Spain is a popular travel destination—I frequently see friends share posts touring the Gaudi works in Barcelona, strolling the Alhambra in Grenada, and exploring the restaurants in Madrid. When my friend, Kay, told me she was moving to Spain for a year to teach English, I thought she would be heading to one of these places; instead, she told me she was moving to Zaragoza.
The fifth largest city in Spain and the capital of Aragón, a region bigger than Switzerland, Zaragoza is bustling. There is quite a bit to see and do here: We walked down to the Ebro River to see the Basílica de Nuestra Señora del Pilar illuminated at night; Goya fans (he was born about 30 miles south of Zaragoza) can ponder his works at the Museo Goya, and tapas are a great way to sample a lot of different dishes without having to commit.
But Kay had to work during the week, so I decided to do a bit of exploring on my own. Aragón is in the northeastern part of Spain with the Pyrenees mountains serving as its northern border. I set off in my trusty rented smart car to find the best places to visit in Aragón.
Climb Every Mountain
It was approaching the end of hiking season in the Pyrenees (some of the parks are closed due to snow), but I decided to take my chances and explore. I decided to stop first in Broto, a small, mountain town on the Rio Ara near the entrance to the Parque Nacional de Ordessa. I found a hostel, where I was glad I had my backpack duffel (plenty of stairs). Fall is a gorgeous time of year to visit, but there are a few things to keep in mind: I arrived in Torla (one of the gateways to the park) and thought I could stop into the visitors center for last minute tips, but the visitors center was already closed for the season. It wasn’t a big deal as I had a map from the hostel, but it’s something that can happen in the off-season.
The hiking was worth it, though. I admit that I wasn’t going for a speed record—I kept stopping for photos of picturesque waterfalls and the wash of fall color appearing on the hillside. There are several circus (loops) that take you through forests and around the cliffs; there’s plenty to explore. It’s good to be prepared as I experienced full sun, a short rain shower, and the dropping temperature as the sun set, all in one afternoon. I keep a waterproof jacket along with several other helpful items (like a buff, extra sunscreen, and thin gloves) in one of my packing cubes in my daypack).
An Eye for Architecture
I could have stayed in the mountains for several more days exploring, but I knew that there were medieval towns waiting to be discovered. Kay had mentioned Ainsa as a potential destination: It’s a popular stop, with its charming central plaza, restored castle, and plenty of cobblestone streets to stroll (be sure to take note of the various doors—they provide a timeline for the town). However, it was also busy—buses congregated outside of the walls and the more reasonably priced accommodation options were already booked up. So, I continued on to Alquézar, a gem of a destination.
I had an idea of what the perfect Moorish village would be and Alquézar checked all the boxes: sweeping views, ancient castle, history exuding from the walls—you even enter through a Gothic gate. The Rio Vero flows below and the streets wind like an ouroboros on the hillside. It’s also a UNESCO World Heritage site thanks to the limestone caves and prehistoric paintings that are so plentiful in the area. The Vero River Cultural Park has examples of rock art for perusal. Alquézar is popular and apparently can get quite busy, but I Iucked out with my timing and didn’t run into many other people.
I enjoy a good wander and, after enjoying a breakfast of traditional dobladillo de Alquézar pastries and strong coffee, I set off on the Ruta de las Pasarelas del Vero. A series of walkways and footpaths that lead down to the Vero River and past the Leap of Alquézar (a waterfall and large pool)—it’s a great way to stretch your legs before moving on. I could have stayed for several more days to explore the Sierra y Cañones de Guara Natural Park which surrounds Alquézar—it’s a popular place for rock climbing and hiking—but I had to get back on the road.
Will Stop for Wine
Spain has a reputation for extremely good wine at an even more attractive price point; I was happy to discover that this reputation is well deserved. I enjoyed the crisp, bright taste of the vino verde and when I found that I could detour a bit on the way back to Zaragoza to see some vineyards, I took the chance. It turns out the garnacha grape is believed to have originated in Aragón, though other regions have embraced it as well (you may have heard of the French grenache—it’s the same grape).
As with vineyards around the world, there are both large, modern operations (like Sommos) and smaller, family-run places (I stopped at a gem called Lalanne that was amazing). Though not all outfits conduct tastings, there are options: I had a fun tasting at Vinas del Vero and bought a merlot tempranillo for later enjoyment.
Though I could have spent weeks exploring this region, my small taste made me appreciate this wonderful and overlooked area. If you’re looking for an off-the-beaten-path destination with plenty to explore, then Aragón should be top of your list.
You’ll find that Aragón is rarely crowded. Although the summer season is the busiest, spring and fall are excellent times to visit. The winter snow can make accessing the mountains difficult (if not impossible), so if hiking is on your list, keep that in mind before you pack your bags and find your unknown.
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Related Links (from Eagle Creek blog):
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