The Complete Guide To: Aragon

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This ancient Spanish kingdom is sometimes overlooked by tourists. Now, the Expo 2008 is set to bring a rush of visitors. Cathy Packe explores a land of castles in the clouds

Just remind me where it is

The region of Aragon is a land-locked chunk of northern Spain that begins in the central Pyrenees and descends towards the south-east and the borders of Castille. It was once a powerful kingdom, the boundaries of which included a large part of the Mediterranean coast. Historically, the region's most notable individual, from a British perspective, was probably Catherine of Aragon. She was the daughter of King Ferdinand (who, with his wife Queen Isabella, presided over the unification of Spain), and the first wife of Henry VIII. But its importance declined and this sparsely-populated region is often overlooked, at least by tourists. Today, that could change, thanks to the opening of Expo 2008 in Aragon's largest city, Zaragoza.

Besides urban excitement, Aragon has plenty to offer: dramatic mountain scenery; Roman remains and Moorish architecture; monastery buildings, such as the Colegiata of Santa Maria in Alquezar, one of Aragon's most picturesque villages; and castles, including the imposing edifice in Loarre (00 34 974 342 161; www.castillo deloarre.es) which was one of Spain's most important medieval fortifications. Film buffs may also recognise it as a location from Ridley Scott's film, Kingdom of Heaven. Loarre opens 10am-2pm and 4-8pm daily in summer; 10am-2pm and 4-7pm from March to mid-June and mid-September to October; and 11am-2pm and 3.30-5.30pm in winter, admission €2 (£1.70).

Where should I start?

Aragon is made up of three provinces, each with its own capital. In the centre of the region is Zaragoza, an enticing combination of ancient and modern and a city which, despite being one of the largest in Spain, still has the feel of a small town. Contemporary Zaragoza is developing along the banks of the River Ebro, which have been brought to life over the past four years in preparation for Expo 2008 (see box), which opens today. But the city had its origins in Roman times, and 21st-century visitors can step back two millennia and explore what remains of Caesaraugusta.

The site includes part of a Roman wall, close to the river on Avenida César Augusto; the Forum Museum (00 34 976 39 97 52), housed in the modern building next to the cathedral; the Baths at 3-7 Calle San Juan y San Pedro (00 34 976 39 31 57); and the Roman theatre on Calle San Jorge (00 34 976 20 50 88; www.zaragoza.es/museos). This opens to visitors from 10am-2pm and 5-8pm Tuesday-Saturday and 10am-2pm on Sundays (admission €3/£2.50). Inside, in what may once have been the backstage area, is a small museum. In the theatre itself, son et lumière productions are staged on Friday and Saturday evenings at 10pm (8.30pm in winter); admission €1 (85p).

The focal point of the modern city is the main square, the Plaza del Pilar, a rectangular space that boasts no fewer than two cathedrals.

The Basílica de Nuestra Señora del Pilar is an important place of pilgrimage which, according to legend, is built around a pillar above which the Virgin is said to have appeared. At the east end of the square, La Seo del Salvador (00 34 976 29 12 38) is a Gothic structure whose side chapels comprise a masterclass in different architectural styles. The eastern façade is ornately decorated, an example of the Moorish style often seen in the southern part of the region.

How important were the Moors?

They remained in this part of Spain until the second half of the 12th century, but their legacy lasted much longer. Aragon's Mudejar architecture – the work of Muslim craftsmen in Christian Spain after the Reconquest – has been given World Heritage status and there are some magnificent examples, constructed in a mix of brick, wood and ceramic tiles.

The provincial capital, Teruel, was an important Muslim city. Here, even after the Moors had been defeated, multi-culturalism was encouraged, and this is reflected in its architecture. The town has five striking towers, each built in three sections, with an arch at the bottom straddling the street and a belfry on top. In the middle, the main part of each tower is decorated with narrow openings, ornate brickwork and coloured ceramic tiles. The most impressive of the towers is that of the cathedral, which also has a beautiful 13th-century ceiling, a glorious mixture of intricate geometric motifs in Moorish style and scenes from the medieval Christian court. The cathedral opens 11am-2pmu o and 4-8pm daily; admission €1.80 (£1.50).

Mudejar towers and churches can be found in places such as Catalayud, Borja and Tarazona, an exquisite little town whose main cathedral, the convent of La Concepción, and the cathedral of Santa Maria all show Moorish connections: diamond or herringbone patterns in the brickwork, pointed niches, and decorative friezes. The Bishop's Palace was once occupied by Muslim rulers as well as the kings of Aragon, and the Moorish district of town spreads out nearby around Calle San Juan.

Any other artistic attractions?

Francisco José de Goya y Lucientes – the artist known as Goya – was born in the Aragonese village of Fuendetodos, 40km south of Zaragoza, and his legacy is one of the region's most prominent attractions. The fourth of six children, Francisco was born in 1746 in a small farm-worker's house in Plaza de Goya that has thick walls, wooden beams and a large fireplace where meals were cooked. It is now open to the public, and although the furniture is not original, the pictures and photos on the wall give an impression of what life must have been like in the mid-18th century. Not far away, at 3 Calle Zuloaga, is the Museo del Grabado (00 34 976 14 38 30), whose plain rooms are hung with four series of engravings, including the Caprices, a depiction of contemporary Spanish society, and The Disasters of War, inspired by the French invasion of Spain. Both the museum and Goya's birthplace open 11am-2pm and 4-7pm daily except Monday; the admission price of €3 (£2.50) covers both.

Goya studied in Zaragoza and several of his works are displayed in the city. These include two ceiling domes in the Basílica del Pilar, painted early in his career, and 14 portraits owned by the Ibercaja bank and hung in their modern headquarters at 16 Calle San Ignacio de Loyola (00 34 976 76 76 76). The pictures are displayed inside a Renaissance patio, which was bought by the bank and moved here from its original site a short distance away to allow excavation of the Roman city to take place. The patio is open 9am-2pm and 6-9pm daily except Sunday, and from 11am on Saturdays. Admission is free.

Other examples of the artist's work can be found all over the region: in the Provincial Museum of Huesca in the Plaza de la Universidad (00 34 97 422 0586, open 10am-2pm and 5-8pm Tuesday-Saturday, 10am-2pm Sunday, admission free); in the church of San Juan el Real in Catalayud; and in the churches of Muel and Remolinos, although these two are usually only open by appointment.

What happens further north?

The provincial capital of Upper Aragon is Huesca, a Roman town that was conquered by the Moors. It was reconquered in the late 11th century by the Aragonese kings who made it their capital until Zaragoza acquired the role. It has a pleasant old quarter dominated by the Gothic cathedral, notable for its alabaster altarpiece.

But a livelier base for anyone visiting this part of the region is Jaca, in the foothills of the Pyrenees and an excellent starting-point for trips into the mountains. It, too, has a cathedral, which was an important stopping point on one of the pilgrims' routes to Santiago de Compostela.

The town is dominated by a vast, star-shaped citadel that is still a military base but is open to the public for guided tours and as a location for concerts and other performances. It also houses the Military Miniatures Museum (00 34 974 363 746; www.museo miniaturasjaca.es), a must for anyone who has ever enjoyed playing with toy soldiers: there are more than 32,000 small figures on display. The museum, whose entrance is on Avenida del Primer Viernes de Mayo, opens 11am-2pm and 5-8pm daily except Monday; admission €10 (£8.35).

About 25km out of town is the Monastery of San Juan de la Peña, worth visiting for its spectacular setting as well as for its lovely cloister, churches and museum. The Monastery opens 10am-8pm from mid-July to the end of August; 10.30am-2pm and 3.30-5.30pm November-mid-March; 10am-2pm and 3.30-7pm in spring and autumn; and 10am-2pm and 3-8pm in June and early July. A €10 (£8.35) ticket (€8/£6.15 in winter) gives admission to all the monastic buildings, including the Pantheon where the Aragonese kings were buried.

Can I feast like a king?

Traditional fare includes trout from the region's streams, snails, rabbit and locally-reared lamb and pork. But the ubiquitous Aragonese meal is a humble – though surprisingly delicious – dish called migas. It comprises breadcrumbs doused in olive oil, cooked and served with a variety of toppings, the most delicious of which is spicy sausage with grapes. Available in many restaurants and cafés, it makes a tasty snack or lunch dish, which can be washed down with a glass or two of the local wine.

Vines have been grown in this part of Spain for centuries, and although it may not be the country's best-known wine-producing area, it has several denominated regions, or DOC classifications. These are Somontano, whose main town is Barbastro; and, south of the river Ebro, the regions of Catalayud, Campo de Borja, and Cariñena, also the name of a type of vine – although varieties such as garnacha, tempranillo and cabernet sauvignon are more widely grown around here.

The town of Cariñena is typical of many small wine towns: streets lined with wineries and warehouses, surrounding countryside criss-crossed with neat rows of vines. The wine museum at 7 Camino de la Platera (00 34 976 79 30 31) is interesting, with its collection of old-fashioned tools, copper stills and an exhibit about the importance of soil and climate on the growing of vines. It opens 10am-2pm and 4-7pm Tuesday-Friday, 11am-4pm and 5-8pm Saturday, 11am-2pm Sunday, admission €1.50 (£1.25).

Like many similar towns, Cariñena has a wine co-operative, the Bodegas San Valero (00 34 976 620 400; www.bodegasanvalero.com) which bottles and sells wine from many small producers; the shop is open daily except Monday.

Time for a climb?

The grandeur of the mountain scenery and the range of outdoor activities on offer in the north of the region are a major attraction in summer and winter. Lush ravines slice down between the slopes from north to south: the valleys of Anso, Hecho, Bielsa and Benasque all combine pastoral charm, pretty villages, sheer rock faces and imposing peaks.

On the region's north-eastern border is the Ordesa-Monte Perdido National Park (00 34 974 48 64 72) which can be reached from Torla, L'Ainsa or Bielsa. The glacial valley of Ordesa was designated a national park in 1918 in order to provide a protected environment for the ibex, and its boundaries have since been expanded to include Monte Perdido, the "lost mountain" – which, at 3,355m, dominates the surrounding area. The scenery in the park is varied, with pine and beech forests, waterfalls and canyons, limestone rock whose surfaces are tinged with red and yellow, and alpine meadows that are bright with wild flowers in spring. The whole area is excellent territory for walkers. A good base is Torla, a small village that is the starting point for a variety of hikes. The road comes to an end about 5km north of the village, near the old parador which is now a park information and interpretation centre (00 34 974 486 421), open from Easter to October. The easiest route from here is the path beside the river Arazas, but a more challenging and dramatic outing is to follow the tracks around the cirque rock formations. There is no fee to enter the park, but in winter many of the mountain roads can be impassable.

Other outdoor pursuits?

The choice for active breaks is almost endless. The Ordesa valley is a good area for rock-climbing; canyoning is popular in the Sierra de Guara; and the Esera valley around Castejónde Sos has facilities for hang-gliding and para-gliding, as well as kayaking, canoeing and rafting. Other summer sports on offer include mountain biking, horse-riding and caving. In winter, skiing, both downhill and cross-country are popular, as are skating, ice-climbing and dog-sledding.

The most extensive of the ski resorts – and the best-known internationally – is Formigal (00 34 974 490 000; www.formigal.com), which has recently acquired several new lifts. It has 130km of pistes, most of which are red or black runs, more suited to experienced skiers than beginners. Among the smaller Aragonese ski resorts popular with the locals are Candanchu (Spain's oldest resort), and Cerler, which has some of the longest descents in the Pyrenees.

Environmental Expo

Opening today, to 14 September, Expo 2008 (www.expozaragoza2008.es), features the contributions of more than 100 countries on the theme of "Water and Sustainable Development". Exhibits are displayed in pavilions around the site, including the Bridge Pavilion, designed by the Iraqi architect, Zaha Hadid, and which spans the river Ebro.

The site is connected to the main Delicias railway station – with its high-speed links to Madrid and Barcelona – by a new cable car which whisks passengers over to the north bank of the river straight into the exhibition grounds. There is also a riverboat service that connects the Stone Bridge in the heart of the city with the Expo's landing stage. Return tickets cost €14 (£11.70).

Expo opens 10am-3am daily, with a parade taking place every day at 12.30pm, and a show by the river every night at 10.30pm. Tickets cost €35 (£29) for one day, €70 (£58) for three. Buy on site, or online from www.ibercaja.es.

How do I get to Aragon?

Aragon's international gateway is Zaragoza, served by Ryanair (0871 246 0000; www.ryanair.com), which flies to the city several times a week from Stansted. Zaragoza airport is 10km south-west of the city. An alternative for anyone wanting to visit the mountains is to fly to the French city of Pau, also served by Ryanair, which flies there daily from Stansted and three times a week from Bristol. Pau is connected by motorway to Jaca and beyond.

By rail, the main approach is via London St Pancras, Paris and Barcelona – from which Zaragoza is less than two hours away. The city also makes an excellent day trip from Madrid, thanks to the new high-speed rail link.

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