Until recently the only thing I knew about Aragon was Catherine, Catherine of Aragon. The Spanish princess was the first wife of the notorious King Henry VIII and mother to Mary I. She kept her head (unlike two of his other six wives) but was divorced so he could marry Anne Boleyn. Catherine’s ancestors were the rulers of the once powerful Kingdom of Aragon in northern-eastern Spain. Located in the shadow of the Pyrenees, Aragon’s rich history and unique geology makes it a perfect place for families to explore.
I learnt first hand what the region had to offer on a recent trip with the Spain Tourism Board and BritMums. I was blown away by the scenery and variety of things to do. From adventure sports to gushing waterfalls, medieval towns and excellent food and wine, there something for everyone. The best bit? The area is relatively under the radar so it’s not overrun with tourists – yet! Here are some of Aragon’s highlights.
Medieval Castle Loarre
Who doesn’t love a castle? Soaring 500m above the plains of Huesca (and around 30 mins from Huesca city) stands the medieval Castle Loarre. Work began on the structure in 1020 by order of King Sancho III el Mayor de Navarra who wanted to protect his kingdom from Muslim powers. The Romanesque castle is the best preserved in Europe and an impressive site to explore. Built into the rocky foot of the Pyrenees mountains, in places you can see parts of the mountain seeping through the stone.
I can imagine my daughter making up stories in her head as she climbed up its steep stone stairs, wandered through its ancient tunnels and looked up at its tall turrets. The austere Romanesque architecture gives a blank canvas for the imagination. With views looking across the plains of Huesca, there’s instagram-worthy photos to take at every turn.
What’s unusual is the castle never saw active battle so no ghosts here and no need for the dungeons. Instead it was used as a monastery
The castle has had a recent use though,Ridley Scott used the castle as a filming location for his 2005 epic Kingdom of Heaven starring Orlando Bloom. Once you’ve soaked up the history, check out the gift shop filled with princess and knight paraphernalia which I could easily could have spent a fortune in. Children can view the castle armed with a treasure map to cross off sights they discover within the castle walls.
Castle Loarre is open daily (except Christmas day and New Year’s Day). In summer from 10-8pm and winter 11am – 5.30pm Guided tours are available. Adults, €4.50; children, €3; under 6s, free. Visit the website.
City of Huesca
The city of Huesca is a good starting point to explore the rest of Aragon and is one hour’s drive from Zaragoza airport. Located in the shadow of the Pyrenees, in summer you can go canyoning and white water rafting. In winter, the Pyrenees turn white with snow and Aragon has six ski resorts to visit.
Huesca has a small but quaint old town with Romanesque and Renaissance architecture and a Michelin-starred restaurant. Tatau is the first tapas bar to be recognised by the gourmet food guide. There’s also a Planetarium around 10 minutes away which is worth a look.
Where to stay?
We stayed at the 4* Abba Huesca Hotel where we enjoyed excellent (and abundant) food. Although the rooms are fairly basic, they are large and the hotel has a swimming pool and gym. It’s a 5 minute walk to the old town.
Hike and rock climb in Riglos
A 15 minute drive from Huesca and you are in Riglos. Over 300m above the small village stand the russet-coloured formations of Mallas de Riglos. They can be seen from miles away, appearing out of the valley at the foot of the Pyrenees.
Vultures and other birds of prey circle overheard while experienced climbers tackle it’s rock faces. Families can hike around the mountains and there are easy rock climbing sections for children with metal bars fixed into the rock. If climbing and hiking aren’t your thing, enjoy being in their presence and taking enviable photographs.
Go White Water Rafting on the River Gallego
For adventure activities, how about white water rafting? In the shadow of the Mallas de Riglos is the River Gallego. We took to the rapids with a guide who expertly got us down the river, looking at the incredible scenery as we clung onto the raft. I’ve only done rafting a couple of times before but my goodness it was a lot of fun and having such a backdrop to gaze at made it all the more special.
Children from 6 years old can take part with Adventure y Familia by UR Pirineos on a shorter, easier course. The centre does week-long water activities or you can book a day excursion.
There are camping options available nearby. If you are looking for a bit more comfort, there’s the boutique hotel, Real Posada de Liena, in Murillo de Gallego. It has incredible views across the valley and delicious food and wine from local vineyards. There’s a few rooms for families with older children.
Piedra Monastery Gardens
A hidden gem and one of my favourite sights was the national park and monastery garden, Monasterio de Piedra, in Nuevelos. It is a large, tranquil space created by the River Piedra which has carved interesting caves and waterfalls which greet you at every turn.
What makes it unusual is this lush oasis is essentially in the middle of the desert. With easy walks for children, caves you can walk through then appear behind waterfalls, children will adore exploring and letting their imagination run wild.
In high season there are Bird of Prey exhibitions. We saw falcon, eagle and vultures spread their wings and swoop past our heads.
It is popular destination for families visiting from Madrid (a three hour drive away) but it did not feel overcrowded on a Saturday morning.
Don’t miss the 12th-century Cistercian monastery either and if you are staying overnight, there is a spa hotel attached which has decent rooms, a swimming pool and a gourmet restaurant.
Architecture and dinosaurs in Teruel
The city of Teruel is characterised by its Mudejar art which has made it a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The Moorish-inspired architecture came about in the 14th century after the Moors had been driven out. Some skilled Muslim builders stayed and created Islamic designs using simple materials such as brick, wood and pottery. The fusion of Christian and Islam manifests itself in the Cathedral of Santa Maria.
Teruel also has a modernist side with Gaudi-inspired buildings. Known for its Iberian serrano ham, it’s a quaint city to wander around and has a Roman Aqueduct. Surrounding the region lies history going much further back than the Moors and Romans. Back to the dinosaurs!
Discover Dinosaurs at Dinopolis
Palaeontologists discovered fossil bones belonging to one of the world’s largest dinosaurs in Teruel. Many more continue to be excavated and close to the site stands the dinosaur park and museum, Dinopolis. It is Europe’s biggest paleontological park.
This is a must for families. Its focus is very much on learning through fun. There are train and boat rides which take you back millions of years, theatre shows and a wonderful 3D film which will captivate children. As well as viewing dinosaur and other prehistoric animal remains, you can see palaentogists at work (how cool is that?), visit the life-sized dinosaur park and if you need a bit of extra fun, go on its fairground rides. My daughter would adore Dinopolis!
Cost: Adults, €28; children, €22; under 4s, free. Visit the Dinopolis website for more information
*I was a guest of BritMums and Visit Spain but, as ever, all opinions are my own.
*Our tour and activities were arranged by Planeta40
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