Zaragoza may not be as big a blip on the radar screen as Madrid or Barcelona, but all that is expected to change this summer when it hosts Expo 2008, better known as the World’s Fair. The three-month event, which opens June 14, might be just the answer for clients looking for a fun family vacation.
Living up to its spirited image, the Expo will feature nonstop entertainment, such as Cirque du Soleil and a rumored appearance by Jennifer Lopez. You can also expect to see Spain’s signature flamenco on display, as well as numerous music concerts, operas and dance performances from more than 100 participating countries.
Numerous interactive and educational exhibits will focus on the fair’s central theme — “Water and Sustainable Development”— giving it a bit of a science-fair vibe.
Many of the more than 70 participating restaurants will offer Zaragoza’s famous tapas and tarasco lamb dishes. A playful blue figure called Fluvi, which resembles the shape of a water drop, is the official mascot and is already sold in miniature at chocolate shops around town. Keeping with the Expo’s theme is the Expo 2008 aquarium, touted as one of the largest on the planet. Here, visitors will be able to view live animal and plant life from the Nile, Amazon and Mekong river ecosystems. The aquarium, as well as a new 300-acre waterpark, will remain permanent attractions in the city once the Expo is over. The waterpark, built around the Ebro River, upon whose banks the city was founded by the Romans more than 2,000 years ago, has whitewater rafting, swimming pools, river beaches and Parisian-style Bateaux-Mouche boats for short cruises. Probably the most striking remnant from the fair, though, will be the river’s Pavilion Bridge designed by the Pritzker Architecture Prize-winning architect Zaha Hadid.
The city has spent billions in preparation for the 7 million-plus visitors expected to attend the Expo; the site itself cost $1.2 billion to construct. Historical monuments, like the venerable Basilica of the Virgin of Pilar, plus Moorish and Roman attractions have been cleaned; English-language captions and videos have been added to museum exhibits; and more hotel rooms have entered the pipeline. By the fair’s opening, hotel capacity will have increased 30 percent from 7,500 beds to 10,000 beds, a city tourism official said, and Zaragoza’s status as Spain’s fifth-largest city and capital of the region of Aragon will be greatly enhanced.
“Expo 2008 will be a very important moment for the city,” said Constanza Hernandez, head of promotion for the city’s tourism office.
Palafox Hotels, a luxury Spanish chain, put up three new hotels to house Expo visitors. The 177-room Hotel Hiberus is located at the Expo next to a new convention center and is already fully booked, said Menno Overvelde, marketing director for Palafox. The 183-room Reina Petronilla and the 103-unit Hotel Rey Alfonso I opened in the city’s main tourist zone.
“Expo is a big step forward,” said Overvelde, “especially with royal families and heads of state expected to attend. Now with the Expo, Zaragoza has become a destination. People are looking for other cities to visit, which are cheaper and smaller than Madrid and Barcelona.”
Overvelde pointed out other advantages such as a 1½-hour rail service from Madrid on the high-speed Ave train and new daily service from Barcelona. Expo visitors will also be able to book day trips to Zaragoza via new express buses linking up with major Spanish cities.
With such easy accessibility, numerous activities and new developments, Zaragoza makes an ideal stop this summer.