Madrid to Saragossa

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Madrid to Saragossa

This journey takes about 4 hours. It is all motorwayon the A2/N2. Though you stop nowhere of interest en route, there are a number of nearby towns and villages worth commenting upon. You will have no more than a glancing relationship with all of them.

Alcalá de Henares  Population: 57,000. Situated on the River Henares. Birthplace of the great Spanish writer Miguel de Cervantes. Once this town had a famous university. During the Civil War it was badly damaged in the fighting that raged around Madrid. With Madrid's industrial expansion, the city has recovered much of its prosperity, and some Madrileños live out here, commuting to Madrid for work.

Sketch of Cervantes' life: After leaving his "home town," Cervantes sought employment in various cities. He had financial skills, and obtained a position as a collector of back-taxes for the Kingdom of Granada. He went around from town to town collecting taxes from deadbeats, then deposited the money in a bank in Seville. Unfortunately the bank in Seville went bankrupt, and Cervantes was thought to have stashed the money away for himself. He was arrested, imprisoned in the town of Castro del Río (near Córdoba), then transferred to the Royal Prison in Seville. While in the Seville prison, he conceived the idea for Don Quixote, which was originally to be a short story. One can perhaps understand Cervantes' dreams of chivalry in view of these sordid circumstances, from which he would have been only too happy to escape.

Origins of Alcalá: The Romans built the first permanent settlement, named Complutum. The Moors, centuries later, rebuilt the city and called it Al-Kalat (hence the present Spanish name). The Christian King Alfonso VI recaptured it in 1118, and later (1389) the main bridge was built over the River Henares. The great Archbishop-Cardinal Ximenes de Cisneros founded the great University in 1508, as the city was reaching its zenith. 10,000 students studied at the university, and the famous Polyglot Bible was edited here and published in Latin, Greek, Hebrew, and Chaldaean. The city lost the university in 1837 when it was moved to Madrid.

The university of Alcalá is best known these days for its economics faculty.

Some other famous natives or residents:
Catherine of Aragon (Henry VIII's first wife)
Emperor Ferdinand I
Manuel Azaña y Diaz (President of Spain, 1936-38 during the Civil War)

8 km. after Alcalá: From the highway, one can make out, 5 km. to the north, the church of Meco, once a haven of refuge for fleeing criminals, who couldn't be touched as long as they remained inside; consecrated land was sacrosanct and police couldn't enter.

Guadalajara  Population: 32,000. Guadalajara suffered severe damage during the Spanish Civil War as Nationalist forces were besieging Madrid.

Origins: The Romans founded the original settlement, then called Arriaca, but it vanished during Visigothic times. The Moors built the town, naming it Wad-el-Hajarah (River of Stones), and it was recaptured in 1085 by the Christian warrior Alvar Fanez de Minaya. From the 1400s to the 1600s, the noble family of Mendoza ruled the town and maintained a splendid court which some observers said rivalled the court of the king himself. Mendozas patronised authors and artists, who spread the Mendoza fame throughout Spain. The great Philip II himself married Isabel of Valois, his third wife, in the chapel of the Mendoza palace.

Medinaceli  We're at a height now of over 3,000 feet, a reminder of how much of Spain is mountainous or high plateau. Though the town is now a mere village of 1,500 people, its history is notable. The Romans built their city of Ocilis nearby, and a triumphal arch survives from it (the only one with a triple archway to survive in Spain); the arch dates from the C2 or C3 A.D. and is visible from the highway (on your left). Speculation is that the name of the city comes from an Arabic phrase meaning "City of Selim" (Selim was probably the Moorish general who conquered it, or else the greatest Moorish ruler afterwards). After the Christian Reconquest of the city in 1124, a great noble family arose: the La Cerda house, Dukes of Medinaceli, who even claimed the Spanish throne by descent from earlier ancestors. These La Cerda dukes built a large castle, which still stands and contains their family tombs. Remains of this castle are visible today.

Santa María de Huerta  Population: 900. The remains of a great Cistercian monastery stands in the town, containing the tombs of Archbiship Jimenez, who fought against the Moors at the great battle of La Navas de Tolosa (a Christian victory), and the grandson of El Cid.

Aragón  This is now the historic province of Aragon: once a separate kingdom, with its capital in Saragossa, Aragon was born out of the struggle of Christians with Moorish invaders. The kingdom originated from an obscure principality based in the Pyrenees. By a series of clever marriages, this kingdom became joined with the Counts of Barcelona, and benefitted from Barcelona's commercial skill. Aragon became a great trading state, and its possessions included parts of France, the Balearic islands, Naples, and Sicily. The kings of Aragon were usually at war with the French. To try to develop an alliance against France, the King of Aragon married his daughter, Catherine of Aragon, to the English royal heir (at first Prince Arthur, then Prince — later King — Henry, the VIII). In 1118, the Aragonese finally expelled the Moors from Saragossa, and made it the capital. The reign of King James the Conqueror (1213-76) was the "golden age" of Aragon: the Balearic Islands were annexed, as well as the Spanish cities of Murcia and Valencia. Later, in 1469, Queen Isabella of Aragon married King Ferdinand of Castile, joining together the two greatest Spanish kingdoms; these "Catholic Monarchs" then achieved final victory over the Moors by conquering the last Moorish stronghold in Spain: Granada.

Landscape: Aragon is geographically linked with the Pyrenees, and forms the first foothills. Features of the terrain are: hidden valleys, big rivers (like the Ebro), villages of stone houses and slate roofs, deserts, ravines — in short variety.

Mudéjar art: Aragon is the birthplace of a unique Spanish style of art and architecture, the Mudéjar. This name refers to the type of art practiced by Moors who lived in areas reconquered by the Christians; thus, it's a blend of Christian and Moorish techniques. Distinctive traits: brick, arches, high ornament, and gilded stucco.

Ariza  The river is the Rio Jalón. This is an old town of Celto-Iberian origin, going back before the days of the Romans. Cave dwellings have been found in the hills, with tools and skeletons that show this to be one of the oldest settlements in Spain.

Alhama de Aragón  There are several "Alhamas" in Spain, so to distinguish them, the name of the province is added to the name. Mineral waters have flowed here for centuries. The Romans called their town Aquae Bilbilitanae, "Waters of Bilbiltana." When the Moors arrived, they prized the springs too, and built a castle to defend the town (that Alcázar stands today). Today it's still a popular spa, recommended for treatment of rheumatism.

Ateca  Population: 1,000. Two structures are visible: a C13 Mudéjar church tower, and the castle tower, now the city hall.

Calatayud  Population: 17,000. The town's name comes from Kalat Ayub, "castle of Job." Ayub is the Arabic name for Job. Ayub was the Moor who built a castle on the spot, and when a community grew up it retained his name. The town's houses blend nicely into the gray hillside; look for the Moorish minaret which still survives from these days. Outside the city, excavations have uncovered the old Roman city of Bilbilis, located on a major Roman road. The Roman poet Martial was born in this city; Martial was famous for his Satires, in which he poked fun at the leading social lights of his day. With fame and fortune, he returned to his native city and died there. Incidentally, in some of the hills are caves where people still live.

La Almunía de Doña Godina  A farming town, located in fertile terrain. During the War of Independence against Napoleon, the Spanish guerrilla leader Juan Martin (El Empecinado) carried out a successful attack on the French (Nov. 1811).

For Saragossa (Zaragoza), see relevant section in the preceding notes.


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