Morocco/Spain diary: Day 18

Tuesday, 30 September, 2014, 10:20

We are just finishing off our late breakfast in the hotel buffet. We decided to sleep in and eat late because the museums we want to visit this morning don’t open until 10:00. The breakfast buffet here is huge, with dozens of different types of meats and cheeses and pastries, as well as several types of both cakes and biscuits. There are churros and hot chocolate (to which you can add star anise or lemon slices or chunks of cinnamon bark), pancakes, frittatas, fried eggs, multiple different types of sausage, bacon, several bowls of fresh diced fruit, lots of different types of bread and bread rolls, five types of cereal (including muesli for the first time on the entire trip), five types of fruit juice, mineral water both con gas and sin gas, a coffee machine which makes seven different types of coffee at the touch of a button, and even a bottle of opened red wine. It’s enormous and would be very tempting, but at this time of the morning I really just want muesli and fruit.


We are taking a drink break at the cafe El Picadero on Plaza San Pedro Nolasco. M. tried to order a cappuccino but they didn’t make those, so she got caffe con leche. I tried to ask for an orange juice, but ended up with a fizzy orange soda. (I asked for “juego“, which I thought was “juice”, but looking it up I see that actually means “game”, so who knows what the waitress thought I was asking for.) After finishing the drinks we’ll order some sandwiches for a very late lunch.

Roman theatre stage
Roman Theatre of Caesaraugusta.

We spent the morning doing a tour of all four of the archaeological museums of the old Roman city of Caesaraugusta, which, suitably corrupted, gave rise to the modern name of Zaragoza. The first was the theatre, which we’d seem from the street yesterday. This was the largest of the museums and took the most time to go through, with five or so rooms of exhibits of pieces and artefacts found during excavation and a history of the discovery and conversion into the museum, plus walkways around the large remaining structure.

Roman theatre masks
Roman theatre masks.

From this museum we moved on to the Roman baths, which was the smallest of the museums. We actually had trouble locating the entrance, which was a door in a small steel and glass structure nestled in a tiny courtyard of an apartment and office building. Opening the door led to a set of stairs leading underground, where the remains of the baths were. We entered with another couple of English speakers, and the old man looking after the place asked us to sit on a series of stools in front of the Roman swimming pool. We were a bit mystified, until the lights went down and an audiovisual presentation began in English. It was an odd way to present the material, as the lights in the rest of the museum were turned off, so nobody else could walk and look at any of the exhibits while the show was running. This wasn’t a problem as it was only the four of us in there at the time, but it’s an odd piece of design. The show was framed as a Roman writing a letter to a friend, describing the details of the new baths, including the caldarium, tepidarium, and frigidarium, for hot, warm, and cold bathing respectively. There was also a gymnasium, garden, library, and a open air swimming pool with porticos. A bit of the swimming pool was really all that remained to be seen in situ, and the museum only had a few other small pieces displayed around the pool.

Baths of Caesar Augustus
Roman Baths of Caesaraugusta.

Next was the Roman forum, which is accessed from a very modern triangular building faced with translucent brown stone panels, in the small plaza right in front of the cathedral of Le Seo. This has a small area for an admissions desk and some lockers, and stairs leading underground to the remains of the forum, none of which can be seen from the present plaza level. This museum was the next largest after the theatre, with a large underground space split into a display case area, an audiovisual area, and walkways through the extant ruins of the walls and sewers of the forum and its surrounding markets. We looked at the displays, then entered the large cloaca which drained rainwater from the forum. We walked to the far end, and then the lights turned off! There were only tiny emergency lights leading the way back out, where the audiovisual show had begun in Spanish for a few other visitors, necessitating turning off the lights in the rest of the display area, and the cloaca, apparently. Fortunately the main are of ruins was far enough away from the show to remain lit, and we walked around that to have a look before leaving for the next museum.

Forum of Caesar Augustus
Roman Forum of Caesaraugusta.

The final museum was the old Roman river port on the Ebro river, from which the land of Iberia gets its name. This was smallish and the man at the door had to unlock the door before we could even get in. He was enthusiastic though, giving us English translations of the information cards, leading us downstairs, and asking us to sit for the audiovisual display, which he began in English, with us the only people in the museum. Again, this required turning off the lights everywhere, rather than being in a separate room. The show described a trip down the river by a merchant to the ocean port at the river mouth to exchange goods, then travel back up the river to Caesaraugusta. The winds were often not favourable for sailing upriver, and the ships would need to be hauled by men with ropes walking along the river bank. After the show, the lights went up and an audio description of a detailed model of the port buildings began, again in English, as we walked around. It sounded exactly like Judy Dench narrating the description. We looked around at the ruins and the handful of displays and then exited.

By now it was 14:00, so we went looking for a cafe to sit and have a drink and something for lunch. We walked back towards the theatre, as there is the Rosario de Cristal church to see there. We found this cafe El Picadero in the tiny plaza right in front of the church and went in. After our drinks we ordered sandwiches, a tortilla de patata for M. and a lomo con pimientos y queso for me. They came with hot fillings on a soft baguette and were delicious.

Bronze boys
Fountain outside Basilica del Pilar.


We paid and left and M. felt like trying another granizado at the place where we had lunch yesterday, so we began walking back there. At the cathedral square, however, I found a nice cream place and was tempted into getting some, and we saw they also did granizados, in lemon and coffee! M. liked the idea of a coffee one so got that. We walked back to our hotel slowly,eating our cold treats, and taking a few more photos on the way.

We’re now resting for a bit in our hotel room to relax before heading out to Rosario de Cristal again and then try to find something for dinner before it gets too late, as we need to be up early tomorrow to catch our train to Barcelona.


We went out about 18:30 to go see the Rosario de Cristal. We thought it was essentially an active church, which just happened to house some interesting artefacts. But during our rest break I read up on the history of Zaragoza, and discovered that we are here the week before the annual Fiestas del Pilar, which is a ten day long celebration of the miraculous vision of the Virgin Mary seen by Saint James the Great in the first century, standing on a pillar. This is also the source of the name of the Basilica del Pilar (and also our hotel, Catalonia del Pilar, and dozens of cafes and restaurants and other things around the old city). The anniversary celebration is on the 12th of October, and the week leading up it it is full of festivities, which we will just be missing, although we’ve seen workers erecting two giant stages in the main plaza, and also posters up all over the place advertising the festival.

Rosario de Cristal 2
Rosario de Cristal.

Anyway, one of the activities during the festival is a parade of huge illuminated floats with religious iconography, made of glass. These are the Rosarios de Cristal, and they are housed in the old church Iglesia del Sagrado Corazon de Jesus, which is apparently not still in use as a church, as we discovered when we got there and went inside. The entire interior has been converted into a storage room for a few dozen of the huge glass floats. The man at the entrance said something to us which I didn’t understand, and when I indicated we wanted to go inside, he sold us tickets for two euro each and motioned for us to sit at some seats for a five minute introductory presentation. Just as at the archaeological museums, while this was happening, none of the lights were on anywhere else. Unfortunately this time the presentation was in Spanish, so we didn’t understand any of it.

Rosario de Cristal 6
Rosario de Cristal.

After that, the lights came on selectively, in sequence, leading us around the exhibition one worm at a time. Each piece was illuminated internally to show off the coloured glass designs in the otherwise gloomy church interior, while a Spanish voice described it, before it dimmed and the next Rosario in the sequence was illuminated. About halfway through a few other people entered the church with us and had to rush to get to where we were watching the display sequence in progress. Most of the Rosarios were blocky shapes, but the final piece was a marvellous sculpture of a ship, representing one of Columbus’s ships on his voyage of discovery. At the conclusion of the presentation sequence, all of the Rosarios were illuminated at once, making the interior of the old church glow with amazing light.

Rosario de Cristal 8
Rosario de Cristal.

Leaving the church, we walked over to the Torreón de la Zuda, an old tower which once formed part of a fortified castle during the Muslim period of Zaragoza’s history in the Middle Ages. The tower has five levels and now serves as the tourist information office for Zaragoza, with offices on the middle floors, while the fifth floor is a free observation area. We walked to the top and enjoyed the view over the river and basilica as the setting sun illuminated the city beautifully. Unfortunately my 24-105 mm lens starting playing up while taking photos. It appears to be an issue with the aperture not responding to camera commands. Hopefully it’s not too serious. It seems to work as long as I don’t stop the aperture down from the open f/4.0.

El Pilar at sunset
View of Basilica del Pilar from Torreón de la Zuda.

We walked to a restaurant called Pan y Cibello, which I’d searched online and found as a recommended spot which opened at 7 p.m. But when we got there it was closed, and a sign said it opened at 9pm. So we wandered around looking for another restaurant that was open. We didn’t have an luck, finding one with a posted menu featuring a vegetable rice paella, but when we went in the woman inside said then also didn’t open until 9 p.m. So we decided to go back to the Italian place we went to last night, since it was very good and we knew it would be open. This time we got pasta, M. choosing rigatoni pesto, while I went for mezzaluna pasta stuffed with goats’s cheese and bacon, in a truffle and duck cream sauce. We avoided ordering anything else in order to make the dinner less filling. It was lucky we did, as the pasta dishes were enormous, and very good. The same guy who’d served us last night was there and recognised us, but the waitress was different this time. Rather than wine I went for beer this time. I just asked for beer and got a glass full, without specifying any brand or type. I presume they only had one choice.

Mezzaluna with truffle duck sauce
Mezzaluna with truffle duck sauce.

Full of pasta, we avoided desert and came straight back to the hotel for a relatively early night, before leaving tomorrow morning for Barcelona.

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