Mediterranean beaches, sangria in the sun and paella by the plateful. Southern Spain has long been a popular place, but tourists are increasingly turning to the fascinations of another Spain, far removed from the high-rise developments lining the Costa del Sol.
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.
Full country name: Kingdom of Spain
Area: 504,784 sq km
Population: 40.5 million (growth rate 0.1%)
Capital city: Madrid (pop 3 million)
People: Spaniards (though Catalans and Basques display a fierce independent spirit)
Language: Castilian Spanish (also Catalan, Galician & Basque)
Time Zone: GMT/UTC plus 1 hour in winter, or two hours in summer (from the last Sunday in March to the last Sunday in September)
Religion: 90% Roman Catholic
Government: Parliamentary monarchy
Prime Minister: José María Aznar
Visas: Spain, along with Austria, Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, Luxemburg, the Netherlands and Portugal, forms part of the border-free travel zone subject to the Schengen Agreement. US, Canadian, Australian, New Zealand and Israeli citizens are among those who may enter Spain as tourists without a visa and stay up to 90 days. EU passport holders can come and go as they please.
Passport: Passport valid for at least six months including 90 days beyond the planned stay required by all except the following;
1. nationals of Andorra, Austria, Belgium, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Iceland, Italy, Liechtenstein, Luxemburg, Malta, Monaco, The Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, San Marino and Switzerland providing holding valid national ID cards for stays of up to 90 days.
2. other nationals referred to in the chart above for stays of up to 90 days
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.
Currency exchange: Money can be changed in any bank, and at most travel agencies, major hotels and airports. National Girobank Postcheques may be used to withdraw cash from UK accounts at main Spanish post offices.
Credit & debit cards: MasterCard, American Express, Diners Club and Visa are widely accepted, as well as Eurocheque cards. Check with your credit, or debit, card company for details of merchant acceptability and other facilities which may be available.
Travellers cheques: International travellers cheques are widely accepted. To avoid additional exchange rate charges, travellers are advised to take travellers cheques in Euros, Pounds Sterling or US Dollars.
Currency restrictions: The import and export of local currency is unlimited, but the export of amounts exceeding €6010.12 must be declared. The import and export of foreign currency is unlimited, but should be declared if the quantity exceeds equivalent of €6010.12 per person per journey, to avoid difficulties on leaving Spain.
Banking hours: Mon-Fri 0900-1400, Sat 0900-1300 (times may vary).
The ideal months to visit are May, June and September (plus April and October in the south). At these times you can rely on good weather, yet avoid the sometimes extreme heat - and the main crush of Spanish and foreign tourists. That said, there's decent weather in some parts of Spain virtually year-round. Winter along the southern and southeastern Mediterranean coasts is mild, while in the height of summer you can retreat to the northwest, or to beaches or high mountains anywhere, if you need to get away from excessive heat. If you want to make sure you hit some parties, the best festivals are concentrated between Semana Santa (the week leading up to Easter Sunday) and September.
Getting There & Away
Spain has many international airports, including Madrid, Barcelona, Bilbao, Santiago de Compostela, Seville, Granada, Málaga, Almería, Alicante, Valencia, Palma de Mallorca, Ibiza and Maó. Bus and train travel are other good options and there are regular bus services to Spain from all major centres in Europe, including Lisbon, London and Paris. Travelling to Spain by train can be more expensive than by bus unless you are under 26 or have a rail pass. Ferry services connect Spain directly with the UK and Morocco. A departure tax applies when flying out of Spain, but this is included in the price of the ticket at purchase.
The only time you might seriously consider flying within Spain is to get out to the islands. From Barcelona, Valencia and Alicante, there are often good deals on charter flights. Ferries regularly connect the mainland with the Balearic Islands, but flying is a better value, considering the time saved. There are plenty of bus routes serviced by dozens of independent companies, and the bus network is more extensive than the train system and cheaper. Walking is the best way to meet the locals.
Outdoor pursuits : The many high mountains and the vast central plain or meseta offer excellent opportunities for hiking, mountaineering and walking. Particularly suitable for trekkers are the mountains in the north of the country. There are good opportunities for rock climbing in the mountains. Well known, challenging climbs include the Naranjo de Bulnes in the Picos de Europa and Monte Perdido in Ordesa National Park. Mountain biking is becoming increasingly popular, and paths and tracks are plentiful, making most areas accessible. Spain’s long equestrian tradition means that horseriding can easily be arranged. Mountain trails, river valleys and the wide plains can all be explored on horseback.
Watersports : Swimming, water-skiing, and windsurfing facilities can be found at nearly all seaside resorts. Inland lakes on the meseta in the regions of Castilla and Extremadura also have good facilities for windsurfing. Whitewater rafting and canoeing are practised on the rapids in northern Spain. Centres are well equipped and have skilled staff. Sailing is very popular, both around the coast and inland. Over 100 sailing clubs exist, most of which are located near the Mediterranean. Diving is also popular; permits can be acquired from the relevent regional authorities.
Fishing : Excellent opportunities exist for all types of fishing. The rivers and streams of the Pyrenees and the Picos de Europa offer good freshwater game fishing, while trout is abundant throughout the country. The Asturias contain the best salmon rivers. Other catches include barbel, perch, pike and tench. Permits must be requested from the regional authorities.
Golf : This is becoming increasingly popular, with both Costa del Sol and La Manga emerging as two of Spain's premier golfing destinations. At present Spain has over 200 golf courses, including courses designed by the likes of Robert Trent Jones, Severiano Ballesteros, Jack Niklaus and Jose María Olazabel. The Valderrama (near Madrid) is particularly well known. Spain’s balmy climate allows for a long golf season. Tuition and equipment hire are widely available.
Wintersports : Spain offers great opportunities for skiing and there are many natural ski-runs and winter resorts, equipped with modern facilities, all blessed with the promise of warm sun and blue skies. There is also a wide range of hotels, inns and refuges from which to choose. There are five main skiing regions in Spain; these are the Pyrenean Range, the Cantabrian Range, the Iberian Chain, the Central Chain and the Penibetic Chain. These ranges have diverse characteristics and all are attractive for mountaineering in general and for winter sports in particular . For further details see Madrid and the regions of Cantabria, Catalonia and Navarre & Aragon in the Resorts & Excursions section.
Spectator sports : A typical and spectacular sport is pelota vasca, or jai-alai. Most major northern Spanish cities have courts where daily matches are played from October to June. In the towns and cities of the Basque regions the game is played in summer as well. Football is probably the most popular spectator sport, with clubs such as Real Madrid and Barcelona being among the most famous in the world; first-class matches are usually played on Sunday. International matches are also staged from time to time. There is a magnificent horseracing track in Madrid with meetings in the autumn and spring; there is racing in San Sebasti?n in the summer and in Seville in winter. Motoracing is a popular spectator sport in Barcelona and Cadiz.
Just decades ago, few tourists would have considered visiting the northern Spanish city of Barcelona. However, this once rather rundown industrial centre, which seemed to have little to offer, has undergone a seismic change that culminated in the hosting of the Olympic Games in 1992, an event which completely transformed Barcelona. As well as a string of purpose built sporting developments springing up all over the city – with the epicentre on the slopes of Montjuïc – Barcelona also benefited from major investments, which saw the face of the city dramatically transform.
Barcelona has since become something of a Mecca for the world’s top architects, who have flocked here to conjure up an array of modern structures and avant-garde designs. Many have drawn their inspiration from the seminal work of Barcelona’s most famous son, the modernist architect, Antoni Gaudi, whose unique style can still be savoured in a number of key buildings around the city. His masterpiece is the unfinished Sagrada Familia cathedral but his work can be seen even in the lampposts and fountains of Pla?a Reial. Fortunately, the rush of new construction has not completely dwarfed the older buildings, as the old and new architectural styles harmoniously combine. Barcelona is the kind of city where a contemporary glass and steel office block can rest happily within striking distance of a gothic cathedral, a city where the old port has been rejuvenated without losing any of its charm.
According to Arab chroniclers, it was in AD852 that the Emir of C?rdoba, Mohamed I (AD 852-886), ordered a fortress to be built on the left bank of the Manzanares River, the geographical centre of the Iberian Peninsula. He named the settlement Mayrit (source of water) and in it lay the seeds of the city now known as Madrid. Traces of this flourishing Moorish town survive to this day, in a section of town wall (muralla Arabe) near the Royal Palace, as well as in the mudéjar architectural style of Madrids oldest church, San Nicolás de las Servitas.
Mayrit (or Magerit) was situated in a strategically important location and Christians and Arabs fought bitterly over the territory until late in the 11th century, when Alfonso VI finally settled matters by capturing the Alcázar (castle) after a three-year siege. However, it would be another 500 years before Philip II took the historic decision (in 1561) to move his capital from Valladolid to Madrid. Today, Madrid remains Spains financial and political core, home to the Cortes (Parliament), Senate and Royal Family, as well as the extraordinary cultural riches of the Golden Triangle the Prado, Reina Sof?a and Thyssen-Bornemisza art museums.
Santiago de Compostela :
Situated in the very northwest of the country, some 40km (25 miles) from the coast, Santiago de Compostela is one of the wettest places in Spain. The damp climate means that it is wet in winter and humid in summers, while evenings can be chilly. As the capital of the region, it has a key role within the province of Galicia. The region itself is strongly defined, with a distinct Celtic strain and a self-conscious and aggressively self-promoting regional identity.
While its writers may hymn the Celtic mysteries of the characteristic Galician forests and misty groves, Santiago de Compostela is also the focus of modern broadcasting, press and publishing enterprises designed to reinforce Galego (Galician) as a language and a unifying cultural force. Santiago de Compostelas famous university attracts a large number of students, which guarantees the city a youthful ambience. The university (founded in 1501) has long given a lively buzz of activity to the citys bars, cafés and restaurants. Small enough to be strongly influenced by its university, Santiago de Compostela revels in a continuously refreshed influx of youthful energy and inventiveness that treats the grand stone edifices as the most superb of stage sets.