Aragon is a perfect illustration of the diversity and fractured history that defines the country as a whole. Landlocked in the Northeast of the country, it ranges from the spectacular lush, green Pyrenean Mountains and valleys of the North, through an arid, dry steppe into the valley of the Ebro River, to the strangely isolated mountains of the Sistema Ibérico in the South. Three languages are spoken in the territory; Castilian Spanish throughout, Catalan on the eastern fringes, and another regional but non-official language, Aragonese, in the North. It is also sparsely populated, with only 3 percent of the population of Spain residing in about 10 percent of its land mass, and half of those in the capital Zaragoza.
For such a sparsely populated region it is one with a powerful history. Originally a part of the Frankish March, it was born from the division of the Kingdom of Navarre in the eleventh century and expanded southward, reclaiming territory from the Moors. In 1150 the marriage of the Aragonese Queen with the Count of Barcelona created the Crown of Aragon, with regency over both territories.
Through a series of battles and political unions the Crown expanded such that during the fourteenth and fifteenth century, apart from Aragon and Catalonia, the regions of Valencia, the Balearic Islands, Sicily, Sardinia, parts of Greece including Athens, and Naples, all fell under its domain. Rather than direct political rule, these disparate kingdoms had differing degrees of autonomy and formed a type of economic union. The freedom afforded to these regions is aptly demonstrated in the oath which subjects swore to the King of Aragon: “We, who are as good as you, swear to you, who are no better than we, to accept you as our king and sovereign lord, provided that you observe all our liberties and laws; but if not, then not.”
The marriage of King Ferdinand with Isabel of Castile in the fifteenth century led to the union of the kingdoms in the peninsula, and the transfer of the balance of power to elsewhere in the country, though the Aragonese Crown remained in existence until it was abolished following the War of Succession in the early eighteenth century.
These days the main attractions are the capital Zaragoza, and the mountainous terrain of the north. The capital’s primary monument is the Basilica of Our Lady of the Pillar, established according to legend at the site where an apparition of the Virgin Mary appeared upon a column (pillar) to Saint James when he was preaching in Spain. This story is also the origin of the popular Spanish girls’ name Pilar.
The north is a spectacular region of jaw-dropping views, magnificent hiking in beautiful national parks, and evocative stone villages straight from a medieval picture-book. The south of the region is drier and less eye-catching, but holds some lovely villages with interesting examples of Mudejar architecture, the style developed from the amalgamation of Christian and Moorish styles after the reconquista by the Christians.