Secret Spain - Huesca

HUESCA is a city of  45,000 inhabitants which most Brits have never heard of, let alone are able to spell.

Located on a plain beneath the foothills of the Pyrenees the city is a truly well kept secret. In all the times I’ve been there I’ve come across only a couple of British residents. A few tourists can be found around the monuments, like the late Gothic cathedral and provincial archaeological museum, but they tend to be French or Spanish.

Coming as I do from Canterbury, which is always swarming with tourists, I am used to locals complaining about the visitors who dwardle along looking up at the architecture and then block the flow of pedestrians in the street as they stop to take pictures.

The Oscense, as the people of Huesca are known, are a pretty friendly bunch and it is perhaps the lack of tourists in Huesca which makes them so welcoming. Although English is not widely spoken, showing willing with a few words of Spanish or a phrasebook helps, and a bit of sign-language and a smile go a long way. A little known fact about Huesca is that it is the home of Anna-Maria Hidalgo, the mother of former Spice Girl, Geri Haliwell. Ms Haliwell still has relatives in the city and whenever I’ve asked locals about her people seem to know where an aunt or a cousin lives.

 

Huesca (the city)

From miles around in all directions the late gothic cathedral can be seen rising up above the city with storks circling above the spires where they build their nests.

The cathedral is built on the highest point of the hill in the centre of a maze of little streets which make up the casco viejo or old town.

Whenever I visit Huesca I like to walk to the cathedral, trying a new route up through the narrow streets each time. It’s quite easy to find as you just take whichever road goes upwards and eventually it will lead to the cathedral and when you arrive there the reward is to feast your eyes on the building itself and have a drink and a rest in the café in Plaza de la Catedral.

The cathedral was started by Jaime I in 1275 and work continued until the 16th century. Inside there are three naves and a Renaissance alabaster altarpiece by ealy 16th century Spanish sculptor, Damián Forment.

Close to the cathedral is the Museo Provincial and just along from there are the Arab walls.

San Pedro el Viejo is one of the oldest churches in Huesca and houses the tombs of the Kings of Aragón, including Alfonso I ‘The Fighter’ and his brother Ramiro II who spent time there in retreat as a monk. An example of early Romanesque architecture, it is famous for its beautiful cloisters.

The Parque Municpal is in the traditional European style; gravelled  with benches and covered walkways. But a recent addition is a lawn where people can sit on the grass and enjoy the sunshine. In a corner of the park is a statue of the pajaritas de papel, origami type paper birds, one of the symbols of Huesca.

Also worth visiting is the brightly painted red and yellow Plaza de Toros and the ornamental white building of the old Casino in Plaza Navarra. 

Pyrenees

On a clear day the beautiful snow-capped mountains of the Pre-Pyrenees can be seen from Huesca, rising high in the distance.

The mountains are wonderful any time of year. In the winter they offer snow for those who enjoy skiing and snowboarding or beautiful white landscapes to be savoured by those who prefer not to hurl themselves down steep mountain sides.

The ski season runs from late November to early April, snow permitting, and the five resorts of Cerler, Formigal, Panticosa, Candanchu and Astun, make it the largest skiing area in Spain.

In summer the higher altitude of the mountains offers some relief from the sweltering heat of the plain below. A wealth of adventure sports are offered including rafting, rock-climbing, paragliding and puenting, (which is bungee jumping off bridges). But for those, like me, who prefer something more sedate and less terrifying, there is always walking. What could be better on a hot summer’s day than walking along tree covered paths following a river up a valley to the waterfall where it begins? The walk I recommend is from Sallent de Gallego, and the sense of achievement when you arrive at the waterfall is marvellous, not to mention the feeling of the refreshing ice cold mountain water on the feet.

Besides breathtaking scenery the mountains have an amazing amount of wildlife and, for the keen twitcher, or even a novice bird watcher, all sorts of birds of prey.

Ordesa, in the northeast of the province has been a national park since 1918. The park covers the Ordesa valley itself and includes the massive peak of Monte Perdido and Marboré with its famous glaciers, the canyon of Añisclo, the Cirque of Pineta as well as the lovely town of Aínsa.

Hoya de Huesca

I often look at the flat Hoya de Huesca, the plain where the city is, and wonder how it became so flat next to the mountains which are so high and rocky.

Visible from the city is El Salto de Roldàn (Roland’s Jump), an amazing rock formation jutting up from the flat land. It’s a great place to see vultures and eagles which swoop all around the huge rocks. But take care when walking close to the edge, it’s not a place for anyone with a fear of heights. Indeed to reach the highest point of the rocks involves climbing up iron rungs put in specially by the local outdoor excursion group, Peña Guara.

Further along the plain are the huge rocks of Los Mallos. These pink-tinged sugarloaf mountains are known as the ninepins.

 Castles

To the north-west of the city is Loarre, a spectacular 11th century fortress castle, which was featured in the next Ridley Scott film ‘Kingdom of Heaven’, starring Orlando Bloom and Liam Neeson. Perched high on the hillside, the castle dominates the plain beyond it and it’s not hard to see why its founders chose this site.

Closer to Huesca and to the north-east of the city is the 11th century castle of Montearagón, built on a hill in front of the Sierra de Guara from where the kings of Aragón led their conquest of the Moors in Huesca. Starting out as a castle, the ten-towered structure became a powerful monastery before it was ravaged by fire in the 19th century. Restoration work is now being carried out and the castle can be reached by a track from the main road, but if going on foot beware of the farm dogs along the route. 

Fiestas

San Lorenzo, between the 9 and 15 August, is the big party in Huesca when the whole town becomes a mass of white and green with singing, dancing and music.

The Concurso de Tapas has taken place in December for the past two years and there are plans are for another this year. The first concurso was so popular the organisers had no choice but to organise a second and as the numbers of contestants were up on the previous year it looks like becoming a bit of a tradition.

Factbox

To find out more about the city and region of Huesca, call the tourist office, where they speak English, on +34 974 292 170 or visit the city’s website, www.ayuntamientohuesca.es

Accommodation in Huesca is plentiful and varies from the basic hostel to luxury hotels. Rooms can be booked by  phoning the reservation line for hotels in Aragón on +34 902 152 293 or by visiting www.reservasaragon.com

Ryanair flies to Zaragoza, an hour away from Huesca and to Pau, in France which is a two/two and a half hour drive from Huesca.

easyJet flies to Barcelona which is two and a half to three hours by car.

The high speed AVE train from Madrid goes to Huesca and Zaragoza.

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Huesca
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