Spain is one of Europe’s most popular travel destinations for its beaches, islands, UNESCO World Heritage sites, spectacular and diverse countryside, buzzing nightlife, delicious cuisine and world-famous fiestas. Divided into five autonomous regions, the most popular is Andalusia, home to Madrid, Barcelona, Granada, Seville and Cordoba, with incredible Moorish heritage. Its wide cultural and geographic diversity fascinates while the outdoor activities thrill and delight.
Spain’s great, historic cities have sat at the crossroads between Europe and North Africa for centuries, and contain splendid architectural reminders of the country’s powerful imperial presence during the Middle Ages. Many have Roman remains and even more, such as Granada and Cordoba, are treasure troves of Moorish design, with Alhambra the highlight. Seville is the cultural heart of the region with an amazing collection of cathedrals and medieval Toledo, famous for its blades.
The Spanish people are notably friendly, immensely proud of their heritage and eager to share their knowledge with visitors. Accommodations range from ultra-modern luxury hotels with spas to rural paradors, government-run historic mansions and former religious buildings converted into comfortable lodging. In between, there are resorts on the Atlantic and Mediterranean coasts and inns and guest houses offering good value and comfort.
Depending on where you’re headed and what you plan to do, Spain is a year-round destination, with May, June and September the best weather-wise without the summer crowds. Outdoor enthusiasts will enjoy April and October, although the nights can be cool, depending on location and altitude. Skiers flock to the mountain resorts in winter, while walking and hiking is best in spring or early summer.
Currency: the Euro
Official language: Spanish
Celtic/Iberian Spain was originally conquered by the Roman Empire in 200 AD, with the overlords remaining in power for almost six hundred years. The country became an important trading and agricultural hub and, as Rome faded, vandals from the north forced their way across the entire peninsula. Christianity was established in the 2nd century AD and continued despite conflicts resulting in a Visigoth takeover of the region.
A Moorish invasion of the Umayyad Caliphate took place in 711 AD, which would change the face of Spain forever. Christianity and Judaism suffered, and conversion to Islam was encouraged, particularly in Andalusia. By the end of the 10th century, the great city of Cordoba was the caliphate’s capital and the wealthiest, largest and most sophisticated city in Europe. Trade and rich intellectual traditions of North Africa formed a unique culture in the region.
However, the Reconquista, attempts by Christian armies to expand their Spanish holdings, had been chipping away at Moorish dominance since the late 8th century, and by the early 11th century had gained more land than was held by the Muslims. In spite of a major Muslim resurgence in the 12th century, by the 14th century Islam’s hold on Spain was consigned to history, leaving only magnificent architectural treasures such as the Alhambra as a reminder.
The rich culture of Spain is based on diverse historical influences from Celtic and Iberian times, centuries of Roman rule and the 900 years of Moorish dominance. Other flavors were added during the troubling Middle Ages, with intriguing language, cuisine, music, art, literature, folk traditions, and Catholicism and in the diverse ethnic communities. Spain’s Christian and Moorish architectural contributions are monumental, and its distinct regional cultures are strong, especially in the Catalan and Basque regions.
Flamenco music, dance and the controversial bullfights are easily recognizable elements of Spanish heritage, but the fierce national pride shown by the people are at the heart of the country’s identity. “Spain is different” is an often-heard statement, emphasising their position as a melting pot for centuries. Family values dominate and, the culture of machismo is slowly declining. Friendly, but somewhat formal in their approach to strangers.
Spain as a whole has a number of distinct climates dependent on location and topography. Its southern coast, central and north-central regions have a Mediterranean climate characterized by hot summers and mild winters. The country’s southeastern quarter is dry and semi-arid, while the northwestern region including the unique Basque Country displays an oceanic climate. The Canary Islands are sub-tropical, whereas the Pyrenees and Sierra Nevada display alpine weather conditions.
Between April and November the majority Spain is warm to hot. In the mountains, snowfall begins around October, but the high peaks have snow cover all year round. For those not used to blistering heat, the shoulder seasons of spring and fall allow for more comfortable beach holidays and outdoor activities.
Spain is part of the Schengen Agreement, which means there are no border controls for nationals of EU countries. EU citizens only require a valid national identity card or passport to enter Spain. Non-EU citizen require a valid passport and possibly a visa if you intend on a longer visit.
axis are a convenient way to get around the cities of Spain, although they are more expensive than other forms of public transportation. Most drivers only speak Spanish, and the sector is heavily regulated, with registered cabs displaying a local government license plate. Prices are set by the authorities and can be flagged down on the street, picked up from a stand or pre-booked. Taxis at airports have an extra fee, but they are known to overcharge so make sure the vehicle displays a visible fare table before departing, especially at the beach resorts. Teletaxi (+34-91-371-2131) and Eurotaxis (+34-91-547-8200) are two reliable operators.
Vacationers from the UK can arrive in Spain at Santander via ferry from Plymouth or Bilbao from Portsmouth. The port at Valencia offers boats from the mainland to Spain’s Balearic Islands, while travelers to the Canary Islands can take a ferry from Cadiz. Once on the islands, inter-island ferries are the best way to get around.
Spain’s high-speed AVE train network is the most extensive in Europe, making it easy to get between major cities at speeds faster than even the famous Japanese Bullet Train. Its slower regional networks are not as impressive, as delays can occur and coverage leaves a lot to be desired. Travel by rail is comfortable, with prices around half those in many other EU countries. The three to 10-day rail passes can save you even more money.
Spanish bus services are run by a large number of companies offering extensive coverage at low prices. For short haul trips, they’re comfortable enough, but long journeys may be a problem as they don’t have toilets. In rural areas not covered by the rail network, they’re the only public transportation available, connecting every village and small town. Longer trips are generally faster than most trains with the exception of the AVE routes.
Before you leave on your holiday, there are at least four health-related things you should do. Please check the handbook for specifics, but for now, here’s the short list:
Step 1: Check with the CDC for their recommendations for the countries you’ll be visiting.
Step 2: Have a medical checkup with your doctor.
Step 3: Pick up any necessary medications, both prescription and over-the-counter.
Step 4: Have a dental and/or eye checkup. (Recommended, but less important than steps 1-3.)
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