Author George Orwell made famous this curious saying: “Tomorrow we’ll have coffee in Huesca.”
You will find the city of Huesca in north-eastern Spain, within the autonomous community of Aragon. Huesca was built on a plateau 1,600 feet (488 m) above sea level very near the Sierra de Guara mountains. The city’s motto is: Gate of the Pyrenees. Huesca is the capital of the Spanish province of Huesca and the city has a current population of ~220,000.
The history of the naming of this city began in Pre-Roman times. The ancient Iberians called their town Bolskan. Next came the Romans beginning in 30 BCE and they changed the city’s name to Osca. When the Arabs conquered the city in the late 8th century they called it Washqah. And finally when the Aragónese reconquered the city in the 12th century, the official name in Spanish became Huesca – pronounced ˈweska’, really not all that different than the pronunciation more than a 1000 years earlier.
The city is known as Uesca in Aragonese and Osca in Catalan.
Eric Arthur Blair (1903-1950) is better known by his pen name George Orwell, the English novelist, journalist and critic.
In late December 1936 Orwell voluntarily enlisted with the Spanish army to fight with the Republicans against the fascist Franco and his National Army in the Spanish Civil war. Orwell would serve as a private, a corporal and eventually as a lieutenant, between December 1936 and June 1937. At the front, Orwell was shot through the throat by a sniper on 20 May 1937 and nearly killed. In June 1937 his leftist political party was declared an illegal organisation and Orwell was forced to flee. He wrote the book Homage to Catalonia, published in 1938; his personal account of his experiences and observations while he fought with the Republican army.
During the Spanish Civil War (1936–39) the “Huesca Front” was the scene of some of the worst fighting between the Republicans and Franco’s National army. The saying “Tomorrow we’ll have coffee in Huesca” apparently came about when months earlier, Siétamo, a nearby small town in the province of Huesca was taken and the General commanding Franco’s Government troops had said gaily: “Tomorrow we’ll have coffee in Huesca.” It turned out that he was mistaken. There had been many attacks, but Huesca would not fall. The phrase quickly became a standing joke throughout the army.
We made sure we stopped to ‘have coffee in Huesca’, along with a delicious trenza de Huesca, a traditional puff pastry that is stuffed with custard, almonds, walnuts and raisins with a light glaze on top.
Cathedral and the Diocesan Museum of Huesca
King James I of Aragon had the resplendent Gothic style Huesca Cathedral built around 1273 on the ruined foundations of a mosque. Work continued until the 15th century, and now this Cathedral is one of the architectural gems of northern Spain.
When writing about The Cathedral of Huesca, we have to begin with the 16th century Renaissance main altarpiece, a most sumptuous work of art, carved from alabaster between 1520-1533.
The magnificent organ resting high above the church floor is from the 18th century. We enjoyed a number of wonderful paintings by the Aragón painter, Vicente Berdusán (1632-1697) throughout the cathedral. We saw various remarkable items that we were able to photograph including small Limoges chests, beautiful 16th century crucifixes, chalices and much more.
The Diocesan museum, attached to the Cathedral of Huesca has an incredible collection of religious art and artifacts. Within their art gallery we came across a rare painting created around 1300. There is not a lot of art that has survived prior to the 14th century so we always pay close attention when we find these old works of art.
There are also lovely Baroque canvases from the 17th and 18th centuries and a room full of 15th century altarpieces. One silver altarpiece with 6 saints was particularly striking. Our favorite exhibition room however, held the beautifully and intricately carved wooden 16th century choir stalls shown in the header photo above and below.
The 1904 Oscense Circle building stands out from the structures around the plaza. It is considered the best example of modernist architecture in Huesca and this simple geometric style always attracts our attention. The wooden doors as we entered were beautiful as was the staircase, the stained glass ceiling, the art deco designs on the walls and furniture reflecting the turn of the century popular style. Today the building is known simply as the Casino, but it began as a liberal social club. The former game rooms, library, blue and red rooms, at least during our visit, were full of small groups of people sitting and socializing, maintaining its former club atmosphere. A very pretty building worth visiting.
Monasterio de San Pedro el Viejo
The Monastery of San Pedro el Viejo, (Saint Peter the Old) formerly a Mozarabic Christian Church was built between 1100-1241 and the cloister was built in 1140. The Mozarabs were the Iberian Christians who lived under Moorish rule. The Monastery is said to be one of the oldest Romanesque structures in the Iberian Peninsula.
The Chapel of San Benito also called the Royal Pantheon because it contains the tombs of the first Aragonese kings: Alfonso I, the Battler, and his brother and successor Ramiro II, the Monk.
Although the parish has a small population in present time, it is still the favorite temple of the Oscenses and ours as well. We particularly loved the now faded, ancient stories that were painted directly into the walls so very long ago.
Bell of Huesca
The Bell of Huesca is a famous legend recorded in the 13th century.
When Alfonso I of Aragon died in 1134 he left no descendants, so his brother Ramiro, then a Bishop, inherited the Kingdom of Aragón which at the time was strife with both domestic and foreign problems.
The legend tells how Ramiro II, during his reign in the 12th century, became so paranoid and distrustful about his own nobles that wouldn’t obey him, that Ramiro sent a messenger to his old Abbey to ask for advice from his former master. The messenger was shown the abbey garden where the old monk removed the heads from roses that stood out from the rest. The herald was told to tell the king what he has seen.
After Ramiro II heard the report, he sent a message to the chief noble, saying that he wanted help in order to build a bell that could be heard all over Aragón. As the nobles arrived, the king cut off their heads, building a circle with the heads and suspending the chief noble’s head like a bell clapper.
Castle of Montearagón Monastery
Once we walked to the highest point in the city of Huesca we could see across to another tall pointed peak where a striking castle proudly stood. It was a few miles away located near the village of Quincena and open to the public. We were only able to enjoy it from afar on this trip.
The Castle Montearagón was built by a Spanish King in 1086 but less than a decade later the castle was given to the Augustinian monks who used it as an abbey for more than 700 years. The Castle of Montearagón was originally the location of the tomb of King Alfonso I of Aragon however his tomb was relocated to the Monastery of San Pedro el Viejo in the center of Huesca in the 19th century.
We learned that the castle was used in the 19th century as an ammunition depot and unfortunately the ammunition exploded destroying much of the castle but that it is currently being restored by the “Amigos del Castillo de Montearagón” association.
The Museum of Huesca
This museum opened in 1873 and contains both art and archaeological artefacts. The building that houses the museum formerly belonged to a University that was built in 1690 and the University was erected on a center of learning built by the Romans around 77 BCE.
According to the tradition of Huesca, one room of the museum is called ‘Room of the Bell’ because it was the location of the legendary killing and decapitation by Ramiro II, the Monk, of the rebellious gentlemen took place.
There are 4 archaeology rooms beginning with ancient remains found within Huesca Province dated between 250,000 – 100,000 BCE through the Bronze Age, Iberian, Roman and Visigoth cultures and from the Early to Late Middle Ages.
The art exhibition also uses 4 rooms with paintings from the 13th century CE through to the 20th century. We saw more of Goya’s work and a few pieces by a great local artist, Ramón Acín Aquilué, who died early in the Spanish civil war.
After hitting most of the major sites, it was time for a lunch break.
We chose a lovely restaurant full of business lunch clientele. One table caught our attention when the waiter brought a fairly large ‘contraption’ called an “escanciar” to their table. It honestly looked almost homemade. The table had ordered a wine bottle size ‘sidra’ or cider. The waiter removed the cork and inverted the bottle into a crevice in the escanciar. Then he picked up a small highball glass, pushed the white button on the front side of the escanciar, held the cup low to the table and from a couple of feet in the air, a stream of cider came pouring out into the glass below. The idea is to get as much air into the cider as possible. He only poured the traditional inch of cider into each glass and it had another inch of bubbles similar to the ‘head’ on a beer poured from a tap. We were just too curious so we got up and went over to the table to ask questions. They were happy to explain and poured us each a taste. It was mild in flavor, barely sweet and quite refreshing. The most common type of cider is ‘sidra natural’ meaning that there are no additives in the making of the cider, neither sugar nor yeast nor carbonation The only yeast in sidra natural is the yeast naturally found on the apples being used. Without carbonation the cider is flat, which is why the pour is so important. The long pour adds a touch of fizziness and opens up the aromas and flavors of the beverage.
There is an entire unique craft around ‘throwing’ and drinking sidra or cider in from the Asturias and Basque regions of northwest Spain. Clearly some of those traditions have trickled into northeast Spain and what we witnessed was perhaps a less messy, restaurant applicable version.
We love finding and watching local traditions.
This is our 100th posting in 22 months of full time travel.
Wow time has flown! We have visited dozens of cities and towns in 14 countries. There are currently 195 countries in the world which means we have many places yet to discover.
Happy travels to everyone.
Salud from these Oscense,
Ted and Julia