Spain Travel – Zaragoza

It was pleasant to find, when morning broke and we walked about Zaragoza, that the town did not look so bad as it smelt, and that there was a fine promenade, and houses with gardens in the suburbs. The river Ebro runs through Zaragoza, and waters the valley in which it stands. The country round about is diversified with olive groves and fields, whose verdure forms a pleasing contrast to the desert and horrid region on either hand. There were numerous white villas and towers around the city, which told of individual wealth, and inside of the town an occasional opening disclosed the courtyard of an elegant establishment. But the general impression left upon the mind about Zaragoza was that of a cold, poor, and decaying town, where the descendants of the ancient Aragonese drag out a miserable existence. The spirits of the Moor and the mediaeval Spaniard pervade the place. Most of the streets are narrow and winding lanes, where people with tawny skin unused to water, and sad brown eyes, bare legs and arms, and swarthy, open chests, saunter about or stand absorbed in dreamy contemplation; coarse brown woollen cloaks, reminding one of the dress of the Arabs of the desert, and gay handkerchiefs twisted around the heads of the people, like turbans, give a picturesque look to the arcades and markets where the crowds gather. The fronts of the houses are covered with balconies so thickly that there -would be neither room nor need for a modern fire-escape, and the arrangements for awnings showed that all the year was not as cold as the springtime when we made our visit. We looked everywhere for Agustina, Byron’s heroine of the siege of 1808. description is so complete that we could not missed her.

She died in 1867, and I am quite sure that she left no descendants who would fight beside a lover and work the gun when he fell mortally wounded, though it is said that these cold, indolent Aragonese are still heroic when aroused, and need only a taste of blood to fight like tigers. The siege is memorable in Spanish history. It lasted during sixty-two days of constant attack and defence. There was no organized army of defenders, but the people chose their own officers and obeyed them. When famine came upon them, they formed processions to the Virgen (Tel Pilar, and as they were fighting against men who would, if victorious, despoil the churches and profane all that they held sacred, their heroism became desperation. At last, after a number of unsuccessful attempts, the French made a breach, and ten thousand maddened troops rushed into the town. There in every narrow street there was a breastwork, and every housetop became a fortress. The combat in the streets continued for twenty-one days longer, and finally the city capitulated, obtaining, however, the most honorable terms.

The buildings in Zaragoza which attract the traveller are few. Two cathedrals, a wonderful leaning tower, the Lonja or Exchange, the castle, and a few private houses comprise the sights of the place. Not all of these are worth seeing, but we took a rickety cab and jolted for fifteen minutes over the cobblestones to see the castle, once a Moorish palace, afterwards the residence of the kings of Aragon, and now used as barracks for the troops. It has also been used as the palace of the Inquisition in those dark days when this fearful tribunal ruled in Europe, and when the autos da fe took place in the plaza of the town. A woman in authority showed us through the staircases and chambers, where royalty and ceremony and bigotry and cruelty have played their parts in the centuries gone, and where now common soldiers sleep and eat, and store their arms. Most of the place is covered with whitewash, but we could discern some traces of Moorish work in the first court, and the arcades in the second; and some finely carved and gilded ceilings are traceable to the thirteenth century. One is shown, which is said to have been overlaid with the first gold which Columbus brought from America. There is a dungeon here, where the unhappy lover of Leonora, the heroine of Il Trovatore, languished in confinement.

La Seo is an ancient and sombre pile, whose beginnings antedate 290, when there was a Christian bishop in Zaragoza. When the Berbers came they turned this cathedral into a mosque, and it was reconsecrated to Christian worship in 1119. It was very much dilapidated after the Moors left, and was centuries in being repaired It has been remarked with truth, certainly so far as Spain is concerned, that “in the supposed ages of faith, faith was somewhat reluctant to give up any money for its own support and that of its ministers,” and it was only after centuries of ordained imposts, taxes on food, land revenue, and such like contributions, that the cathedrals were built, enlarged, or restored. How different the habit in these so-called degenerate days, when, throughout Protestant England in the present century, nearly every cathedral of the Anglican Church has been restored at great expense from voluntary gifts! The interior of this sacred and historical place, for here all the kings of Aragon were anointed and crowned, is sombre and solemn. There are no side windows, and the light filters in through small round windows high up in the walls, over which in fine days faded red curtains are drawn. The pavement was comparatively clean, and was very elegant, being made of choice marbles laid in rays diverging from the bases of the immense piers which support the roof. This device was designed to reproduce the tracery of a roof studded with rosettes and wheels, upon the floor, as if in a mirror. It was Moorish work of 1432. The modern ornamentation is in a style of architecture called “Churriguerresque,” because invented by Jose Churriguerra, an architect of the early part of the eighteenth century. It might be classed with the “impressionist” style in painting, the object being to obtain effect as a whole, without reference to the tawdry and tasteless character of the details.

Many “mysteries ” have been acted in this cathedral, and among them one of the Nativity, acted in 1478, before Ferdinand and Isabella. In the archives, we find charges like these for the expenses of such festivals, “Seven sueldos for making up the heads of the bullock and donkey in the stable at Bethlehem; six sueldos for wigs for those who are to represent the prophets; ten sueldos for six pairs of gloves to be worn by the angels.”

The choir stands in the centre of the middle aisle of the Cathedral, and is rich with statues and carvings. At one end is a statue of a canon, to whom tradition declares that the Virgin Mary spoke on this very spot. The chapels are full of ornament, and services of some kind were always going on when we made our visits. The other cathedral is in striking contrast to La Seo. It is called the Catedral del Pilar. The exterior is like a Russian church with many domes and towers, covered with green and blue and yellow tiles, gaudy and barbaric. The interior is a vast space, five hundred feet in length, bright with white paint and gilding, containing the most famous shrine in Spain, and a superb retablo carved in alabaster. The Santa Capilla is an elliptical chapel inside of the Cathedral, even as the chapel of the Holy Sepulchre at Jerusalem is within the church, with three entrances, a cupola supported by jasper pillars hung with flags and banners, captured from the Moors, and a holy image of the Virgin descending on a pillar. The Virgin and the pillar are enclosed and secluded from the public gaze, but the faithful look, and pray, and kiss through a small hole, and were standing in a long line, waiting for their turn. Within the chapel, several hundred persons, from the elegantly dressed lady to the vilest beggar, were on their knees upon the marble floor, praying and vowing to the Virgin. I have seen no more abject devotion in the Greek churches in Russia than in this and other Roman Catholic churches of Spain. This chapel is founded upon the legend that St. James, after the crucifixion, about A.D. 40, came to Spain to preach the gospel. When he was sleeping at Zaragoza, the Virgin appeared to him, standing upon a jasper pillar, and surrounded by angels. She spoke to him, and manifested a desire to have a church built on this spot. St. James at once complied with the request, and, in the little chapel which he reared, the mother of our Lord frequently attended divine service. The place has become celebrated since for the miraculous cures wrought upon the pilgrims to the shrine. Images in wax and silver, and even gold, of hearts, and legs, and arms, etc., mementos of healing, hang around the roof. Pope Innocent III. said that ” God alone can count the miracles which are performed here.” Fifty thousand pilgrims have been known to come here at the festival on the twelfth of October. No wonder that they come in crowds to see what Cardinal Retz says he saw in 1649 with his own eyes-nothing less than a leg, which had been cut off, grow on again while it was rubbed with oil from the lamps before the Virgin’s shrine! There is a constant throng in this chapei, and its revenues must be very large.

In the Plaza San Felipe, there is a very lofty steeple, called the Torre Nueva, which is even more of a leaning tower than the Campanile at Pisa. It is octagonal in shape, and the face of the walls is of panelled brickwork. There is a clock two-thirds of the way up, and a bell upon the very top, besides those in the belfries. The leaning of the tower was no doubt caused by defects in the foundations and the absence of buttresses. On one side a pile of brickwork has been built, to prevent this steeple from settling any more. It is already far enough out of the perpendicular to give the adventurer who climbs to the top ” a turn ” when he first looks down into the square. Two days were more than sufficient in which to see the sights and hear the traditions and history of Zaragoza; so in the moonlight we drove to the Madrid station, and after spending the usual time in stamping tickets and weighing luggage, we were permitted to enter the train. We vainly endeavored to obtain a compartment to ourselves for the night; neither by purchase nor by bribe could we secure one. Chance proved a better provider than either, and we travelled all night without interruption, and also escaped the incessant tobacco smoke, which is one of the disagreeables of travelling here. We were glad to miss some of the ugliest scenery in Spain, and to see Madrid for the first time bathed in the brilliant sunshine of a clear spring morning.