Along the expressways of modern Spain you can drive from Leon to Valencia in about three hours.   Five hundred years ago when Spain became a nation (i.e., when the name “España” was first applied to the Kingdoms of Castile and Aragon unified under the reign of Ferdinand and Isabella) the journey along rutted roadways would have taken weeks.   These facts in themselves tell us something about what it has meant to be “Spanish”.

The route from Leon to Valencia crosses the heart of Spain from northwest to southeast on a high plateau, “La Meseta Central”.  To stop along the way in Zaragoza, capital of Aragon, requires a slight detour into the valley of the Ebro River, a windy and semi-arid locale hardly distinguishable from the Meseta itself.

During the Spanish Civil War of the 1930s these cities represented familiar aspects of the conflict.  The name “Leon” called up the conservative bastions of northern and western Spain which supported General Franco and the Nationalists.  Cosmopolitan “Valencia” was a stronghold of Republican ideals.   “Zaragoza”, bestriding the Ebro and caught in the middle, became a battleground of contesting armies.

Zaragoza's Basilica del Pilar towers over the Ebro River.

Today a visitor to these regions is confronted by rich architectural displays.  The Gothic cathedral at Leon contains some of Europe’s most impressive stained glass windows.  In Zaragoza, by contrast, religious monuments are rife with Moorish design elements reflecting “Mudejar” traditions. 

Cathedral of Santa Maria in Leon.

Hard upon its Mediterranean beaches, Valencia has devoted a vast quarter of the city to the construction of a futuristic “The City of Arts and Sciences”.

At first glance the relatively flat brush land connecting these cities might seem of little interest.  But much of the province called Leon & Castile lies in the rain shadow of thickly wooded Cordillera Cantabrica, mountains which rise along the Bay of Biscay.

The mountains of northern Spain.

From the heights flow down rivers like the Duero and the Ebro which water a landscape favorable for the production of grain and wine.   Along the rivers are sited towns with significant histories of their own, places like Burgos (birth place of the medieval warrior El Cid), Soria, and Teruel.

This part of the Meseta Central is also traversed by La Camino de Santiago.  For centuries pilgrims from around the world have made their way along this road from France to the shrine of St. James in the Galician hill town of Compostela, just off the Atlantic coast. 

Many of the back-packing pilgrims linger for a day or two in Leon.  The French gothic cathedral of Santa Maria, also known as “The House of Light”, is one of the glories of Renaissance, its massive stained-glass windows capturing the Spanish sunlight in a blaze of colors from morn till night.

Among Spaniards, Leon is generally thought of as conservative and Catholic.  Many Leonese claim to be “100% Spanish” and to speak the purest Castilian language in all of Spain. In the 1930s the region — along with most of western and northern Spain — did embrace Franco, a native son of neighboring Galicia. 

Oft visited sites in the city tend to have a religious provenance.  The Basilica of San Isidoro is a fine Romanesque church which contains the tombs of ancient Leonese royalty. 

Iglesia de San Marcos in Leon.

The Monastery of San Marcos displays some remarkable plateresque elements (elaborate silver ornamentations in a style notable from Renaissance Spain).   A former convent, the Hostal de San Marcos is now a charming “parador” (for more on these government run hotels, see below).  The Catalonian modernist Antonio Gaudi designed the Casa de los Botines, which now houses the Museum of Contemporary Art. 

Nightlife in the cobbled streets of old Leon is livened up by swarms of university students who crowd the tapas bars and restaurants.  Over a cerveza any local will explain that “Leon”, despite a rampant lion on the provincial flag, has nothing feline about it.  The city was founded in the first century BC by the Roman Legio VI Victrix.  Thus its name derives from “Legio” Latin for ‘legion”.

Lively streets of Leon.

Driving eastward across the sparsely populated Meseta toward Zaragoza one may well be reminded of the American Great Plains.  Broad wheat fields alternate with small land holdings and apparently abandoned farmsteads, witness to the general movement of peoples from rural to urban areas throughout the country.

From the province of Leon & Castile we cross into Aragon with its capital at Zaragoza.   Like Leon, the city of “Caesar Augustus” was settled by Roman legions (the name eventually permutated into “Zaragoza”).

Unlike Leon, Zaragoza is home to a rich Moorish heritage displayed in many of its famous buildings. 

After Aragonese Christians finally manage to conquer the Almoravid rulers of Zaragoza in the 12th century, thousands of “Mudejar” (tamed) Muslims continued to live and work in the area for centuries afterwards.   Among them were artisans who developed a style of geometric ornament found in Le Seo Cathedral, in the Basilica del Pilar, and in Aljaferia, a sumptuous 11th century Moorish palace.   These structures among others, including several in the provincial town of Teruel, constitute the Mudejar Architecture of Aragon, a protected UNESCO World Heritage Site. 

Basilica del Pilar in Zaragoza.

A vast plaza on the Ebro is home to the Cathedral of San Salvador (known locally as “La Seo”, i.e., “the See”) and the Basilica del Pilar.  The Cathedral, begun in the 12th century in the Late Romanesque style, later incorporated Gothic and Mudejar elements.

Aljaferia in Zaragoza.

The baroque Basilica, dedicated to the Virgin Mary, dates from the 17th century.  Parts of the cupolas were painted by Francesco Goya.  The nearby village of Fuendetodos has turned the farmhouse where Goya was born in 1746 into an interesting small museum.  Next door the Museum of Etchings has a permanent collection of Goya’s graphic work.

From its inception, Zaragoza derived importance from its strategic location on the Ebro, which flows down from the northern mountains through Aragon and Catalonia to the Mediterranean.   Over the centuries, European armies clashed in the wind-blown countryside on numerous occasions, most memorably during the War of the Spanish Succession (Battle of Zaragoza, 1710) and again during the Peninsular War against Napoleon (1808-09) when a prolonged siege resulted in the death of 50,000 Spanish defenders.

The Valley of the Ebro was again contested during the Spanish Civil War.  To the west and north were Leon & Castile, Navarre and other Nationalist strongholds; to the south and east were Republican Catalonia and Valencia.  The Zaragoza Offensive (1937), an attempt by Republican forces to occupy the city, ended in defeat.  The Battle of the Ebro (1938), longest battle of the War and last stand of the Republic, was fought farther south in Catalonia, near the mouth of the river.  The American Abraham Lincoln Brigade, one among several foreign volunteer groups, suffered great loss of life during the conflict.

Ah . . . sweet Valencia!  In For Whom the Bell Tolls, Ernest Hemingway’s Spanish Civil War novel, several characters seek to alleviate the tedium and danger of the battlefront by imagining themselves drinking beer ‘neath the swaying palms of Valencia.   Frigid mountain caves give way to sandy Mediterranean beaches, a sense of impending doom to timeless rapture. 

Valencia, gateway to the Costa Blanca, has long worked this kind of magic on the Spanish sensibility.   Like cooler Barcelona to the north, the port of Valencia has always been as much European as Spanish, has never quite belonged to Spain in its imperial Castilian persona.  Like Catalonia, the province of Valencia has its own language, Valencian, a relative of Catalan.  Like Catalonia, Valencia held onto its Republican government until the very last days of the Civil War and suffered severe penalties for decades afterwards.

Torres de Serrano in Valencia.

Nowadays, Valencia is an important commercial and cultural center as well as one of the primary tourist destinations of Mediterranean Spain.   Its nearly one million inhabitants make it the third largest city in Spain after Madrid and Barcelona.

 Valencia Cathedral Plaza de la Virgen.

Only in the 1990s did Valencia begin to fully exploit its touristic possibilities.  Much restoration of the old city center — including its medieval towers, the Valencia Cathedral and the Silk Exchange — dates from that decade. 

The most spectacular development of modern Valencia is the futuristic City of Arts and Sciences, a cultural and architectural complex at the southern end of the city.   Both the Museum of Fine Arts and the Valencia Institute of Modern Art house important collections of Spanish painting and host numerous special exhibits throughout the year.

City of Arts and Sciences in Valencia.

Colorful festivals attracts thousands of visitors each summer.  In 2007 the America’s Cup sailing races were held on the waterfront.  Grand Prix auto racing and the Valencia Open tennis tournament are among the annual events on the calendar as well as a number of trade fairs and conventions. 

And then there is Paella.

Valencia's Central Market.

The marshlands of Valencia constitute the Rice Bowl of Spain.  Here, especially on the freshwater Albufera lake just south of the city, are cultivated the paddies that produce the short-grained white rice called “Bomba” used in the many varieties of paella eaten everywhere in Spain. 

The large iron pan itself (called a “paella”) and the rice cooked therein are the staples of any paella dish.  Other ingredients vary, from seafood, fish broths, meats and vegetables, according to locale and personal taste.

The Paella Valenciana, for example, usually includes white and green beans as well as rabbit and chicken.  No fish or seafood is to be found in this traditional dish, which is prepared religiously according to time honored formulas.  Seafood paellas are commonly produced in coastal areas southwards to the Straits of Gibraltar.  Like the venerable pizzas and minestrones of Italy, humble paellas may incorporate a variety of leftovers.  Of course purists argue endlessly about “real” paella.  In the final analysis the contents of Mama’s pantry seems to carry a good deal of weight.

Spanish paradors:

Currently there are around 100 of these government run hotels, usually adapted from historic buildings, to be found throughout Spain.  In the parts of Spain described in this article, I experienced three of these hostelries, all of which I can recommend.  The aforementioned Hostal de San Marcos in Leon is interesting not only for its antique appointments.   A goodly portion of the clientele are pilgrims who stop here on their march towards Santiago de Compostela.  Needless to say the foot weary denizens of the hotel bar have some interesting stories to tell. 

Parador de San Marcos in Leon .

The parador in Cuenca, a Castilian town once frequented by Spanish royalty, occupies the restored convent of St. Paul built in the 16th century.  It offers dramatic views of both of St. Paul Bridge and the famed Hanging Houses of Colgada, which loom over a deep gorge of the Huecar River. 

A good example of a parador occupying a modern structure is the Parador de El Saler just south of Valencia near the Albufera lagoon. 

Campo de Golf Saler.

El Saler offers one of the top golf courses in Spain as well as sea views, spa and many of the usual amenities of an up-to-date exclusive hotel. 

Although the Spanish paradores are in the luxury category, quite reasonable off season rates can be had during the off season.  In summer and on holidays, it is wise to book well in advance.   

General Spain information

Then you specify province details for Leon, Valencia and Zaragoza.

Information on the Albufera National Park

Information on the pilgrim’s route or also at this link.

In addition, we can recommend these hotels, restaurants, and sites in Valencia and also at this link and at this Valencia link.

Zaragoza general information.

We stayed at the well located Hotel Oriente.

Information about the monuments of Zaragoza.

Outstanding recreational opportunities at Club de Golf La Peñaza, and Real Zaragoza Club de Tenis.

For an interesting evening of musical entertainment, try La Boveda,

In the same building, formerly said to be a site of inquisitional activities, is a youth hostel.

Enjoy traditional Spanish eats at Lare Publican and at el Angel de Pincho, or Bodeguilla.

And in Leon, a good place to stay is at the Leon Plaza Mayor and a lively meal can be had at Camarote Madrid.

— Feature by Jerry Nemanic, Jetsetters Magazine European Editor; photos by Donna Nemanic.