Zaragosa1From its ancient Roman ruins, picturesque Moorish castle and storied churches to today’s lively, colorful street scene, Zaragoza Spain is the perfect place to get an overview of Spanish history and culture in one short visit.  Located on the Ebro River about midway between Madrid and Barcelona, Spain’s fifth largest city is quick and easy to get to via AVE, the country’s efficient, high-speed trains.

Relatively unknown to Americans, Zaragoza boasts cosmopolitan touches as the site of Expo 2008, but manages to retain the flavor of Old Spain.

Here’s what it looked like to my 17-year-old daughter, who accompanied me on a press trip:

“I liked that it had a big-city feel but wasn’t overwhelmingly large,” says  Jenny Pollack, who was on her first trip to Europe. “Everything in Zaragoza was in a pretty concentrated area so it wasn’t hard to get from one place to another.”

Impressions of Zaragoza, Spain

Zaragosa2Her lasting impressions range from the exuberant street demonstration that erupted when the  Zaragoza soccer team won a championship game to the city’s 11th-century Aljaferia , where centuries-old writings on the wall of a room once used  as a prison struck her as “eerie” in contrast to the palace’s beautiful  Moorish arches.

“It was cool to see all the different occupants who used the palace over the centuries and then learn that it’s still used for Parliament today,” Jenny says. Noting that even King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella lived there in 1492 when they dispatched Columbus on his America-discovery voyage, she adds: “It was like a research paper brought to life.”

Ancient roots of Zaragoza

Jenny also enjoyed exploring the ancient Roman amphitheater in the city center, and marveled at how Zaragoza grew up around it; residents were unaware of its existence until the ruins were unearthed during a building project 38 years ago.

And she was intrigued by the story and traditions of the Basilica del Pilar, which draws Christian pilgrims from throughout the world; it’s the first Catholic church dedicated to the Virgin Mary, who is believed to have visited it.  “I liked the ribbons that visitors get inside the church, with different colors symbolizing different kinds of protection,” she says. “We got green ones and tied them to our camera and luggage — and we all made it back safely.”

Other memorable stops included an aquarium specially built for Expo that ranks as Europe’s largest freshwater aquarium; and El Tubo, Zaragoza’s historic old quarter , where we sampled an exotic array of tapas – appetizer plates of paper-thin Spanish jamon (ham), cheeses, olives, croquettes, seafood, almonds and other goodies.

But Jenny’s favorite Zaragoza memory is of the fresh churros and rich, thick hot chocolate that we savored one morning in a little cafe on a narrow, cobblestone lane.  “Yum, that was the best — I could eat them every day!” she declares, and adds: “Can we go back for that?”

For once, my teenager and I agree.

Sue PollackEditor’s Note: Susan R. Pollack won first place in the Midwest Travel Writers Association ‘s annual travel writing contest for this story about seeing Zaragoza, Spain through the eyes of her teenage daughter, Jenny. She won the top award in the short story category (500 words or less) and also won three other writing awards presented at the organization’s recent spring conference in Fayetteville, North Carolina. A veteran travel and design writer at The Detroit News, Pollack travels the world — with and without her family — from her home in suburban Detroit. Her most recent piece explored mother-daughter bonding while seeing plays and native son Justin Bieber’s favorite spots in Stratford, Ontario, home of the Stratford Shakespeare Festival.