SPAIN OCCUPIES the Iberian Peninsula along with Portugal, but the two countries are surprisingly unlike each other. They speak different languages and have different histories, though they have been tied together at times.
Spain ranks Number One on the Top 100 Countries index. It is a truly first-rate destination. It is a diverse country with very different regions. It has become much more popular in recent years as more people become aware of its many charms, and it now ranks 2nd in the world in number of annual visitors. It handles them well because it is also 2nd in the quality of its tourist infrastructure. Portugal, a much smaller country, rates 24th.
The economy has suffered in recent years. There is very high unemployment and worrying political instability. But this does not greatly affect the visitor and has the effect of making Spain better value than the rest of Western Europe. And you can still see bullfights, despite many attempts to outlaw them.
Spain contains many different regions that are almost countries in their own right. Some of them want to be. All of them are immensely proud of their remarkable history and have every right to be so. They are great places to visit.
The trains in Spain run mainly on the plain – and in the mountains and along the coast. The Spanish high-speed train system is very advanced, and is the best way to see the place. Though driving can be fun.
Most of the country’s major cities are connected by the Alta Velocidad Española (AVE), the largest such network in Europe. AVE stands for ‘Spanish High Speed’, and also means ‘bird’ in Spanish. Portugal has a separate unconnected system of its own.
Central Spain and Madrid
CASTILE IS THE heart of Spain, literally and figuratively. It is the historical area in the middle of the country, including Madrid. It is now officially divided into four separate regions: Castile-Leon, Castile-La Mancha, Estremadura and Madrid itself.
These are names to conjure with. This is the land of Don Quixote, of the conquistadores, of the Inquisition. This part of Spain is mountainous and gets very cold in winter, unlike the coastal areas.
The Castilian dialect of the language is regarded as standard Spanish. It is not the case that the ‘lisp’ in Castilian Spanish comes from courtiers imitating a lisping king (Peter of Castile) – it happened for other reasons. This remarkably enduring urban myth dates from an off-hand comment by a 14th century historian.
Madrid is one of the truly grand cities of Europe, as befits the capital of the largest empire the world had ever seen. The riches of the Americas poured into Spain for centuries, and they are reflected in Madrid’s great public buildings. These include the famous Prado Museum, the Royal Palace, the Royal Theatre and the National Library. Madrid rivals Vienna and St Petersburg for the sheer grandeur of its architecture and its public squares.
It is the third largest metropolis in Western Europe, after Paris and London. Many people prefer it over them – the Spanish are more relaxed about things, and it doesn’t have the crazy prices or quite the tourist crush of the other two cities.
The Prado is actually three museums, around the ‘Art Triangle’ on the Paseo el Prado. There is the Prado itself, with the works of the Spanish masters. There is the Reina Sofia modern art museum, which houses Picasso’s famous ‘Guernica’. And bridging the two is the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum of 19th and 20th century art. These galleries are reason enough on their own to visit Madrid.
Catalonia and Barcelona
ACCORDING TO many people, Spain’s second city Barcelona is not even in Spain. It is the capital city of an area known as Catalonia, where there is a major push for secession from Spain. The region even has its own language, Catalan, which is not a Spanish dialect but a distinct tongue more related to French. Many people there refuse to speak Spanish on principle. And they don’t lisp.
Barcelona, a sprawling city on the shores of the Mediterranean, is the most visited city in Spain and one of the most popular in the world. It is easy to see why. It is a beautiful city with a great climate, fabulous food, and lots to see and do.
It is so good, in fact, that it has become overly touristy, and there are often just too many visitors. Many locals have become actively hostile to tourists. The famous La Rambla is a wide boulevard that runs from the center of town down to the port. It cuts through the Gothic Quarter, a large neighborhood of streets and alleys and bars and restaurants that is the real soul of the city.
The architecture everywhere is superb. The most distinctive and unconventional is from Antoni Gaudi, the local architect who famously never used a straight line in any of his building designs. Gaudi, who worked in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, has become synonymous with Barcelona. He designed or inspired a whole suburb, the Quadrat d’Or (the Quadrant of Gold), remarkable for its modern designs.
In late February or early March of each year Barcelona hosts the Mobile World Congress. It has become the world’s largest technology fair and attracts over 100,000 visitors.
And there is more to Catalonia than Barcelona. The coastline from Barcelona to the French border is known as the Costa Brava, with some of Spain’s most spectacular coastal scenery. Girona is an old walled city with Roman ruins, and nearby Figueres contains the Dali Theatre-Museum, a monument to the famous surrealist, who was born there.
Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia in Barcelona has become one of the most visited churches in the world. Its exterior is impressive enough, but the interior of this remarkable structure truly took our breath away. Literally. We had to stop and physically recover.
There is nothing like it anywhere in the world. Gaudi said everything comes from the great book of nature – the Sagrada Familia goes beyond nature.
The Basque Country and Northern Spain
SEPARATIST PASSIONS in Spain are not limited to Catalonia. North of Madrid, on the coast of the Bay of Biscay and into the Pyrenees, lies the historical homeland of the Basque people. They speak an odd language called Euskara, unrelated to any other on earth.
Many Basques have long wanted a separate state and have resorted to violence to try and achieve it. Things are quieter now and the Basque provinces are now popular with visitors from Spain and elsewhere. The outstanding Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, designed by famed Canadian architect Frank Gehry, is an icon of post-industrial modern architecture. It is one of the world’s most impressive buildings.
The biggest event thereabouts is the annual Running of the Bulls. It is held daily in the attractive city of Pamplona during the Festival of San Fermin in early July. It is an exercise in collective stupidity in which drunk young men demonstrate their bravado by trying to outrun a rampaging herd of bulls let loose on the narrow streets. A fleet of 20 ambulances is provided to take gored and trampled runners to hospital. Nowadays not too many die of their wounds.
Southern Spain and the Moorish legacy
SPAIN IS A big country. The sunny south contains wonderful beaches and historic cities and is where the Islamic occupation lasted longest. This is a very important part of Spanish history.
The Moors were Berbers from Northern Africa who had converted to Islam. They invaded Spain across the Straits of Gibraltar at the beginning of the 8th century. It was the final stage of Islam’s remarkable surge across North Africa and Asia after Mohammed’s death less than a hundred years earlier. The Moors were not finally expelled from the Iberian Peninsula until 1492, the year Columbus discovered America. Their religion and its culture flourished in Spain for 700 years.
That was easily long enough to leave a lasting legacy. While much of Europe was mired in the Dark Ages, Moorish Spain was a beacon of learning and enlightenment. The historical city of Granada was the center of Moorish culture in Spain. It is home to the fabulous Alhambra Palace, still the finest example of Moorish architecture in the country.
The nearby city of Córdoba (often spelt Cordova in English) was the heart of Moorish Spain and contains the largest mosque, La Mezquita. It was later turned into a Catholic church and much of its beauty destroyed, but it is still a very impressive structure. In the Middle Ages Córdoba was the richest city in Europe, with paved streets illuminated at night, at a time when even the upper classes in Christian Europe lived in squalor.
The other important Moorish city in Spain is Seville, home of the famous and beautiful Alcázar castle. The city is also well known as the home of flamenco dancing. The cathedral in Seville contains the tomb of Christopher Columbus.
Moorish Spain was renowned for its culture and its learning. It provided universal education and had many more public libraries and universities than all the rest of Europe. The reconquest of Moorish Spain by Christian forces was a retrograde step for most of the inhabitants.
The Moors were expelled, as were the Jews who had lived peacefully in Spain under Islamic rule for centuries. It was the beginning of the Spanish Inquisition, initially established to determine the sincerity of Moors and Jews who had converted to Catholicism.
It’s worth going to this part of the world just to see what Islamic culture is capable of. It is welcome antidote to current hysteria, and a reminder that no culture has a monopoly on learning.
The Costa del Sol and the Balearics
THE COASTLINE BETWEEN the city of Malaga south of Granada and Gibraltar is known as Costa del Sol – the Coast of the Sun. Its physical beauty has been somewhat marred by overdevelopment. It has become the playground of northern Europeans, especially Britons. In summer you cannot move for English sun-seekers.
Also very popular with tourists are the Balearic islands, in the Mediterranean off the coast of Eastern Spain. The four main islands of Mallorca, Menorca, Ibiza and Formentera are well known as playgrounds of the rich and famous and the not so rich and not so famous. They are packed with restaurants, resorts and nightclubs – you get the picture.
The Costa del Sol and the Balearic Islands are to many people what vacations in Spain are all about. But these are mainly places to hang out with other tourists and eat at second-rate restaurants with overpriced drinks.
They are for young people who want to party or for older people who want to do not very much. If that’s what you want, go there. We prefer somewhere a bit more genuine.