Once away from the holiday costas, you could only be in Spain . In the cities, narrow twisting old streets suddenly open out to views of daring modern architecture, while spit-and-sawdust bars serving wine from the barrel rub shoulders with blaring, glaring discos. Travel is easy, accommodation plentiful, the climate benign, the people relaxed, the beaches long and sandy, the food and drink easy to come by and full of regional variety. More than 50 million foreigners a year visit Spain , yet you can also travel for days and hear nothing but Spanish. Geographically,
Spain ‘s diversity is immense. There are endless tracts of wild and crinkled sierra to explore, as well as some spectacularly rugged stretches of coast between the beaches. Culturally, the country is littered with superb old buildings, from Roman aqueducts and Islamic palaces to Gothic cathedrals. Almost every second village has a medieval castle. Spain has been the home of some of the world’s great artists – El Greco, Velazquez, Goya, Dali, Picasso – and has museums and galleries to match. The country vibrates with music of every kind – from the drama of flamenco to the melancholy lyricism of the Celtic music and gaitas (bagpipes) of the northwest.
Language: Spanish; Castilian, Catalan, Basque, Gallegan
Religion: 90% Roman Catholic
Single European currency (Euro): The Euro is now the official currency of 12 EU member states (including Spain ). The first Euro coins and notes were introduced in January 2002; the Spanish Peseta was still in circulation until 28 February 2002 , when it was completely replaced by the Euro. Euro (-) = 100 cents. Notes are in denominations of -500, 200, 100, 50, 20, 10 and 5. Coins are in denominations of -2 and 1, and 50, 20, 10, 5, 2 and 1 cents.
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.
Required clothing: Light- to mediumweights and rainwear, according to the season.
Skiing is cheap and the facilities and conditions are surprisingly good. Spain is a trekking paradise, especially the Pyrenees and the Picos de Europa. Cycling is also popular, as are watersports such as swimming and surfing . Spaniards are sports crazy, and football (soccer) is huge. Bullfighting is also very popular, despite continued pressure from international animal-rights activists.
This is Spain ‘s headiest city, where the revelling lasts long into the night and life is seized with the teeth and both hands. Strangers quickly become friends, passion blooms in an instant, and visitors are swiftly addicted to the city’s charms.
With a triad of truly great art museums that includes the Museo del Prado, and buildings like the Palacio Real that span the centuries, plus lively plazas, mighty boulevards and neighbourhoods brimming with character, Madrid has plenty of sights to keep the eyes, ears and mind occupied.
Floating in the Mediterranean between Spain and the North African coast, the Balearic Islands are invaded every summer by a massive force of hedonistic party animals and sun seekers. This is hardly surprising considering what’s on offer: fine beaches, relentless sunshine, good food and wild nightlife.
Barcelona has transformed itself from smug backwater into one of the most dynamic and stylish capitals in the world. Summer is serious party time, with week-long festa fun. But year-round the city sizzles – it’s always on the biting edge of architecture, food, fashion, style, music and good times.
The wild and whimsical architecture of Gaudi dominates the streets of Barcelona and makes for some of the finest city-walking in the world. The art will beckon you from museums and streetsides. The vibrant central drag, La Rambla, will lead you to the city’s marvellous medieval quarter, Barri Gotic.
Post-industrial Bilbao , the largest city in Basque Country (the Pais Vasco) is transforming itself with ambitious urban-renewal projects, most notably the marvellous Museo Guggenheim de Arte Contemporaneo . This twist-up of glass and titanium, designed by US architect Frank Gehry and inspired by the anatomy of the fish and the hull of a boat, is the city’s showpiece. The contents of this sardine can are no less stunning than its exterior: works by Serra, Braque, Kandinsky, Picasso, Warhol and more line its walls and halls. The Museo de Bellas Artes , just 300m up the road, is also worth a look. When you tire of art riches, wander over to the restaurants and bars of the medieval casco viejo.
During the period of Muslim domination of Spain , Granada was the finest city on the peninsula. Today it is still home to the greatest Muslim legacy in Europe , and one of the most inspiring attractions on the Continent – the Alhambra .
The Alhambra palace is a must-see. Set against the stunning Sierra Nevada and surrounded by cypress and elms, it’s an escape into Granada ‘s Moorish past. There’s a lot to see, including the Alcazaba, the Palacio Nazaries ( Nasrid Palace ) and the Generalife gardens, so allow at least an afternoon.
San Sebastian is stunning. Famed as a ritzy resort for wealthy Spaniards who want to get away from the hordes in the south, it has been a stronghold of Basque nationalist feeling since well before Franco banned the use of Euskera, the Basque language, in the 1930s. Donostia, as the city is known in Euskera, is a surprisingly relaxed town with a population approaching 180,000. Those who live here consider themselves the luckiest people in Spain and will not hesitate to tell you so. After spending a few days on the beaches and a few evenings sampling the city’s sumptuous tapas and nonstop nightlife, you may well begin to appreciate their immodest claim.
The Playa de la Concha and its continuation at Ondarreta is one of the most beautiful city beaches in Spain . You can swim from Ondarreta to Isla de Santa Clara , in the middle of the bay, and in summer, a number of rafts are anchored at the halfway point to serve as rest stops.
The Museo de San Telmo, in a 16th-century monastery, has a bit of everything – ancient tombstones, sculptures, agriculture and carpentry displays, a wonderful fine arts collection – and the squeakiest floors in Spain. Overlooking Bahia de la Concha is Monte Urgull, which is topped by a statue of Christ and has stunning views.
One of the first people to fall in love with Seville was the poet-king Al-Mutamid, and the city’s ability to dazzle has not abated since. It takes a stony heart not to be captivated by its exuberant atmosphere – stylish, confident, ancient, proud, yet also convivial, intimate and fun-loving.
In keeping with the slow-burn nature of the city’s charms, two great monuments – the Muslim Alcazar and the Christian cathedral – reveal most of their glories only once you’re inside them. These, along with many other buildings and areas around Seville , are World Heritage Sites
Toledo is an intact medieval city of narrow winding streets perched on a small hill above the Rio Tajo. The city is crammed with fascinating museums, galleries, churches and castles. The awesome cathedral harbours glorious murals, stained-glass windows and works by El Greco, Velazquez and Goya.
Unfortunately, it is also crammed with daytrippers, so travellers wanting to enjoy the city should stay overnight and explore in the evening and early morning to see it at its best. The dominant Alcazar has been the scene of military battles from the Middle Ages right through to the 20th century. Other attractions include the city’s two synagogues, the Iglesia de Santo Tome (which contains El Greco’s greatest masterpiece, The Burial of the Count of Orgaz) and the Museo de Santa Cruz . Archaeologists working on Toledo ‘s Carranque recently uncovered a 4th-century Roman basilica, Spain ‘s oldest.
Spain ‘s third-largest city, and capital of the province of Valencia , comes as a pleasant surprise to many. Home to paella and the Holy Grail, it is also blessed with great weather and the spring festival of Las Fallas, one of the wildest parties in the country.
One of Valencia ‘s most raved about attractions is the baroque Palacio del Marques de Dos Aguas . The facade is extravagantly sculpted and the inside is just as outrageous. The Museo de Bellas Artes ranks among the best museums in the country and contains works by El Greco, Goya, Velazquez and a number of Valencian impressionists. The Instituto Valenciano Arte Moderno ( Institute of Modern Art ) houses an impressive collection of 20th-century Spanish art. Pulling four million visitors a year, Ciudad de las Artes y de las Ciencias is a huge complex devoted to sciences and the arts that is easily the city’s most popular attraction. Valencia ‘s cathedral is also worth a visit. Climb to the top of its tower for a great view of the sprawling city.
The Costa del Sol town of Marbella (pronounced mar-BAY-ya ) is a popular vacation spot for wealthy Europeans and Arabs, and a modern Arab flavor is clearly evident. Its narrow streets, lined with whitewashed buildings, now experience traffic jams, but it still has fantastic shopping and restaurants, good nightlife and several acceptable beaches in and near town. Newly built fountains and thousands of trees grace the seaside promenade. Its major fiesta occurs in the middle of June.
Along the coast just south of Marbella is the jet-set resort of Puerto Banus (a small port full of yachts and expensive sailboats). The promenade is lined with restaurants, bars, outdoor cafes, expensive boutiques and arts-and-crafts stores. Go for lunch or dinner or simply to have a drink and people watch. An alternative excursion is Estepona , which has a yacht harbor and lots of nightlife. 280 mi/450 km south of Madrid .
Another hugely popular island, Tenerife , the largest of the Canaries, has both flat areas (covered with banana plantations) and mountainous areas. The volcanic Mt. Teide , the centerpeice of Teide National Park , is the highest mountain on Spanish territory. Over 12,000 ft/3,660 m tall, it soars above much of the island. Take a tour or drive to the summit and then switch to a cable car for the final ascent to the crater rim. The northern side of the island is green and tropical, while the southern side is dry, with near-desert conditions. Tenerife ‘s largest city is Santa Cruz , where you’ll find a wide variety of tourist accommodations and activities – including what we think is one of the best Carnival celebrations in Spain (on par with the one in Cadiz ). The local wine, the famed malvasia of Shakespeare’s time, has pretty much disappeared – the tourist trade lured too many locals out of the vineyards. Visit Puerto de la Cruz ( Tenerife ‘s second-largest city) for its restaurants and shopping. Farther north is the pretty town of Garachico . The south is geared to huge crowds with full-service resorts and apartments in the concrete jungles of Los Cristianos and Playa de las Americas . At Guimar, there are stone pyramid platforms, believed by Thor Heyerdahl to prove ancient links with the Americas .
Costa del Sol
Stretching east from Gibraltar along the southernmost coast of Spain , the Costa del Sol is the most famous, partyhearty, and overdeveloped string of beaches in Iberia . The beaches feature superb sand, and the Mediterranean waters are calm and warm throughout most of the year. But these charms have
brought throngs of visitors, making this the most congested string of coastal resorts in Europe . The most important resorts here are Marbella , Torremolinos, Malaga, and Nerja. Look for soaring skyscrapers; eye-popping bikinis; sophisticated resorts and restaurants; lots of sunshine; and interminable traffic jams.
Radically different from the dry and sunbaked coastline of Andalusia , the rocky Costa Verde ( Green Coast ) resembles a sunny version of Ireland ‘s western
shore. It’s temperate in summer, when the rest of Spain can be unbearably hot. Much of the coast is within the ancient province of Asturias , a region rife with Romanesque architecture and medieval pilgrimage sites�and one that has not yet been overwhelmed with tourism. Premier resorts include some districts of Santander, Gijon, and, a short distance inland, Oviedo .
The Balearic Islands
Just off the coast of Catalonia and a 45- minute flight from Barcelona , this
rocky, sand-fringed archipelago attracts urban refugees seeking the sun, jet-set glitterati, and exhibitionists in scanty beachwear. The Mediterranean climate is warmer here than on the mainland. The city of Palma de Majorca has the greatest number of high-rises and the most crowded shorelines. Much of Ibiza is party central for young people and gay visitors during the summer. Sleepy Minorca offers more isolation.
These islands boast a fair, springlike climate year-round. Visitors flock to the islands’ casinos, golf courses, tennis courts and natural wonders, including fairly good beaches of white, gold and black sand.
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 it has a character all of its own. Catalonian textiles are internationally 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 Andalucia, 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 Caceres, 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
We think Spanish cooking is reason enough for a trip to Spain . Part of the pleasure of dining on the Iberian Peninsula is variety – each region has a distinctive style. Galicia is known for its wonderful seafood (octopus is one of our favorites); the Basque Country for its bacalao (a preserved salt cod that tastes better than it sounds); Castile for its cheese, grilled meats and cochinillo (roast suckling pig); Extremadura for Iberian or Serrano ham (a dry-cured spiced ham similar to Italy’s Prosciutto di Parma); Navarra for trout and chorizo (a spicy sausage); Andalusia for gazpacho (a delicious chilled tomato soup) and tapas; Catalonia for grilled rabbit, romesco (a sweet pepper sauce traditionally eaten with grilled spring onions) and butifarra (blood sausage). Paella (a delicious saffron-flavored rice dish with pimiento, peas, fish and shellfish) is found throughout Spain , but the most authentic version comes from Valencia , where the dish originated.
Other dishes to try include sopa de pescado (fish soup), parrillada (a mixture of various fried fish and shellfish) and grilled lamb and rabbit. Cocido (pronounced co-THEE-do ) is a traditional Madrileno dish made from sausage, bacon, garbanzo beans, cabbage and boiled meat – it’s especially popular in winter. Desserts include flan (baked egg custard), turron (marzipan, chocolate or nougat), crema Catalana (egg custard with a crunchy glazed top) and pijamas (a silky combination of peaches, flan and whipped cream).
One of the best ways to sample Spanish cooking is at a tapas bar. Tapas are small portions of just about anything: cheese, olives, squid, smoked shrimp, sausage, fried potatoes in a paprika sauce ( patas bravas ) and marinated vegetables, just to name a few. Order enough little plates, and you will have a meal.
Of course, no meal is complete without a bottle of good Spanish wine – and both red and white wines are a bargain. Rioja is considered the best wine-growing region. Sherry, a fortified white wine, comes from the Andalusian city of Jerez . Cava , a bubbly wine similar to champagne, comes from Catalonia (it is best sampled in one of the champagne bars, which range from expensive to downright homey).
Coffee is another favorite, and it comes in several different ways: espresso, cortado (an espresso with a drop of milk), cafe con leche (an espresso with a lot of milk) or carajillo (an espresso with a shot of rum). At the outdoor cafes, you may think that an awful lot of people are drinking milk. It’s probably horchata , a cool, refreshing nonalcoholic beverage made from a sweet root.
In Spain , lunch starts at 1:30 pm and dinner often begins at 9 pm or later, especially in summer.
Don’t expect the language to sound the same as it does in Mexico or many other Spanish-speaking countries. For instance, the letter z and the letter c within a word are pronounced with a lisp. (For example, Ibiza is pronounced e-BEETH-a ).
Don’t complain about cigarette smoke in bars – you’ll either be laughed at or shown the door. And don’t expect to find “No Smoking” sections in restaurants, either. There is no such thing in Spain . Spaniards often say that people who complain about such things are “afraid of life.”
Don’t wear shorts in churches.
Do expect to get a lot of male attention if you’re a woman traveling alone, especially in Andalusia or on the southern Mediterranean coast. The best response is no response at all – any attention given is likely to be misinterpreted.