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.
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.
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.