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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 dancing.
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 at war.
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 republic.
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 years. From: www.worldtravelguide.net