Zaragoza: North East Spain’s hidden gem

Zaragoza is the capital of Aragon, the north-east region of Spain, and is roughly an hour and a half by train from Madrid and Barcelona. Happily, this leaves visitors plenty of options to reach Zaragoza and although direct flights are offered, timetables are limited. For a weekend break, Madrid provided more favourable flight times and travelling by bus to Zaragoza itself was the much cheaper option. However, be advised the extra two hours travel time by bus might not appeal to others.

The landscape between Madrid and Zaragoza is a curious parchment. At times, its patched with green and the journey through the hills with small villages nestled between them can seem long until the landscape flattens to a basin where Zaragoza lies on the banks of the Rio Ebro.

The city itself is a testament to the shifting powers of Spanish history, changing hands from the Iberian tribes to the Romans and from one of the post Caliphate of Córdoba taifa kingdoms to a Christian state of Aragon.

Regular bus routes from the train and bus station bring arrivals to the city centre, Plaza di Aragon at the bottom of Paseo de la Indepencia. Paseo de le Indepencia is one of the main thoroughfares of the town and trams run the length of the street, and by extension the rest of the city. They are similar in design to the Luas in Dublin although rates of transport are cheaper. For a four-day weekend, it was possible to get by with 10 euro on a student travel card, although it is much more pleasurable to walk most distances in the fine weather. In late April, the temperature was a pleasant low to mid-twenties.

Friday evening upon arrival was spent in Parque Grande, the large park just off Paseo de la Indepencia and a favoured haunt of students from the University nearby. It is also popular with dog walkers and runners and was usually busy most times of the day. It’s possible to climb under the statue of King Alfonso I at the top of park’s hill for a splendid view of the city. Dinner that evening took place in EL Tubo, an area of small bars and restaurants at the bottom of Paseo de la Indepencia, just off Plaza Espana. Tapas is Spanish cuisine and is consumed in small portions. Typical choice of dishes are usually assorted meats like pork, beef and chicken as well as different cheeses, although combinations of fish are also popular including fried squid. Bravas, a diced potato served with a spicy tomato sauce was a personal favourite while salted pork went extremely well with the local beer, Ambar, which was available everywhere at low prices.

The next morning at another local park, Parque del Tío Jorge, the local GAA club Zaragoza GAA was holding a training session. The small club was only recently set up and is part of a larger network of GAA clubs operating in Spain. It was a new experience playing Gaelic Football with people from a different country who have never played before. Let’s just say there was a certain leniency of the hand-pass rule. Many Irish people work in the English language schools in Zaragoza and other Spanish cities and organise games between clubs in different cities. The afternoon was spent in an Irish bar, the Bull McCabe’s, to watch the disappointing Munster loss to Saracens in the Champions Cup semi-final. Bull McCabe’s itself is a lovely bar and quite authentic in comparison to other Irish pubs that spring up abroad. The projector at the back of the pub is an excellent feature to watch big games.

Before going out that night, dinner at the Bronson Bar was a delicious affair with the customized hamburger menu going down a treat. The nightlife schedule is quite different in Spain. For example, clubs don’t generally open until 2.30am and pre-drinks last much longer. Entry to the club Kenbo for 8 euro came with two free drinks which was great value and the music was kind of funny, switching from Spanish music to British or US pop. A night out ends usually in the early morning.

Sunday morning after a breakfast of coffee and bread rolls, the Basilica del Pilar awaited. Easily accessible by tram or by walking, the cathedral is enormous and is a well-known landmark of Zaragoza. Inside is beautiful and the domes overhead are decorated with frescoes, the most famous Francesco de Goya’s The Queen of the Martyrs. To climb the Basilica’s tower costs 3 euro although the elevator only goes up two thirds of the way. The rest of the tower is scaled by a winding staircase. At the top, the Rio Ebro shines on a sunny day and the outskirts of the city are visible. Looking back across the city is a wonderful experience and the vantage point lends the streets and rooftops a certain mystery.

Another tram back across the city to the University of Zaragoza takes around 15- 20 minutes. One of the oldest universities in Spain, the campus is pleasant to walk around although quiet on the weekends as most students are local and go home. A lazy afternoon sunbathing in Parque Grande was complimented by ice cream from the Gelato bars nearby. Dinner that evening in Gino’s was excellent, an Italian restaurant that offered a splendid two for one meal deal and was finished off by an evening in the local bars just off Plaza Espana in El Tubo.

Leaving Zaragoza the next morning by bus to return to Madrid, the Aljafería Palace extended an invitation from the departing scenery that unfortunately could not be accepted. The palace is a medieval castle originally built by Moorish Kings and eventually captured by Christians, the tour comes highly recommended as the palace symbolises an important transition in the region’s history, offering yet another reason to return to further explore Zaragoza, the city of Aragon.