By Travel columnist
updated 8/3/2006 12:48:43 PM ET 2006-08-03T16:48:43

The quiet town of Jaca lies in the north of Spain, where the rugged Pyrenees meet the golden plains. To the north lies the dramatic beauty of the mountains. To the south are some of the oldest monasteries, castles and churches in Spain. Virtually undiscovered by foreign tourists, Jaca offers a blend of spectacular nature and Spanish culture that is hard to beat.

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In guidebooks, Jaca is most often noted as the home of Spain’s first cathedral, which was built in the 11th century during the initial stages of the reconquest of the Iberian Peninsula by Christian forces after 300 years of domination by the Moors. Its pentagon-shaped citadel is famous, too. Built from the 1600s to the 1800s, it is still completely preserved. Just outside of Jaca lie some of the oldest church buildings in Spain, as well as one of the country’s most spectacular castles (it was featured in a recent movie, “The Kingdom of Heaven”).

The early town grew up as a ford across the Aragon River and as a gateway to the granite-peaked Somport Pass through the Pyrenees. The region was one of the last to fall to Moorish forces in the early 700s and one of the first to fully expel them in the late 800s. It was the original center of the Kingdom of Aragon and one of the main stopping points for pilgrims from southern France and Italy who walked on the Camino de Santiago.

The mountains have always defined the independent character of Jaca. They also provide spectacular natural beauty, which the locals enjoy in the summer on the region’s extensive hiking trails and biking paths, and in the national parks. In the winter, the region is one of Spain’s skiing and snowboarding centers.

The mountain valleys running north into the Pyrenees have exceptional driving roads with spectacularly scenic views. “The Monk and the Nun” rock formation watches over a twisting trail near Ansó, a short drive to the west of town. To the northeast is the dramatic Gorge of Escalar, a deep limestone ravine formed by the river rushing down from the resort town of Panticosa. Less than a half-hour drive north of Jaca are the Caves of Güixas, an underground world with more than 300 meters of paths through stalactites and stalagmites.

The Cathedral of Jaca is set within the labyrinth of streets that marks the center of town. It was Spain’s first Romanesque cathedral and its influence in regional architecture spanned the entire northern tier of the country. The small portico that juts into the square adjacent to the south side of the cathedral has elaborate capitals with carvings depicting biblical scenes. The town market often bustles just outside the cathedral walls.

Slideshow: A European tour Inside the cathedral, the floor plan, barrel vaulting, art and octagonal dome maintain the original Romanesque flavor. Just outside the cathedral, the Diocesan Museum displays a stunning collection of Romanesque murals from churches in the region; it is Spain’s second-largest collection of medieval wall paintings.

To the south of town, the Aragon steppes begin their descent toward Huesca and Zaragoza. The rich greens, rushing streams and granite rock formations give way, during the summer, to a world of golden grains, straw, sandstone and scruffy vegetation overlooked by wooded hillsides. The scenery, though different, is as spectacular as the mountains to the north.

Just to the south of Jaca, the unusual Monastery of San Juan de la Peña sits huddled remarkably inside a cavernous overhang on the side of a thickly wooded mountain. This is perhaps the oldest Catholic shrine in Spain, founded in the 800s before the departure of the Moors by a group of hermits hiding from Islamic forces.

After the Moors retreated, the small church was gradually enlarged and became a Benedictine monastery and center for Christians in the area. Eventually the nobles of Aragon made San Juan de la Peña their pantheon, constructing a church, cloister and impressive royal tombs here, all hollowed out of the rock. The capitals of the columns surrounding the cloister are wonderful with scenes depicting the temptation of Eve, Adam’s expulsion from the Garden of Paradise, the Annunciation and the raising of Lazarus from the dead, among others.

The nearby town of Santa Cruz de la Serós is worth a stop for a visit to its two churches. Santa Maria belonged to the most important convent in Aragon. It is the more impressive, with an excellent church tower, naïve capitals and arches, and pure Romanesque structure. Climb the tower and visit the hidden vaulted chapel where nuns used to hide from invaders.

The diminutive, rustic Church of San Caprasio is also pure Romanesque without the soaring bell tower or any interior decorations. It sits at the entrance to the village, incongruously adjacent to a plain gray apartment building that makes the church seem even smaller than it is.

A 50-kilometer drive further to the south, along Route A132, takes one through the unusual, hulking, eroded reddish-brown rock formations know as Los Mallos. The small towns in this region, like Agüero and Riglos, appear to have hardly changed over the past century. About 15 kilometers past Los Mallos, take the road back north toward Loarre and follow signs to the Castillo de Loarre, which is about another 15 kilometers up a winding road.

This breathtaking castle is said to be the oldest major fortification in Spain. It was founded on a rocky outcropping as a stronghold against the Moors by the first ruler of Aragon and commands a sweeping panorama of the broad plains to the south. To the north it is guarded by mountains. Even in a country known for castles, Loarre stands out as one of the most spectacular. Today, the church within the castle is the scene of many picturesque weddings.

Jaca can serve as the perfect center for exploring the central Pyrenees and the original heart of Spain. With its combination of scenery, history, art, wine and cuisine — and the locals’ famously infectious love of life — Jaca is a town worth visiting.

Notes

Getting around the region requires a car. The drives are twisting and turning with spectacular views seemingly around every bend. Call Auto Europe (1-800-223-5555) or go to its Web site for the best prices.

The cozy Hotel Conde Aznar (974-361050) has rustically decorated rooms and has been a mainstay in this city for decades. The restaurant, La Cocina Arogonesa, is excellent as well. Double rooms cost about $100 a night.

More inexpensive is the simple, family-run Hotel Ramiro I (974-361367).

The best bargain lodging is in one of the Tourism Real houses out in the countryside. Some of these houses, some with exceptional rooms, cost from $60 to $100 a night for double rooms.

Restaurant Lillium (974-355356) is right across from the citadel. Run by two brothers, it is known for its excellent meals at affordable prices.

A special treat is a meal in the mountains in the village of Hecho at the famous Restaurant Gaby-Casa Blasquico (974-375007). The beautifully decorated wood-and-stone restaurant serves local meats and produce with an innovative flair.

Charles Leocha is nationally-recognized expert on saving money and the publisher of Tripso. He is also the Boston-based author of "SkiSnowboard America & Canada." E-mail him or visit his Web site. Want to sound off about one of his columns? Try visiting Leocha's forum.

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