Spain is a treasure chest
of unforgettable scenery. Separating Spain from France, the snow-capped
Pyrenees, as well as breathtaking views, offer resorts like La Molina
and Panticosa with plenty of opportunities for skiing. In the north, the
winding rivers and lush, green forests of Galicia present a picture not
usually associated with Spain, and in complete contrast to the Moorish
influenced south, Galician culture traces its routes to a Celtic origin.
Everywhere are reminders of Spain’s rich and varied past, from the
Alhambra in Granada to Don Quixote’s windmills in La Mancha.
Old mixes with new in cities such as Toledo, Barcelona, Salamanca, and
the capital Madrid, as celebrated museums, galleries and Baroque churches
rub shoulders with blaring bars and thumping discos.
What will never change is the Spaniards’ passion for partying. Snack
on tapas as you skip from bar to bar, before heading off to enjoy Spain’s
infamous nightlife. Then revitalise the senses – Spain’s cultural
heritage brims with flamenco, painting, opera, literature, sport, bullfighting
and flamboyant, colourful fiestas.
Spain’s climate varies from temperate in the north to dry and hot
in the south. The best months are from April to October, although mid-summer
(July to August) can be excessively hot throughout the country except
the coastal regions. Madrid is best in late spring or autumn. The central
plateau can be bitterly cold in winter.
Eating out in Spain is often cheap and meals are substantial rather than
gourmet. One of the best ways to sample Spanish food is to try tapas,
or snacks, which are served at any time of day in local bars. These range
from cheese and olives to squid or meat delicacies and are priced accordingly.
Many of the specialities of Spanish cuisine are based on seafood, although
regional specialities are easier to find inland than along the coast.
In the northern Basque provinces, there is cod vizcaina or cod pil-pil;
angulas, the tasty baby eels from Aguinaga; bream and squid. Asturias
has its bean soup, fabada, cheeses and the best cider in Spain, and in
Galicia there is shellfish, especially good in casseroles, and a number
of regional seafood dishes such as hake à la Gallega.
In the eastern regions the paella has a well-deserved reputation. It can
be prepared in many ways, based on meat or seafood. Catalonia offers,
among its outstanding specialities, lobster Catalan, butifarra sausage
stewed with beans, and partridge with cabbage. Pan amb tomaquet, bread
rubbed with olive oil and tomato, is a delicious accompaniment to local
ham and cheese.
The Castile area specialises in roast meats, mainly lamb, beef, veal and
suckling pig, but there are also stews, sausages, country ham and partridges.
Andalucía is noted for its cooking (which shows a strong Arab influence),
especially gazpacho, a delicious cold vegetable soup, a variety of fried
fish including fresh anchovies, jabugo ham from Huelva and many dishes
based on the fish which the coast provides in such abundance. Restaurants
are classified by the Government and many offer tourist menus (menu del
día). Restaurants and cafés have table service.
Spain is essentially a
wine-drinking country, with sherry being one of the principal export products.
Its English name is the anglicised version of the producing town Jerez
(pronounced kherez), from which the wine was first shipped to England.
Today, Britain buys about 75 per cent of all sherry exports. There are
four main types: fino (very pale and very dry), amontillado (dry, richer
in body and darker in colour), oloroso (medium, full-bodied, fragrant
and golden) and dulce (sweet). Sanlúcar de Barrameda and Puerto
de Santa María are other towns famous for their sherry and well
worth visiting. Tourists are able to visit one of the bodegas (above-ground
wine stores) in Jerez. In the Basque Country a favourite is chacolí,
a ‘green’ wine, slightly sparkling and a little sour, rather
The principal table wines are the riojas and valdepeñas, named
after the regions in which they are produced. In general, rioja, from
the region around Logroño in the northeast, resembles the French
Bordeaux, though it is less delicate. Valdepeñas is a rougher wine,
but pleasant and hearty. It will be found at its best in the region where
it is grown, midway between Madrid and Cordóba. In Catalonia the
ampurdán and perelada wines tend to be heavy and those that are
not rather sweet are harsh, with the exception of the magnificent full-bodied
Burgundy-type penedés wines. Alicante wine, dry and strong, is
really a light aperitif. Nearby, the Murcia region produces excellent
wine. Often it makes a pleasant change to try the unbottled wines of the
house (vino de la casa). It is much cheaper than the bottled wines and
even in small places is usually good. Similarly, inexpensive supermarket
wine is very acceptable. Among the many brands of sparkling wines known
locally as cava, the most popular are Codorniú and Freixenet, dry
or semi-dry. The majority of Spanish sparkling wines are sweet and fruity.
Spanish brandy is as different from French as Scotch whisky is from Irish.
It is relatively cheap and pleasant, although most brandy drinkers find
it a little sweet.
Spain has several good mineral waters. A popular brand is Lanjarón
which comes from the town of the same name. It can be still or sparkling.
Vichy Catalan is almost exactly like French Vichy. Malavella is slightly
effervescent and Font Vella is still. Cocktail lounges have table and/or
counter service. There are no licensing hours.
Spaniards often start the evening with el paseo, a leisurely stroll through
the main streets. A cafe terrace is an excellent vantage point to observe
this tradition, or enjoy street theatre in the larger cities. The atmosphere
is especially vibrant at fiesta time, or when the local football team
has won, when celebrations are marked by a cacophony of car horns, firecrackers
and a sea of flags and team regalia. Tapas bars offer delicious snacks
in a relaxed, enjoyable setting and it is fun to try out several bars
in one night. The nightclubs of Ibiza, Barcelona and Madrid have attracted
the attention of the international media, but the variety on offer caters
for most tastes. Things work up to la marcha (good fun) relatively late
and it is possible to dance literally until dawn. Flamenco or other regional
dancing displays provide an alternative for those who prefer to watch
In Spain the shopper can find items of high quality at a fair price, not
only in the cities, but in the small towns as well. In Madrid the Rastro
Market is recommended, particularly on Sundays. Half of the market takes
place in the open air and half in more permanent galleries, and has a
character all of its own. Catalonian textiles are world famous and there
are mills throughout the region. Spanish leather goods are prized throughout
the world, offering high-fashion originals at reasonable prices. Of note
are the suede coats and jackets. In general, all leather goods, particularly
those from Andalucía, combine excellent craftmanship with high-quality
design. Fine, handcrafted wooden furniture is one of the outstanding products;
Valencia is especially important in this field, and has a yearly international
furniture fair. Alicante is an important centre for toy manufacturing.
Shoe manufacturing is also of an especially high quality; the production
centres are in Alicante and the Balearics. Fine rugs and carpets are made
in Cáceres, Granada and Murcia. The numerous excellent sherries,
wines and spirits produced in Spain make good souvenirs to take home.
Shopping hours: Mon-Sat 0900-1300 and 1630-2000. However, most commercial
stores and malls stay open from 1000-2200.
Throughout Spain, folklore is very much alive and there is always some
form of folk festival occurring. It is almost impossible for a visitor
to be anywhere in the country for more than a fortnight without something
taking place. The Ministry of Tourism produces a booklet listing and describing
Spain’s many national and regional feasts and festivals, of which
there are over 3000 each year. Fiestas, Saints’ Days, Romerías
(picnics to religious shrines) and Verbenas (night festivals on the eve
of religious holidays) are all celebrated with great spirit and energy.
Holy Week is probably the best time of year to visit for celebrations
and it is then that the individuality of each region’s style of
pageantry is best revealed. For further information contact the Spanish
National Tourist Office (see address section).
For five centuries from 218 BC, Spain was under the rule of the Romans
who left remnants of their culture throughout the country. Spain then
came under the rule of the Visigoths who rapidly integrated with the inhabitants
until driven north by invading Arabs. Muslim culture soon established
itself, most notably in the south, where, centred on Cordoba and Granada,
the region became a centre of Arabic culture and learning. The evidence
of Arabic influence is still strong, particularly in the wealth of remaining
Moorish architecture. During the Middle Ages, Christianity gradually gained
ground. Many kingdoms – Aragon, Castile, Navarre, Leon and Portugal
being the major ones – were established, most of them constantly
The spirit of Reconquista, the fierce flame which burned throughout so
much of the medieval period, equivalent to the Islamic concept of Jihad
(holy war), produced heroes, folklore, legend, staggering architectural
achievements and great acts of bravery and chivalrous folly; it also,
after centuries of intermittent fighting, produced a final triumph for
Christianity. In 1469, Ferdinand and Isabella – respectively King
of Aragon and Queen of Castile, then the two most powerful kingdoms in
Iberia, united by marriage – captured Granada, the last Muslim stronghold
in the peninsula. The same year saw Columbus’ discovery of America,
financed by Castile, and the beginning of Spain’s ‘Golden
Age’ as the centre of the far-flung Habsburg Empire of Charles V
(Charles, or Carlos, I of Spain).
The reign of Philip II during the late-16th century was also one of the
most artistically fertile in the country’s history, with Cervantes,
Lope de Vega, Velazquez and El Greco coming to prominence at this time.
The Habsburg monarchy became progressively less able to deal with the
serious political and economic problems of its empire during the 17th
century, and the dynasty reached its nadir under the inept rule of King
Carlos II. There was a revival under the Bourbons, notably Carlos III,
but the late 18th and early 19th centuries saw Spain suffering from the
protracted drain of the Napoleonic wars and internal political vendettas.
The abdication of King Alfonso XIII in 1931 brought into being a left-wing
This was short-lived and was effectively crushed by General Franco in
the Civil War of 1936-1939. His fascist regime lasted until his death
in 1975 when the monarchy was restored. By March 1978, a democratic constitutional
monarchy had been put in place.
The 1978 constitution created a bicameral parliament (Cortes), divided
into the Congress of Deputies and the Senate, which holds legislative
power. The 350-strong Congress is elected every four years by proportional
representation; the 202 senators are chosen by direct election. There
are also 17 autonomous regions whose governments are elected every four
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