. Not many are focused on that, even back there they seem to have moved on a bit. Saludos!"
What an amazing description of Aragón. Would you give me permission to post so of your writing on my blog, or on our map describing that beautiful land?
"I have been told the original ancestor of the Villanuevas of the Philippines came from Aragona and I have the lineage down to 1819 with the birth of my great x 3,4 or 5 grandfather was born in the Philippines. I was in Barcelona October, 2013 and realized while there that Aragona was next to Catalunya. I have the insignia of the Spanish Villanuevas whose shield declares "the clan to be military men in the service of the King". I wonder how I can go beyond 1819 in my genealogical research and to find out where in Aragona their town is since the Middle Ages.
"I am from Madrid. I married an american man and moved to the US.I think having a music section in your store would be great. I am trying to find popular Spanish villancicos and cannot find them in the States. There are PDF or non at all!"
"Yes I agree that music is integral to the marriage to the Spanish culture as specially around the Christmas season. I have found that if you have a little patience you can sign find some villancicos in Amazon there are classic ones and more contemporary Christmas music. As you look through them you will see that many are from Latin America and in contrast to Spain so I would check the list to see if that particular CD as the songs that you remember so well"