Zaragoza and Belchite

Monday 20 – Saturday 25 May 2019 – Zaragoza and Belchite

Zaragoza to Belchite and back

Zaragoza is the capital of north eastern Spain’s Aragon region overlooking the very brown Ebro River. We spent 5 days visiting the sites with a pleasant day trip to Belchite village, 45 kilometres southeast of Zaragoza.

Plaza de Pilar Zaragoza
  • CathedralBasilica of Our Lady of the Pillar
  • Museo Goya
  • Guru Free Walking Tour – Fuente de la Hispanidad; Torre Nueva – the Leaning Tower of Zaragoza; City Walls and the statue of Emperor Caesar Augustus; Puente de Piedra (stone bridge); Cathedral – Basilica of Our Lady of the Pillar; La Lonja Palace; San Salvador Cathedral – La Seo
  • Aljaferia Palace
  • Alma Mater Museum
  • Museum de Zaragoza

The best way to discover Zaragoza’s monuments is to stroll through its streets. The city walls, churches, basilicas, palaces and squares of the old quarter reflect the four civilisations that settled the city: Romans, Muslims, Jews and Christians.

River Ebro and Puente de Piedra

Cathedral -Basilica of Our Lady of the Pillar is a famous pilgrimage site with a shrine to the Virgin Mary and multiple coloured domes. It was built between the 17th and 18th centuries. Inside there is the Santa Capilla, where an image of the Virgin del Pilar can be found, the high altarpiece made out of alabaster, and two frescoes painted by Goya in the choir and the Regina Martyrum dome. On display near the Santa Capilla are two unexploded bomb shells which fell on the church during the civil war.  The church is enormous and very grandiose. Unfortunately, photography is not allowed, (well maybe just a couple). Today it was extremely busy with people visiting and a mass was in progress with a boy choir as an accompaniment to the event. We later found out it was a particular day of worship when the Virgin del Pilar is not covered with a skirt- like cover called a mantle.

Museo Goya

The Museo Goya contains a huge collection of one of Spain’s most revered artists, Francisco José de Goya. The museum consists of three floors each with a different focus. The first floor is Art Before Goya’s Time- paintings and sculptures dating from the 15th to the 18th centuries. The second floor is devoted to exhibits of Goya’s paintings and work and the Print Room exhibits the complete series of prints made by Goya between 1778 and 1825. The third floor is Goya’s Legacy – works of art reflecting the influence of the artist’s works on Spanish and Aragonese artists of the 19th and 20th centuries.

The museum’s main focus and ours is the figure of Goya. We spent many hours in the main room exhibits which is an extensive display of his religious paintings, portraits and many other scenes. The Goya prints are also vast and consist of several series of prints. In all we spent over 3 hours listening to explanations of paintings and looking at the works of an incredible man. The audio guide was a great help in understanding the works of art. Unfortunately, no photos are allowed again, (well maybe one or three).

Museums of Caesaraugusta’s Route – a city underground

Caesaraugusta is the only Roman city that had the privilege of bearing the full name of its founder, Caesar Augustus. It is thought to have been founded in 14 BC and during the 1st and 2nd century AD the city experienced a period of splendour in which large public works were undertaken. The onsite museums devoted to the Forum, River Port, Public Baths and Theatre form the Caesaraugusta Route and enable you to discover what life was like during the Roman period.

  1. Museo del Teatro de Caesaraugusta – Caesar Augustus Theatre Museum

The Roman Theatre was discovered by chance in 1972 when work begun on the construction of a new building. The archaeological excavations were carried out between 1998 and 2002. This is the best-preserved building of them all. The museum explains the significance of the theatre as a meeting place, a focal point for social life and leisure activities through the use of audio-visual and a virtual theatre depicting different types of performances.  It held about 6,000 spectators and the remains are quite extensive with the roof standing at 25 metres high.

  • Museo de las Termas Publicas de Caesaraugustus – Caesar Augustus Public Thermal Baths Museum

The baths are between the area of the forum and the Caesar Augustus theatre and were in use from the 1st century BC until the start of the 4th century AD. They were uncovered in 1982 and the only remains still preserved are the latrines and the porticoed pool.  Part of the latrines has been reconstructed to enable visitors to see what they were like. They consist of a line of benches and at the feet area a small channel for clean water for ablutions or to rinse sponges and cleaning utensils. The only remaining section of the porticoed pool are two column bases which formed part of the portico and a section of the pool area where you can see three steps leading to the bottom which was tiled with rectangular marble slabs. This is quite a small museum as only one room has been preserved.

  • Museo del Foro de Augusta – Caesar Augustus Forum Museum

This museum is located underneath the square of La Seo (the cathedral) and was discovered during excavations carried out between 1988 -1991.  It displays archaeological remains belonging to a market from the era of Emperor Augustus and the urban forum built at the time of his successor, Tiberius. There are also the remains of pipes, a sewer, foundations of part of the porticoes and some shop walls.  There is a set of models that reconstruct the forum with its main buildings and its relationship to the main street. This exhibition is quite fascinating as it shows this area was the nerve centre of the Roman city.

  • Museo del Puerto Fluvial de Caesaraugusta – Caesar Augustus River Port Museum

This is the largest structure and formed the northeast boundary of the Caesar Augustus forum which connected it to the bank of the River Ebro (navigable in Roman times) where the river port was located. It was uncovered in 1989 and the remaining structures are the arches of a spectacular façade oriented towards the river, leading onto a vestibule and the flight of steps that joined the port docks and the forum square. In some of the quarry stones you can see the marks made by the builders. Even though this was a large structure the Caesar Augustus Theatre Museum is by far the most outstanding of them all.  

Guru Free Walking Tour

We met our guide, Diego, in front of the concrete made globe at the Plaza del Pilar near the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Pillar.  The first stop we made was the Fuente de la Hispanidad, a fountain built in honour of Hispanidad, whose patron is the Virgin del Pilar.  The fountain is a large inclined plane through which water slides into a sunken pond below and represents a map of Latin America. In the upper left there is a canal, it is the Yucatan Peninsula and Central America. The waterfall represents the north of South America and the pond is the rest of the continent. The fountain is complimented by 3 prismatic blocks of different concrete dimensions with white marble, which evoke the 3 caravels on which Christopher Columbus embarked, and a concrete globe in which the other four continents appear in relief.  We were amazed by this because unless this is pointed out it appears just as a lovely waterfall. It is only when you see it from above you actually get the whole picture. 

Via a lift in the northwest tower of the church you get a fantastic view of the ten colourfully tiled mini domes that surround the main dome, the city and the map of Latin America.

Next, known by the locals as the Leaning Tower of Zaragoza, called by its Spanish name, Torre Nueva is a Mudejar style tower built in 1504 as a clock tower. Shortly after it was built, its inclination could be noted and has the same degree of inclination as Pisa.

Caesaraugusta was surrounded by a wall with numerous towers. The Roman wall protected a perimeter of 3 kilometres and three high lintels and a semicircular arch that evokes the primitive Puerta de Toledo, one of the gateways into the town remain today. 

Next to this stretch is the statue of Emperor Augustus, a bronze copy of the famous Augustus of Prima Porta, a gift from the Italian government to the city in the 1940s. The four names of the city are carved on the alabaster fronts: Salduie, Caesaraugusta, Saragusta and Zaragoza. If you position your camera right, it can appear that he is touch the Leaning Tower.

The Puente de Piedra, also called the Bridge of Lions because since 1991 four lions (symbols of the city) have been placed on the pillars at each end of the bridge across the river Ebro.  At night this is a great place to take a photo of the Cathedral – Basilica of Our Lady of the Pillar.

We entered the Cathedral-Basilica of Our Lady of the Pillar and this time it was not crowded, and the Blessed Virgin Mary was covered with a white skirt, which is the colour the majority of the time. We saw the repaired holes in the ceiling where the bombs entered the domed roof area; quite an amazing story about them never exploding and how the church has mounted them with information that is not biased.

Further along the square is La Lonja Palace, a 16th century building intended to provide a public place for the city where merchants could deal their goods instead of using the Seo and other churches. The city council now use it as an exhibition room and at present there is as a photography exhibition. The building is brick and from the outside appears very dull but inside the ceiling which is a fine example of Aragonese Renaissance style is absolutely stunning and very unexpected.

At the end of the square is a statue of Goya in front of the Forum

and San Salvador Cathedral (the “Seo”), Aragon’s most valuable and significant monument, where a mixture of medieval artistic styles is reflected, along with Renaissance and Baroque elements.

The exterior wall of the Parroquieta Chapel, on one side of La Seo, is the very interesting Mudejar architecture with colourful ceramic decorations in complex geometric patterns. At first glance the wall looks like a repeated pattern but the longer you look the more detail you see and the subtle differences. Located in La Seo Cathedral is a major collection of tapestries belonging to the Cathedral Chapter. No photography is allowed inside the church.

We ended the walk around the areas near Plaza de Santa Marta and La Magdalena, San Miguel, and El Tubo neighbourhood. This is an area of small alleyways packed with bars and restaurants, where the usual custom is to go from one bar to another sampling the specialty of each place, accompanied by a glass of wine or beer. After visiting some of these bars you can soon understand the reasons why the locals enjoy this custom so much.

Aljaferia Palace was built as a fortified palace for Zaragoza’s Islamic rulers in the 11th century and underwent various alterations after 1118 when Zaragoza passed into Christian hands. At first glance nothing could be more distant from the Arab world than this military fortress.

Aljaferia Palace

Yet, once inside the main gate you can see Muslim origins where rooms are arranged around the courtyard (with orange trees), which is open to the sky, delicate interwoven arches, coffered ceilings and plaster work decorations, which are absolutely stunning.  The tour was enhanced by an audio guide explaining each area in great detail.  No photographs were allowed in the Throne Room.  It is currently the headquarters of the Aragonese Parliament.

Alma Mater Museum is located in the Archbishop’s Palace next to the Cathedral. The permanent collection covers the Roman period till present, with artists such as Goya and Bayeu and tapestry which decorated the Sistine Chapel at the 16th century. The museum is small but very well presented with a religious perspective.

Museum de Zaragoza is the city’s oldest museum housed in the Renaissance Palace of the Pardo. Its collections range from the Lower Paleolithic to the modern era and include archaeology, fine arts, ethnology and Iberian ceramics. This is also where the four large series of engravings by Goya are displayed in one of the rooms. This was the main reason we visited this museum.

Zaragoza is a great place to visit not only because there is so much history to see, but the Aires has all the services and just across the road is the light rail which takes you into the city and runs frequently. 

Belchite

Belchite was reduced to ruins in a fierce civil war battle in 1937 between Spanish Republican and rebel General Franco’s forces. After the war the village was left in its ruined state and after 1939 a new village adjacent to the ruins was built by the Republican prisoners. The new town of Belchite wasn’t completed until 1954, leaving residents to scrape a living out of the destroyed town for fifteen years. The ruins remained a ghost town as a memorial to the war. 

Old Village of Belchite – Historical Ruins

The only way you can visit this site Is on a guided tour. As the tour is only conducted in Spanish audio guides are provided in English and other languages. Today Belchite looks largely as it did in 1939; piles of rubble strewn around. the clock tower the only part of one church barely standing, Mudejar brick and arch work of some residences evident, the cathedral pockmarked with bullet holes and gouged by mortar shells and an old well in a square. There is a cross to commemorate where residents were burnt and buried alive and a mortar shell evident in one wall of one of the churches. The tourist information centre has also placed photographic scenes of the events throughout the ruins which are very graphic.  It is a very somber place to visit.

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