I’ve just spent a few days in Zaragoza to inspect the building site for Expo 2008, but with secondary intent too, namely to check on local tapas standard. That subplot seems to be an instinctive reaction the moment I set foot on Iberian soil, a harkback to seven years ago when I was researching my book New Tapas. That job entailed weeks of travelling round Spain checking out tapas-bars. Tough. Ever since, I’ve had a deep professional respect for them and their products. Zaragoza, though I’d been there once briefly, meant virgin tapas terrain for me.
But first – Expo 2008. This is due to open in mid-June and run until mid-September. As usual with such events, you can’t quite believe it’ll be finished in time, but no doubt it will. But what role does a universal exhibition play these days when we are endlessly bombarded by TV and internet coverage? When they started back in the 19th century it was to inform and bring other cultures closer. Now that really is obsolete. Yet some of the architecture is fantastic – including Zaha Hadid’s river pavilion, a sleek grey form that curves over the Ebro river, supported only in three places. Ove Arup, the engineering firm responsible for London’s Millennium (aka ‘wobbly’) bridge, devised the technical side, so hopefully they’ve learnt a few lessons. Then there is a building with a ground-plan shaped like a drop of water, because the whole theme of Expo is in fact water and sustainability – this in a country suffering from extreme drought. They’re right, we do need to address the issue and young people need to be informed – but building massive new structures (using huge amounts of energy) isn’t necessarily the way.
What Expo will certainly do is kickstart Zaragoza, a sleepy city of 800,000 which occupies a strategic position on the map – roughly halfway between warring Madrid and Barcelona, and midway between Bilbao and Valencia. But is geographical siting enough? Strolling round the centre, you get a distinct feeling of a provincial city that’s stayed outside Spain’s main energy-flow – despite the manic facelifting underway. Cranes groan over the horizon and scaffolding bristles. Madrid, Barcelona, Valencia, Bilbao, Seville: they all have their USPs, each one with a strong character, urban beauty and still forging ahead. But Zaragoza? Will a new quarter of shiney buildings be enough to transform its fortunes? It’s already opened a gigantic new station (see pic below) dwarfing the old one beside it, a new airport is still under construction (I flew out from the old one, with its three departure gates) and new walkways are projected to spruce up the riverside. BUT. Is this yet another attempt to ape the Guggenheim effect in Bilbao? Somehow Zaragoza, with its surfeit of 1960s apartment blocks, seems to lack real character – with its Roman past and heyday as capital of Aragon forgotten.
Back in the tapas bars however, Zaragoza is hopping, making it an excellent candidate for my next book, Tapas Two (that’s not serious). Our select research group – a mix of hedonistic Euro-hacks from Norway, Italy, Holland and the UK – did our utmost to get round the youthful epicentre in Calle Libertad and Estebanes on a heaving Saturday night. The last bar was by far the best, as a staggering display of wine-bottles (all full) blanketed the walls and the simple tapas were excellent – from young olives to Manchego cheese. Make sure you go there – Bodegas Almau in Estebanes 10. It’s been around since 1870 so is unlikely to disappear fast. Just before that we stumbled into a delightful little place with several backrooms covered in idiosyncratic objects and pictures: Bodeguilla de la Santa Cruz on Calle Santa Cruz. Great little tapas that I should have noted down. Here’s one corner of quaint decoration, with Almau next door in sharper form.
Sunday night saw us raring to go again, despite a murderous lunch at a chic bodega restaurant, Montal, This time we headed for two rather upmarket little places that stand side-by-side in Calle José de la Hera, a dark back-alley where you expect to stumble over shrieking cats and empty bottles. Los Victorinos again had a wonderful old-world feel, compounded by rather severe women bar-tenders and an unlikely clientele that included diminutive local grannies in fur-coats. Not quite as riotous as Almau, that’s for sure, but full of character nonetheless. Then we shifted sideways to Los Zarcillos, another excellent little place with a line-up of sophisticated tapas and excellent sampling of the four Aragonese Denominacion de Origen wines. Here’s Victorinos surveyed by a bulls’ head, and an empty plate of pulpo at Zarcillos. So who ate the pulpo?
So maybe in the end Zaragoza DOES have some hidden virtues – but they certainly don’t need any renovation.