Is it a Martian spaceport? A movie set from Star Wars? An outdoor museum of modern art? Whatever it is, you'd hardly expect to run across a place like this in a two-thousand-year-old Spanish seaport on the Mediterranean.
Visitors to Valencia usually expect to find a town packed with remnants of the days when it was ruled by Roman emperors, Visigoth princes, Moorish caliphs and Christian kings. And that's exactly what you'll see, including a cathedral displaying a chalice some believe to be the Holy Grail.
The big surprise in Spain's third largest city (population: 800,000) is just a short cab ride from the old-time plazas and palaces, down in a dried up riverbed. That's where a mile-long wonderland called the City of the Arts and Sciences pops into view.
Talk about strange bedfellows. The old riverbed winds through the center of Valencia for seven miles of lush parks, gardens, ballfields, bike paths, nature walks and even a zoo. So how did this Spanish Shangri-La get a next door neighbor looking like the set of a science fiction movie?
About 20 years ago, the story goes, Valencia got serious about getting known for more than its namesake oranges, its love song and its tasty paella (traditional Spanish rice dishes). The big bucks came from tourism, and the town -- which at the time barely showed up in the country's visitor count -- set out to snag its share.
To get in on the action, Valencians shelled out billions of euros on big-time tourism magnets such as a new super-port for cruise ships, a new convention center, a new airport terminal and - the town's crown jewel - the City of the Arts and Sciences, or CAS for short.
The job of designing the CAS was given to Valencia's world famous home-town architect Santiago Calatrava. Told to come up with a showstopper, Calatrava is said to have "reached to another world" for a solution. He beamed the CAS down in four main sections.
Headlines across Europe trumpeted the 1998 debut of the eye-shaped L'Hemisferic, a theater in a five-story-high sphere under an oval roof as long as a football field. Inside, IMAX movies are shown on an immense screen that's also used in turning the sphere into a planetarium with a sky full of 9,000 twinkling stars.
Two years later came another eye-popper: the Science Museum Principe Felipe. Resembling a giant ribcage, it's loaded with interactive high-tech exhibits - everything from jet fighters to a DNA molecule twice as high as the nearby theater - aimed at giving visitors a fun way to experience the workings of life, science and technology. The museum's motto is, "Touching is always permitted."
The project went to the fishes in 2003 with the opening of Oceanografico, Europe's largest aquarium. Here, visitors journey through the world's seas and oceans on paths taking them through 20 acres of pod-like viewing structures, underwater tunnels made of glass and a sphere as high as an eight-story building.
The fourth section opened for business in 2007 when the Palau de les Arts Reina Sofia debuted to the tune of a half-billion euros. Shaped like a spaceship on a launch pad - some say it looks more like a bike helmet - the structure houses four auditoriums including a state-of-the-art opera house seating 1,700.
So did Valencia's multi-billion-euro investment in the travel business pay off? Here's how city tour guide Josep Alberola answers that question: "It used to be, no one came here...then tourism hit like an explosion." Today, the city is one of Europe's hottest travel destinations.
Getting and staying there: Transatlantic airlines such as Iberia typically leave the U.S. in the late afternoon and arrive at Spain's air hub at Madrid the next morning. From there, it's a 55-minute jet hop to Valencia, where visitors have their pick of some 35 tourist-class hotels.
More info: Visit the CAS at www.CAC.es; Santiago Calatrava's site at www.Calatrava.com; the Valencia Tourism & Convention Bureau at www.turisvalencia.es; and the Tourist Office of Spain at www.spain.info.