Medieval churches, monasteries, bridges, castles, towers and towns dominate the cultural landscape of the Aragon Pyrenees mountains.
The most famous monuments of Aragon culture in are the historical monasteries of San Juan de la Peña; in Jacetania, and San Pedro de Siresa in the Valley of Hecho.
Both of these sites are on the Aragon portion of the legendary Camino de Santiago – St James Way.
Aragon is also home to plenty of prehistoric, neolithic and megalithic remainstoo, like the the Tella Burial Chamber; located high up in the valley of Bielsa or the 100 or so, stone ruins of ancient cabins; called ‘Corona de los Muertos’, found deep within the forest of Oza, in the Aragon Pyrenees mountains.
This part of the Pyrenees mountains, known as ‘the cradle of the kingdom of Aragon’, was the backdrop to many important historical moments and movements; almost all of which helped to shape not only this area, but also the destiny of Spain as a whole.
Here’s a list of Aragon culture higlights:
Churches and Monasteries of the Aragon Pyrenees
Church of San Pedro de Siresa
The striking church of San Pedro de Siresa, in the village of Siresa, is situated in the valley of Hecho, high up in the province of Huesca, of the Aragon Pyrenees mountains.
The original structure was built in the year 833, and was the first monastery in Aragon.
Although, it is thought by some experts, that a church may have already existed here in the Visigoth era.
Over the years, San Pedro de Siresa became an essential stop on the Camino of Santiago, and for centuries it was actually one of the most important places for worship on the Iberian Peninsula, and even in Europe. It is an essential part of Aragon’s culture.
The future famous king of Aragon, Alfonso I “El Batallador” (the Battler) was baptized in San Pedro de Siresa, and was even given his education by the monks of this Aragon Pyrenees, mountain monastery.
Made in the shape of a Latin cross, the church is itself quite large, but austerely decorated, as would be appropriate for an ancient monastery.
It does however, house some beautiful and extremely old religious relics and art.
San Pedro de Siresa was declared a Spanish National Monument of Aragon culture in 1931, and remains today as the area’s most important, and beloved monument.
It’s also worthy to note that ‘Cheso’, a medieval Aragonese dialect which descended from the Latin spoken by the Siresa monks, and thought to be the closest to pure Latin of all Romance languages and dialects, is still spoken in the Hecho Valley today.
Not far from Siresa you’ll find the pretty town of Hecho, which is also worth a visit.
Monastery of Santa María de Obarra
The Monastery of Santa María de Obarra, is located in the valley of the river Isabena, which is easily accessible from Graus, in the county of Ribagorza, in the Aragon Pyrenees mountains.
There are three buildings, built between the 9th and 11th century, which make up this important monastery; the church of Santa María, the small Romanesque hermitage of San Pablo, and the abbey palace, of which only some walls, facades and structures are left.
Obarra, in it’s heyday, was a very important spiritual centre of this region, and of Aragon.
It is said to have been an essential institute in the birth and growth of the then fledgeling young county of Ribagorza.
As it’s relevance grew, this monastery also became an influential force in the original Kingdom of Aragon.
The church of Santa Maria is the most impressive building of the complex. It’s done in traditional Lombard style, and is considered to be one of the most important monuments of the area and a gem of Aragon’s culture.
Obarra is still at the heart of a traditional procession and festival, celebrated in the area every 15th of August.
To request a visit of the complex, you should ask in the village of Calvera.
Not far from the monastery of Santa María de Obarra is the also impressive, old cathedral at Roda de Isábena. Both are on the A-1605 road.
Monastery of Alaón
Alaón Monastery is set in a scenic location at the entrance to the Escales reservoir, near the village of Sopeira , a few minutes by car from Arén, in the Aragon Pyrenees mountains.
The monastery of Alaón, like that of Obarra, is built in a typical Romanesque Lombard style, and was at one time a very important institute which had a significant influence on the cultural, political and religious life of the region, and of Aragon.
It too was to become one of the most important religious centres of the old Kingdom of Aragon.
Built in the 9th century, this centre was originally dependent on the Benedictine Order. However, after an attack in Aragon by Muslim invaders in the 10th century, it was abandoned.
Then, almost a century later the bishop of Roda, Ramón Dalmaz, restored the community of monks and consecrated the monastery again in 1123.
Inside there’s an interesting altarpiece made from river stones; in the form of hexagon shaped roses, a crypt, and one of the Middle Age’s most important cartularies, (collection of charters or records) comprising 327 documents, dated between the year 806 and the year 1245.
If you want to see inside the monastery, you need to go the nearby Casa Duardo, where you can get the key.
Monastery of San Juan de la Peña
Aragon’s first monarchs are buried in this stunning monastery, which is situated just 23 kilometres south west of Jaca, and sits sheltered under an enormous rock.
It was around the year 1025, when Sancho el Mayor of Navarra, decided to found a new centre on the ruins of previous temples, amongst this beautiful setting of dramatic limestone formations and dense, varied forests.
Over the years, the all important kings of Aragon developed strong ties with San Juan de la Peña, and as such the monastery soon grew to be an important stop on the pilgrimage route to Santiago, as well as one of the most important religious centres of the whole kingdom.
In fact, San Juan de la Peña is also a Royal Pantheon. It’s within this architectural masterpiece that the first monarchs of Aragon are buried, among other nobles, including the founder, Ramiro I, Sancho Ramírez, and Pedro I.
This impressive monastery is a jewel in the crown of Aragonese Romanesque and Mozarabic art and architecture.It is a must see in the long list of Aragon’s culture highlights.
It is a birthplace of many a legend as well. The most important of course, is the one of its association with the stories of the sacred Holy Grail.
Legend said that the chalice of the Last Supper, or the Holy Grail, was sent to Spain with Saint Lorenzo, and later to San Juan de la Peña and Aragon, for protection while the Muslims were invading the rest of the Iberian Peninsula.
Highlights of the monastery of San Juan de la Peña include; the the two level church that is partially carved out of the giant rock that hangs over it, the Mozarabic lower church, the remaining Romanesque frescoes on the vaults of the apses, the Pantheon of Nobles and the beautifully decorated cloister.
The scenery around the monastery is also quite spectacular. The dense forest, limestone massifs, and several birds of prey living in the rocksmake San Juan de la Peña a truly singular place to visit in the Aragon Pyrenees.
This fantastic combination of both environmental and historical value has earned it the prestigious declaration of both a Natural and Cultural National Monument of Aragon and Spain.
Not far from the monastery you can have a look over the ‘Balcon de los Pirineos’-Balcony of the Pyrenees, an excellent lookout spot, over the Aragon Pyrenees mountains range.
Other nearby tourist sites are the New Upper monastery (Monasterio Alto) which, after San Juan de la Peña suffered from a fire in the 17th century, was built higher up the hill.
Also not to be missed while in the area is the amazing, fairy tale-like, medieval village of Santa Cruz de los Seros.
The whole village is special but its two gems are the San Caprasio Chapel and the Church of Santa Maria built in the 11th century.
This impressive cathedral, set in the centre of the town of Jaca, in Aragon, is said to be one of the most important Spanish monuments and, the greatest Romanesque cathedral in Spain.
It was the first cathedral on the Peninsula to be built in the ornate French Romanesque style, and its importance can be seen in the fact that it became a model for all Aragonese, and Spanish Romanesque that came after it.
Here we can see how the austerity of Aragon’s architecture from older days, would soon turn into a tradition which emphasized a more rich and sculptural approach to building and design.
It’s influence of style eventually had an effect on constructions all along the Camino of Santiago, in Aragon, and through Spain.
The famous checker pattern, seen at many churches, was born here in the Cathedral of Jaca, in Aragon
One of the most impressive areas of Aragon’s Jaca cathedral is the beautiful cloister, and the Diocesan Museum – Museum of Medieval Sacred Art, which happens to have one of the best collections of Romanesque paintings in the world.
Monuments of the Aragon Pyrenees
The Canfranc International Station
This grand, modernist style station, built between the late 19th and early 20th century, is situated in the village of the same name; Canfranc, close to the border with France in the Aragon Pyrenees mountains.
The massive building is more like a palace than a train station, and when it was opened in 1928, it was the largest in Spain, and second largest in Europe.
Many other stations tried to imitate the grandiose style of Canfranc, created by Spanish architect Fernando Ramírez de Dampierreone, one of them being Atocha in Madrid.
Canfranc Station’s most impressive feature is it’s majestic size. It measures at 240 metre long, has 75 doors on each side and as was once said; has ‘more windows than days in a year.’
The building has three floors which housed a luxury hotel, a casino, bars and restaurants, customs offices, a bank of Spain office, and an infirmary.
It was built in order to transport passengers and goods travelling to and from France, by way of the Somport tunnel, and did, at one point, actually become an important communications centre of Aragon and the Pyrenees.
However, the line was never to be profitable due to a string of dramatic events; beginning with the Great Depression of 1929, a large fire in 1931, then the Spanish civil war in 1936, which would eventually condemn the railway to disuse.
Then, with the start of World War II, the rail was started up again, it was reopened in 1940, and the Germans used the link to transport stolen Jewish gold, in Swiss trains, to Madrid and Lisbon.
In 1944 members of the French Resistance even used dynamite to blow up some of the railway bridges to defend their side.
Unfortunately, bad luck was to strike this turbulent line again; as, in 1970, the brakes failed on a loaded freight train causing an accident which destroyed the bridge of Estanguet, broke the link to Spain, and subsequently caused the closure of the Canfranc Pyrenees station for good.
For years the International Station of Canfranc lay derelict and in a sad state of deterioration. But, as of recently, plans have been put into motion to restore the building, and eventually turn it into a luxury hotel and spa.
Some people might recognize Canfranc International station from the famous movie Doctor Zhivago, which was partially filmed here.
It has been declared a monument of special historical and artistic interestby Aragon’s regional parliament.
Jaca – Citadel
The Citadel of Jaca, located in the town of Jaca, Aragon was ordered to be built by Felipe II in 1595 as a defence against a possible French invasion.
However, as history would have it, the only battle it saw was that of the war of Independence, when the Spanish tried to recover it after a Gallic occupation.
It is built in the shape of a perfect pentagon, enclosed by walls with bastions, battlements, scarps, barracks, powder houses, tunnels, a drawbridge and more.
There is also a small church inside from the 17th century with an interesting Baroque facade and some wall paintings by artist Topete.
The citadel, or ‘the Castle of San Pedro’, as it was once known, now houses the Aragon Military Miniatures Museum which contains over 35,000 pieces representing armies from around the world and covering many periods of history.
The stone walls are home to a colony of Rock Sparrows and the moat, which is said to have never had water, is inhabited by a family of deer.
Along with the fortresses of Liège, in Belgium, the Citadel of Jaca is the only surviving complete pentagonal ‘castle’.
It was declared an artistic monument in 1951, restored in 1968 and awarded with the European recognition of ‘Europa Nostra’ prize.
This spectacular castle is not actually in the Pyrenees mountain range, but is less than thirty minutes drive northeast of Huesca (in the region of La Hoya), and is definitely worthy of a visit.
Catillo de Loarre, as it’s known in Spanish, is one of the most important and best preserved Romanesque Castles in all of Europe.
It was built in the 11th and 12th century and served as a royal palace, a monastery, and a fort which protected the border of the Kingdom of Aragon against the Muslim occupation.
Both the province of Huesca, Aragon and Loarre castle gained international attention when, in 2004, the famous director Ridley Scott (Blade Runner, Gladiator, Hannibal, Alien, etc.) chose this Aragon castle as one of the main settings for his film Kingdom of Heaven, starring Orlando Bloom and Liam Neeson.
Highlights of the castle are the Romanesque Capilla Real, the Convento de los Agustinos, ruins from a palace and the atmospheric dungeons.
Also Not to be missed, is the chance to climb to the top of Torre (tower) del Homenaje.
Other interesting and nearby Aragon culture tourist sites are the monastery of Casbas, the charming village of Agüero and the massive red rock formations; called Mallos de Riglos, which tower above it.
This area of the Aragon pre-Pyrenees is also a paradise for nature lovers, hikers and mountain climbers.
Prehistoric Monuments of the Aragon Pyrenees Mountains
The Pyrenean and pre-pyrenenean mountain range, in the province of Huesca, Aragon is home to one of the biggest concentrations of prehistoric and megalithic remains in all the Iberian Peninsula.There are dolmens (burial chambers), cromlechs, stone circles, structures of ancient settlements and more.
Here’s a list of higlights of archaeological, prehistoric and megalithic sitesof the Aragon Pyrenees mountains:
Tella Burial Chamber – Tella
This burial chamber, also known as ‘Piedra de Vasar’ or ‘Losa de la Campa’, is located to the northeast of the village of Tella, of the Bielsa valley, in the province of Huesca, in the Aragon Pyrenees.
The dolmen of Tella can be found just outside the village, within walking distance, amongst pretty meadows and fields, and with the beautiful backdrop of some canyons and gorges; which, in ancient times, people associated with supernatural powers.
It is a megalithic construction, consisting of several stone slabs standing on end and supporting one large flat stone on top.
Archaeologists believe that it must have been built for collective burials, and was most likely once covered by a mound of earth and, or more stones.
Corona de los muertos – Selva de Oza
In the Selva (forest) of Oza, which is just a few kilometres from the village of Hecho (Echo), in Aragon, you’ll find 2 dolmens and over 120 stone circles, thought to be the bases of cabins used by primitive peoples of the Aragon Pyrenees mountains.
Excavations and archaeological digs have revealed evidence of these ancient Aragonese cultures. They’ve uncovered thousands of remains of silex (chert), stone tools, arrow heads, rasps and other pieces from the Iron, Bronze and Neolithic ages.
There’s also a Megalithic Information centre nearby (el Centro de Interpretación del Megalitismo Pirenaico y de la Val d’Hecho), at which you can watch an informative movie, in English, and other languages, about the lives of the first inhabitants of this Aragon Pyrenees valley.
Other prehistoric and megalithic monuments in the Aragon Pyrenees Mountains:
In the valley of Guarrinza:
You can see all these monuments walking, in about 3-4 hours.
- Dolmen of Puente de los Troncos Oeste
- Cromlechs of Cuartel de los Carbineros / Búnker
- Cista of la Mina
- Menhir of la Mina
- Dolmen and cromlechs of barranco Arroyo
- Dolmen of Camon las Fitas
- Cromlech of las Fitas Sur
- Dolmen of Mallo Blanco
- Cromlechs of Campo Largo
In the valleys of Anso and Hecho:
- Dolmens of Aguas Tuertas
- Dolmen of Santa Elena, Iberque
and in in Sierra de Guara
- Dolmen of Letranz Villanuá
Cultural Routes of the Aragon Pyrenees
Route of Serrablo
Serrablo, located in the beautiful valley of Tena,is the name of a county in the province of Huesca, in the Aragon Pyrenees mountains.
This Aragon culture route consists of a group of 14 churches in the county of Serrablo, erected between the 10th and 11th century, all of which were built in a similar yet unique style called Mozarabic.
Mozarabic style came into fruition during the rule of Muslims in the area of Aragon, and was developed by Christians using pre-Romanesque styles while incorporating distinct Arabic influences.
The most characteristic features of the Serrablo/Mozarabic churches are their semi circular apses which combine two decorative details; upright, reed shaped moldings above blind arches (infilled arches which cannot serve as a passageway, door, or window).
This special group of Aragon churches is a great architectural collection, and an example of medieval art which is unique in the world.
The capital of Serrablo is Sabiñanigo. It’s the best place to start this Aragon culture route.
A good beginning to the route is a visit to the Serrablo museum of popular art, located in a neighbourhood of Sabiñanigo, called Puente de Sabiñanigo.
While here, you should also visit the Drawing Museum of Castillo de Larrés (el Museo de Dibujo ‘Castillo de Larrés’), located in a nearby 15th-century castle, set over 14 rooms, and containing more than 350 works.
Some of the best examples of these churches are:the church of San Bartolomé; in Gavín, the church of San Juan de Bautista; in Busa, the church of San Pedro; in Lárrede, the church of San Pedro; in Lasieso, the church of San Martin; in Oliván and the church of Santa Eulalia, in Susín.
Here’s a list of all the churches on the Serrablo Route, and the villages they’re in.
Churches on the Serrablo Route
- Arto – Iglesia de San Martin
- Basarán – Iglesia de San Urbez
- Busa – Iglesia de San Juan Bautista
- Espierre – Iglesia de San Juan
- Gavin – Iglesia de San Bartolomé
- Isún de Basa – Iglesia de Santa Maria
- Lárrede – Iglesia de San Pedro
- Lasieso – Iglesia de San Pedro
- Latre – Iglesia de San Miguel
- Oliván – Iglesia de San Martin
- Ordovés – Iglesia de San Martin
- Orna – Iglesia de San Miguel
- Orós Bajo – Iglesia de Santa Eulalia
- Orús – Iglesia de San Juan
- Otal – Iglesia de San Miguel
- Satué – Iglesia de San Andres
- Susín – Iglesia de Santa Eulalia
Camino of Santiago in Aragon
Also known as: Pilgrims Way to Santiago de Compostela, or St. James’ Way.The Aragonese Way of the historical Camino de Santiago, begins in the Aragon Pyrenees, at the French-Spanish border called the Somport pass, then heads northbound mostly following the Aragon river and the Berdun Canal, until it joins up with the four main French Pilgrim Ways, at the Puente de la Reina in Navarra.
This part of the Camino is about 170 km (100 miles) long, going through the provinces of Huesca, Zaragoza and Navarra, and passing by some amazing landscapes, cultural monuments, and picturesque villages.
The Camino of Santiago was one of the most important Christian pilgrimages during medieval times, and was especially significant for Spain and Aragon.
Romanesque architecture entered Spain by way of this route to Santiago, and with the Cathedral of Jaca as it’s embodiment it spread all the way through the country along the Camino.
Phases of the St James Way in Aragon are:
- Phase 1: Somport – Jaca
- Phase 2: Jaca – Arrés
- Phase 3: Arrés – Ruesta
- Phase 4: Ruesta – Sangüesa
- Phase 5: Sangüesa – Monreal
- Phase 6: Monreal – Puente la Reina-Gares
To find out more about this part of the route, check out this website, done by the government of Aragon; the site can be read in English, French or Spanish.
Other Cultural Highlights of the Aragon Pyrenees Mountains
Historical town centre of Hecho
The old town center of Hecho, known as the birthplace of the ancient kingdom of Aragon, is a wonderful warren of winding narrow streets, with pretty flowers on window sills, of sturdy, old stone buildings, which are typical of traditional Pyrenees architecture.This picturesque, little town, rich in tradition, and historical importance, is considered to be one of the most beautiful in Aragon, and is worth a visit if you’re in the area.
There are lots of beautiful buildings in the village, but one of the most famous is the Palace, where, it’s been said, Alfonso I (the Battler, or Warrior, and king who helped to rescue Spain from the rule of the Muslims) was raised.
Highlights of the village of Hecho:
- The PalaceThe supposed childhood home of Alfonso I.
- The parish church
- A Romanesque structure from the 11th or 12th century, that was burned by Napoleon’s troops during the War of Independence at the beginning of the 19th century.
- After the fire the church underwent a reconstruction; original parts of the chapel are the apse and the space in the wall that housed the bell.
- The open air Contemporary Art Museum of the the Hecho Valley
- A permanent outdoor exhibit of modern sculpture.
- The Ethnological museum of Casa Mazo – Museo Etnológico de Casa Mazo
- In the village and valley of Hecho, Aragon, many locals still use a special medieval Aragonese dialect, called ‘Cheso’, which actually descended from the Latin spoken by the Siresa monks (the original inhabitants of the monastery of Siresa).
- This ancient language has managed to survive for centuries, and is thought to be the closest to Latin of all Romance languages and dialects.
- The festivals of Hecho take place from the 7th to the 11th of September, and on the 11th of November.
Medieval town of Ainsa
The town of Ainsa, declared a monument of National Heritage is found in the heart of the historical region of Sobrarbe, in the lower Cinca Valley of the Aragon Pyrenees mountains.
On entering this ancient village, it feels like time has stopped. So well preserved are the cobblestone streets of the old town center, the thick stone walls which surround it, the magnificent arches of the portico square at it’s heart and the 11th century castle which watches over it.
Ainsa is a living monument of Aragon’s culture, and a testament to the long gone days of the tumultuous time of the middle ages in Spain. It’s one of the most well preserved villages I’ve seen in Spain.
Highlights of the town of Ainsa:
- The Church of St. Maria – Church of Santa María de Aínsa
- Romanesque in origin, this Aragon church was built between the 11th and 12th centuries.
- It has an impressive arched door, crypt and cloister. There’s also a large square tower, which had a defensive function during medieval times.
- To get a good view of the urban center of Hecho, you can go up the tower of the church.
- The Castle /Citadel
- This large building, built and remodelled over several centuries, still retains some of its structure from the 11th century.
- There is a thick stone wall, dotted with several arches, that surrounds an immense rectangular courtyard, and a unique, well-preserved pentagonal tower with five levels, which now houses an Eco museum – The Pyrenean Fauna Interpretation Centre.
- In the northeastern tower, you’ll find the County Office of Tourism,which has tons of great information about the area and Aragon culture, in English as well as other languages.
- And in the southeastern tower, you can visit the Geo park Space; It’s an Interactive Centre which has displays showing the geological diversity of this county and of the Aragon Pyrenees.
- The Portico Square
- Ainsa’s ‘Plaza Mayor’, or main town square, is perhaps the prettiest place in the village.
- This special Portico plaza is punctuated by graceful semi-circular, and lancet arches, each unique and beautiful in its own way.
- The plaza is the heart of the town, and a place where people have gathered since the middle ages.
- Nowadays people make use of the square to hold farmers markets, festivals, and concerts, and on warm summer days to have a cold drink on the terrace.
- Casa Arnal, Casa Bielsa, and Casa Latorre
- These 16th century houses have some stunning facades, and are excellent examples of popular Aragon architecture of the time.
- Remains of the 12th century St.Salvador Church
- The Arch of the Hospital