By Parson Thru
I’m sitting in the floodlit Plaza del Pilar thinking this is one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been. The buildings are dramatic works of art. The plazas – there are three adjoining – are buzzing with visitors.
The cultural mix of architecture is mirrored in the faces and the clothing of the people milling around the square: Moroccan mothers in hijabs shepherding their children who run up and down the stone steps screeching and laughing their manic games; tall northern Europeans in khaki shorts shouldering expensive cameras; Spanish families sharing platos and drinking cervezas on the terrazas.
Two young men are filling the air with improvised guitar playing: one acoustic, one electric. They’re loosely jamming around a Santana tune. The clatter of skateboards echoes around the walls whilst, high above, bells toll in their towers.
The narrow streets surrounding the square are alive with people socialising in the countless bars.
With a mixture of sadness and acceptance, I reflect that if my mam was sitting here now, this place would either blow her mind or go undetected. What happened to make us so different?
Time to cut back to the hotel, passing the market and the Roman wall.
There’s a bar on the corner. I decide to use the toilet. Two police cars are drawn up outside. I spot a policewoman on the terraza, drinking coffee and talking to a camarero. The others are sitting at another table chatting with customers.
I ask a camarero where the toilet is. He tells me it’s at the back – al fondo. I’ll see the same camarero at breakfast. We wish each other goodnight.
It’s so easy to fall into a kind of agoraphobia when your grasp of a language is poor. I reflected how I’ve become a hermit since the end of the teaching year, barely leaving the house. Having to cancel the Camino walk didn’t help. But then I’d dragged myself to Zaragoza and ended up having some fun. Another trip would have to follow soon after.
Earlier in the evening, I’d called back into the Spanish all-you-can-eat place, but ate pinchos at the bar instead of paying for the buffet. Two of the camareras recognised me from Monday night and we had a good laugh. As in Madrid, many people working in bars and cafes are South American, though in Zaragoza I found it hard to distinguish who was who. South American/North African/Moroccan/European Spanish – everything is a mix, just like the Mudéjar architecture. I suppose it’s a mistake to think too much about people’s origin, anyway, at the expense of who they are individually. Like the walls and the buildings, they are Zaragoza.
Zaragoza: comes from Caesar Augusto, in whose name the city was founded.
Stretching the Italian connection a little further, I saw a bottle of Aperol on the shelf behind the bar. I asked one of the camareras if she could mix me an Aperol Spritz. We went through the recipe. She hadn’t made one with sparkling wine before. She looked at me dubiously. There was no Prosecco, so I suggested Cava. She made it huge – in a goldfish-bowl, the way they serve gin tonic. Some ice and fruit went in. It tasted good.
It was interesting watching from the bar how groups walk in and look around, ignoring the greeting from the camareras, then walk out. One of the girls gave me a little look, as if to say: “Keep watching”. The groups mull around outside for a while, maybe go up the road a little, then come back and ask for a table. That’s what I’d done on Monday night. The place is a pretty good deal for what it is. Good value, accessible tourist food and drink. Spanish food.
I struggled to sleep again that night. My room was on a corner where the wind comes down the street and shears around the building. The borrachos were active four floors below until well after two.
The plan was already set to have breakfast at the bar where I’d called to use the toilet. I took a detour to look for a church bell-tower that I’d seen from the Huesca bus the previous day. I’d gone looking around for it the night before and thought I’d found it when I stumbled on the Mudéjar bell tower – formerly a minaret – at the cathedral. Something nagged away, though. It didn’t look quite right.
There was a church of San Pablo a couple of streets behind the hotel. I turned into the alley that ran along the hotel wall. It was high, narrow and dark, winding across similar intersecting alleys with apartments crowded four or five storeys above – balconies a tapestry of washing, rugs, bicycles, canary song and neighbours talking across the street or standing quietly smoking. It reminded me of the medina in Marrakech. There was a lonesome chirp from a cicada up among the railings. He must have lost his way.
I came to Calle San Pablo and turned right. The church was in a square that you’d never know was there. The tower was invisible until you hit the square. Every aspect of the building was leaning one way or another. I went in. The warden was sitting just inside. I paid two euros and he gave me a guide in English.
The church is built from a particularly dark stone, which was what caught my eye from the bus. It made the interior dark and cool, like San Pedro el Viejo in Huesca. The nave is surrounded by chapels, with a huge altar at the end of the original Gothic church. The whole thing had been expanded outwards during the Baroque period, when the outer chapels had been added. Sure enough, Santiago the Moorslayer was in one of them.
The chapels were numbered in the guide and the warden was keen that I should follow the numbering. Three quarters of the way around, I bumped into two Scandinavian-looking women coming the other way, dressed in colour-coordinated floral prints. We were the only visitors.
Ten minutes later, I was sitting in the shade of an umbrella outside the bar. The camarero I’d spoken to the night before came over. We said hello. I ordered tostada and olive oil – aceite – with salt. No tomato. Café con leche, as usual. He chatted about tostada – the different preferences people have.
The woman at the next table reminded me of a cousin of mine: her look, style of dress and general demeanour. We are all just a mixed-up lucky bag of genes from God-knows where. She drank her café solo and walked on down the plaza.
I paid for breakfast and went back to the hotel to check out. The concierge said I could easily walk to the Delicias intercambiador. It would take around twenty minutes. He was as good as his word.
On the way, I came across a couple of structures, like arcades of rectangular arches built from steel girders. They performed no function beyond street art. I’d seen two others close to Plaza del Pilar on the afternoon I arrived. There wouldn’t be anything unusual about that if I hadn’t just dreamt about going through something like them the week before.