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Zaragoza, Spain

The host of Expo 2008 is also home to Renaissance treasures and Roman remains, says Simon Calder


WHY GO NOW

Zest: that is what Zaragoza has to offer the world this year. Rising from the dry-roasted plains of north-central Spain, the city has been chosen to host Expo 2008 (www.expozaragoza2008.es). More than 100 countries are tackling the theme of "Water and Sustainable Development", and 3,000 performances are to be spread across the three months from 14 June. If you prefer to look back, Zaragoza's rich 2,000-year history is apparent through this elegant city.

TOUCH DOWN

Only Ryanair (0871 246 0000; www.ryanair.com) flies from the UK, with flights from Stansted on most days of the week. Zaragoza airport (00 34 976 71 23 00; www.zaragoza-airport.com) is around 10km south-west. Buses run to the city centre from just outside the terminal building fairly infrequently: roughly every two hours from 7am to 10pm (to 7pm on Saturdays, and 11am-8pm on Sundays), for a fare of €2.50 (£1.90). The most useful stop for the city centre is the final one, on the Paseo de Pamplona (1). A taxi will cost around €25 (£19).

Zaragoza's spectacular Delicias station (2), with high-speed links to Madrid and Barcelona, is west of the city centre.

GET YOUR BEARINGS

The centre of Zaragoza is hemmed in to the north by the Rio Ebro, and surrounded on all other sides by a loop of broad paseos. Most points of interest, with the exception of the Aljaferia (3) and the Expo site, are within this distinct area known as the old town. Backing onto the river in the heart of the city are the two cathedrals, La Seo (4) and the Basilica de Nuestra Señora del Pilar (5). They are flanked on the south side by Plaza del Pilar, a huge stone square which acts as the focal point for the hustle and bustle of city life. The very helpful tourist office (6) occupies a modern prism in the middle (00 34 976 20 12 00; www.zaragozaturismo.es). It opens 10am-8pm daily, extended to 9am-9pm from April to October.

The ZaragozaCard (00 34 902 08 89 08; www.zaragozacard.com) is an excellent investment. It is valid for 24, 48 or 72 hours, and provides plenty of benefits. Five, seven or nine rides on public transport are included. A guided walk is thrown in, along with a free drink and tapa at one of the many bars. All museums are covered, as is the tourist bus. A 48-hour card costs €19 (£14.60).

CHECK IN

The Hotel Catalonia Zaragoza Plaza (7) at Calle Manifestació*16 (00 34 976 20 58 58; www.hoteles-catalonia.es) used to be an apartment block – but don't let that put you off. It has been inspirationally reborn as a four-star hotel which manages both a central location – on the Plaza Justicia – and relative tranquillity. The rooms are agreeably comfortable, but what makes the difference are the reworked features: an old open-frame lift has been converted into a phone booth, while breakfast is taken in the former coal cellar – the chutes where the black stuff was heaped in are still visible. Doubles cost from €75 (£58) with breakfast an additional €13 (£10) per person.

For a suitably 21st-century venue, handy for the Expo site, the new Tryp Zaragoza Hotel (8) at Avenida Francia 4 (00 34 976 28 79 50; www.solmelia.com) has sharp design and comfortable, hi-tech rooms. Doubles from €90 (£69), with breakfast an extra €14 (£11).

A small but attractive two-star choice is the Hotel Hispania (9), opposite the central market at Avenida César Augusto 103 (00 34 976 28 49 28; www.hotelhispania.com). A double room costs €83.45 (£64), with breakfast a further €7 (£5.50) per person.

TAKE A VIEW

The Maños, as Zaragozans are known, maintain that the apostle St James preached the Gospels on the south bank of the Ebro. On the night of 2 January, AD40, the Virgin Mary travelled to the city to console and encourage the apostle. Furthermore she brought from Jerusalem a column (pilar) so that the first chapel could be built on it. Conveniently, the Basilica de Nuestra Señora del Pilar (5) has been built around said pillar, which is on display in the Chapel of the Virgin, towards the east end of the Basilica.

The top of the north tower has an excellent view for €2 (£1.50); it opens 9.30am-1.30pm and 4-5.30pm daily except Fridays; the Basilica itself opens 6.45am-9pm daily.

TAKE A HIKE

Zaragoza has plenty of Renaissance treasures. Along the square from the Basilica (5) is the Lonja (10), the former Stock Exchange. The elegant building, with its attractive columns, is now used for temporary displays; open from now until 4 May is an exhibition documenting Ernest Shackleton's journey to the Antarctic in 1914. It opens 10am-2pm daily except Monday, and 5-9pm Tuesday-Saturday, admission free.

Thread through the tangle of streets bequeathed by the Moorish occupation to the Plaza de España (11), where the old town ends and the modern one begins. Head down the broad shopping avenue, Paseo de la Independencia (12). Just off to the left, on Calle Joaquin Costa is the church of Santa Engracia (13), the patron saint of Zaragoza, which has an ornately-carved façade. The most surprising Renaissance treasure is housed inside a modern glass structure that is the headquarters of Ibercaja bank (14) on Calle San Ignacio de Loyola. Inside is a 16th-century patio that was once located on the edge of the old town. In a chequered history it was moved to Paris, before being bought by the bank and returned to a new site in Zaragoza. Even more surprisingly, it houses 14 Goya portraits also owned by Ibercaja. Visit the patio 9am-2pm and 6-9pm daily except Sunday (from 11am on Saturdays), admission free.

LUNCH ON THE RUN

An interesting speciality of Aragon, the region with Zaragoza at its heart, is migas: breadcrumbs drenched in olive oil and served with all kinds of toppings. A good place to refuel on some is La Migueria (15) at Calle Estebanes 4 (00 34 976 20 07 36), where a bowl of migas with sausage, grape or one of 21 other toppings, costs €5 (£3.80) and upwards; with good salads for €9.50 (£7.30).

From Monday to Friday, an excellent nearby option in the same price range is the doddery but jolly La Republicana (16), on Mendez Nuñez. It opens 9am-4pm (and 6pm-midnight, in case you want a drink here).

CULTURAL AFTERNOON

At the western edge of the city centre stands a vast brick-built complex, the historic Aljaferia (3) (00 34 976 28 96 83), which displays the layers of Zaragoza's history. The Palace was originally built for Zaragoza's Muslim leaders in the 11th century, but was then adapted between the 12th and 15th centuries with a Christian influence. Highlights include a small but beautiful mosque adjacent to the entrance, the cool Patio de Santa Isabella, and the Troubador's Tower. The Aljaferia opens 10am-2pm & 4.30-8pm, but closes all day on Thursday and on Friday mornings, admission €3 (£2.30).

WINDOW SHOPPING

The main shopping street, the Paseo de la Independencia (12), is lined with chain shops and department stores like El Corte Inglés. Most ordinary shops are closed on Sundays, but there are several Sunday markets, including one in the Plaza de San Bruno (17) which sells jewellery and antiques between around 9am and 2pm.

AN APERITIF

Just south of the Plaza del Pilar, between Alfonso I and Don Jaime I, is a zone known as El Tubo. This is the hub of Zaragoza's bar and nightlife scene. Do as the locals do and move from place to place for a drink and some tapas. Bodegas Almau (18) at Calle Estebanes 10 (00 34 976 29 98 34) is closed on Sundays, but on other nights it lives up to its boast as "especialistas en vinos" with a magnificent selection, many of which are used as decoration. La Cueva de Aragón (19), on the junction of Calle Estebanes and Calle Libertad, serves nothing to eat but mushrooms, freshly cooked and stacked up on bread and topped with a prawn.

DINING WITH THE LOCALS

For a theatrical evening, try La Matilde (20) at Predicadores 7 (00 34 976 43 34 43; www.lamatilde.com), close to the central market. Another popular place is Antiguo Tabernillas (21) at Calle Ponzano 10 (00 34 976 231 300; www.antiguotabernillas.com), which serves good meat and fish dishes at reasonable prices. The house speciality is huevos rotos, a mixture of fried potatoes and eggs, intended as a starter but hearty enough to comprise a meal in itself.

SUNDAY MORNING: GO TO CHURCH

La Seo del Salvador (4), as the cathedral is known (00 34 976 29 12 38) is an essential destination, not just on the Sabbath. The north-east façade is a masterpiece where honey-coloured brickwork and colourful ceramic decorations form complex geometric patterns. Admission is €2. On Sundays it opens 10am-noon and 4-6pm, until 7pm from May to October.

OUT TO BRUNCH

The Gran Café de Zaragoza (22) at Calle de Alfonso I 25 looks as though it has been around for centuries. In fact, although the building is 200 years old – and looks little changed – it was a jeweller's store until nine years ago. Today it dispenses superb coffee 9am-10pm on Sundays – opening half-an-hour earlier from Monday to Thursday, and staying open until 3am on Friday and Saturday nights. Another delicious spot is Churreria La Fama (23) at Calle Prudencio 25 (00 34 976 39 37 54). The long, deep-fried doughnuts, churros, are served with chocolate sauce. It opens 8am-1pm and 5-9.30pm daily.

A WALK IN THE PARK

Cross the Ebro by taking the Almozara bridge (24) and walk along beside the water to the Expo site (www.expozaragoza2008.es). The Pavilion Bridge, designed by Zaha Hadid, will form an important link between the two sides of the city. The Expo (14 June-14 September) will consist of exhibition pavilions and a water park, which will remain as a permanent riverside attraction. It will open daily 10am-3am, and admission costs €30.80 (£23.70) if you book in advance.

ICING ON THE CAKE

From the future, head deep into the past. Zaragoza was an important Roman city, called Caesaraugusta after the emperor who built it. Until recently there was very little to see of it, until in 1972, during the construction of a bank, the remains of a Roman theatre (25) were discovered. This has now been opened to visitors; a museum, explaining the history of the site, has been attached to it. Opening times are 10am-2pm and 5-8pm Tuesday-Saturday and 10am-2pm on Sundays (admission €3/£2.30), or at other times walk along Calle Veronica from where there is a panoramic view.

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