SPAIN  |  Spain Travel Guide
Thursday, September 21, 2017
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Spain

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Cave painting in Altamira, Cantabria, Spain
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Spain

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.

 

Destinations in Spain (52)

  • Ávila, Spain

    Ávila, formally Ávila de los Caballeros, is an enchanting medieval city, dating from the 12th century, and encircled by a remarkably well preserved Romanesque wall. It is also the highest provincial capital in Spain, perched on a...

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  • Barcelona, Spain

    Barcelona is Spain's most Euro-centric city, and a premier gateway to Europe – right up there with London, Paris and Rome. It's a chic, trendy, vibrant city, where Antoni Gaudi's La Sagrada Familia and other whimsical...

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  • Best of Spain

    Best of Spain. Spain is a crossroads of cultures and styles, where Romans, Jews, Moors and Christians left their mark, along with a rich cache of treasures for generations to enjoy. There are architectural wonders and eye-popping...

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  • Bilbao, Spain

    Bilbao, Bilbo in Basque, is the tenth largest city in Spain. It is a relatively young city by Spanish standards, established in only 1300. Still, it is a major shipping port, an economic hub, and, most importantly, a city that is...

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  • Burgos, Spain

    Burgos is a lovely Gothic city, filled with fabulous old buildings and dominated by the most astonishing cathedral in Spain. It is the largest city and capital of the Burgos region in northern Spain, where the remains of Europe's...

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  • Cáceres, Spain

    Cáceres is a city the color of rust, built from orange-tinted quarried stone. It has two claims to antiquity: its old town which dates from the Roman era, around 25 BC, and its surrounding caves, which date from even farther back...

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  • Cádiz, Spain

    Cádiz dates from 1104 BC, which makes it not only the oldest city in Spain but the most ancient city still standing in all of southwestern Europe. This is not a rich city by any means, but one with historicity and antiquities,...

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  • Córdoba, Spain

    Córdoba is an ancient city on the river Guadalquivir, dating from 169 BC. It was the domain, in turns, of Romans, Visigoths, Jews, Moors, and finally Christians. During the 10th and early 11th centuries, it was among the most...

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  • Costa del Sol, Spain

    Costa del Sol, which literally means "coast of the sun," strings out along the Mediterranean coast in the south of Spain. There are resorts and towns here with tons of beaches, more than 50 at last count, and endless sunshine...

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  • Cuenca, Spain

    Cuenca is a fabulous little city with a magnificent fortification, artfully built into the top of a rocky ridge that rises between two gorges, those of the Júcar and Huécar rivers, in central Spain. Its most striking feature is...

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  • Fuerteventura, Spain

    Fuerteventura has sand, buckets of it. It is an island of deserts and sand dunes, and of beaches, the longest in the Canary Islands. It is actually not that dissimilar to Morocco's coast and desert region just to the east. There...

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  • Gran Canaria, Spain

    Gran Canaria is a long way from Spain as the crow flies – 1,350 kilometers (838 miles). Still, it is Spain. And in Spain's Canary Islands, it is the centerpiece, with a little in it of every other Canary island: dunes like...

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  • Granada, Spain

    Granada, "Grana" to the locals, is a city of 300,000 inhabitants. It is both the capital and cultural hub of the province of Andalucía, situated in the fertile, flat plains of Vega at the foot of the Sierra Nevada mountains.

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  • Great Castles of Spain

    Spain's Castles. Spain has a fabulous array of castles, palaces and fortresses, from the dusty, dreamy ruins of Moorish creations on hilltops, to the military fortifications of the Christian re-conquerors, to the medieval castles...

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  • Guadalupe, Spain

    Guadalupe is an atmospheric little town, picturesque too, practically a village, built around the Virgin Mary. And that's not just a fairy tale, it's history. For here, upon the shores of the Guadalupe River, back in the 13th...

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  • Ibiza, Spain

    Ibiza is Spain's party town. It is Europe's party town. For five months every year, from early May until early October, it knows no bounds, wilder on a slow night than Mardi Gras at its wildest, and as boisterous and...

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  • Lanzarote, Spain

    Lanzarote has a certain visual and geological appeal that is rare in the rest of the country. UNESCO has declared the whole island a Biosphere Reserve, within which is the fantastically captivating Parque Nacional de Timanfaya....

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  • León, Spain

    León is a proud and supremely ancient city in northwestern Spain, dating from the 1st century BC. It is centered around a fabulous, 13th-century Gothic cathedral that is seemingly more glass than stone - at least to the naked eye...

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  • Logroño, Spain

    Logroño's stock in trade is wine. It is a quiet sort of town, even as the capital of La Rioja, situated on the banks of the Rio Ebro. It is important on two counts: that it is on the Camino de Santiago, the 1,000-year-old...

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  • Madrid, Spain

    Madrid is the most Spanish of Spain's cities, and one of the great capitals of the world. Politically, culturally and geographically, it is the heart of Spain. It is a city of both tradition and modernity, unmistakably Castilian...

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  • Málaga, Spain

    Málaga is a city of both leisure and culture. It is the capital of Costa del Sol, Spain's most famous coast, and thus a veritable tourist draw with gorgeous beaches bathed in sunshine much of the year. It is also a supremely...

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  • Mallorca, Spain

    Mallorca, also spelled Majorca, is all about olives, almonds and tourists, though not in that order. It is actually Europe's great vacation getaway. For more than 50 years, beginning in the 1950s, Europeans have flocked...

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  • Menorca, Spain

    Menorca, or Minorca, is the "minor island" of the Balearics, smaller than its neighbor Mallorca, less touristed, and a tad cooler. It is an island of sand and stone, notable for its profusion of prehistoric, Stonehenge-...

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  • Mérida, Spain

    Mérida is a veritable archaeological treasure trove. It has Roman monuments coming out of its ears. In fact, the ruins found here constitute what is considered to be one of the most comprehensive and best-preserved such...

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  • Murcia, Spain

    Murcia is situated in a fertile, fruit-growing valley on the Segura River in southeastern Spain. It was founded in 825 AD by the Moors. It has a 14th-century cathedral, an 18th-century stone bridge, a 19th-century casino, and an...

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  • Oviedo, Spain

    Oviedo, the capital of Asturias, is best known for its Pre-Romanesque architecture – a style unique to Asturias, particularly Oviedo, characterized by triple-arched windows, semicircular apses and floral or Corinthian...

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  • Pamplona, Spain

    Pamplona, Iruña in Basque, is famous first and foremost for its annual Fiestas de Sanfermines, also known as the "Running of the Bulls." The week-long festival was first brought to the attention of the world by...

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  • Pontevedra, Spain

    Pontevedra is an ancient port city on the Galician coast in northwestern Spain, closer to Lisbon, the capital of Portugal, than to Madrid. It is often described as "a definitive old Galician town," albeit a sleepy one, with...

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  • Ronda, Spain

    Ronda is a city that evokes romantic sentimentality. And for a reason. It enjoys one of the most spectacular settings of any city in Spain. It sits in the middle of a serrania – a mountainous area – creeping...

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  • Salamanca, Spain

    Salamanca is the seat of erudition and an insanely historic city. It has one of the world's oldest universities and a fabulous old town that offers up a monumental assemblage of architectural treasures. Here are medieval palaces...

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  • San Sebastián, Spain

    San Sebastián is a city of pintxo bars and Basque separatists. And this is true. For nowhere in Spain is the fierce regionalism that characterizes the Basque Country as passionately displayed as in San Sebastián. Here,...

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  • Santander, Spain

    Santander has been labeled the "Marbella of the Atlantic Coast." And with good reason. It is an affluent city with a big reputation. It is a posh retreat for the well-heeled and a prominent banking center of Spain. It is a city...

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  • Santiago de Compostela, Spain

    Santiago de Compostela is a place of Christian pilgrimage. It is the holiest city in all of Spain, and the final destination of the devout who make their way down the well-traveled, 1,000-year-old Jacobean route, Camino de...

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  • Segovia, Spain

    Segovia is a stately city, a medieval city, a fortified city. It sits high on a promontory north of Madrid, overlooking the rivers Clamores and Erasma at their convergence. It is frequently referred to as the "Stone Ship," for...

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  • Seville, Spain

    Sevilla, Seville in English, is the leading lady in a land of swooning gentlemen. It is a city of culture, a city of artists and musicians, a city of flamenco and tapas, a city with a deep history. It is a delectable mix...

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  • Sierra de Gredos, Spain

    The Sierra de Gredos claims the highest peak of the Cordillera Central with the summit of Almanzor (2,592 m/8,500 feet) and more Spanish ibex than anywhere else in Spain. At the turn of the 20th century as few as 20 of these long-horned, goat-...

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  • Tenerife, Spain

    Tenerife is an over-the-top island destination – heady, fast-paced, entertainment-saturated. It has massive appeal, particularly to European travelers, with tourists outnumbering islanders by a ratio of 5 to 1. It has...

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  • Toledo, Spain

    Toledo is a supremely ancient, bulwarked city in the sun-drenched plains of central Spain, and a monstrously popular tourist destination to boot. It was originally established in 192 BC, and for centuries it was the capital of...

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  • Trujillo, Spain

    Trujillo is a small, enchanting town in the southwestern Spanish province of Extremadura, but one with a huge claim to fame: It is a town of conquistadors. It is the birthplace of Francisco Pizarro, the most famous of...

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  • Valencia, Spain

    Valencia is a vibrant city, the third largest in Spain, home to some 810,000 Valencianos. It has two claims to fame: Paella, a simmered rice dish that originated here centuries ago, in the heyday of the Moors; and the...

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  • Zaragoza, Spain

    Zaragoza is a stylish and supremely modern city, situated on the Rio Ebro in northwestern Spain, a short hop from the Pyrenees. It is a city with a unique blend of Castillian air and a Euro vibe, known for its local gastronomy...

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