How to Spend a Weekend in Zaragoza in Spain’s Wild Northeast

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No Spanish place name holds as much mysterious promise as Zaragoza. It sounds like a magic word, the last phonetic flourish of a witch’s spell. Appropriate, given that the city feels almost conjured up by the windswept moorlands halfway between Madrid and Barcelona.

Located on the Ebro, this provincial capital has seen centuries of turbulence as the capital of the ancient Kingdom of Aragon – an area occupied in various ways over the millennia by the Romans, Islamic caliphates, Catholic monarchs and the forces of General Franco.

All have left their mark on current architecture, but there are few buildings more evocative than the Baroque spiers around the mighty Basilica of Nuestra Señora del Pilar, which marks the spot where the Virgin Mary is believed to have appeared to Saint James in 40 AD.

Step inside and you’ll find its interior domes colored by the art of Francisco de Goya, the artist born close enough to the city in 1746 to be considered a local hero. The master painter’s ubiquitous work remains a totem of Zaragoza’s enduring creative spirit, and its people – nicknamed “maños” – have inherited some of Spain’s richest traditions, from chocolate making to lively folk dancing. .

But perhaps the greatest magic can be found in the old town: a painted maze of taverns, courtyards and tapas bars that vibrate at night like blood in the veins.

First day: tiles and tapas

Morning

Catholic pilgrims come to worship two related relics at Nuestra Señora del Pilar: a small wooden icon of the Virgin Mary and the ornate jasper column on which it rests. Whether you’re a believer or not, the beautifully tiled and gilded Basilica-Cathedral makes a great base for a city tour.

Across Plaza del Pilar is Zaragoza’s other cathedral, La Seo, a marvel of hybrid styles (Romanesque, Gothic, Neo-Classical) incorporating the remains of an 11th-century mosque and a ancient Roman forum. Delve deeper into the city’s past with the ruins of the 1st-century baths and the amphitheater of Caesaraugusta, the Roman settlement that gave Zaragoza its name.

Afternoon

For generations, the city’s surrounding farmlands have long supported its citizens, with produce ranging from cereals to trunchon (sheep’s cheese). The signature dish, however, is ternasco, or roast lamb, which is best eaten quietly at El Real.

The restaurant has tables on a patio overlooking the Pilar and under the large archways of the Pasaje del Ciclón arcade. Shops here mix the usual chains with more specialized local workshops – if you’re shopping for something Aragonese, regional ceramic centers like Muel have been producing vivid, purple and green clay since the Middle Ages, while iterations modern ones of the same pottery are sold at Artesanía Aligia.

Evening

El Tubo (“the tube”) is a dense network of alleys packed with vintage taverns and modern bars between Gothic courtyards, Renaissance houses and sections of the Roman walls. Consider starting an evening with a glass of Cariñena wine at Bodegas Almau or one of the 24 gins on offer at Libertad 6.8.

Small corner bar El Champi is renowned for its unique tapa – garlicky mushrooms on bread – while Lamaribel Escabechado specializes in centuries-old marinating techniques to make rich, dense meat stews. El Plata is also in this area, hosting comedies, acrobatics and quasi-burlesque performances in a 1920s cabaret hall.

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