Be it Barcelona, Brussels, Paris or Prague, the distinctive architecture of Europe owes much to the Expo.
I recently blogged about the upcoming Expo in Milan and all the weird and wonderful buildings popping up in the city which are set to host the many different countries taking part in this international event. Looking back at the history of the Expo over the years, its temporary residence in one destination or another has led to some of the most iconic pieces of architecture forming a permanent presence on that city’s landscape and thus adding to the sightseeing checklist of on any city break itinerary. Beyond London’s Crystal Palace and the Millennium Dome, here’s a little look at some of the most famous Expo edifices…
To Brussels first of all and the futuristic metallic spheres of the Atomium, the Belgian capital’s most popular tourist attraction. Built for Brussels’ 1958 World Fair, the Atomium was designed to be a replica of a single unit of iron crystal, blown up 165 billion times. Each of the nine spheres is 18 metres in diameter and wrapped in stainless steel, five of which are open to the public. The top sphere (accessible by lift) is home to a restaurant offering far-reaching views over the city and indeed as far as Antwerp on a clear day. The four other publically accessible spheres play host to a permanent exhibition dedicated to Expo58 whilst the remaining three are reserved for temporary events. At night, the spheres are lit up with some 3,000 LED lights, making for a rather special photo opportunity.
To the French capital now and soaring 300 metres into the Parisian skyline, the Eiffel Tower is unequivocally Paris’ most iconic landmark, built in 1889 for the World Exhibition. Situated in the Champ de Mars, the vertical views from the ground are almost as impressive as those from the three platforms (at 57, 115 and 276 metres), offering unparalleled panoramic views over the city. If the pre-requisite photo from ground level and the viewing platforms are not quite enough, for the ultimate Eiffel Tower experience, why not dine at one of the tower’s two revered restaurants – 58 Tour Eiffel and Le Jules Verne?
Moving into Spain, formerly the gardens of the Palacio de San Telmo, the Parque de Maria Luísa sits just to the south of Seville’s historic centre and provides a tranquil, leafy hideaway from the hustle and bustle of the city. Star attraction within the park is unquestionably the Plaza de España, built for the Ibero-American Expo in 1929. Set against a crescent-shaped backdrop of beautiful Renaissance and neo-Moorish buildings, the Plaza boasts a large central fountain, a moat over which four bridges symbolise the medieval kingdoms of the Iberian Peninsula, and 58 brightly decorated, tiled benches, each one representing the provinces of Spain. You’ll also find here the Plaza de America boasting three striking pavilions, two of which play host to the Archaeological Museum and the Museum of Andalusian Folk Arts.
Not quite a building or monument as such but Seville’s Isla de la Cartuja is also worthy of an Expo-related mention. Formerly surrounded by the Guadalquivir River, the island’s name, translated as Island of the Charterhouse, is derived from the cloistered monastery where Christopher Columbus once lived when planning his voyage to the west. Celebrating the 500th anniversary of the first Colombian expeditions, the 1992 World Fair was situated on the island, with complex rearrangements of the river’s channelling system put into place to connect it to the mainland. Today connected by the Puentes del Alamillo and de la Barqueta, the island plays host to a number of institutions including the Centro Andaluz de Arte Contemporáneo (CAAC) and the Jardín Americano.
To the north of the country, situated just below Montjuïc’s Palau Nacional en route to the Plaça d’Espanya is the striking Magic Fountain (Font Màgica), a spectacularly colourful fountain built for the 1929 Barcelona World Expo. A series of illuminated, colourful cascades and fountains, the Magic Fountain was carefully restored for the 1992 Olympic Games held in the city and has since become one of the city’s most visited attractions, particularly during its fabulous summertime sound and light shows. It’s also the principal site for the ‘Piromusical’, a huge firework display and laser show set to music that brings to a close La Mercè, Barcelona’s main festival.
Crossing into Portugal and the River Tagus meanwhile, is Lisbon’s impressive Ponte Vasco da Gama, a cable-stayed bridge flanked by viaducts. Opened in 1998 to coincide with the Expo 98 taking place in the city, the bridge was named after the famous explorer, Vasco da Gama, in celebration of the 500th anniversary of his discovery of the sea route from Europe to India. At 17.2km long, the Ponte Vasco da Gama is considered Europe’s longest bridge, some eight times as long as the 25 de Abril and comprises six lanes of traffic.
Returning to the theme of fountains, last but by no means least is the Krizik Fountain in the Prague exhibition grounds of Vystaviste, known also as the Dancing or Musical Fountain. Built in 1891 for the World Fair, the fountain takes its name from the Czech inventor, Frantisek Krizik, who created its stunning light display comprising some 1,200 separate lights, alongside 50 water pumps and 3,000 water jets. Restored in 1990, like Barcelona’s Magic Fountain the Krizik Fountain comes to life in the summer months when it forms he backdrop to classical musical and ballet performances.