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In the mood for Mudéjar

It emerges from the arid, dusty landscape like a desert mirage, a medley of tan-coloured buildings and soaring spires amidst an iridescent ribbon of green. We are on the approaches to Zaragoza, a historic city that sits roughly halfway between Bilbao and Barcelona.

Quintessentially Spanish, Zaragoza is poised on the life-giving waters of the Ebro, the nation’s largest river by volume and for centuries a natural barrier to invaders. It was the Romans who called it the Iber, extending its name to the local tribes and eventually, the entire peninsula. Here they established the city of Caesaraugusta – named after the emperor of the time and built to settle army veterans from their successful campaigns against the northern Cantabri. When the Moors conquered the city some 700 years later, in the wake of a collapsing Visigothic kingdom, the new rulers renamed it Saraqusta.

Four centuries passed before Saraqusta fell back into Christian hands – this time to the Kingdom of Aragon. With the steady advance of the Spanish Reconquest came the rise of a new term: mudéjar. This was the name given to those Moors who stayed on in lands recaptured by the Christian kingdoms, while still remaining loyal to their faith. Under their new masters, the mudéjar craftsmen set to work creating a style of art and architecture at the crossroads of two continents and religions.

It doesn’t take long for us to spot our first example of its playful, gingerbread-like qualities. Looming above a small plaza, we find an Arabesque wall in brick, studded with glazed tiles in turquoise green and midnight blue. In an old town aligned with streets running parallel to the Ebro, the Cathedral of La Seo is the only major feature that stands oblique to the dominant, grid-like layout.

To walk around La Seo, we realise, is to go through multiple layers of the city’s history. Built over the site of the ancient Roman forum and the great mosque of Saraqusta, the church’s main entrance is in the same position as that of its Moorish predecessor. Although begun in the Romanesque style, the building features sections in Gothic-mudéjar, a white neoclassical front and a distinctive baroque tower, incorporating parts of the ancient minaret.

In the shadow of La Seo

Calle de Alfonso I, the old town’s main street

Plaza del Pilar and La Seo

Coffee time

Chorizo, morcilla and longaniza

Grilled sardines

Just around the corner from La Seo, down a sun-drenched alleyway, stands a darkened tapas bar. A Spanish friend had once said half-jokingly that the most authentic eating places were those that shared three signature qualities: a dimly-lit space, rubbish strewn across the floor, and lingering groups of elderly men. This place, fortuitously, had all three.

It’s just before 2:00 pm – lunch hour – and we sink into the coolness of our chairs, taking refuge from the summer heat beneath a white umbrella. First up is a platter of grilled meats: longaniza – a type of sausage that the Spanish took to the New World and as far afield as the Philippines – chorizo, and thick slabs of the local morcilla. The latter, black pudding stuffed with rice and onions, is truly a guilty pleasure. Soon the heaviness of all that meat is offset by a deliciously simple tomato salad, drizzled in olive oil and sprinkled with rough grains of sea salt. Zaragoza is more than 100 miles from the nearest coastline, but it is here that we tuck into some of the best grilled sardines of our recent travels.

In a similar way, our explorations on foot prove more than enough to satisfy our appetite for Mudéjar architecture. On the way to the Aljafería, a fortified Moorish palace that remains more or less intact to this day, we come across the swarthy brickwork of the Church of San Pablo. The very shape of its octagonal tower – and the geometric motifs that run across it – are the legacy of Mudéjar builders and craftsmen.

As for the Aljafería itself, now the seat of Aragon’s regional assembly, a potpourri of styles bear witness to a dramatic change in ownership. Below a Renaissance staircase and royal chambers adorned with mudéjar ceilings, the palace has retained some of the original features that medieval Christian monarchs would have found when they became its new occupants. The previous rulers of Zaragoza were avid patrons of the arts, holding exclusive gatherings – majalis – with wine and poetry beneath the interlacing arches and elaborately carved stucco.

The Aljafería

Inside the palace; the wooden flooring hides a pool

The old prayer hall

Intricate Mudéjar ceilings

Garden fountain

Renaissance staircase

At the Basilica del Pilar, the city’s icon and home to a venerated image of a black Virgin, a glass elevator whisks us to the top of a tower overlooking the Ebro. A spiral staircase leads to the tight confines of the lantern, where we can hear the howling wind whipping in from the surrounding steppes.

The basilica – an enormous assembly of eleven cupolas and four corner towers – is the latest iteration of what is said to be the first church dedicated to the Virgin Mary. Local tradition has it that she appeared to the Apostle Saint James the Great as he prayed here on the banks of the Ebro, standing on a pillar and instructing him to build a church in her honour. The shrine on the site of her apparition would become known as Nuestra Señora del Pilar – Our Lady of the Pillar.

Although the church took its current form more than a century after the last mudéjares were expelled from Spain, their penchant for decorative geometry absorbed into regional Aragonese architecture. As dusk falls on the Ebro, the basilica resembles a strange, Catholic take on a mosque – its stack of domes hinting at deep influences from the east and the corner towers reminiscent of sturdy minarets. On the Puente de Piedra, the 15th century stone bridge, we breathe in a whiff of the city’s Moorish heritage. Mudéjar magic, it seems, is here to stay.

Church of San Pablo

View over the Basilica del Pilar

Samba drumming down Calle de Alfonso I

Sunday afternoon at a plaza

La Seo in the late afternoon

Sundown, the Basilica and the Ebro

25 Comments Post a comment
  1. Love the last photo!

    August 24, 2012
  2. The heavy influence of Moorish architecture is one of the things that makes Spain so much interesting. I hope it will be sooner than later for me to visit the Iberian nation. By the way, majalis sounds so similar with majlis – an Arabic word with the same meaning. Even in Bahasa Indonesia, there is a loan word which has the exact same meaning as well.

    August 24, 2012
    • Absolutely Bama – I really wasn’t expecting such a strong influence this far north, but Zaragoza took me completely by surprise. 🙂 Incredible that the same word exists as far away as Indonesia, I reckon there are probably a lot more shared phrases out there!

      August 24, 2012
  3. Beautiful! Article and photos!

    August 24, 2012
  4. I love the mixture of influences and backgrounds reflected so brilliantly in the city’s face. I’d love to see this one day. Meanwhile, thank you for the pictures.

    August 24, 2012
    • You’re more than welcome. I would really recommend Zaragoza – it’s dripping with history, unpretentious, and still some way off the beaten track!

      August 24, 2012
  5. Another great post. Love the intricate architecture inside and out. History can be beautiful!

    August 24, 2012
    • Thanks Jessica! At times the architecture seemed like it had come straight out of someone’s dream or wild fantasy – the stuff of fairy tales!

      August 24, 2012
  6. Oh James, I must say I have to agree with Zura! I’m usually a sucker for arabesques, and geometric stalactites, mosaics and pillars – but hey, that tiered and turreted silhouette against the dark inky sky …. it’s just sooo Mudéjar and completely and romantically gorgeous!

    August 24, 2012
    • Oh yes, Meredith! Just being there on the bridge and taking in that view – that was probably the defining moment of my stay in Zaragoza!

      August 25, 2012
      • Not surprised, James – looks more like you than the dingy tapas bar at lucy time 🙂

        August 25, 2012
  7. Love the Mudejar architecture, seems even nicer than Andalusia somehow! And oh yes…that last image is out of this world James!

    August 25, 2012
    • It is somewhat different I think – here the architecture seems more raw and playful!

      August 25, 2012
  8. Love grilled sardines, and moorish art and architecture. Nice post, James.

    August 25, 2012
    • Thanks Bente, shame the food photos didn’t turn out quite as appetising as I had hoped.

      August 25, 2012
  9. The photos are beautiful, and I love the background and narrative that you’ve given with them. I particularly like the description of the tapas bar 🙂

    August 25, 2012
    • The bit on the tapas bar was quite a contrast to the rest of the text, but I knew I had to include it somehow. Thanks for the comment, Denise! 🙂

      August 25, 2012
  10. Reblogged this on Holiday Rent Club in Spain and commented:
    A beautiful, historic city laying in between vibrant Barcelona and Basque Bilbao. A worthy visit that will certainly amaze you!

    August 26, 2012
  11. The Adventures of Twins #

    Wonderful photography, James! You’ve got an eye for beauty.
    – Jo

    August 28, 2012
    • Thanks a lot, Jo! Glad you enjoyed it. 🙂

      August 30, 2012
  12. Sin duda, la mezcla de arquitecturas en España es digna de admirar. Es interesante el sentir como en ellas se guardan ápices de la vieja España y su extensa historia.

    Didn’t know you were at Zaragoza! Again, lovely pictures. You are such a professional photographer, you’ll have to teach me ^^!!

    Un abrazo

    September 5, 2012
    • Gracias Javi! Estuve en Zaragoza el verano pasado, justo antes de la vuelta a Hong Kong. Quería postearlo hace un año pero no me dio tiempo a escribirlo. Espero que todo te vaya bien!

      Un abrazo

      September 6, 2012
  13. Reblogged this on A Journey's Essence and commented:
    Spain is so beautiful. Need to see more of it.

    April 8, 2015

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