Thoughts from Aragón, Spain’s Forgotten Interior

Just a couple days ago, I arrived back in Santiago after a week of exploring the region of Aragón in eastern Spain, and now that I’ve done several loads of laundry and slept in ’til noon in my own bed, I think I can put together some thoughts and reflections on one of the most interesting and unique corners of Spain I’ve been to yet.

I’m sure you wondering, where is Aragón? This landlocked, eastern part of Spain stretches south from the central Pyrenees mountains, nestled between Castilla on one hand and Barcelona-dominated Catalunya on the other. It’s actually one of the largest autonomous communities in all of Spain, but because most Spaniards over the past half-century have flocked from the countryside to the biggest cities, it’s one of the most sparsely populated swaths in Spain.

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Perhaps because of this, Aragón is a “forgotten” part of Spain, skipped over by whirlwind tourists on their way from Barcelona to Madrid or Sevilla. Zaragoza—the capital with over half the region’s population—doesn’t nearly draw as many visitors as Madrid or Barcelona do, despite being smack-dab in the middle along the highways and AVE high-speed rail. But maybe since mass tourism has passed over Aragón, it has still retained its unique charm: Zaragoza holds a no-nonsense attitude, proud of its importance since Roman days…cozy Teruel hides colorful Mudéjar church bell towers between its Modernista apartment blocks…and grand Huesca kicks back and relaxes on the reclining seat of the Pyrenees.

My journey followed basically the main highlights of Aragón—or rather, the highlights accessible via public transport: Zaragoza, one of Spain’s biggest and oldest cities; Teruel to the south, one of Spain’s smallest provincial capitals but also a World Heritage Site for its Moorish-influenced church architecture; nearby Albarracín, a gorgeous coral-red village that crowns the meander of the Guadalaviar river; and Huesca at the foothills of the Pyrenees mountains, a city that really surprised me.

The story of Aragón generally follows the same trajectory as the rest of the country: prehistoric Celtiberian people, the Roman Empire, Visigothic kingdoms, Moorish times, and Christian conquest. The Kingdom of Spain as we know it today is actually the result of alliances, marriages, and recombinations of several realms that existed in the Middle Ages. The medieval kingdom of Aragón controlled much of the same territory as the region today, but its rulers went on to add Catalunya, Valencia, and much of southern Italy to their crowns. When Ferdinand of Aragón and Isabella of Castilla married, they effectively created a new country that, over the centuries, would slowly be knit together into the state we know today, often at the expense of Aragón’s regional autonomy and language.

While the native Aragonese language is hardly spoken except in the far north, people in the region really spoke to me with their cooking. “Hearty” is the word that best describes Aragonese cuisine; I ate so much fried eggs, sausages, cured ham, and potatoes while checking out this fascinating part of Spain—and loved every minute of it. Jamón de Teruel vies for attention with the cured ham-producing zones of Salamanca and Huelva, but it’s mostly enjoyed by locals for half the price of jamón ibérico. Carb-lovers like yours truly scarfed down a few bowls of migas while in Zaragoza, or breadcrumbs fried in garlic and olive oil and topped with everything from fried eggs to sausages to even fresh green grapes.

The week I spent here was far too short; I’d love to come back again someday and check out Calatayud (in between Zaragoza and Madrid), do more hiking in the mountains of Teruel, and go back in time with all the castles northern Huesca province holds.

Have you ever been to Aragón before? What are some other “forgotten” regions of Spain? Talk about it in the comments below!

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