After a wonderful weekend in Dueñas, we drove to Zaragoza, a city we knew very little about, except that it was the home of Adela, an exchange student who had stayed with us two summers ago, and it was where my friend Angel had gone to university. The only other thing I knew wath that you need to pronounth it with lotth of th-th-th thoundth. Tharagotha.
Like most of Spain, Zaragoza’s history includes Romans, Arabs, and Jews, and evidence of all of them remains well-preserved here. The name of the city comes from the Romans, whose ruler called it Caesaraugusta, after himself. Say it fast. The museums of the Caesaraugustus Route do a terrific job of showing the scope of the Roman city and they offer some astounding details about daily life there. Here are some things that we learned there:
- Roman women loved to dye their long hair blonde, but did not like red hair, as this was the color for courtesans and undignified women. As you might imagine, Calla, my redhead, was not amused.
- Romans, like the Greeks, ate their meals lying down, usually with three lounges around a low table, leaving one end free for serving the food.
- Romans had pretty sophisticated toilets, as evidenced from the sewage system at the Roman baths museum.
Apparently the fall of the Roman empire was not terribly dramatic in Zaragoza. The society thrived until a peaceful takeover by the Goths in the 5th century. When the Arabs took over in the 8th century, Zaragoza was the largest Muslim city in Northern Spain. The Aljaferia castle is a Moorish masterpiece from that era, and has been in constant use since it was built in the 11th century. Soon after it was built, the city was taken over by Christians, and it was used by the Christian kings, and later the Catholic kings into the 16th century. At one point some of the castle served as a jail, and there’s some nice jailhouse graffiti preserved there. Today, the Aragon parliament meets there. For us, it was a beautiful and fascinating look at many centuries of Spanish history under one roof.
We really enjoyed our days in Zaragoza, and not just for the history there. The city is small enough to explore on foot, but big enough to have a thriving city center with lots of great shopping. Sorry, Madrid and Barcelona, but the people of Zaragoza, on average, out-style you. Calla and Magnolia were happy to join the shopping throngs on the main street, with its shopping arcades and tapas bars.
We loved our B&B in Zaragoza, the B&B Siesta, just across the river from the city center and an easy walk to anything we wanted to do. The proprietress, Marta, could not have been nicer. The B&B is in a flat that’s been converted to a 3-room B&B. We had use of the kitchen, and Marta put our breakfast food in the fridge for us the night before, with a shelf of the fridge for our use, too. We met some backpacking Kiwis in the breakfast room, and we all wanted to stay extra nights in this very sweet place.
We had some trouble making arrangements to meet Adela and her family, and in the end we decided to stay an extra day in Zaragoza so that we could see them. Unfortunately, Marta could not accommodate us for an extra day, so we turned to the internet to find a place for one more night in the city. Because our time at the B&B Siesta had been so perfect for us, we tried to find something similar, and booked a room in a 2-star hotel in the center of town. When we arrived, we rang the bell and were told we were too early, so we wandered around a bit until we were no longer early. We rang the bell again and were buzzed in. We found a broken window inside, and a very old elevator with no markings indicating where the hotel might be. We decided to try walking up to the first floor to see what we could see. We saw a door marked “Hostal” that opened as we approached. An apologetic and nervous woman of about 65 motioned us into the dark “lobby, and then returned to her position behind the reception desk. Nothing in the room appeared to have been acquired in the current decade. She picked up the phone (with a cord and a dial) and called someone, her eyes quickly moving from us, to the door, to the open door next to her from which we heard the sound of a tv and possibly a child. A large man of about 30 appeared and said he’d have a room for us in “just a minute.” He walked down the hall and back again. We waited perhaps 5 minutes as the woman continued to move things around on her desk nervously. There was a smell to the place that was not pleasant, but we couldn’t say just what it was. The man led us to our room at the far end of the hallway. There were three beds with mattresses you could lift with two fingers, mismatched sheets, and a distinct smell of stale smoke and possibly urine. Around the corner and up a step was a bathroom with no toilet and no window. Maybe someone had gotten desperate and peed in a corner. The girls looked at me now with some fear in their eyes. I looked at the sheets and thought, “Now might be a good time to review the guidelines for checking for bedbugs.” After a quick internet search, I told the girls to hang onto their suitcases while I checked the mattresses. I can’t say for sure that there were bugs, but I found plenty of other dirtiness there. We were not staying.
If you know me, you know I am not picky, and I am not one to make a fuss, but this place was downright creepy, and I could see that my girls were scared. They later claimed they heard someone scream. When the man returned to check us in, I made some motions to indicate that it was not going to work. I said “This is not what I expected,” and walked out the door. By now an older man was standing at the desk, so there were now three nervous-looking proprietors conferring about our room. The older man looked as though he might try to change our minds, but then he shrugged and let us walk out. Thank goodness for Priceline; I had already booked a three star hotel across the street for just a few euros more than this dump.
We had some time to kill before meeting Adela’s family, so we went in search of a museum we had passed while we were
lost driving around earlier. The Museum Pablo Serrano, named for the artist/collector who donated his collection for the purpose of creating a free art school in Zaragoza. The vision is at least partly fulfilled by the new home for the collection in a very modern building with massive exhibition spaces and a very cool roof. We enjoyed the small collection very much, and were surprised that none of the guidebooks or tourist information offices had mentioned it. Magnolia made use of the roof as only she can. And because I am traveling with 12-year-olds and we all enjoy some potty humor, we had to take this picture of the sign for Piso 00 (the ground floor).
We had a wonderful visit with Adela and her family that night, which put the whole hostile hostal hostel episode behind us. By the end of the night, they felt like old friends, and we had made plans for many future summer exchanges of children and nieces.