They've transformed Zaragoza – it's a modern miracle

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

Marcus Field explores the Spanish city as it prepares to open Expo 2008

There's so much silver and gold that at first it's hard to make out what I'm meant to be looking at. I'm inside the Basilica of the Pillar in Zaragoza and my guide is trying to point out the marble column that the Virgin Mary is said to have brought here for St James in AD40.

Finally I spot it, a small column a few feet high encased in silver and topped by a little statue of the Virgin. This pillar, which has stood in a church on this site since at least the ninth century, is now an object of pilgrimage for Catholics worldwide.

I don't believe in miracles, but this modest piece of marble seems to have brought luck to Zaragoza. This ancient settlement, 190 miles north-west of Barcelona, has survived sieges to become one of the richest and most beautiful cities in Spain.

It helps that Zaragoza sits in a fertile and strategic site along the river Ebro. The Romans founded the city in 14BC and it grew to become one of the most important urban centres in Hispania. The Roman street plan still defines the city's heart and you can visit the remains of the forum, baths and theatre.

From 714 to 1118 Zaragoza was part of an Islamic kingdom, the legacy of which includes an impressive palace – the Aljaferia – and the highly patterned Mudejar brickwork, which you can see in its finest form on the walls of the city's cathedral, St Salvador (known as La Seo).

Not surprisingly, these monumental buildings featured prominently in my plans. But I was also keen to try its famous food and wine. Aragon, of which it is the regional capital, has some of the best vineyards in Spain, and the city's celebrated tapas come in a mind-boggling variety. I was also excited about getting a sneak preview of Expo 2008, a three-month festival on the theme of water and sustainable development, which starts this Saturday on the banks of the Ebro.

There is an easy walking route between the cathedral square and El Tubo, an area of tightly packed narrow streets where you can find all the best places to eat and drink. Bodegas Almau, at Estebanes 10, is a good place to try a prized wine from Aragon's Carinena region and the bar's specialities of cured anchovy or goat's cheese. One of the most atmospheric places I found was Bodeguilla de la Santa Cruz, at Santa Cruz 3, with its series of cosy little rooms.

The next day I took the 20-minute walk along the river to visit the Expo site. Here, 62 acres of riverbank accommodate displays on the theme of water from more than 100 countries. Most of the exhibits will be housed in a central building which snakes through the site. But it's the landmark-themed pavilions that stand out, the most startling is the bridge across the Ebro designed by the London-based architect Zaha Hadid.

Everything at the Expo has the highest green credentials: the buildings are energy efficient; water will be recycled; carrier bags are made of potato starch and the passenger boats will be solar powered. There will be lots of fun, too. There is a huge aquarium displaying life from five great rivers, while 3,400 shows are planned, including a nightly spectacle along the riverbank. Performers include Bob Dylan, who recorded the official Expo song.

But given the heat of the Spanish summer, perhaps the most popular part of the Expo will be the new water park. Here the waters have been diverted to create beaches and a stretch for white-water rafting.

After lunch I headed off to see the work of the city's most famous son, Francisco de Goya. You can see his early frescos in the cupolas of the Basilica and a complete set of his etchings in the Camon Aznar Museum. A project to build a Goya museum is under way.

During a second visit to the Basilica, I noticed two bombs hanging on the wall. They fell through the roof during the Spanish Civil War but failed to explode. The clean holes, one right through a Goya fresco, have been preserved as evidence of the miracle. Some people say the pilot defused the bombs in a fit of guilt, but I prefer to see it as just another example of this charming city's long and happy run of luck.

COMPACT FACTS

How to get there

Return flights to Zaragoza with Ryanair (0871 246 0000; www.ryanair.com) cost from £93. Marcus Field stayed at the NH Gran Hotel Zaragoza (00 34 976 221 901; www.nh-hotels.com), where doubles cost €222 per night.

Further information

Expo Zaragoza 2008 ( www.expozaragoza2008.es) runs from 14 June to 14 September. Zaragoza Tourism (00 34 976 201 200; www.zaragoza.es).

For Simon Calder's prescription on how best to spend 48 Hours in Zaragoza, click here

Suggested Topics
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
a clockwork orange, stanley kubrick
film
Extras
The Tesco Hudl2: An exceptional Android tablet that's powerful, well-built and outstanding value
indybest

News
Sarah Silverman (middle) with sister Reform Rabbi Susan Silverman (right) and sister actress Laura Silverman (left) at Jerusalem's Western Wall for feminist Hanuka candle-lighting ceremony
peopleControversial comedian stages pro-equality Hanukkah lighting during a protest at Jerusalem's Wailing Wall
Sport
After another poor series in Sri Lanka, Alastair Cook claimed all players go through a lean period
cricket
Arts and Entertainment
The Bach Choir has been crowned the inaugural winner of Sky Arts’ show The Great Culture Quiz
arts + ents140-year-old choir declared winner of Sky Arts' 'The Great Culture Quiz'
Life and Style
food + drinkAuthor DBC Pierre presents his guide to the morning after
Life and Style
food + drink
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Investigo: Finance Analyst

    £240 - £275 per day: Investigo: Support the global business through in-depth a...

    Ashdown Group: Data Manager - £Market Rate

    Negotiable: Ashdown Group: Data Manager - MySQL, Shell Scripts, Java, VB Scrip...

    Ashdown Group: Application Support Analyst - Bedfordshire/Cambs border - £32k

    £27000 - £32000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Application Support Analyst - near S...

    Recruitment Genius: Class 1 HGV Driver

    £23000 - £27000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This successful group of compan...

    Day In a Page

    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'You look for someone who's an inspiration and try to be like them'

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
    Could cannabis oil reverse the effects of cancer?

    Could cannabis oil reverse effects of cancer?

    As a film following six patients receiving the controversial treatment is released, Kate Hilpern uncovers a very slippery issue
    The Interview movie review: You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here

    The Interview movie review

    You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here
    Serial mania has propelled podcasts into the cultural mainstream

    How podcasts became mainstream

    People have consumed gripping armchair investigation Serial with a relish typically reserved for box-set binges
    Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up for hipster marketing companies

    Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up

    Kevin Lee Light, aka "Jesus", is the newest client of creative agency Mother while rival agency Anomaly has launched Sexy Jesus, depicting the Messiah in a series of Athena-style poses
    Rosetta space mission voted most important scientific breakthrough of 2014

    A memorable year for science – if not for mice

    The most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
    Christmas cocktails to make you merry: From eggnog to Brown Betty and Rum Bumpo

    Christmas cocktails to make you merry

    Mulled wine is an essential seasonal treat. But now drinkers are rediscovering other traditional festive tipples. Angela Clutton raises a glass to Christmas cocktails
    5 best activity trackers

    Fitness technology: 5 best activity trackers

    Up the ante in your regimen and change the habits of a lifetime with this wearable tech
    Paul Scholes column: It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves

    Paul Scholes column

    It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves
    Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

    Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

    Club World Cup kicked into the long grass by the continued farce surrounding Blatter, Garcia, Russia and Qatar
    Frank Warren column: 2014 – boxing is back and winning new fans

    Frank Warren: Boxing is back and winning new fans

    2014 proves it's now one of sport's biggest hitters again
    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

    Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

    The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
    Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

    Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

    The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
    Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

    The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

    Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas