Spain -- the tempestuous land of Don Juan and Don Quixote, Carmen and Figaro, bullfighting and flamenco -- once ruled an empire that stretched across the Americas and points beyond. By the 20th century it had fallen into decline, merely another poor nation in southern Europe. Now, in the midst of a cultural renaissance, Spain is much like a theme park devoted to the good life -- a sensuous feast of fun, food, and fine art and architecture.
Start with the beaches, as many visitors do. (Northern Europeans, who search out sand and sunshine like heat-seeking missiles, have made Spain their holiday central.) The most crowded stretch, the Costa del Sol along the southern Mediterranean, sports highly developed resorts like upscale Marbella and carnival-like Torremolinos, once quiet fishing villages now packed with sunbathers and bar-hoppers. The Mediterranean island of Ibiza is another incredible party scene, though with better beaches; the smaller island of Formentera is quieter.
Art and Architecture
In Spain, you can spend hours or days with Spanish masters like Velasquez, El Greco, Goya, Dali, and Picasso in Madrid’s Prado and other top museums. Architecture? Frank Gehry’s sensational Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao is one of the most talked-about buildings in Europe. You can even view ancient Roman ruins such as the two-millennia-old aqueduct in Segovia.
The Spanish have turned eating into an art form, not so much with the classical artistry of the French as with the playful palette of Picasso, a native Spaniard. Dining often begins by making the rounds of tapas bars -- grazing on small platefuls of delicacies washed down with glasses of local wine or sherry. It continues with multi-course meals that may run on till midnight. Seafood is often the centerpiece, sometimes topping giant platters of paella, the saffron-tinged rice dish that’s almost synonymous with Spanish cuisine.
All of these cultural, culinary and recreational riches are set against a scenic backdrop as varied as any in Europe. To the east and parts of the west, the Mediterranean and Atlantic coastlines frame hundreds of miles of blue sea. To the north, the green and forested Pyrenees rise to form a mountainous border with France. In central Spain, arid brown valleys and high plateaus add dramatic contours to the landscape. And in the far south, the Andalusian countryside is reminiscent of Spain’s onetime New World outpost, southern California. Each region is wildly beautiful in its own way.
The Spanish people enhance it all with their exuberant approach to life, much of it played out on the public stage. In cities and villages across the country, they emerge to see and be seen on their evening paseos, strolling often arm-in-arm with family or friends, typically dressed to be admired.
Revelry and Recovery
The narrow streets of Barcelona’s old Gothic Quarter, the now-chic antiquity of Madrid’s Puerta del Sol area, and the winding medieval alleyways of Seville’s Barrio Santa Cruz and Granada’s Sacromonte (gypsy) district are often packed far into the night with diners and revelers who see daybreak not as the start of a new day but the end of the old. The country’s many fiestas rachet up the festive mood even higher. July’s annual Running of the Bulls in Pamplona, March’s Las Fallas de San Jose in Valencia, and Easter’s Feria in Seville, among many others, all provide spectacular pageantry.
But when do they sleep? A partial answer rhymes with fiesta: siesta, an afternoon tradition that is struggling to survive the economic pressures of modernization. Tour leaders know to plan sightseeing and shopping trips in the mornings or late afternoons since many museums, stores and other attractions often close for two or three hours at midday. Take a cue from the Spanish: enjoy a leisurely lunch and rest up during the hottest part of the day.
Key Sights in Spain
All roads lead to and from stylish Madrid, the centrally located Spanish capital, which combines world-class art museums like the Prado with alluring public parks and nightlife. Just south of Madrid lies the photogenic and beautifully preserved medieval city of Toledo, immortalized by the artist El Greco.
Much farther south, Andalusia is a sunny, Moorish-influenced land that spawned flamenco and forms many people’s mental image of Spain. Seville is a maze of courtyards, plazas, bars and restaurants, while Granada is home to the Alhambra, an ornately tiled 14th-century Moorish palace. Cordoba’s 1,100-year-old Great Mosque, with its hundreds of colorfully striped columns and archways, is so vast that an entire Roman Catholic cathedral (added later) seems almost lost within it.
Barcelona, in the northeast, is the epicenter of the Spanish revival. The old Gothic Quarter, with its jumble of twisting streets, opens onto Las Ramblas, one of the world’s great promenades, and Gaudi’s surreal architectural legacy is everywhere. To its south, vibrant Valencia, birthplace of paella and the world’s biggest tomato fight, is often overlooked -- but shouldn’t be.
Still a good value
While not the dirt cheap destination of old, Spain is still a good value for Europe -- especially if you consider all that it has to offer. If you haven’t visited Spain since the sleepy 1970s, you’re in for a huge surprise.
Stride can help you find the tour that best represents what you most want from your Spanish vacation -- whether it’s a tour of the classic sights, a multi-week trek along northern Spain’s Camino de Santiago, a riverboat cruise along the Guadalquivir River in Andalusia, or perhaps a culinary tour where you can discover the secrets of making a great paella.