At the beginning of December we took advantage of a four day weekend (Thursday - Sunday) as well as a holiday on the proceeding Tuesday of that week that we also had off. We got brave and asked our schools if we could have the Wednesday off in between to make for six consecutive days off, and they said yes! It was especially nice since we were only two weeks out from our two week Christmas break.
We left Monday after school at around 8pm, if my memory serves me well (and it often doesn't), and arrived at our Zaragoza Airbnb late, but it allowed us to have all of Tuesday in Zaragoza, so it was a good call, I think. Oh, and if you've been following along with our Spanish adventures this fall, you're probably thinking, "Another road trip? Predictable! Yawn." Nope. There was no way I wanted to mess around with a car in Barcelona, so I took advantage of some Black Friday train deals and...all aboard!
(Don't even get me started on how EASY, CONVENIENT, and GREAT train travel is. Not always cheap, which is why we don't always do it, but every time we do it I want to do it more.)
Zaragoza is the fifth largest city in Spain, and I'd always wanted to visit because of the Basílica del Pilar, its iconic cathedral along the Ebro River. We started our day on Tuesday at the Aljafería Palace - a Moorish fortress from the 11th century that looks like a castle from the outside but is kind of like a mini-Alhambra on the inside. Since Tuesday was a public holiday, entrance to the Aljafería ended up being free, but we also had to wait in a long line to get in. Win/lose.
D - After visiting so many places with Moorish architecture, it can be easy to take the style for granted, but it truly is spectacular. I'm always amazed (okay, sometimes amazed, see: take for granted) by the intricate designs carved everywhere. To enhance your visit to places like this, one of our favorite travel writers (Rick Steves, duh) suggested that one should imagine fat, mustachioed sultans sitting on pillows and smoking hookah. Or something like that. Anyway, it really does work. You should try it. I've amplified the scenario in my own imagination to include some sort of big exotic cat sauntering freely from room to room. Perhaps a cheetah, or a tiger. Or Garfield. It's completely up to you.
We were staying not far from the Aljafería, so up to that point we hadn't seen much of the city yet. As we walked further into the center to get to the main attraction (the basilica) we realized that Zaragoza really had it going on for Christmastime. There was a Christmas market set up complete with an ice rink, wooden carousel and ferris wheel (both restricted to children, sadly), tubing hill, a life-size walk-through Nativity village, and dozens of stalls selling all manner of food and gifts...it almost felt like we weren't in Spain anymore (jk, jk, sort of...). It was really nice, and reminiscent of what we experienced in other European countries last Christmas.
D - I've really been looking forward to this post a lot because this is one of my favorite cities that we've been too, for many reasons. One reason is because I keep having low expectations for cities that I haven't really heard much about (and I'm pretty ignorant so it's a long list) so when we get there I'm very pleasantly surprised. That's a good state of mind to be in while traveling, and it was definitely the case for Zaragoza. Another reason that I really loved the city was the Christmas market. We were originally planning on going to Austria or Germany for this trip to experience some great Christmas markets (among other activities), and were really bummed when the trip just wouldn't come together. We weren't expecting the Christmas market in Zaragoza at all and it was super cool. As someone who regularly makes grand, sweeping statements with no evidence or data to back them up, I can say with 100% certainty that this is the best Christmas market in the whole of Spain! Really though, from our limited experience, it is by far.
The basilica/cathedral was pretty great. It was just like the pictures that drew me to Zaragoza in the first place, and the fall colors along the river (in December!!) only enhanced the experience. There's a great path along the river which I imagine we would have followed a bit farther had we had more time in town, but I recommend going across one of the bridges for different views of the basilica.
I didn't time everything quite as well as I could have and we weren't able to go up to the basilica roof until later in the afternoon (Spanish siesta, you know), so we went to check out the Roman theatre (approx. 2000 years old!!) but like I said about my bad timing...it had closed earlier (for the day, not just for a siesta), so we just viewed it from the outside. Which may have been just as good of a view as from the inside, to be honest.
D - This picture is one of several, from a series I like to call "making my wife wait on a bench for 15-25 minutes while I wait for the sun to be in just the right place."
We elevator-ed to the top of the basilica (or, as high as was allowed) and took in the views not only of the roof but of the city and river. I often hesitate to pay to go to the top of 'things' (churches, buildings, viewpoints, etc, etc) because I'm like, "One more view? How good could it really be? Certainly not good enough to be worth the money!" But this one was. Mostly because the roof is pretty special (not captured all that well by us though - what else is new?!) and it was golden hour.
D - Here's a nice picture which highlights my handy European Carry-All, or as Shannon and some "friends" here in Madrid profanely refer to it as, my purse.
We wrapped up our sightseeing in Zaragoza with a visit to La Seo Cathedral, which is just steps away from the basilica. Photos weren't allowed on the inside, but our admission fee granted us entry to the cathedral - beautiful! And so unassuming from the outside. - and also the adjoining tapestry museum (we whizzed through it pretty quickly but I'm sure others would find it more engrossing than us).
D - Try as I may, I just can't get into tapestries.
We had dinner at Mr. Dumbo, a Middle Eastern place with great prices and a humble atmosphere, but still rated as the 4th best restaurant in Zaragoza (according to Trip Advisor, so...?). Always on the look out for reasonably priced vegetarian food, and it's nice when it's not necessarily a vegetarian restaurant either (you know, just a 'regular' restaurant that has options for us 'weird' ones.). We finished the evening with a delicious dessert made by our hosts, a pleasant surprise that is one of the pros of staying at an Airbnb - you're staying with people, and sometimes people are really kind and hospitable and generous (it should also be mentioned, though, that all of our conversation with them took place in Spanish...and our Spanish is...abysmal?...so it was an adventure!).
D - The older couple who hosted our Airbnb was really nice, but there were definitely some awkward, quirky things about this place that we haven't experienced elsewhere. First, they joined us every morning for breakfast. Also, the door to our room was a slider, but the door wasn't big enough to cover the opening so when it was "shut" you could still see and hear what was happening on the other side because there was a full inch of exposed space on the side.
Zaragoza was a great first stop and, I think, we had the perfect amount of time to spend there. If we needed to we could have cut things down a bit and probably done everything in a morning or an afternoon, but we might have needed to get the opening and closing hours of things just right, or have been willing to forgo certain things. Train tickets to Barcelona from Madrid can be rather pricey, but if you go to Zaragoza first, and then onto Barcelona, I think costs come down significantly, so maybe something to consider if you've wanted to check out Zaragoza (which you should if you haven't!).