[…Zaragoza, Spain May 28, 2011…]
It’s not your most popular Spanish city, that’s for sure, but it’s not missing any of that Spanish flair and spunk. With 200 years of trying to keep up with the rest of the country, present-day Zaragoza gives the impression of a city eager to modernize itself while still keeping its nostalgic past of Roman and Islamic influence intact.
There are not many countries where I’ve been to that a vacation turns out to be really what it should be – non-stressful and just plain indulgent. Spain, to me, is one of those places I enjoy – yes, even during the hours in-between dawn and dusk. It has that certain atmosphere that encourages one to take it slow and allow time to take its course. The Spaniards are, after all, known for their relaxed pace and love for celebrations as is evident in their year-round fiestas. They enjoy their late leisurely-long lunches and dinners, greet each other with a kiss, touch when they talk, and are generally fun and company-loving people. While sitting in the airport bus on the way to the city late last night, the endless loud chatter around me could feel exhausting to some, but here, it’s a testimony of their tireless zest for life regardless of what time of day it is.
Indeed, it’s hard to find a place to eat in Spain after 2 p.m. when businesses close for siesta, and when it’s still too early to have dinner at 7, I thank God for chocolaterias where I can grab some chocolate con churros. It also is an opportune time for me to join the rest and indulge in a siesta while the harsh mid-afternoon light won’t do me any good anyway. So I learn to adapt each time I travel to Spain; suddenly work turns to leisure.
Being an artist, I thrive in places with a rich artistic heritage. To have produced notable talents in art and literature like Picasso, Dali, Cervantes, El Greco and many more, there is no doubt in my mind that any city in Spain will not come short of creative inspiration. So even in a city like Zaragoza which I have not heard of before, I knew I was in safe hands.
That moment when I was sitting on the edge of the railing of Puente del Pilar bridge, watching the sun fall behind the Puente de Piedra as the famous Basilica de Nuestra Señora del Pilar is slowly draped in the shadows of the last light – was, to me, a beautiful Spanish moment: watching time go by and relishing it without feeling guilt. I sometimes travel alone, but this time with company, it’s nice to not be forced to witness this all by myself.
In Zaragoza, there are several historical gems, some of which gracefully adorn the banks of the river Ebro, but it’s the basilica that gives this city its soul. There’s always one in a city – the magnetic force that draws the crowd in. And here, this majestic Baroque structure with traces of Gothic and Mudejar is easily the focal point.
Plaza del Pilar, the big public square where one can find the basilica, is the usual place to start for new visitors, but this day was not the most ideal time to enjoy the square. All across Spain, protesters are taking into the streets to rally against the prolonged economic crisis in the country. Today is the day before national elections. There are colored tents, cardboard signs, sweaty unbathed folks slumped on the ground, playing cards and entertaining each other. It looked more like a party than a protest. Rebellion Spanish style, if you will.
One can only do the best they can to enjoy this historic center in this situation. Luckily, there is also the Aljaferia, another great monument and a fine example of Spanish-Islamic architecture. Not as grand as Granada’s Alhambra, which I’ve seen a few years back, but it was something to appreciate.
There is still more to this city than just the casco viejo or the old town. West of the basilica is an area that is a testament to Zaragoza’s commitment to compete in the modern world and join the ranks of its successful sisters Bilbao or Valencia. As the host for Expo 2008, Zaragoza built new bridges, pavilions and a water tower to celebrate the theme “water and sustainable development.” No Frank Gehry or Santiago Calatrava can be found here, but the architectural design is nothing to sneeze at either. While the Puente del Tercer Millenio and the adjacent Pabellón Puente had some Calatrava semblance to them, the partially-dry riverbed underneath them was not satisfying aesthetically.
There was an access to the river which I’m sure only dedicated photographers would attempt to take. It was filled with mossy rocks, silt-muck-mud and other unknown earthy matter, and overwhelming stench. Suffice it to say that the river Ebro is not the sweetest-smelling river I’ve been to. In fact, I had to hold my breath often during long exposures and remind myself why I’m doing this. It stank even more underneath the Puente de Santiago by the basilica, and if it were not for the fact that the stagnant river made good reflections, I would easily pass up the chance. I guess it’s safe to say that if there’s one thing I did not enjoy and wished time flew by faster was during the moments I had spent on the river.
Having said all that about the river, I love cities with a river that runs through it. Even more so, I love cities whose promenade is lined with endless benches facing the river, waiting for the weary traveler underneath the shade of leafy trees. Like it’s been there for a long time waiting for you.
On a day like this when the warm summer Mediterranean air seeps through the little cracks in the Spring-cozy temperature, it got a little too hot for comfort. Even at night as I scurried quickly from one bridge to another, then up and down the slopes on the riverbank, I sweated underneath a light jacket that I had to wear to keep my filters handy. But it’s easy to forget inconveniences or foul-smelling rivers when there’s something beautiful in front of you. You just have to tell yourself you can’t smell the river from looking at the photo you made, you only need eyes to see wonders.
There is that certain kind of fulfillment to a photographer that can’t be found anywhere else. To me, although there’s always that hint of dissatisfaction and feeling of should’ve-could’ve done this or that, I know I’ve done my best when I can end the night eagerly waiting for tomorrow to give it another go at the elusive perfect shot.
It is also the moment after a long day of shooting, after the last remaining blue light disappears on the west, when the city lulls itself to sleep and you’re ready to join in, that you have a better appreciation of what you do and you’re convinced that you came here with a purpose. I felt that today.
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