I was a bit down last week, I’d say. It was the car journey that did it. Crossing the border from France into Spain and heading south to Zaragoza, my wife and I were distressed by the bleakness of the scene. The Pyrenees were as they should be, sparkling and green. But half an hour down the road, past Jaca and Huesca, what was obvious was the creeping desertification of the landscape. It looked like the backdrop for a spaghetti western or a Mad Max movie.
So let me add that on the way back, this time via Pamplona and Irun, things looked a whole lot better. Even the bad things were good. There were more wind farms than you could shake a stick at, some of them with as many as 20 turbines turning lazily in the wind. Don Quixote wouldn’t have known where to point his lance. There was also a fair spread of olive groves and vineyards. While recent developments alongside the motorway were unsightly – who on Earth stays in motels in the middle of nowhere, looking across to cement works and quarries? – they were at least evidence that not everyone born here had decamped to the cities.
The further north we drove, by-passing Pamplona, the greener and more lush the landscape became until, 600 metres or so up, we could have been in Switzerland, or possibly Slovenia. Spanish roads, I should add, are universally impressive, built, like the country’s high-speed rail network, to a high standard in a remarkably short time. Already, the motorway system is the third-largest in the world, and still expanding. At one point, close to the medieval town of Tudela, the A68 petered out and I assumed the rest of our journey would be on ordinary trunk roads. But no sooner had the thought occurred than a thunder of heavy construction vehicles intervened. The interruption lasted for no more than five minutes until the autovia returned, and it wouldn’t surprise me to learn that the two ends have since been joined together, creating an uninterrupted grand highway between the Aragonese capital and the frontier with France.
Spain has the advantage, of course, that it has mile after mile of almost empty countryside. Occupying an area of 195,000 square miles, it has a population of 47 million. England, a little more than a quarter the size, has an additional twenty-million inhabitants, meaning that its population density is five times that of Spain. When you are a road or railway engineer, that makes a difference. In England, you can’t drive for more than five minutes without running into a village, town or city; in Spain, you can travel 50 miles between the big cities and count the number of settlements on the fingers of one hand.
If you’re wondering why Louisa and I decided to visit Zaragoza, it was because it wasn’t Madrid, Barcelona, Seville, Valencia or Malaga. Nor was it San Sebastian, Marbella, Toledo, Santiago de Compostella or Bilbao. If anything, it was Manchester or Leeds, but sunlit, heaving with history and, as it happens, boasting a claim to being the tapas capital of Spain.
Astride the banks of the River Ebro, the city owes it origin as a place of consequence to the Romans, who named it after the Emperor Caesar Augustus. Next up were the Vizigoths, of whom the less said, the better. When the Moors displaced the Goths in the eighth century, it took the name Saraqusṭa and eventually, following the Reconquista, its present form.
Today, Zaragoza has a bustling population approaching 700,000. It has two cathedrals, the larger of which, the Catedral-Basílica de Nuestra Señora del Pilar, commemorates the mysterious appearance of the Virgin, standing on a pillar for some reason, during which she instructed the somewhat downcast Saint James – recently arrived from the Holy Land – to construct a church in her honour. The resulting edifice is, no question, an imposing monument, with four tall towers and enough gold leaf to fund a revolution. Personally, though, I prefer the neighbouring Cathedral of San Salvador, which was built over an existing mosque and houses an apparently famous museum of tapestries that Louisa and I entirely neglected to visit.
In the early nineteenth century, Napoleon, too, left his mark. The French besieged the city twice, finally breaking through, amid heroic resistance, in 1809. As many as 55,000 soldiers and civilians died. Further mass slaughter occured in 1937 when Franco’s nationalist forces successfully held out against the Army of the Republic. Zaragoza remembers with pride the struggle with France; it prefers to forget what took place in the Civil War.
Among the city’s many excellent museums is the Museo Goya, dedicated to works by the great Spanish master, who was born nearby to a Zaragonese couple who fancied themselves displaced members of the minor nobility. Several of Goya’s most famous canvases are on display, along with a series of often grotesque engravings representing the artist’s running commentary on Spanish life. He wasn’t a cheerful chap, especially after he went deaf. But as my artist wife remarked, he could certainly wield a brush.
The Cortes, or parliament, of Aragon is a magnificent structure – a part-Moorish, part Christian castle, known as the Palacio de la Aljafería, that looks as if it should have been used as the site of a siege in the film version of The Lord of the Rings. Most of the tourists we saw roaming its corridors during our visit were Spanish, which was somehow cheering. We didn’t hear a single English voice, and nowhere in the surrounding streets were fish ’n chips, chicken vindaloo or John Smith bitter on the menu. It was the same in the scores of tapas bars and restaurants of the Old Town, which, as in Pamplona, offer only traditional fare. As darkness falls, the alleyways that are home to the tascas become incredibly crowded, yet there is no hint of violence in the air and, somehow, room is always found for the hungry traveller.
Elsewhere, along the arcaded Paseo de la Independencia, that runs for more than a mile from the Plaza de España to the Plaza de Aragón, are enough high-class shops and businesses to excite the most jaded consumer, which in this case was me. Included in the mix, unsurprisingly, is an important branch of the department store El Corte Inglés, which it turns out takes its name not from some long-forgotten English entrepreneur, as I had supposed, but from the style of clothing it sought to offer during its opening in 1940, when the arrival (in Madrid) of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor was the talk of the town.