Zaragoza

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Zaragoza's origins date back to the Iberian settlement of Salduba, but it is to the Roman Caesar Augustus, and Islamic Sarakosta, that it owes both its name and the still easily recognizable rectangular perimeter of its old town, bordered by the lower and upper sections of Calle Coso, Avenida de César Augusto and the River Ebro. The wealth of the citys historical legacy is a nightmare for present-day builders, since a hole can't be dug in the ground of this area or its surroundings without uncovering important archaeological remains, as happened recently with the discovery of the ancient Roman Theatre, now being restored, in Calle Verónica, behind Teatro Principal.

Zaragoza has always benefited from a strategic location, a fact as true as ever in our time, being in the middle of a crossroads which traverses Madrid, Barcelona, Bilbao and Valencia. The result is a dynamic and modern town, continuously growing, yet with still mostly walkable distances, with a legacy of splendid buildings and monuments inherited from all the cultures that have contributed to its development. For convenience, Zaragoza can be divided into three areas of interest: the historic centre, the Ensanche and boulevards, and the University-Delicias area.

Historic centre
This area is traditionally the one of greatest interest for visitors since most of the important ancient monuments and buildings are found here. It includes the old town proper, with its natural extensions to the East, Barrio de la Magdalena to the West, Predicadores (also known as San Pablo or barrio del Gancho), plus the area delineated by Avenida César Augusto and Paseo de María Agustín (where Misericordia bullring stands) with its nearby flea market and the Pignatelli Building, an eighteenth-century hospital containing a church with gilt domes that now houses the Diputación General de Aragón (regional government).

On the western end of this area is Aljafería Palace, a castle surrounded by a moat and gardens, and the most important relic of Zaragozas Islamic period and today the parliament of Aragón. In Predicadores we should mention San Pablo Church, while La Magdalena Church in the neighbourhood of the same name has in its tower one of the finest examples of the Aragonese variety of the mudéjar style (involving brick and coloured tile decoration due to Moorish artisans who stayed long after the Christian conquest).

It is in the old town proper, however, where we find the greatest number of important monuments and buildings, beginning with the huge Plaza del Pilar, where the famous and grandiose basilica stands, along with the Lonja Palace, Seo Cathedral, the Roman Forum Museum and, at the opposite end of the square, San Juan de los Panetes Church with its leaning tower, the mudéjar tower of La Zuda and the remains of the Roman wall. Pleasant as it may be to wander among the old towns streets, two parallel ones which cut across it truly make a useful reference point: Don Jaime I, passing near the squares of Santa Marta, Santa Cruz and San Pedro Nolasco, and leading to the Teatro Principal; and Alfonso I, cleared for its view of the Pilar Basilica and from which one can reach San Felipe Square.

This is a very lively area, full of shops of every kind, narrow streets, squares and pleasant corners, with many tapas bars with tables outside and a busy nightlife.

Ensanche and boulevards
This is a large area characterized by the main avenues and boulevards opened in the nineteenth century, with their modern extensions and surroundings. It includes Zona Centro, surrounding the twin squares of Aragón and Paraíso, where the beautiful neo-mudéjar building of the old School of Medicine and Science stands. Here is where Gran Vía starts, an important market and leisure avenue which continues in Fernando el Católico, which leads to San Francisco square and its surroundings, through outdoor cafés, bingo halls and bars all the way to Primo de Rivera Park (known as "parque grande"), the old Feria de Muestras and Romareda Stadium, close to the flea market and Zaragoza Auditorium.

Paseo de la Independencia, starting from Plaza de España and flanked by large arches, is the towns main promenade, with its cinemas and shops. The nearby Plaza de Salamero is interesting and enjoying renewed popularity, and across the Paseo, Plaza de los Sitios has a monument commemorating Napoleons two sieges on Zaragoza and the Archaeological Museum.

Another important boulevard also stems from Plaza Paraíso, Paseo de Sagasta, which is the axis of a busy commercial area with many shops, bars cafés and restaurants. Calle Moncasi and its surroundings amass huge numbers of the very young on weekends. More sparsely populated and with a rather more adult appeal, there are also many bars and restaurants on and around Bolonia, Camino de las Torres, Avenida Tenor Fleta and José Pellicer. On reaching Pignatelli Park, Sagasta becomes Paseo de Cuéllar, which leads to the Venecia pine groves, the amusement park and the neighbourhoods of Torrero and La Paz.

In the area between the start of Sagasta and Paseo de la Constitución is the traditionally more expensive, "posh" part of town, León XIII, also abundant in pubs, restaurants and shops.

University-Delicias
Leaving Plaza de San Francisco with its arcades, distinguished shops, outdoor cafés, pubs and restaurants, one reaches the University campus and an area next to it around Calle Corona de Aragón and Calle Tomás Bretón, also with many bars, bookshops and other shops. Crossing Ciudad Jardín, a residential area with low houses, is the popular neighbourhood of Delicias, with the park and the interesting pedestrian street of the same name, an area perhaps without obvious or spectacular attractions but with quite a personality if one has the time to get to know it.

History of Zaragoza

Romans
Zaragoza was founded in the year 24 BC by the legions that had taken part in the Cantabrian Wars, in Augustus' time. The city took its name from the emperor Caesaraugusta (Caesar Augustus) and was an important city with 30,000 inhabitants as well as baths, sewers, a theatre (6,000 capacity), a market, temples, a port and a road network that connected it to other cities in the empire. The city was built on the Ebro River - the ancient Iber -, an area populated by the Sedetans, an Iberian folk. By the end of the empire, Zaragoza had acquired some importance in ancient texts due to its Christian community (a council was held here in 380 which condemned Priscilians heresy).

Muslims
After a period of three hundred years of Visigothic domination, Zaragoza - like the rest of the country - fell under Moorish influence, in 714. Zaragoza became Saraqusta, also known as Medina Albayda: "white city". Saraqusta became the capital of an important Taifa Kingdom, which reached as far as Tortosa and had its utmost splendour in the 11th century, when it became an international and cosmopolitan city for traders, and an important slave market. King Abu Yafar al-Muqtadir, a poet and astronomer wrote about his palace the Aljafería: "Oh palace of happiness! hall of gold! With you I have reached the summit of my desires, even if my kingdom contained nothing else, with you all my desires would be satisfied." At the same time and in the same palace lived Avempace, who was a translator and commentator of Aristoteles philosophy and influenced Averroes and Saint Thomas of Aquinas.

Christians
In 1118 the king of Aragón, Alfonso I, won Zaragoza back from the Moors and it became the new capital of the kingdom. The old main mosque of Saraqusta became a Romanesque cathedral, later Gothic and Mudéjar. In this cathedral, today called Seo, the kings of Aragón were crowned. The royal residence was the Aljafería, which under Pedro IV was enlarged and reformed (the king even had a zoo there).

A few of the citys most important religious monuments from the 14th century are still in good condition, including the churches of San Pablo , la Magdalena, San Gil and San Miguel. These are all examples of the mudéjar arquitecture style from after the Reconquest, which is characterized by a fusion on Roman, Gothic and Arabic elements.

16-17th Centuries
It was in the 16th century that the city blossomed economically. With 25,000 inhabitants, Zaragoza became the fourth largest city in Spain after Seville, Valencia and Barcelona, and was bigger than Madrid. It was a city of traders. The Lonja testifies to its splendour; it is considered to be the most beautiful Renaissance building in Aragón, and stock sales and purchases took place within its walls.

During this period, the new nobility built a large number of palaces and aristocratic houses. The political conflicts due to the Antonio Pérez case in 1591, which culminated in the execution of the Judge of Aragón, Juan de Lanuza, initiated the decadence, misery and darkness of the 17th century, which was generalized throughout Spain. This is when Santa Isabel Church and the characteristic Basílica del Pilar, located in the plaza (square) of the same name, was built beside the River Ebro. The Virgen del Pilar, patron saint of Spain, is worshipped within.

18th Century
The second half of the 18th century saw progress in the city, due to the Enlightenment. A large number of public works were completed: the Royal House of Misericordia, the bullring, and above all the Imperial Canal, which traverses the city in the south. The painter Francisco de Goya, who is the most illustrious citizen that Zaragoza has ever produced, was living here at the time.

19th-20th Centuries
The 19th century began tragically. In 1808 the French troops, alleging they were going to Portugal, took Spain. The first siege around Zaragoza took place during the summer of 1808. The city had 55,000 inhabitants at the time and defended itself bravely under José Palafox. After the French defeat at Bailén, on August 13th, the first siege finished. But some months later, in December of the same year, a second and definitive siege started commanded by three French generals. In the end the city was defended house by house and on February 20th, the destroyed city surrendered. This heroic defence lent fame to Zaragoza, which took the title "Immortal". Today, homage is paid to those tragic times through nomenclature; two important examples are Paseo de la Independencia (Independence Avenue) and Plaza de los Sitios (Square of the Sieges).

The second half of the 19th century saw more destruction. There was no respect for heritage, and this was the cause for atrocities such as the destruction of Torre Nueva, a Mudéjar tower from the 16th century that was almost 70 metres high. In addition to a part of the city wall, some gates and some palaces were destroyed.

Zaragoza is currently the fifth biggest city in Spain and has 650,000 inhabitants. It is the seat of the Government of Aragón and is a modern city, which since the sixties has grown considerably. Its strategic location in the centre of northeast Spain makes it an ideal place for conferences, since it lies in the centre of the Madrid-Barcelona and Valencia-Bilbao axes, and is only 250 kilometres from France.

 

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