LB4's Jaunt Through Spain - 2014 travel blog

Calle de Alphonso I, with Our Lady of the Pillar in the...

(For those of you who were on pins and needles wondering if we ever managed to find the necessary adapters, we did. You call sleep better at night now. And pictures will be forthcoming).

We arrived in Zaragoza by train. That meant we had to take a cab to the apartment where we were staying. (For a little more than 1/2 the price of a hotel room in Barcelona, we got to stay in an apartment in Zaragoza). I have noticed that cab drivers love to talk to their fares. Or maybe they just want to talk to Americans or English speakers, but they seem undeterred by the fact that we speak no Spanish. The cab driver in Zaragoza spoke passable English (much better than my Spanish, anyway). He proceeded to give us the low-down on Zaragoza. Unfortunately, some of his information was complete bullshit. Here are the four main nuggets of information he gave us about his fine city. Two of them are B.S. Two are true. See if you can pick out the true facts.

#1 - The name "Zaragoza" is derived from "Cesaragusta". It was originally an outpost of the Roman Empire.

#2 - The area in and around Zaragoza is the only desert in Europe.

#3 - Zaragoza was the host to the World Expo, in 2008.

#4 - The main Basilica of Zaragoza, Our Lady of the Pillar, was erected to honor the Virgin Mary, who physically visited Zaragoza.

(cue "Jeopardy" theme).

I think the answers are obvious. But I'll give them to you anyway.

#1 - True. The name became bastardized through subsequent invasions by the Goths, the Moors, and just about everyone else. If you still don't see how it's possible to go from "Cesaragusta" to "Zaragoza", then you need to rent the movie "Zardoz" starring Sean Connery (and yes, I realize that was a spoiler, but the movie has been out for over 40 years, and it's piece of shit anyway).

#2 - Bullshit. There are no actual deserts in Europe. There are semi-deserts and comarcos (Los Mongeros is a comarca). But there are no actual deserts in Europe that a topographically recognized as such. Just like people in La Jolla like to refer to their community as a city, people in Zaragoza apparently like to refer to Los Mongeros comarca as a desert, but it ain't.

#3 - True. They still have a sky tramway that goes from nowhere to nowhere.

#4. False - According to Catholic dogma, The Virgin Mary appeared to James the Greater as a vision on a pillar. She did not actually physically travel from Bethlehem to Zaragoza. You're probably thinking I just misunderstood the cab driver on this one, because its sounds like such a ridiculous thing to say. But he was emphatic about it. "Not as a vision. She was there!".

So I'll give you the good and the bad about Zaragoza. First the good. If you're really into history and/or churches, you will not just love Zaragoza, you are likely to wet your pants with excitement over all this city has to offer in the way of historically significant sites and churches. Myself, I wouldn't say I'm heavy into either category, but I was pretty excited by what I saw. I thought the cathedrals in Barcelona were impressive. They are, but the cathedrals in Zaragoza are even more so. They are bigger, more ornate, and even more architecturally interesting. Going into the Our Lady of the Pillar, which sits along the Ebro river, I felt like I was in the Sistine Chapel (which I've never been to, but O.L.P. is exactly how I imagined it). Every dome is painted with frescoes that, while not as famous as those of Michelangelo, are very impressive nonetheless. (I'm not 100% sure, but I believe the frescoes were painted by Goya, who is honored with several statues in the plaza outside the basilica). Sadly, we were not allowed to take any photos inside the O.L.P. basilica.

O.L.P is one of several buildings that makes up a giant plaza in Zaragoza that also includes another spectacular cathedral, La Seo, with its signature clock tower, which is as impressive as any I've ever seen. There are also some museums in the plaza, but we didn't get to go to those, for reasons that I'll explain shortly.

We arrived in the early afternoon on Thursday and set out to the plaza, on the way, we grabbed lunch and then walked down Calle de Alphonso I, which is a big shopping promenade. If you saw the Facebook picture I posted, you'll see that I called it probably the most beautiful shopping promenade in the world. This is because the promenade leads directing to the center of the plaza, so as you're walking down the street, you have a spectacular view of the O.L.P basilica.

We went in the basilica and took photos outside, but the weather was really crummy. Not raining, but very very cold and windy. The worst weather we've had so far on the trip. After a while, we settled into a pub and got warm with some "chocolate and churros", which are exactly as they sound. Super-rich hot chocolate served with plain churros which can be dipped into the chocolate. These are served all over Spain in pubs, and they are as wonderful as they sound.

The next day, the weather was much better, so we started on our way to the plaza. But we got sidetracked, because smack in the middle of the city were the ruins of a Roman theatre. These ruins were discovered in the 1970s, and they have since made a museum out of what they have been able to unearth. And it's really quite funny because when I say these ruins are smack in the middle of the city, I'm not exaggerating. The theatre ruins are surrounded on three sides by existing apartment buildings. I got the impression that they were intending to build more apartment buildings when they discovered these ruins as they were preparing the ground.

What made it even more interesting is that they, for the most part, left the ruins in the ground, and built elevated plank walkways all around them so that you can walk amid the ruins of the theatre. They've also posted signs throughout showing you what you would have seen from the position you're in had the theatre still been intact.

As we were buying our tickets, the sign at the ticket office said that there were three more ruins sites like this in the city that included a Roman bath, the Roman Fora, and the Roman Walls. It wasn't expensive to buy a ticket to all four sites, so we did.

After we left the Theatre ruins, we went to the baths. Then grabbed a quick lunch, and headed back to the plaza to see the walls and the fora.

But they were closed. Because all these Roman sites are closed between 2:00 PM and 5:00 PM every day, presumably so their employees can have a siesta after working very hard for four hours between 10 am and 2pm.

That's the downside of Spain. You don't see this as much in tourist-heavy areas like Barcelona, but you do see it elsewhere. It doesn't matter whether it's in a bar, a restaurant, or a place of public interest, the prevailing attitude is that the customer comes last. Want to see the sites of the city? Just make sure you do it by 2 pm because we're going to close at 2 rather than staff it appropriately. In bars and restaurants, you never ever see more than 2 (and sometimes just 1) person waiting on the customers. It just doesn't occur to them to hire someone else. Because what's the point? The customers can wait.

A perfect example of this occurred while we were eating dinner at a bar in Zaragoza. We walked in, and the bartender was our waiter. We ordered some drinks and a few tapas. He delivered them. Then he sat down at one of tables and ate dinner. For the time he was eating his dinner, there was no one covering the bar. No one taking food orders. All service simply shut down. And I'm not blaming the bartender for eating dinner. Bartenders have to eat, too. (He was actually a pretty cool guy, and he gave us each a shot of sweet wine, on the house). In a culture that valued customer service, there would be more than one person taking care of the customers at any given time. But this is the norm is Spain, as it is, I suspect, in much of Europe. And while I'm not terribly bothered by it when it means I have to wait a few extra minutes to order a second round of drinks, I am bothered by it when it means that I have to miss some of the city sights because I can't just come back at 5 when the museum chooses to reopen, because my train leaves at 5:30.

My advice to anyone thinking about visiting Zaragoza would be this: By all means, go. It's definitely a worthwhile place to visit. But in this city more than any other place I've visited, you've got to do a bit of planning. Decide in advance what you'e going to see, and map out a schedule, making sure the sights you want to see are open when you're there to see them.

Tomorrow, I'll write about our arrival in, and first day in San Sebastián, which has, so far, been the highlight of the trip.

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