Sunday, June 3, 2007

A day trip to Zaragoza

Early one Saturday, I boarded a train to travel to Zaragoza, a city located to the north of Madrid. Zaragosa is the capital of the autonomous region of Aragon. It has a population of a little more than 600,000, and it ranks as the fifth largest city in Spain. While on the train, one could see scrubby desert-like plants, and later on a mountainous landscape. Zaragoza seems to be in a transition area.

It took us 1.5 hours to travel 150 miles on the regular train. The high-speed train between Barcelona and Madrid will reduce this time in half. Pretty impressive! Carlos Labarta – Eisenhower Fellow, planner and professor - met us at the train station. It was pouring rain, and we were headed to the largest construction site in the area - the Expo Zaragoza 2008.
The city was recently selected as the host for Zaragoza Expo 2008 expecting as many as 9 million visitors. The theme is "Water and Sustainability," and the city is approaching it as an opportunity for urban renewal and economic development. The regional government is spending more than 1.5 billion euros to prepare for the expo. The majority of the development is in exposition space with plans for reuse as community or municipal facilities. Improvements are being made to the transportation system, new pedestrian areas, a new housing district, and a regional "rail-to-trail" park and bikeway system. The resources being dedicated to such infrastructure and large scale economic development projects is astounding!

Founded some 2000 years ago, Zaragoza is a city rich in history, traditions and culture. The architecture has strong Baroque influence as well as Roman, Gothic and Arabian. Imagine an original Roman amphitheatre as your city's outdoor concert venue! Zaragoza is linked by legend to the beginnings of Christianity in Spain. Legend goes that the Virgin Mary appeared standing on a pillar to Saint James. This legend is commemorated by an extraordinary basilica located on Zaragoza’s main pedestrian plaza. The interiors of the basilica are breathtaking, and the event is commemorated every year in October with a festival of flowers around Columbus Day. The "El Pilar" festival lasts for nine days and there are many festivities – bands, parades and a famous bull festival. The plaza below was constructed about eight years ago. Before, it was a bustling four- lane street for cars with adjacent parking. The transformation to this pedestrian mall required burying the street and the parking. Its quite dramatic as the central mall for the city!

The skies finally cleared as we reached the historic Palace Aljaferia, a beautifully preserved 11th century Moorish palace. The palace had a square plan and is built around an exquisite courtyard garden with orange trees and channels of water. The rooms are arranged around the courtyards. The coffered ceilings are restored to great detail as is the lattice work. The Aragon Parliament is currently housed in this magnificent palace. This was a great opportunity to experience Moorish architecture and landscape design.


Trey said...

Zaragoza has to be my favorite small city in Europe, and the long plaza before the Basilica de Pilar is a big reason. Yet I had no idea that it was only eight years old!

That is especially striking considering its popularity among people in their 60s and older. One could easily be fooled into thinking that a stroll on the plaza was a tradition stretching back decades or even centuries.

I would love to read more about the transformation of this space, but I can't find much on the Internet. If you know of any source of information, I would be grateful to hear about it.

Whatever the case, happy trails...


Maitreyi Roy said...

Hi Trey:
I wish I'd had more time in Zaragoza! I can see how it can become a favorite. When I was at the Expo 2008 office, I picked up a book about the recent development work and it may have something about the plaza. I had to mail the book home before I read it. You're welcome to borrow it and see if its helpful. Best, Maitreyi

Trey said...


What a kind offer! Perhaps we can touch base when you return to Philly.

Best wishes,