Tuesday, February 01, 2011

If I were a Princess, Aljaferia would be my Palace of Choice

This may have been the most relaxing visit to a new country I've ever experienced. I succomb far too often to the pressures of seeing and doing everything possible while traveling, and I just can't do it anymore. It becomes exhausting and unenjoyable, and it causes me to lose sight of how blessed I am to be able to make the journey in the first place!


On this four-day excursion to Spain, my first trip to the country, I intentionally left my itinerary unplanned. My priorities were to spend quality time with Victoria, a good friend whom I'm visiting, and to get a little taste of her life in Spain. All sightseeing would be secondary. I was fortunate to get a lot of both! The first day I was really not well and spent the whole day in bed, recuperating. It's amazing how my consecutive visits to the Netherlands, around Brussels, and to Antwerp finally caught up with me; but a day of repose put me back in business. We didn't leave the hostel that first night until 7:00 PM. Little did I know that this is when the city wakes up! Spanish people live on a completely different schedule from any other I've seen. Stores, including major grocery stores, close during the lunch hour (this doesn't make sense to me, as I would imagine there are people like me who constantly forget to pack a lunch and thus pop into a grocery around lunchtime to grab a snack). And the hours at which they do eat would be considered extraordinarily late in the United States. Yesterday Victoria and I walked down to the sushi bar on the next block over around 6:30 PM, and I was astounded to find the restaurant closed. The business hours read: "Lunch: 12.00 – 16.00; Dinner: 20.00 – 0.00." That's noon to 4:00 PM for lunch, and 8:00 PM to midnight for dinner! What's more, Victoria told me that a few months ago, when her dad came to visit, they walked into the restaurant at 8:15 PM and asked to be seated, but the staff was still cleaning and looked at them as if they were crazy for wanting to eat dinner so early. The waitress asked, "Could you come back in about an hour or hour and a half?" Victoria and I had a late lunch today, so we tried dinner à la espagnole and hit the sushi buffet at 10:00 PM. It was delicious, but I don't see much sense in eating a full meal just an hour before going to bed; it doesn't leave the body any time to use the energy and frankly, I can't sleep on a full stomach. Hence why I am awake at 2:45 AM, writing this.

The moat and back side of Aljaferia Palace
There are only three things that I truly desired to see before leaving Zaragoza: the Aljaferia Palace, St. Pilar Basilica, and Cesar's Wall. Miraculously, we spent a good chunk of time exploring each site today, and even rode the cable cars and wandered through the aquarium as well.

I cannot put into words the pure beauty of the Aljaferia 
The front entrance of Aljaferia
Palace, nor the awe I felt as I contemplated its curvacious, vibrant, mixtilinear arches and immaculate, symmetrical gardens. We happened upon a free entrance day, and paid only two euro for audio guides in English. Victoria and I, both history and architecture geeks, agreed that we'd never had such a lovely experience with a prerecorded audio device. The descriptions of each room were relevant, interesting, and of appropriate length. The narrator was a native English speaker and not a 
The first courtyard
foreign national translator with a distracting and slightly unintelligible accent, as is so often the case in such tourist venues.



Aljaferia Palace was added to the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites in 2001. It is an extraordinary building, not only because of its unique architectural beauty and legacy, but also because of its historical and political significance. Aljaferia is “one of the most representative and emblematic monuments of Aragonese Mudejar Architecture,” a magnificent meeting of Moorish and Spanish architecture; it was built by Arab and North African Muslim invaders (the Moors) in the ninth century and then changed hands several times throughout the centuries that followed. 
One of the grand halls, held up and adorned by mixtilinear arches, so precise and ornate, they seem to have been replicated using a cooking cutter
The Catholic Alfonso I conquered Aragon (the province in which Zaragoza is located) in the twelfth century and, having come upon a beautiful ready-made castle, decided to move in and do a little remodeling to Christianize the space. During the twelfth to fourteenth centuries, Aljaferia was the seat of the Aragonese monarchs and is considered to have been a medieval Christian palace.

It was so fascinating to see the small mosque – the Niche of Mihrab – still standing and in fairly good condition. I couldn't help but think, as I walked through the palace today, that the Christian monarchs who took residence in the palace must have (a) not known that the niche was the primary place of prayer for their Muslim predecessors (complete with a little knob pointing in the direction of Mecca), or (b) not been in tune with the spiritual symbolism woven into the very walls of their home. Much of the interior of the palace was engraved from floor to ceiling with intricate designs, Kufic inscriptions, and Islamic symbols. It is certainly beautiful, but wouldn't the Christian monarchs want to surround themselves with the motifs of their own faith? The most evidence of Christian presence seems to be in the many St. George's Crosses that adorn the royal coat of arms painted onto the ceiling rafters of many rooms (and included in the current flag of Aragon).

A new structure was finally built atop the old Muslim one in 1492, under the direction of a master of the Mudejar architectural style, one which “blended the medieval artistic inheritance with the new Renaissance contributions.” 
The inner courtyard


At this time, in 1492, Aljaferia was the home of King Ferdinand and Princess Isabella; can you believe that I was standing in the very building to which Christopher Columbus came to ask permission to sail to the West Indes – at which time he discovered America? This is an absolutely incredible palace with so much important history, and not only for the Spaniards.

Aljaferia is the current seat of the Parliament of Aragon, and as such continues the tradition as the center of political power in the province. It's not often that I run across a genuine historic monument that has been so well preserved, kept up, and presented to the public in an accessible manner. I am floored by my experience at the palace, and I highly recommend it to anyone planning to visit Spain. You won't be disappointed.
Islamic mathematicians were world renowned; their love for mathematical order can be seen in the complex geometrical designs that formerly adorned every interior wall in the palace's chambers.
An original fragment of the wall carvings, restored to its former glory.
There is no sense of scale in this photo, but the piece is about 2.5 feet tall. 

An original arch from the second half of the 11th century.

** All citations are from the Aljaferia Palace visitor guidebook.

1 comments:

  1. Hi,
    Nice blog. If you were impressed by Aljaferia, I wondered if you have been to Alhambra in Granada or the Alcazar in Seville. I am a researcher and have been to all these places and working on a book which is almost complete.
    Regards,
    Mo
    M A Baig

    ReplyDelete

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