07/18/2018 - 07/18/2018
By the fifth day of our trip, we were already traveling through our fourth autonomous region of Spain. These regions are not analogous to the provinces or states of other countries, such as the US or France, although the differences are sometimes difficult to understand. Anyone who keeps track of world events knows that over the years there have been significant issues related to the desire of some of these regions for complete independence from Spain, occasionally resulting in substantial bloodshed. Other regions are so closely affiliated with the central government in Madrid that their autonomy is superfluous. I won't claim to be an expert on Spanish domestic politics. Suffice it to say that Spain is a different animal from its Western European neighbors when it comes to the diverse priorities of its regional populations.
Aragon has been closely affiliated with Madrid and the central Castilian regions since medieval times, a union that was formalized by the royal marriage of Ferdinand and Isabella in the late 15th century. Because of its low political profile and lack of famous cities, Aragon has generally remained below the radar of international tourism. For us, that's a positive attribute. Our northward course to the French border would take us through all three provinces of Aragon: Teruel, Zaragoza, and Huesca. We arrived in Teruel towards the later side of lunch time, so our first priority was to make sure we didn't go hungry. Once we'd wolfed down some gourmet tapas at Gastrotaberna Locavore, we were able to focus on our exploration of the town.
Teruel's old town is relatively small but there's more than enough to see to make it a worthwhile stop if not an overnight stay. The Iglesia de San Pedro was our first exposure to Mudéjar architecture. This movement was a fusion of Gothic and Islamic influences that came about from the period of peaceful coexistence between Catholic and Muslim populations in the aftermath of the reconquest of central Spain. This coexistence ended when virtually the entire Muslim population was expelled from Spain during the Inquisition in the early 17th century, but fortunately the Muslim-influenced art and architecture has survived to this day. The church has a polygonal apse with minaret-like towers at the vertices and a separate bell tower that looked like it had undergone a modern renovation.
Some more wandering took us to Teruel's main square, Plaza del Torico. which is at the confluence of seven streets that extend into all different parts of the old town. The square had buildings whose beauty rivaled the most impressive specimens of Valencia and Barcelona, especially the surreal and lavender Casa del Torico.
Despite the allure of the old town, the streets were quiet and empty on a weekday afternoon. Perhaps that's why the unofficial motto of the town is "Teruel exists!". Of course, nothing makes us happier to encounter an atmospheric jewel in the middle of nowhere and have it almost entirely to ourselves. We explored more of the old town which contains several impressive Mudéjar towers, one of which is part of the Teruel Cathedral.
We had saved Teruel's most famous attraction for last, the Escalinata del Ovalo. This lengthy and elaborate outdoor staircase was only constructed a century ago, but was carefully designed to complement the original Mudéjar landmarks of the town. The staircase descends from the edge of the old town to the railway station below. We didn't have the time or the energy to descend the entire way, but we got a close look at the ornate landings and intricate brick banisters.
Half an hour from Teruel via a small local highway is Albarracín, reputed to be one of the most beautiful villages in Spain. The ancient town covers a steep hill nestled in a curve of the Río Guadalaviar, with the main road passing through a tunnel underneath. Once we arrived both Ian and Spenser were sleeping so we had no choice but to strap Spenser onto my back and take a stroller for Ian. We were already winded from climbing partway up the hill once we arrived at the foot of the town. High above us we could see the old city walls at the top of a hill. Facing south from the city we had views of the Albarracín Cathedral and the Castillo. To the southwest across the Guadalaviar were the classic scrub-covered rolling hills of Aragon.
Upon entering the town, we immediately found ourselves in the main square Plaza Mayor. From the square, narrow roads squiggled off upward and downward into the different levels of the town. We probably could have done more exploration if everyone was awake, but pushing the stroller up steep cobblestone roads quickly lost its appeal and we decided we had captured the essence of Albarracín.
We had a typically complicated arrival in Zaragoza. A main avenue brought us to the central neighborhood of El Gancho, where our Airbnb was situated, but the GPS then directed us into a narrow alley that I worried might lead us to an impassable situation. There was nowhere to stop on the street, so I drove up onto the sidewalk and I set out on foot on my own to locate the Airbnb. I soon found it and had the host explain to me the best way to bring the car up to the door. When I got back, Mei Ling had moved the car off the sidewalk and into the bus stop on the street. Apparently the cops had come by and forced her to move, although I can't imagine why it was better to have the car obstructing a bus stop than partially blocking a sidewalk. She told me they said they would be back shortly so we hurriedly took off and made our way back to the Airbnb, where the best news was that there was a working AC that hadn't been mentioned in the listing. It's rarely simple to find parking in Spanish cities, but central Zaragoza was locked down. I drove around the local streets for about fifteen minutes but every block was lined bumper to bumper with parked cars. Eventually I realized it was futile and parked in a supermarket garage, which turned out to be the most expensive one in the area.
El Gancho might not have been the best choice for parking, but it was the perfect location for getting around by foot. We didn't touch the car again for the remainder of our time in Zaragoza. Virtually everything of interest to a typical tourist is concentrated in a narrow area on the southern bank of the Río Ebro, the major river that arises in the Cantabrian mountains and courses eastward to the Mediterranean, splitting the region of Aragon in half. A few blocks to our east was the Casco Antiguo, or old town, with the central market and the famous Basílica de Nuestra Señora del Pilar. On our other side was the Aljafería Palace. We headed in the direction of the old town to find a restaurant, passing some amazing urban artwork on the way. At one major intersection I was amused to see the first American ethnic food store I've ever encountered. Of course, it makes complete sense. In the US we have plenty of Spanish, Italian, Greek, and other ethnic markets. Why wouldn't there be an American market in Spain? Unfortunately it was closed so I couldn't find out what typical American delicacies might be. Cheez Whiz? Frozen corn dogs?
We walked a couple of blocks away from the old town to find the restaurant I'd chosen from TripAdvisor, but it turned out to be full with an impossibly long wait despite the fact that it was only 8 pm on a Wednesday. I hate getting denied by a restaurant I've picked out because I can't escape the feeling that we lost our chance to have a legendary meal, and we'll never know what we missed. I wanted to retrace our steps back to the old town but Mei Ling shook her head and pointed in the opposite direction, which didn't look promising to me at all. I know better than to insist on my own plans, especially when I've just screwed up, so we headed down the wide and almost empty street Mei Ling had chosen. After a couple of minutes, we came across what looked like a little open-fronted mall with an escalator going upward. We could see clear signs of restaurant activity on the second floor and immediately realized we'd arrived at some kind of food court. Once we were upstairs, we knew we had found the most perfect possible place for us to eat. There were about a dozen stalls with every variety of Spanish food, from fresh seafood cooked to order to unusual and savory tapas such as octopus eggs. My favorite dish was the land snails, which I found crawling around a large bowl at the front counter of a tapas stall. When I placed my order, the hostess scooped up a few handfuls of the live snails and had a delicious dish ready for us in about twenty minutes. My regret at being turned away from the other restaurant instantly turned to consummate relief that we hadn't missed the opportunity to eat at Puerta Cinegia Gastronómica. It was our most enjoyable restaurant meal of the trip and overall an amazing experience. Mei Ling had done it again.