Places To See
The Córdoba mosque is one of the great creations of Islamic architecture with its shimmering golden mosaics and rows and rows of red-and-white-striped arches disappearing into infinity. Even the large numbers of tourists passing through the place today cannot destroy the mesmerising effect of the Mezquita's ever-changing perspectives and plays of light.
Architecturally revolutionary, the Mezquita recalls in a unique way the yards of desert homes that formed the original Islamic prayer spaces - in this case with a roof over the worshippers' heads, supported by a forest of columns and arches suggestive of an oasis palm grove.
What we see today is the Mezquita's final Islamic form with two big changes: a 16th-century cathedral plonked right in the middle (which explains the often-used description 'Mezquita-Catedral'); and the closing of the 19 doors which communicated the Mezquita with the outside world and filled it with light. Also missing, of course, are the rows and rows of kneeling men, praying in unison, who would have filled the Mezquita.
From outside, Alhambra's red fortress towers and imposing walls rise from woods of cypress and elm, with the Sierra Nevada forming a magnificent backdrop. Inside the marvellously decorated emirs' palace, the Nasrid Palace and the Generalife gardens, you're in for a treat. Water is an art form here and its sounds take you into another world. Book in advance.
The spell can be shattered by the average 6000 visitors who traipse through the site each day, so try to visit first thing in the morning or late in the afternoon, or treat yourself to a magical night visit to the Palacio Nazaríes.
The Alhambra has two outstanding sets of buildings, the Palacio Nazaríes and the Alcazaba (Citadel). Also within its walls are the Palacio de Carlos V, the Iglesia de Santa María de la Alhambra, two hotels, several book and souvenir shops and lovely gardens, including the supreme Generalife.
Toledo is known as La Ciudad Imperial (the Imperial City) for a reason; this is Iberia's Rome with a cultural slug of mosques, synagogues, churches and museums. Toledo's labyrinthine narrow streets, plazas and inner patios are reminiscent of the medinas of Damascus and Cairo. Stay until dusk, if you can, when the streets take on a moody, other-worldly air.
The dominant Alcázar 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 Tomé (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.
In 1986 Unesco declared the city a monument of world interest. In spite of this, people are abandoning the old city for the characterless but comfortable modern suburbs sprawled out beneath it, leaving behind public servants, tourists, the rent-protected elderly and a medieval city in urgent need of attention.
Rapunzel towers, turrets topped with slate witches' hats and a deeeeep moat at its base make Alcázar a prototype fairytale castle, so much so that its design inspired Walt Disney's vision of Sleeping Beauty's castle. Fortified since Roman days, the site takes its name from the Arabic al-qasr (castle) and was rebuilt and expanded in the 13th & 14th centuries.
What you see today is an evocative over-the-top reconstruction of the original which burnt down in 1862.
Highlights include the Sala de las Piñas, the ceiling of which drips with a crop of 392 pineapple-shaped 'stalactites', and the Sala de Reyes (Kings' Room), featuring a three-dimensional frieze of 52 sculptures of kings who fought during the Reconquista. The views from the Torre de Juan II are exceptional, and put the old town's hill-top location into full context.
Parc Nacional d'Aigüestortes i Estany de Sant Maurici
Two million years of glacial action has created two east-west valleys lined by jagged peaks of granite and slate, forming a home for pine and fir forests, open bush and grassland. Bedecked with wildflowers in spring and with some 200 small estanys (lakes), streams and waterfalls, this is a wilderness of rare splendour.
The two main valleys are those of the Riu Escrita in the east and the Riu de Sant Nicolau in the west. The Escrita flows out of the park's largest lake, Estany de Sant Maurici. The Sant Nicolau's main source is Estany Llong, 4km (2.5mi) west of Estany de Sant Maurici across the 2423m (7949ft) Portarró d'Espot pass. Three kilometres (1.8mi) downstream from Estany Llong, the Sant Nicolau runs through a particularly beautiful stretch known as Aigüestortes (Twisted Waters).
Apart from the valley openings at the eastern and western ends, virtually the whole perimeter of the park is mountain crests, with numerous spurs of almost equal height reaching in towards the centre. One of these, from the south, ends in the twin peaks Els Encantats (2746m and 2733m, 9009ft and 8966ft), towering over Estany de Sant Maurici.
In true Spanish style, cultural events are almost inevitably celebrated with a wild party and a holiday. Among the festivals to look out for are La Tamborrada (Festividad de San Sebastián) in San Sebastián on 20 January, a short but rowdy event where the whole town dresses up and goes berserk. Carnaval takes place throughout the country in late February; the wildest are said to be in Sitges and Cádiz. In March, Valencia has a week-long party known as Las Fallas, which is marked by all-night dancing, drinking, first-class fireworks and colourful processions. Semana Santa (Holy Week) is the week leading up to Easter Sunday, and is marked by parades of holy images through the streets; Seville is the place to be if you can get accommodation. In late April, Seville's Feria de Abril is a week-long party counterbalancing the religious fervour of Semana Santa.
The last Wednesday in August sees the Valencian town of Buñol go bonkers with La Tomatina, in which the surplus from its tomato harvest is sploshed around in a friendly riot. The Running of the Bulls (Fiesta de San Fermín) in Pamplona in July is perhaps Spain's most famous festival. Along the north coast, staggered through the first half of August, is Semana Grande, another week of heavy drinking and hangovers.
When to go?
Spain can be enjoyable any time of year. 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-to-excellent weather, yet avoid the extreme heat - and the main crush of Spanish and foreign tourists - of July and August. But 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, to beaches or high mountains anywhere to escape excessive heat. The best festivals are mostly concentrated between Semana Santa (the week leading up to Easter Sunday) and September to October.
Travel Visa Overview
Citizens of EU countries can enter Spain freely with their national identity card or passport. Non-EU nationals must take their passport.
Spain is a signatory of the Schengen Agreement, as such there are no passport controls at borders between Andorra, Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Iceland, Italy, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland and many of the Eastern European EU members such as the Czech Republic. Think of this zone as one country in terms of your three-month stay. It won't work to try to stay in each of the countries for three months. So if you are planning to stay in Western Europe for longer than three months, make certain that you leave the Schengen zone before your 90 days are up (say by a jaunt to the UK or Ireland) and then return, getting a new entrance stamp in your passport.
Nationals of Australia, Canada, Israel, Japan, New Zealand and the USA need no visa for stays of up to 90 days, but must have a passport valid for the whole visit.
Norwegian, Swiss, Icelandic and EU nationals planning to stay in Spain more than 90 days are supposed to register with the police and obtain a resident's number during their first month in the country.
Those needing a visa must apply in person at the consulate in the country where they are resident. South Africans are among the nationalities that do need a visa. You must obtain the visa in your country of residence. Multiple-entry visas will save you trouble if you plan to leave Spain for Gibraltar and/or Morocco, then re-enter it. Visas are not renewable.
If you have any doubts at all about whether you require a visa or not, or for any clarification regarding entry requirements, contact the Spanish embassy or consulate in the country where you reside before you leave.
European plug with two circular metal pins
The meseta 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 (86F) in July and August (locals describe it as: nueve meses de invierno y tres de infierno - nine months of winter and three of hell). Valladolid on the northern meseta and Zaragoza in the Ebro basin are even drier, with only a little more rainfall per year than Alice Springs in Australia. The Guadalquivir basin in Andalucía is only a little wetter and positively broils in high summer. This area doesn't get as cold as the meseta in winter.
The Pyrenees and the Cordillera Cantábrica backing the Bay of Biscay coast 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 northern and northwestern coasts, including cities like A Coruña. Even in high summer you never know when you might get a shower. The Mediterranean coast as a whole, and the Balearic Islands, get a little more rain than Madrid and the south can be even hotter in summer. Barcelona's weather is typical of the coast, milder than in inland cities, but more humid.
In general you can rely on pleasant or hot temperatures just about everywhere from April to early November (plus March in the south, but minus a month at either end on the northern and northwestern coasts). In Andalucía there are plenty of warm, sunny days right through winter. In July and August, temperatures can get unpleasant, even unbearable, anywhere inland (unless you're high enough in the mountains). Snowfalls in the mountains start as early as October and some snow cover lasts all year on the highest peaks.
History and Culture
The Spanish invented the novel and the guitar, gave the world flamenco, Picasso and gazpacho and dreamed up some of the world's most fabulously out-there architecture. Their influence on 20th-century art and design has been inestimable, and if all that's not enough, they're relentlessly well dressed, insouciant and have a contagious knack for enjoying life.
Pre-20th Century History
At the crossroads between Europe and Africa, the Iberian Peninsula has always been a target for invading races and civilisations. The Romans arrived in the 3rd century BC but took two centuries to subdue the peninsula. Gradually Roman laws, languages and customs were adopted. In 409 AD, Roman Hispania was invaded by a massive contingent of Germanic tribes and by 419 a Visigothic kingdom had been established. The Visigoths ruled until 711, when the Muslims crossed the Strait of Gibraltar and defeated Roderick, the last Goth king.
By 714, the Muslim armies had occupied the entire peninsula, apart from the mountainous regions of northern Spain. The Muslim occupation of southern Spain (which the Spanish called Al-Andalus) was to last almost 800 years. During this period, the arts and sciences prospered, new crops and agricultural techniques were introduced and palaces, mosques, schools, gardens and public baths were built. In 722, at Covadonga in northern Spain, a small army under the Visigothic king Pelayo inflicted the first defeat on the Muslims. Symbolically, this battle marked the beginning of the Reconquista, the reconquest of Spain by the Christians.
By the end of the 13th century, Castilla and Aragón had emerged as Christian Spain's two main powers, and in 1469 these two kingdoms were united by the marriage of Isabel, princess of Castilla, to Fernando, heir to the throne of Aragón. Known as the Catholic Monarchs, they united all of Spain and laid the foundations for the golden age. In 1478, they established the notoriously ruthless Spanish Inquisition, expelling and executing thousands of Jews and other non-Christians. In 1482, they besieged Granada, and 10 years later the last Muslim king surrendered to them, marking the long-awaited end of the Reconquista.
Spain developed an enormous empire in the New World, following Columbus' arrival in the Americas in 1492. Gold and silver came flooding into Spanish coffers from Mexico and Peru as the conquistadors claimed land from Cuba to Bolivia. Spain monopolised trade with these new colonies and became one of the most powerful nations on earth. However, this protectionism hindered development of the colonies and led to a series of expensive wars with England, France and the Netherlands.
When Louis XVI was guillotined in 1793, Spain declared war on the new French republic, but was defeated. In 1808, Napoleon's troops entered Spain and the Spanish Crown began to lose its hold on its colonies. Sparked by an uprising in Madrid, the Spanish people united against the French and fought a five-year war of independence. In 1813, the French forces were finally expelled, and in 1814 Fernando VII was restored to the Spanish throne. Fernando's subsequent 20-year reign was a disastrous advertisement for the monarchy. During his time, the Inquisition was re-established, liberals and constitutionalists were persecuted, free speech was repressed, Spain entered a severe economic recession and the American colonies won their independence.
The calamitous Spanish-American War of 1898 marked the end of the Spanish Empire. Spain was defeated by the USA in a series of one-sided naval battles, resulting in the loss of Cuba, Puerto Rico, Guam and the Philippines - all of Spain's last overseas possessions, in fact. Spain's troubles continued during the early 20th century. In 1923, with the country on the brink of civil war, Miguel Primo de Rivera declared himself military dictator and ruled until 1930. In 1931, Alfonso XIII fled the country, and the Second Republic was declared, but it soon fell victim to internal conflict. The 1936 elections saw the country split in two, with the Republican government and its supporters (an uneasy alliance of communists, socialists and anarchists, who favoured a more equitable civil society and a diminished role for the Church) on one side and the opposition Nationalists (a right-wing alliance of the army, the Church, the monarchy and the fascist-style Falange Party) on the other.
The assassination of the opposition leader José Calvo Sotelo by Republican police officers in July 1936 gave the army an excuse to overthrow the government. During the subsequent Civil War (1936-39), the Nationalists received extensive military and financial support from Nazi Germany and fascist Italy, while the elected Republican government received support only from Russia and, to a lesser degree, from the International Brigades, made up of foreign idealists. Despite the threat of fascism, England and France refused to support the Republicans.
By 1939, the Nationalists, led by Franco, had won the war. More than 350,000 Spaniards had died in the fighting, but more bloodletting ensued. An estimated 100,000 Republicans were executed or died in prison after the war. Franco's 35-year dictatorship saw Spain isolated by economic blockades, excluded from NATO and the UN and crippled by economic recession. It wasn't until the early 1950s, when the rise in tourism and a treaty with the USA combined to provide much-needed funds, that the country began to recover. By the 1970s, Spain had the fastest growing economy in Europe.
Franco died in 1975, having earlier named Juan Carlos, the grandson of Alfonso XIII, his successor. With Juan Carlos on the throne, Spain made the transition from dictatorship to democracy. The first elections were held in 1977, a new constitution was drafted in 1978, and a failed military coup in 1981 was seen as a futile attempt to turn back the clock. In 1982 Spain made a final break with the past by voting in a socialist government with a sizeable majority. The only major blemish on the domestic front since was the terrorist campaign waged by separatist militant group ETA in its bid for an independent Basque homeland. During 30 years of terrorist activity, ETA killed over 800 people.
In 1986 Spain joined the EC (now the EU) and in 1992 Spain returned to the world stage, with Barcelona hosting the Olympic Games, Seville hosting Expo 92 and Madrid being declared European Cultural Capital. In 1996 Spaniards voted in a conservative party under the leadership of the uncharismatic José María Aznar.
Accused of playing politics following a terrorist attack in Madrid in March 2004 in which 192 people were killed, and held accountable for the unpopular deployment of troops in the overthrow of the Hussein regime in Iraq, Aznar was defeated in the polls in 2004, returning the socialists to power.
The Socialist government, led by José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, undertook a raft of social reforms, (and withdrew Spain's forces from Iraq)though stumbled over the fraught issue of greater autonomy for Spain's regions, especially Catalonia.
In March 2006, ETA announced an indefinite ceasefire, only to break it before the year was out, killing two in a bombing at Madrid airport.
In 2008 the national football side beat Germany in Vienna at the European Championship and brought home Spain's first major trophy since 1964.
More recently, Spain's once robust economy entered recession following wider global financial crisis of 2008. The property market collapsed, the unemployment rate tipped a disastrous 20 per cent and in 2010 the government introduced severe public sector spending cuts.