Overview of Spain
Spain is made up of 17 autonomous regions and covers an area of some 505,000 km2, with a population of over 47 million. The country’s official languages are Spanish, Catalan, Galician and Basque. Approximately 90% of the population are Catholic. Since 1978 Spain’s political structure has constituted a parliamentary monarchy. Spain joined the European Union in 1986.
Over 52 million tourists visit Spain each year, it is in the top three most visited countries in the world. The capital, Madrid, boasts astonishing art galleries, relentless nightlife, an exceptional live music scene, a feast of fine restaurants and tapas bars, and a population that’s mastered the art of living the good life. Barcelona is Spain's most cosmopolitan city and one of the Mediterranean's busiest ports.
The ancestors of today’s Spaniards included Stone Age hunters from Africa; Greeks, Romans, Visigoths and other European peoples; Berber tribes from Morocco; and Phoenicians, Jews and Arabs from the Middle East. The ancestors of a good half of the people living in the Americas today – and others dotted across the rest of the globe – were Spaniards. The key to this great migration of peoples, cultures and empires can be found in Spain’s location on both the Mediterranean Sea and the Atlantic Ocean. In Europe, yet just a stone’s throw from Africa. This pivotal position has entangled Spain in the affairs of half the world – and the affairs of half the world in Spain’s.
The Flag of Spain
In general, you can usually rely on pleasant or hot temperatures just about everywhere in the country from April to early November. In Andalucía there are plenty of warm, sunny days right through winter. In July and August, temperatures can get almost unpleasantly hot inland.
The meseta (high tableland of central Spain) and Ebro basin have a continental climate: scorching in summer, cold in winter, and dry. Madrid regularly freezes in December, January and February, and temperatures climb above 30°C in July and August. The Guadalquivir basin in Andalucía positively broils in high summer, with temperatures of 35°C plus.
Spain’s coastal areas, ‘costas’, are favoured by tourists and locals alike
The Pyrenees and the Cordillera Cantábrica, backing the Bay of Biscay, bear the brunt of cold northern and northwestern airstreams, which bring moderate temperatures and heavy rainfall (three or four times as much as Madrid’s) to the north coast. The Mediterranean coast and Balearic Islands get a little more rain than Madrid, and the south can be even hotter in summer. The Mediterranean, particularly around Alicante, also provides Spain’s warmest waters (27°C or so in August). Barcelona’s weather is typical of the coast – milder than in inland cities but more humid.
Snowfalls in the mountains can start as early as October and some snow cover lasts all year on the highest peaks.
Spain’s diverse landscapes are simply magnificent. The Pyrenees and the Picos de Europa are as beautiful as any mountain range on the continent, while the snow-capped Sierra Nevada rises up improbably from the sun-baked plains of Andalucía; these are fantastic hiking destinations. The highest point in peninsular Spain is Mulhacén at 3479m. The wildly beautiful cliffs of the country’s Atlantic northwest are the scene for some of Europe’s most spectacular drives, even as the charming coves of the Mediterranean are still the continent’s summer destination of choice; despite decades of over-development, unspoiled corners still remain. And everywhere you go, villages of timeless beauty await to be discovered on the hilltops, valleys and coastal outcrops as a resilient reminder of Old Spain.
Food and wine are national obsessions in Spain, and for good reason. Yes, there’s paella, tapas, jamón (ham) and olive oil in abundance, but these are merely the best-known ingredients of a national cuisine that continues to take the world by storm. The touchstones of Spanish cooking are deceptively simple: incalculable variety, strong traditions of recipes handed down through the generations, and an innate willingness to experiment. Spaniards spend more on food per capita than anyone else in Europe! You may experience the best meal ever over tapas in an earthy bar where everyone’s shouting, or over a meal prepared by a celebrity chef in the refined surrounds of a Michelin-starred restaurant. Either way, the extent of the gastronomic experience that awaits you is astounding.
Art for art’s sake
Spain’s story is told with endless creativity through its arts and architecture. Poignantly windswept Roman ruins, cathedrals of rare power and incomparable jewels of Islamic architecture speak of a country where the great civilisations of history have always risen, fallen and left behind their indelible mark. More recently, what other country could produce such rebellious and relentlessly creative spirits as Salvador Dalí, Pablo Picasso and Antoni Gaudí and place them front and centre in public life? Here, grand monuments to the past co-exist alongside architectural creations of such daring that it becomes clear that Spain’s future will be every bit as original as its past.
Madrid’s strategic location in the centre of the peninsula saw the city change hands repeatedly, but it was not until 1309 that the travelling Cortes (royal court and parliament) sat in Madrid for the first time. Despite the growing royal attention, medieval Madrid remained dirt-poor and small-scale: ‘in Madrid there is nothing except what you bring with you,’ observed one 15th-century writer. It simply bore no comparison with other major Spanish, let alone European, cities.
By the time Felipe II ascended the Spanish throne in 1556, Madrid was surrounded by walls that boasted 130 towers and six stone gates, but these fortifications were largely built of mud and designed more to impress than provide any meaningful defence of the city. Madrid was nonetheless chosen by Felipe II as the capital of Spain in 1561.
Madrid took centuries to grow into its new role and despite a handful of elegant churches, the imposing Alcázar and a smattering of noble residences, the city consisted, for the most part, of precarious whitewashed houses that were little more than mud huts. The monumental Paseo del Prado, which now provides Madrid with so much of its grandeur, was a small creek.
During the 17th century, Spain’s golden age, Madrid began to take on the aspect of a capital and was home to 175,000 people, making it the fifth-largest city in Europe (after London, Paris, Constantinople and Naples). Carlos III (r 1759–88) gave Madrid and Spain a period of comparatively stable government. After he cleaned up the city, completed the Palacio Real, inaugurated the Real Jardín Botánico and carried out numerous other public works, he became known as the best ‘mayor’ Madrid had ever had.
The upheaval of the 19th-century Carlist Wars was followed by a two-and-a-half-year siege of Madrid by Franco’s Nationalist forces from 1936 to 1939, during which the city was shelled regularly from Casa de Campo and Gran Vía became known as ‘Howitzer Alley’.
After Franco’s death in 1975 and the country’s subsequent transition to democracy, Madrid became an icon for the new Spain as the city’s young people - under the mayoral rule of Enrique Tierno Galván, a popular socialist professor - unleashed a flood of repressed energy. This took its most colourful form in the years of la movida, the endless party that swept up the city in a frenzy of creativity and open-minded freedom that has in some ways yet to abate.
Today Madrid is one of the world's liveliest cities, a city that never sleeps, Madrid's nightlife has something for everybody, whatever your preferences, age or nationality. Maybe you'd like to experience some live flamenco at one of Madrid's many "flamenco restaurants? Perhaps you'd like to see a bullfight, in which case you could do worse than to check out Madrid's famous San Isidro festival. Or are you hoping to see Real Madrid play in their famous Santiago Bernabeu stadium?
Barcelona is the capital of Catalonia, a region with its own language, character and history – many Catalans think of their home as a separate country.
The first traces of civilization around Barcelona go back to the end of the Neolithic Age (from 2000 to 1500 B.C.). During the Second Punic War the Carthaginians gained control of the city, and it was re-founded by Amilcar Barca, Hannibal's father. After the defeat of the Carthaginians during the rise of the Romans, the city was renamed as Julia Augusta Paterna Faventia Barcino in 218 B.C. The city fell to the troops of the Muslim Empire general Al-Mansur in 985 B.C.. After this takeover the city was almost completely destroyed. Borrel II began the reconstruction of the city, giving way to a more prosperous period in Barcelona's history. Barcelona prospered and came to be one of the main powers in the 13th and 14th Centuries, competing with the cities of Genoa and Venice.
The beginning of the 20th Century saw huge economic growth in Barcelona (especially after World War I). The Metro system was built, as was the city's port. The onset of the Spanish Civil War in 1936, however, put a quick stop to this growth. Despite its support of the Republic, the city was a breeding ground for rebellions and fights between parties that neither the city government nor the Republic was able to control. The city was bombed several times, and General Franco's troops reached the city in January of 1939. The subsequent dictatorship removed the city's power, giving way to uncontrolled internal immigration, especially from the south of Spain.
After the death of Spain’s dictator Francisco Franco in 1975, the city regained its cultural roots to become one of Europe's most interesting and culturally diverse cities.
Barcelona has been breaking ground in art, architecture and style since the late 19th century. From the marvels of Modernisme to the modern wonders of today, from Picasso to the likes of Susana Solano.
Barcelona is a year-round destination, as ideal for a long weekend city break as for a six-month sabbatical. It is a good idea to time a trip with one eye on events and the other on the weather. Many associate Barcelona with the summer sun, but August can be a poor choice – the city broils and swarms with tourists as the locals disappear to more salubrious climes. As Barcelona is downwind from the Pyrenees, cold snaps are always on the cards and the April–May period is particularly changeable. At its best May can be the most pleasant month of the year – clear and fresh.
Thanks to the World's Fair in 1888, the 1992 Olympics and the Universal Forum of the Cultures in 2004, Barcelona has flourished as a city of great artistic and cultural significance in Europe and the World. It has millions of tourist visitors each year. The city’s restaurants, bars and clubs are always packed, as is the seaside in summer. The city itself could keep you occupied for weeks but just outside it are sandy beaches, Sitges and the Montserrat mountain range - so be sure to make time for a few day trips during your stay.