An Afternoon Coffee in Huesca, Spain

It was a sunny afternoon and I had just gotten back to Zaragoza’s train station after a few days spent down south exploring Mudéjar-style Teruel and the medieval village of Albarracín. My night train back to Santiago de Compostela wasn’t leaving until later that evening, so I decided to make the most of this layover and spend the afternoon and early evening exploring Huesca, an off-the-beaten-track provincial capital to the north. As I rode in a diesel “train” that consisted of just a single car, the Aragonese Pyrenees mountains came into view, the natural border that separates Spain and France.

Huesca (pronounced “WESS-kah” [ˈwes.ka]) holds a commanding position on the plains below the Pyrenees foothills, which formed the historic core of the medieval kingdom of Aragón. In the surrounding region, outposts like Loarre, Sos del Rey Católico, and Jaca whisper memories of a time when “Spain” was merely a collection of ragtag lordships based in the mountains.

Heading out from the train station along a warm, inviting avenue, I stopped in a snobby restaurant, sat down at the bar, and ordered a pick-me-up café bombón: a shot of espresso poured over sweetened condensed milk. Declining the provided bag of sugar, I stirred the contrasting layers of white milk, dark coffee, and brown espresso foam together and engaged in this most Spanish of habits, the afternoon coffee break. Having slurped down this thick, sweet caffeine boost, I headed out to explore the city.

Huesca, Spain
Romanesque sculpted column capitals, Monastery of San Pedro el Viejo

After heading down one of the side streets that leads out from the main plaza, I came across the nondescript façade of the medieval-era Church of San Pedro el Viejo. I entered inside, where I found a plain, gloomy barrel-vaulted Romanesque-style church—nothing to write home about. But as I stepped back out in the open air through the opposite door, I found myself in a cloister brimming with immaculate sculptures from the Middle Ages.

The small cloister was bounded by pairs of columns that shared ornate capitals (the trapezoidal part on top). But instead of the simple “banana-leaf” capitals that Romanesque sculptors often added, the craftsmen at work here turned these column capitals into a “poor man’s Bible,” much like stained glass was used in the Gothic era for illiterate parishioners. These highly detailed bas-relief sculptures depicted the life and passion of Jesus as well as medieval legends and dragons. All four of the cloister’s hallways had these double-sided capitals to admire, so there was a lot to take in.

Huesca, Spain
Cloister, Monastery of San Pedro el Viejo

Back outdoors in the 21st century, I strolled around, heading generally in the direction toward the cathedral. Huesca’s jelly bean-shaped old town is small enough that it was difficult to get lost here (unlike some other old towns *cough* Toledo *cough*). Like its counterpart to the south, Zaragoza, Huesca also had a lot of really interesting street art and wall murals, which spruced up derelict buildings and empty lots. Some of them were whimsical, others were clever, still others just silly with advice like “eat up the world with french fries!”

Huesca, Spain
“We spend a lot of time dreaming but very little trying to make those dreams come true”

It wasn’t long before I arrived at a spacious plaza partly shaded by centuries-old trees. Bookending the square were a grand, Renaissance-era town hall and an impressive Gothic cathedral. True to form, this Gothic church was full of light; rays of late-afternoon sun poured in from the large clerestory windows, illuminating the warm stone arches and vaults. I really enjoyed climbing hundreds of steps up to the top of the eight-sided bell tower. Reminiscent of Catalan churches to the east, the bell tower gave me unobstructed views of the whole city—the train station to the south, the various plazas and winding streets—as well as a taste of the mighty Pyrenees to the north.

Huesca, Spain
West façade of Huesca’s cathedral

I was in no hurry to knock sights off a checklist, so once I returned to ground level, I explored the town, basking in the relaxed, warm atmosphere—the first taste of spring and a welcome change from the bitter cold of Albarracín. My last stop was the provincial museum, a fine collection of artifacts housed in a unique circular palace. One of its Romantic-era paintings depicted The Bell of Huesca, a legendary tale that involves less tolling-of-bells than chopping-of-heads…read the Wikipedia article for more!

Huesca, Spain
Courtyard in the provincial museum

Like Zaragoza to the south, Huesca is also a major center for pinchos—baguette slices topped with anything and everything, held together with a toothpick and sold for 1-3€ a pop. I always thought the pinchos zone was restricted to the Basque Country, Navarra, and La Rioja, but apparently it stretches east into northern Aragón as well! Pincho joints were everywhere in the southern tip of Huesca’s old town, giving this far-flung city a lively atmosphere. After a few too many croquetas, however, it was time for me to head back home. After all, in Spain, all roads lead to Santiago; in Huesca, I even stepped on a little brass scallop shell, a symbol of the Camino de Santiago.

Huesca, Spain
Waymark shell for the Camino de Santiago Aragonés

What is your favorite off-the-beaten-track city in Spain? Do you like café bombón or have you tried something similar to it before? Tell me in the discussion below!

Huesca, March 5th, 2014

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