Wednesday 12 June 2013
On the 8th June I wrote that one might as well pick a base in Spain and avoid the hassles of constantly re-locating. I now see the folly of this view. This recount is written retrospectively: I must now recount our adventures in Zaragoza from a hotel room in Bilbao. Had we practiced what I preached, we would never have seen the splendours of the Basque country. So let me put the record straight: I recant! There much to be said for exploring the different regions of Spain.
In the meantime, I must return to Zaragoza. This stop was an accident—like Montpellier, but for a different reason. Our fortuitous visit to Montpellier was the result of a lack of up-do-date information about the trains. Our visit to Zaragoza was a result of a nasty bout of back pain. Again, the accident turned out to be a happy one, notwithstanding a significant amount of pain.
In Zaragoza our accommodation was one of the Sabinas holiday apartments with a balcony that looked over the main street of the old section of the city, Calle de Alfonso I. To the left, we had a lovely view of the Basilica of Our Lady of the Pillar and the roomy plaza alongside it. To the right, we had a flattened perspective of people strolling up and down the Calle Alfonso, from which the local municipal authorities have had the good sense to banish most vehicular traffic. We also had a well-appointed kitchen, but it was very sparsely equipped: there were very few glasses and utensils, and no basic supplies—not even salt.
The first morning after we arrived, we visited a market near main the bus station. Susan is fond of markets, and has been spurred on by her “find” in Madrid’s famous El Rastro markets (she has been wearing the dress with the orange print, and getting odd looks from Spanish women). Unfortunately these markets were a bit disappointing. Nevertheless, it was interesting to see the good citizens of Zaragoza out and about in the sun, chatting and hunting for bargains amongst the endless clothes stalls. There was nothing available in the way of food or refreshments, however, so at length we were drawn back to the old city, where we repaired to our apartment for lunch. Susan was getting sick of all the bread in our diet, so I prepared a simple salad with cubes of avocado, tomato, and octopus, topped off with bocarones, the pickled white anchovies that often feature in tapas.
After a siesta, we crossed the plaza and entered the cool, quiet of the basilica. Our visit began with what has become something of a motif in our travels: a trip to the top of the highest tower to enjoy a breathtaking 360° view of the city and surrounds. This was a fantastic introduction to a beautiful city set in a rugged and arid geographic setting. To offset the arid surrounds, the river that runs right through the middle of Zaragoza is wide, heavily laden with silt, and it travels at a fearsome speed. I wouldn’t fancy your chances of surviving for long if you had the misfortune to fall in.
After our crows-nest view of the city, we explored the cool basilica below, and sat for a while, watching children kiss the pillar. The cathedral is constructed around a smaller building that was erected to house a pillar upon which the Virgin Mary was said once to have appeared. The pillar is a big religious attraction, and babies and young girls dressed up for their first holy communion are permitted at appointed times to kiss it and then pose for a professional photographer, who is the only one allowed to use a flash bulb in the cathedral.
After our dose of local Catholic culture, we visited the Museo Camón Aznar for an extended dose of Spanish art. This collection is housed in a lovely building which has been expertly renovated to house some significant works of one of Aragón’s favourite sons—Goya. Among these feature a famous self-portrait, and the full set of etchings he completed in his later years, including Los Desastres de la Guerra. I spent most of my time viewing and re-viewing the latter. This was a very moving experience. I have seen reproductions of many of these etchings before, but the fine linework of the originals is not easily reproduced, and the sombreness of the display was very appropriate. The subjects of the artwork are distressing and horrifying, and when you view them as a complete collection, you cannot help but be drawn into a reverie about war, violence, inhumanity, and sorrow. Goya, like Picasso, deployed his artistic talent to provide a moral commentary on the wars of his time, and in the process produced some of his most important work. The images are haunting, and the work is displayed in a way that ensures the viewer will be harrowed by each image and by the collection as a whole: the space is cool and dark save for the lighting over each individual print, and there is plenty of room, so viewers can be alone for a moment with each image in the hell that the artist has prepared for us. This is a paradigmatic example of art as witness, and the intelligent curating does much to support the anguish of the art itself.
I re-joined Susan on the upper levels of the museum, which contains an eclectic and much less sombre collection of modern art, much from the 60s and 70s—a period which Susan enjoys immensely.
We returned to our holiday apartment via the supermarket and the splendid fountain at the far end of the plaza. Then we enjoyed a quiet evening together, and shared a salad made of fresh tomato, tuna belly, avocado, and a tart, lemony salad dressing.