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Throughout the Catholic world, this week is Semana Santa (Holy Week, aka Easter Week), and nearly every city and town in Spain marks the occasion with elaborate processions and pageantry dating back centuries. None, however, is older than the celebrations in this ancient city (pop. 66,000) on the Duero River in western Castile and León, not far from the border with northernmost Portugal.
Its penance processions documented back to 1179, here they’re different from elsewhere in Spain. Throughout the week, the 16 local Catholic fraternities make 17 processions which instead of conical hats, candles, and marching bands elsewhere hew more closely to the sobriety of their mediaeval origins: monks’ robes, flaming torches, and male choirs. Furthermore, at night the processions tend to be more meditative, performed in absolute silence. Truly a remarkable experience.
Attracting hundreds of thousands of visitors for Semana Santa, Zamora quintuples its population during this week, but at other times of year it’s a refreshingly uncrowded experience that lets you fully appreciate its ancient atmosphere, with much of the architecture of its historic core dating back to the 11th through 13th centuries.
The saga of Zamora stretches all the way back to ancient Roman times, and the aura of history remains especially powerful here. In particular, besides the Easter extravaganza, this city’s main claim to fame is its two dozen Romanesque churches, along with bridges, walls, and other buildings also nearly a millennium old.
Highlights include the city walls with three doughty gates (Bishop’s Gate, Doña Urraca Gate, and the Gate of Betrayal); the Puente de Piedra (Stone Bridge); Zamora Castle, dating back to the 10th century; as well as the 12th-century cathedral (below), one of the finest examples of Romanesque in Spain (and which was built amazingly quickly for a cathedral back then – in just 23 years).
Then, strolling along cobblestone streets on your way to the Plaza Mayor, you’ll also see a series of lovely churches of the same era, such as San Cipriano, San Ildefonso, and La Magdalena, all adding to the city’s magnificent Romanesque legacy.
That’s not to say later eras are unrepresented – far from it. The Renaissance in particular is very much in evidence, with major landmarks including the Old City Hall; the Hospital of the Incarnation, where the Provincial Council now meets; the Cordón Palace (now home to the Museum of Zamora); and the 15th-century Palace of the Counts of Alba de Aliste, which these days houses a parador (quasi-public inn, certainly a remarkable place to stay!).
Beyond the city, the province of the same name has a lot of historic small towns, castles, and natural reserves (including Spain’s largest lake, the Lago de Sanabria) worth a visit if you have the time. But perhaps its most distinguished area is the wine country with some 60 wineries (many open to visitors) surrounding the town of Toro. Toro wine has a pedigree back to the 12th century (fun fact: one of the caravels in Christopher Columbus’ first voyage of exploration to the Americas was filled with Toro red), but are now produced with modern methods.
The city is a convenient three-hour drive west of Madrid (just 90 minutes by train), an hour’s drive north of Salamanca, and a bit over an hour west of Valladolid. And next year, Semana Santa will take place March 25-31. See you in Zamora?
More information in English: TurismoenZamora.es.