Spain is the cultural crossroads of Europe. It is where Romans, Jews and Moors melted into the landscape. It is where Christianity and Islam collided and fused. Here, Hemingway ran with the bulls and penned The Sun Also Rises, while Picasso jarred the sensibilities of the world with his Guernica, and Salvador Dali blew the minds of the artistic lot with his bizarre installations. Here, Cervantes' hapless hero Don Quixote attacked the windmills on the rounded hills of Toledo. Here is the land of the matador and the toro, of flamenco and full-throated cheers of "Ole!" and of tapas and robust wines. Here is a land of "a complex people living in a thousand places at once."
Geographically, Spain borders France on the south and occupies roughly 85% of the Iberian Peninsula, while Portugal takes up the remainder in the west). The peninsula protrudes from the far southwestern tip of the Eurasian continent like a dislodged cornerstone, and has long served as a gateway between its neighboring regions. From the prehistory to the present day, distinct peoples have braved the imposing Pyrenees to cross south from Europe, while others have sailed across the Mediterranean from Africa or beyond to reach the peninsula and European mainland. If there is one constant through it all, it is that Spain has been a unique middle ground between Europe and Africa.
There are 17 regions covering all of peninsular Spain, as well as the Canary and Balearic islands, which have autonomous status (comunidades autonomas). Each of the 17 regions maintains a separate parliament that governs its various provinces. These provinces are typically named after their capital city, as with the city of Zaragoza in the Zaragoza province of Aragón. As the central government continues to devolve powers to these regional governments, each will eventually have full responsibility for social and environmental programs, education, health care and transportation. Starting in the north, the regions include Galicia, Asturias, Cantabria, Basque Country, Navarra, La Rioja, Castilla y León, Aragon, Cataluña, Valencia, Murcia, Castilla-La Mancha, Extremadura and Andalucía.
In Spain, there is a growing tendency for people to concentrate in the coastal regions and the cities, as the interior loses population. This has led to increasing industrialization and urbanization. Spain has an aging population of 39,200,000 people. A forecast 24% decline in births over the next 50 years could make it the oldest population in the world. Due in part to its proximity to Africa, it has the highest AIDS rate of European countries. Yet, despite drinking and smoking more than any other Europeans, the Spanish enjoy long life expectancies and 87% of the population declares itself happy!
Spain's official language is Castilian Spanish, spoken by 75% of the population. The Spanish Constitution, however, recognizes the right of the Autonomous Communities to use their own languages. Other officially recognized languages are Catalan, 17% (Catalunya and Islas Baleares), Gallego, 7% (Galicia), Euskera, 2% (País Vasco and Navarra), Valenciano (Valencia) and Mallorquin (Balearics). Other statutes give special protection for the languages of Bable in Asturias and the linguistic diversity in Aragón.
On the matter of religion, during the Middle Ages, Christianity cohabited with both Judaism and Islam but, since the time of the Catholic Kings, Catholicism has been the compulsory religion of the Spaniards. Although few actively participate outside of celebrations and the traditional rites of birth, marriage, and death, 99% of Spaniards are professed Catholics. The regions of Castilla, Aragón, and Extremadura are perhaps the most zealous in practice.
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