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Something new under the sun: Seville - the city that launched Columbus - is about to be discovered, as Expo '92 prepares a tribute to the past and peek at the future.

Seville-the city that launched Columbus-is about to be discovered, as Expo '92 prepares a tribute to the past and peek at the future.

When Desert Shield erupted into Desert Storm last January, organizers of Spain's Expo '92 fretted that their Big Event might be among the war's first casualties. Travelers were succumbing to bunker mentality and trading their tickets to exotic destinations for weekend packages in the Catskills. But there was no turning back. Even if the storm raged on, Expo '92-the last universal exposition of the 20th century-would open on schedule, April 20, 1992.

"But it would have been a lot like having a party after a family member dies," admits Expo spokesman Javier de la Puerta. "The hosts can't cancel, at that point, because all the invitations have been mailed."

In Expo's case, 111 countries had RSVP'd, breaking the previous record set in Osaka, Japan, 21 years earlier, when 70 nations participated. Some $10 billion had been earmarked for the inside-out renovation of southern Spain, and 65 percent of the site work already had been completed. It was a gamble, but as de la Puerta concluded, "If the war came out right, we knew Expo would be a great place for everyone to celebrate."

Months later the pressure is off, the party is on, and no one has sent regrets. The countdown has begun for the six-month fiesta that King Juan Carlos says "will bring alive the past 500 years and, in no uncertain terms, remind us that the second millennium of our era is just eight years away."

The century's sendoff originally was slated for Chicago, but Spain lobbied for equal time when it learned the U.S. was planning an exposition to mark the anniversary of America's discovery. The solution was a yearlong expo set in two cities. Seville would focus on the past for six months, then the party would move stateside to Chicago for a six-month peek at the future. Funding problems caused Chicago to bow out, and Seville assumed the huge task of blending the past, present, and future into one really big show.

Not surprisingly, the theme of Expo '92 is the Age of Discovery. In a year when every city named Columbus probably will claim you-know-who slept there, Seville's pedigree is undisputed. Expo visitors not only will tour the 15th century monastery where Columbus recouped between voyages, but they will meander a harbor that recreates Seville in its glory days, and photograph a replica of the first ship to circle the globe. (Trivia: The historic galleon was captained by Spain's Juan Sebastian de Elcano, not Portugal's Magellan.)

But the past is only a stepping off point. Much of the 450-acre Expo site, located on the nearby island of Cartuja, will emphasize the future. Four enormous pavilions form the core of the exposition and are appropriately called the Route of Discovery. The pilgrimage begins at the restored monastery, threads its way through five centuries of history, and culminates at the Pavilion of the Present and Future. Celebrated here will be mankind's more recent conquests in the fields of energy, robotics, communications, artificial intelligence, genetic engineering, and space exploration.

Like its predecessors, Expo '92 has an "anything goes" air about it. Since Juan Carlos decreed that "stereotype and routine will have no place" at Seville's Expo, past marvels won't be repeated. No plans have been unveiled for a house built upside down on its chimney (Buffalo exposition, 1901); and Canada won't duplicate its feat at Osaka, when the mirrors on its pavilion blinded pilots of incoming flights and forced the rerouting of air traffic for several months. Still, early construction indicates a lot of gee whiz will be built into the pavilions of participating countries. Russia's exhibit will represent a giant staircase; Denmark's entry will take the form of an enormous sailing ship; and Britain will entertain guests in a sparkling glass cube.

If foreign countries will make unique "statements" at the exposition, so will the host nation. Spain is counting on Expo '92 and the Barcelona Olympic Games (July 25-August 9, 1992) to amplify the message that Europe's sunny Iberian peninsula offers more than a cheap tan.

"We want to change the type of tourism we've attracted in the past," says de la Puerta. "We want to move away from the beach and sun kind of emphasis that has had negative effects on the environment around Costa Del Sol. We hope to focus on the historic and cultural aspects of Spain. To do that, we need elite hotels and better service facilities."

Expo has provided both. Before Seville's welcome mat could go down, major structures had to go up. These have included four- and five-star hotels, three airports, a railway station, six major bridges, and a new highway system. A high-speed train has trimmed travel time to Madrid to under three hours, and a connection with the Mediterranean motorway network now allows drivers to zip from Seville to Rome or Paris without passing a single traffic light. Thanks to the improved roads, tourists who want to mix glitz with their culture can be on the Costa del Sol within two and a half hours.

If Expo money has provided updated convenience, Seville has contributed old-world charm. It's an elegant city with orange trees lining its streets and horse-drawn vegetable wagons plodding the cobblestones beside sleek Porsches and belching Yugos. Called one of the most romantic destinations in Europe, it has been the backdrop for 24 operas, from Don Juan to Carmen to The Barber of Seville. What sets it apart from other cities isn't its monuments and royal palaces, but its night life. Each evening, residents spill out of their homes and apartments and head for their favorite bistros-tiny stalls that open directly onto the streets.

Sherry is the favored drink, and tapas are the snacks of choice. Tapa translates as "lid," and dates back to the tradition of serving a glass of wine with a triangle of bread or cheese on top to preserve the bouquet. Modem varieties of tapas can be exotic and often are determined by what's in the fridge. The menus are so flexible that they're scrawled on chalkboards and posted where they can be seen by customers and edited by bartenders. Pub visitors usually order an assortment of this and that, but rarely eat all that arrives. They want to reserve room for whatever savories the next blackboard might offer.

So congenial is this downtown night life that Expo planners feared attendance at evening Expo events might suffer. They countered with a program that includes 18 hours of daily entertainment. The gamut runs from street musicians and mimes to the Metropolitan Opera of New York and the London Royal Ballet. Sets from Casablanca, The Godfather, and other American films will be recreated on Cinema Street as a part of a tribute to motion pictures. The Wild West saloons, gambling joints, and tropical cabarets that line the street will be fully operational as bars and discotheques. Visitors can sit at a table at Rick's Cafe Americain, order a plate of tapas, and ask Sam to "play it again."

If the scope of Expo '92 sounds mind-boggling, hundreds of computers will be on the grounds to alert guests to activities they might want to attend and console them for events they've already missed. These computers will be among the fixtures to remain after Expo's closing ceremony on Columbus Day. They will become part of a permanent Science and Technology Complex, scheduled to open in 1993, as a reminder to the world that Spain is a country with a sunny future as well as a proud past.

For more information about tourist accommodations, write to Expo '92, Expotourist, Isla de la Cartuja, 41010, Seville, Spain.)
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Title Annotation:includes article on weather expected during festival; Seville, Spain; Christopher Columbus
Author:Miller, Holly
Publication:Saturday Evening Post
Date:Jul 1, 1991
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