Jaca and Ramiro I

Ramiro IRamiro I

We are still visiting locations in my novel by car. A key town in my historical novel, The Road to Santiago, is Jaca, a principal city in the province of Huesca.

The air here, even in late April, has a crisp bite. We can still feel the snow coming off the Pyrenees. It's now a place for ski resorts, I see at least a dozen advertised. The winters here would be very cold, and snow would be a familiar event, if not quite a regular one.

But at this time of year mostly what I notice is the luxurious greenness of everything. There are oaks, poplars and sycamores along the suburban streets, and outside of the suburbs we see fields of wheat, grapes, alfalfa, artichokes. The menus are filled with dishes featuring mushrooms, lamb, pheasant, duck and rabbit, venison, and blackberries for dessert. 

The surrounding area is filled with rushing streams which ends in a huge reservoir, the embalse de Yesa, which fills the valley Teresa would have walked through when she started her pilgrimage. I am struck by the energy of the Jacetanos, who are clear-eyed, thin, and outgoing, rather a contrast to the formality of the people we've met in places like Toledo. 

Oroel looming over JacaOroel looming over Jaca

La Peña de Oroel, just south of the city, can be seen from everywhere in Jaca and defines one's sense of direction, the way the World Trade Center once defined a New Yorker's sense of direction in NYC. Oroel is equally weighted with cultural meaning: in 780 a battle was fought here between Moors and Christians. The Count of Aznar, the first count of Aragón, defeated the Saracens and took back Jaca from them. It's local election time now in Spain, and there is a politician named Aznar involved in some debates. If he is from the same family, it's a family that's been in politics for over a thousand years.

Poster for Battle of Oroel recreation eventPoster for Battle of Oroel recreation event

When the sun sets Oroel  turns blood red. The winning of the battle is still celebrated in Jaca in early May, mainly a re-enactment of the the procession of the victors.


Jaca stayed clear of Moorish control, and the Romanesque churches and hermitages that are tucked in remote corners of the Pyrenees were the symbols of the Christian resistance. You could almost say that the line was drawn along the line of the Camino, and the Christians that built those nearly inaccessible Romanesque churches were the nucleus of a resistance that would eventually form the kingdom of Aragón. Churches that still survive from this period include San Bertrand de Cimminges, Eunate, San Pere de Roda, Ripoll, Seo de Urgell, Roda de Isabena, Uncastillo, San Juan de la Peña , Santa Cruz de la Seros and Jaca's cathedral. The hospital in Santa Cristina de Somport, the first place in Spain where pilgrims set foot was also one of these.


Jaca cathedral elements influenced the whole trail: the exterior sculptural elements, the  checkered design motif, the sculpture over the door with the two lions, the way the front if the altar was brightly painted, all adding up to a Jacetana style.

Musicians sculpture in Jaca CathedralMusicians sculpture in Jaca Cathedral

The origins of The Kingdom of Aragón go back to the 11th Century, when the Aragonese counties, Sobrarbe and Ribagorza in the Central Pyrenees were controlled by The King of Pamplona, Sancho Garcés III “El Mayor”(The Elder). He owned an immense territory which extended from land in Zamora on the shore of the Pisuerga as far as the county of Pallás in Cataluña.

On his death in 1035 his Kingdom was shared out to all his children, converting each county into a Kingdom. This way his son Ramiro inherited the county of Aragón, and his other son Gonzalo inherited Sobrarbe and Ribargorza.

This was the birth of the future Kingdom of Aragón, because Gonzalo was killed soon after and all the land he owned went to his brother Ramiro.

Ramiro I and TowerRamiro I and Tower

Ramiro I (1035-1064) was the first King of Aragón. He doubled the size of his kingdom in less than three decades, advancing towards the South and the East, recapturing  land from the Muslims and impeded the expansion of the Catalan territory. 

Jaca's initial shape was mostly the result of his deeds as well as those of his son's, Sancho Ramirez. The town  is shaped like an upside down teardrop. The Monastery of  San Pedro el Viejo one side of the wide part of the teardrop, already there by 920. The church of Santiago is a few blocks south,  near the bottom of the teardrop, and  was there in 1035. A hospital for pilgrims was nearby from 1084 on. 

Street in JacaStreet in Jaca

When we arrive we go to the church of Santiago for our pilgrim passports, the document that will be stamped at every stop we reach and which will help us earn our credencial, the document that proves we've done the pilgrimage. It was very moving to step into this church which stood already when my characters, Teresa and her brother Joaquín were growing up in the village, a church that was already there when Ibi, their father, arrived from Al- Andalus sometime in 1080.

Way Sign of the CaminoWay Sign of the Camino

The two churches are linked by the Camino, which is indicated by a trail of golden clam shells embedded into the street that joins one neighborhood to the other. We walk through the neighborhood slowly. The town hall has the same façade it had a thousand years ago. The two parts of town are now solidly urban, but in the XIth century there would have been some been some green space between them. One end of the road leads to Santiago, the other way leads to Zaragoza, both important places in the story. 


As we walk from the Church of Santiago back up to the Cathedral we pass a tower built by Ramiro I. A modern larger than life statue of the king stands next to it, wearing chain mail and a crown that seems impossibly large, designed to impress and intimidate. Even a thousand years later Ramiro I is still revered by the Jacetanos. Just standing in front of this tower and statue I gain a bit of insight to one of my minor characters, Ramiro the older brother of Fortun. Ramiro, of course, is named after the king. If Ramiro was named after the king then he was probably born the year the King died, 1064, which makes him thirty five years old when the story begins. Fortun could be about ten years younger; there would have been other children in between, perhaps some girls and some stillbirths or miscarriages. Fortun would look at Ramiro as a father figure he needed to compete with, impress, and even bring down.

Plaza del Mercado, JacaPlaza del Mercado, Jaca

We leave the imposing figure of Ramiro I behind and go to the Plaza del Mercado in front of the side entrance to the cathedral. Several interesting scenes in my book take place on this square, so we sit down for a leisurely coffee break while I contemplate it. Teresa finds Ruy and his mother on this square more than once, as Ruy's mother has a market stall, and I imagine that Ruy's family home is just off the street that joins the two medieval neighborhoods. 

Musicians sculpture in Jaca CathedralMusicians sculpture in Jaca Cathedral

The cathedral is also very important. It was probably begin in 1063 under Ramiro I, consecrated in 1077 even though it wasn't complete. By 1082 its foundation, walls, and altar end are already up, along with the arched windows and the columns flanking them. Sancho Ramirez, Ramiro I's son, changed the rite from Mozarabic to Gregorian in 1068 in order to strengthen ties with Rome and the rest of Europe. He then built the hospital of Santa Cristina in Somport and makes Jaca into a bishopric, building the cathedral for his own brother, Infante Garcia, who he has just appointed bishop (Garcia was Bishop from 1077 until he and his brother had a falling out in 1082). He'd already added Pamplona to his kingdom and he starts a road improvement program to improve the way and takes action to improve the safety of pilgrims. 

Sancho Ramirez had inherited Pamplona when his cousin died childless, but he continued to battle the Moors for Tudela, Barbastro, and Huesca. He failed to take Huesca and died in the effort in 1094.


It was his son, King Pedro I (1094 –1104), another character in my book, who finally conquered the capital of Huesca after the Battle of Alcoraz, turning Huesca into the new capital and the seat of the new bishopric. The reign of Pedro I only lasted 10 years. He died without leaving any descendants, which meant the Kingdom was inherited by his brother Alfonso I (1104- 1134), whose nickname “El Batallador”( The Warrior) alludes to his conquests, because he captured more than 25,000 square kilometres from the Muslims, including the city of Zaragoza.

What did all this mean for Ibi, a Moorish peddler driven out by unrest and hardship in Al-Andalus to sell his wares on the trail? He arrives in Jaca and falls in love with a Christian farm girl, converts, and marries her. He might not have noticed it, but even as he lives his quiet, happy, hardworking life with Eufemia the lines in the sand are being drawn. Cities and fiefdoms held by Moors further south are being taken over by Christian. Some of those Romanesque churches were built over the foundations of mosques (and sometimes synagogues). Moorish domination of Spain had barely reached the half way mark of its eight century run, but in some ways the Reconquest had already begun, a reconquest that was intrinsic to the identity of the new Kingdom of Aragón as it would be later to Navarre and Castile. I think back to one of the additions the Catholic Kings made to the Aljaferia: the Salon Dorado is now topped with a large receiving hall that emulated and outdid the Moorish predecessor it tops and tries to crush. There is more writing on the walls extolling Ferdinand and Isabella's virtues and power, more elaborate wood carving, more brightly colored ceiling. But the vocabulary of power remains that of the Moorish kings, buried but not gone nor forgotten, and in 1490 Moorish architecture, art, and style is still the standard that must be met or surpassed.