One of the autonomous regions sharing a border with France, Aragón is in the middle of the Pyrenees, bordered by Catalonia to its east, Valencia and Castilla-La Mancha to the south and Navarra and Castille y León to the south. The fourth largest of Spain’s autonomous regions, it is comprised of three provinces – Zaragoza, Huesca and Teruel. More than half of the region’s population live in Zaragoza itself, whilst Huesca is the only other town of more than 50,000 people.
Geography: The region can be geographically separated into three distinct areas. The northern part of the region is part of the Pyrenees, including its highest mountain, Aneto. The southernmost parts of Aragón form part of the Iberian mountain range whilst the central zone is part of the Ebro Depression; at times a bleak, desert-like and treeless region. Here, parts of the land are only 200m above sea level and there are many tributaries flowing from the mountains into the Ebro itself.
Climate: The great differences between the mountainous regions of the north and south and the lands of the Ebro Depression mean that you cannot really talk about the climate of Aragón as a whole. The climate is determined predominantly by the geographical conditions. It is possible, therefore, to say that the Pyrenees have a climate of long, hard winters with a great deal of precipitation – much of it falling as snow. The southern Iberian mountains have a traditional temperate climate whereas the central depression has a continental Mediterranean climate with extremely hot summers and very little rainfall. The cierzo, fierce north easterly, winds are common during the winter months and, in the summer, there is a strong, very hot, dry wind known as the bochorno.
Economy: Aragón is one of the wealthiest of the autonomous communities although the service and industrial sectors have now taken precedence over the traditional agricultural economy of the past. Zaragoza is the industrial centre, with a large Opel car-producing factory as well as important chemical and electrical engineering plants. There is still mining of coal and iron ore in the south of the region, and in the north a large number of hydro-electric power stations. The most important agricultural crops are barley, rye, wheat and fruit – along with grapes as there is a thriving wine production industry here. In the meadows of the mountains, there are many farms breeding cattle, sheep and pigs.
Brief History of Aragón
There is evidence of Paleolithic settlement in the Ebro Valley but it was during Roman times that the area began to really develop. Zaragoza itself was an important Roman site, originally named after the emperor Caesar Augusto. The Moors made the area the northern frontier of their Spanish lands, again ruled from Zaragoza, although they could never fully claim to be in control of the Pyrenees. After the Reconquest during the eleventh century, King Ramiro I established Aragón as an independent kingdom. It was the marriage of Ramiro II’s daughter to the Count of Barcelona that really enhanced the region’s fortunes and the Crown of Aragón – as the newly-formed kingdom was known – included Valencia, the Balearic Islands, Sardinia, Sicily and Naples. Eventually, the marriage of the King of Aragón, Ferdinand, with the Queen of Castilla, Isabel, led to the formation of one of the country’s great dynasties and arguably the beginning of modern Spain.
Aragón was later to become the site of several important military battles. For example, during the Spanish War of Succession, in 1710, there was a decisive defeat for the Spanish troops of Felipe V at the hands of the combined British, Dutch and German armies at the Battle of Zaragoza. Then Zaragoza, during the Peninsular War, suffered two great sieges. The first of these, in 1808, saw the French defeated but the second, the following year, saw all but 2,000 of the city’s 32,000 people wiped out as Zaragoza was re-taken. There was later to be some of the most ferocious fighting of the Spanish Civil war in Aragón – notably in Belchite and Zaragoza itself in 1937 and 1938.
Main Tourist Destinations
Zaragoza: Zaragoza is Spain’s 5th largest city with a population of around 600,000. It is the capital of the region of Aragón and provides an ideal stopover for visitors driving between Madrid and Barcelona on the A-2 motorway. There’s also a high speed AVE train service that links Zaragoza with Madrid in 1.5 hours and Zaragoza with Barcelona in just 1 hour so Madrid and Barcelona (600km) are now connected by train in just 2.5 hours. Visitors arriving from France can take the 9km Somport Tunnel under the Pyrenees from Pau.
The main tourist attraction in Zaragoza is the magnificent Basilica de Nuestra Señora del Pilar standing on the banks of the Rio Ebro which provides a stunning entry point to the city from the nearby A-2 motorway. Plaza del Pilar, behind the Basilica, leads to La Lonja, the former trading exchange and to the La Seo Cathedral which are two of the other main sights in Zaragoza.
Adjoining this touristy zone is a lively area known as ‘El Tubo’ (the beer) where there are countless tapas bars and cafés. All kinds of celebrations take place in this central area for a week in October which culminates in La Fiesta del Pilar on October 12th coinciding with the discovery of the Americas.
Monasterio de Piedra: If you’re staying in Zaragoza or are travelling between Madrid and Barcelona you should consider a stopover at the beautiful natural park of Monasterio de Piedra which is just a few kilometers off the main A-2 motorway. The natural park consists of stunning scenery made up of lush vegetation and fascinating rock formations created by the erosive action of the Rio Piedra. Next to the ticket office there’s also a 12th century Cisterian monastery which has been partly converted into a charming hotel which is a fine place to stay for a night en route to Madrid or Barcelona.
Ordesa National Park: The Aragónese Pyrenees are one of Spain’s most beautiful and rugged natural areas. The region contains Aneto (3403m), Possets (3375m) and Monte Perdido (3355m) the three highest peaks of the Pyrenees. But the area is not just about high mountains, known as the flower garden of Europe the alpine meadows have spectacular displays of wild flowers and the area is steeped in history with medieval villages, Romanesque churches, castles and monasteries.
The Ordesa National Park is an undisputed highlight of the region. Spain’s first protected region, the valley was first protected in 1918 before the formation of the current National Park in 1982. The park consists of four hugely impressive valleys – Ordesa, Anisclo, Pineta and Escuain – and a dozen three thousand metre peaks of which Monte Perdido is the highest.
The park is most famous for it’s steep sided canyons carved into the soft limestone. As you walk along the valley floors cliffs rise over hundreds of metres above you on each side. There is a huge variety of wildlife and flora within the park which is particularly famous for it’s birds of prey. Six pairs of the rare lammergeier nest in the high cliffs of Ordesa and Anisclo as well as several pairs of golden eagles. Griffon vultures, sarrios (Pyrenean chamois) and marmots are regularly seen.
Good bases for exploring the park are the pretty village of Torla or the town of Ainsa.
San Juan de la Peña: The monastery of San Juan de la Peña is the most famous in Aragón and the burial site for many of the early Kings of Aragón. The lower, early monastery dates back to 920 and is built under overhanging cliffs using a mixture of natural rock and stonework. The 12th century Romanesque cloister is the highlight of the old monastery and contains a series of superbly carved capitals telling the bible story.
After the old monastery was ravaged by fire in 1675 a new monastery was built on the plains above the cliffs. Razed to the ground by French invaders, the excavations now form part of a fascinating museum telling the story of San Juan and the many legends that surround it.
Loarre Castle: In the foothills of the Sierra de Guara lies Loarre Castle. Built in the 12th century Loarre was the centre of resistance to the Moorish occupation of the region. Loarre semi-ruined state makes it a great castle to explore – you can descend into it’s dungeons, walk over it’s arched bridges and climb the high Queens tower.
Teruel: In the south of the region is the city of Teruel, with a magnificent cathedral and further examples of Mudéjar architecture and art as well as its very own Romeo and Juliet legend – concerning local lovers Diego and Isabel. Nearby is the towering and dramatic medieval town of Albarracín, which is worth at least a few hours of any traveller’s time.
Belchite: Finally, students of Spanish history might want to pass through the tiny town of Belchite, site of some horrific civil war fighting. The town was so devastated that it was decided after the war to rebuild it completely – and the ruins are still as they were, adjacent to the new town. It is a chilling place to see.
Things to do in Aragón
The geography of Aragón makes it an outdoor enthusiast’s paradise, in both summer and winter, and all kinds of activity take place here. Mountaineering, rock climbing, pot holing, canyoning, mountain bikes, horse riding, white-water rafting, paragliding, trekking, downhill and cross country skiing are all deservedly successful here – along with the sometimes less energetic pursuits of bird watching and fishing. There are also six golf courses in Aragón – by far the most spectacular being the incredible Benasque Club in one of the most scenic areas of the Pyrenees.
Thrill seekers will want to try some of the excellent rafting in the area. Perhaps the best venue is at Murillo de Gallego where you raft under the huge red cliffs of Los Mallos. Canyoning involves following a stream down a gorge and jumping, abseiling or sliding down the waterfalls as you reach them. The Sierra de Guara is famous for its deep gorges and is a superb canyoning venue.
Aragón has some of Spain’s best ski resorts – Formigal, Candanchu, Astun, Cerler and Panticosa are favourite destinations for French and Spanish skiers. There are also a number of pisted cross country ski tracks in the region and some great venues for trying out snow-shoeing.
Festivals of Aragón
Saint George is the patron saint of Aragón so April 23rd tends to be a party day in most places in the region. Other particular festivals you might want to visit if you’re in the area include the Bielsa Carnival in Huesca. Carnival time is invariably rather manic but at this one you can see the young men wearing coloured skirts and blouses while having their heads covered in goat skin, with large horns, their faces blacked and with potatoes for teeth. They run around trying to attract girls by clanging loud bells. There’s a big fire on the last day, apparently. Only in Spain!
Hardly less bizarre, and considerably more dangerous, is the tradition at villages such as Gudar and Javalambre, where they put inflammable balls on the horns of bulls before running them through the streets. In the middle of July, in Rubielos de Mora, the medieval streets are lit with torches to help illuminate the bull’s way.
Zaragoza’s main festival of interest to visitors is held in October and known as El Pilar. This is a festival of processions of giant papier mache figures, bull fights and flowers topped off by a gigantic firework display above the River Ebro. This final event traditionally takes place on October 12th, Columbus Day, now celebrated throughout the country as El Día de la Hispanidad.
Gastronomy of Aragón
Aragón is best known for its meat dishes – for example Teruel ham, Ternasco asado (roasted young lamb), Pollo al Chilindrón (chicken in a ham, tomato, onion and paprika sauce) and a delicious assortment of sausages and chorizos. There is also a local specialty of Borrajas con patatas, which is the Syrian herb-cum-vegetable, borage.
Apparently, wine from this region used to be so strong that it was often mixed in with weaker Spanish wines to raise the strength of them but there are now four recognised denominaciones de origen – Somontano, Cariñena, Calatayud and Campo de Borja. Somontano is generally accepted as the leader in terms of quality.
If you’ve visited this beautiful part of Spain we’d love to hear from you. Any anecdotes, travel tips, etc. are welcomed in the comments section below.