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travel, stories, and other flights of fancy

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Zaragoza – madness and mudéjar

The first time I came across the name Zaragoza was when studying a map of 1612 Spain for a uni history assignment. The subject was “Witches and Witch Hunting in Europe”, a bit of an anomaly amongst my other more modern and ‘relevant’ studies. The topic for my final essay was The Basque Witch Craze and the Spanish Inquisition, a theme which I found a little too absorbing – the research obsessed and possessed me. Hours of poring over exotic, illuminated documents and ancient maps, with names like Zugarramurdi, Urdax, Almándoz and Zaragoza, transported me to the mystical world of early 17th century Spain. I imagined it as a fiery, craggy landscape, dotted with tiny wooden villages and inhabited by a backward, superstitious people, who trudged through the mud and mist, wailing in overly pious hysteria and cackling with deranged laughter as they burned ‘heretics’ at the stake (condemning them to a hell even more insufferable from the one they already inhabited). Over the course of my research I also developed a slight crush on Alonso de Salazar; a young inquisitor with beautiful calligraphy and a formidable determination to save the innocent lives of old, misunderstood spinsters. You can read the essay here if you like.

Back in the real world, it came as a bit of a shock when I found out that Zaragoza now has a population of 800,000 people, and is considered to be one of the most modern and architecturally advanced cities in Spain (and it was the first to have a telephone network introduced). How disappointing.

Undeterred, I resolved to visit it after all, mostly because Zaragoza is such a cool name, but also because it’s the province where Goya was born and is home to a number of his works.

Last weekend was “the bridge of Carnival”, a four day weekend to facilitate the debauchery that traditionally precedes the solemn fasting period of lent. I did not partake in any debauchery and nor do I have any intention of being solemn, fasting or ‘doing’ lent, but bridge weekends are great for domestic tourism, so off I went with a friend to visit Zaragoza.

The city itself was a little disappointing, through no fault of its own. The weather was awful, the modern architecture (slick bridges and shell-like exhibition centres) didn’t interest me, and we had to pay for tapas, which felt like a terrible injustice. There were a lot of unfortunate looking run-down high rises and abandoned shopping strips, which is completely normal, I suppose, for a normal city in a country in the midst of a financial crisis.

However, despite not being particularly attractive, Zaragoza did have its attractions, which rendered the trip completely worthwhile:

Goya’s etchings: Forget the crown-commissioned tapestry designs and religious frescos of his younger years, it’s when Goya was an old man  – deaf, depressed, and disheartened by society – that his true genius surfaced. At the Museo de Ibercaja in Zaragoza you can see his complete engravings. They’re beautifully displayed, with each series to a cabinet, and carefully lit to showcase all their gory detail. The atrocities of war, brutal excitement of bull fighting, chaos, despair, and madness…these are the demons that haunted Goya’s darkest years. Although he lived a full century and a half after the witch craze in the same area, you’d be forgiven for thinking that he was contemporary to the event, and witness to the winged devils reported in Salazar’s investigations. Goya’s etchings are the star feature of a three level exhibition that also boasts some fantastic medieval art, and an incongruous selection of modern works (some of which are tenuously connected to or inspired by Goya). Overall it’s a lovely gallery, with an easy layout, pleasant atmosphere, and a lot of thought provoking material on offer. Well worth a second visit, especially as it’s free!

Mudéjar: Refers to the Arabs who continued to live in the Iberian Peninsula long after the Christian reconquest, and also describes a particular style of Moorish architecture found in Castile and Aragon in the North of Spain. Zaragoza has some fantastic examples, the most notable of which is the Alfajería, a beautifully conserved castle which boasts elaborate Moorish arches, detailed painted ceilings, an Andalusian style orange garden, a small (but fascinating) exhibition on the history of Aragonese shields, and various bits and pieces of ancient pottery and Islamic tiles. Another great example of Mudéjar architecture is La Seo del Salvador, now a Christian cathedral. Like many in Spain, it la Seo del Salvadorhas a bizarre mix of Arab and Christian design – a tessellated mosaic facade, a sombre Gothic interior (vaulted ceiling), and rows of ostentatiously gilded chapels (each devoted to a particular saint). There’s a lot to take in, and to be honest, I found it a little oppressive, but if Christian symbology is your thing, I’d definitely recommend it. If not, at least check out the exterior.

El Tubo: If it weren’t for this recommendation (a student of mine used to live in Zaragoza), we would have been completely lost when it came to eating out. El Tubo is a series of narrow side streets adjacent to the Plaza de España. Although the tapas weren’t free, they were cheap (1 or 2 euros each), and delicious, and there were a tonne of slick-yet-affordable bars to choose from. All had friendly service and a welcoming atmosphere. However, many stopped serving food shortly after midnight on Saturday. Again, another shock to the system!

In short, after two days and nights in Zaragoza, I was feeling culturally sated, but a wee bit underwhelmed by the gastronomy and nightlife. I’m told the city has a second ‘hub’ on the other side of the river, but this seemed a long way off, and the weather was not conducive to exploring. After a slight mishap with trains (fortunately resolved by the world’s most friendly station attendants) and a three hour wait (spent in a restaurant, of course), we boarded a train for Logroño – another key city in my witch hunting project, which these days is more commonly known as a wine Mecca.

to be continued…



Alicante is the second largest city in a province of Spain that’s famous for oranges, paella, speaking Catalan, and a beautiful Mediterranean coastline.

Whilst the capital of the province, Valencia, is known for its cultural attributes (such as the City of Arts and Sciences, and Las Fallas, a festival of burning giant papier-mâché statues), Alicante has a bit of a bad rep for being little more than a crowded port city that has nothing to offer, other than jam-packed beaches and budget accommodation.

AlicanteAfter having just spent three days there, I can’t say much to the contrary. There didn’t seem to be anything do there but go to the beach. But in Alicante’s defence, I didn’t actually bother looking (does anyone?). And are crowded beaches and cheap accommodation really such a bad thing?

Thanks to my thorough, investigate research, my official consensus is: if you want no-frills sun and sand, easy beach access, and guaranteed lunchtime menus of under 10€, then look no further than Alicante.

If you want your own private coastal paradise: I have very little first-hand advice to offer. But as a foreigner, you’ll probably need to do a bit more research, have access to a car, and pay a fortune for accommodation or have rich friends with well appointed holiday houses. It’s also possible that you’ll need to wear a lot of white, start smoking cigars, take out a loan to pay for each gelati, and get used to being surrounded by the type of people that wear false eyelashes and/or toupees to go jogging.

Ok. I’m exaggerating. There are plenty of decent, affordable, non-pretentious non-crowded holiday destinations in Spain. I just chose Alicante because I wanted to go somewhere I hadn’t been before, that was easy and cheap. And I actually like ridiculously crowded beaches.

You get to see all the bodies.

Without sounding too perverted (okay I already sound perverted), it really is fascinating to see all the different shapes and sizes and colours that people come in. One of the things that I love about Spain is that at the beach, everyone lets it all hang out. In Australia we’re so reserved. Given that we’ve got more coastline and less people, it’s only natural that at the beach (and in general I suppose), we have a lot more ‘personal space’. But personal space doesn’t really exist in Spain. People stand much closer when they talk to you, and in Alicante, everybody squishes in together on the sand. Luckily there are no flies, or you’d be swatting your neighbour with your thong by accident. (Sorry, I mean flip flop).

Anyway, on Spanish beaches, people don’t frantically cover their cellulite with a sarong the moment they get out of the water. All flesh has equal right to vitamin D. Unless you’re a doctor, nurse, mortician, or bikini waxer, the beach is probably the only place where you’ll be exposed to the sheer range of possible forms the human body can take. There are Mediterranean goddesses that make Penelope Cruz look ordinary. Overweight idlers that make Jabba the Hut look petite. Elderly couples that have morphed into shimmery cellulite reflections of each other (you can’t actually distinguish him from her…they’ve both got boobs and a gut). There are the most curiously proportioned people… there really are no laws of distribution. Wrinkles can fan out at 360 possible angles. Anything that has a cheek can have a dimple. Everyone is so refreshingly, fascinatingly human.

If being at the beach is great for body image (I felt completely unabashed of my regular 4pm ‘menu del día’ belly), swimsuit shopping has the opposite effect. Trying on swimsuits makes me feel like an extra terrestrial ugly duckling. How is it possible to be too fat and thin at the same time? How did all the people on the beach find their swimsuits? There must be some bewitchment going on… department stores are clearly the Devil’s work.

Clearly I have no choice but to join a nudist colony. Which will hopefully excuse me from all future photo-less blog posts.