Spain, one of the largest countries in Europe, occupies four-fifths of the Iberian Peninsula. A land of extraordinary geographical and cultural diversity, it has much to offer the tourist. While the Mediterranean beach resorts on the Costa Blanca, Costa Brava and Costa del Sol continue to attract sunseekers, the north coast is gradually gaining in popularity. But there is a great deal more to Spain than the beaches. The terrain is amazingly diverse with a huge variety of landscapes: deciduous and coniferous forests, arid plains, salt marshes, rocky bays and coves, peaks, verdant river valleys and mountain streams.
One of the most pleasurable ways to discover Spain’s natural beauty and abundant wildlife is to visit one of the National Parks. Walks, hiking trails and jeep excursions enable visitors to explore marshes and wetlands, coastal dunes, isolated mountain peaks and Atlantic beaches. At certain times of the year the skies are filled with migrating birds heading for North Africa and the parks are also the habitat of a wealth of indigenous flora and fauna. Special mention should be made of rare and endangered species like the royal eagle, the capercaillie (woodcock) and the Pyrenean mountain goat. The major national parks in mainland Spain are: Coto de Doñana (provinces of Seville and Huelva), Tablas de Daimiel (La Mancha), Ordesa (Huesca Pyrenees), Aigües Tortes (Lleida) and Montaña de Covadonga (Picos de Europa).
Over the centuries, Spain’s indigenous and conquering peoples have left an indelible legacy. Cromlechs and cave paintings from the prehistoric period, temples and aqueducts from the Roman occupation, Romanesque churches, Moorish baths, mosques and fortresses, medieval cathedrals and castles, Renaissance and Baroque palaces, the modernist architecture of Antoni Gaudí and his contemporaries, as well as present-day masterpieces like the Guggenheim museum in Bilbao and the City of Arts and Sciences in Valencia.
For the purposes of this section, Spain has been divided into eight regions, which do not necessarily reflect political or cultural boundaries: Madrid, Andalucia, Ceuta & Melilla, Castile/La Mancha & Extremadura, Castile/León & La Rioja, The Northern Region, Navarre & Aragon, Valencia & Murcia and Catalonia (including Barcelona).
Information on the Balearic Islands and the Canary Islands, both integral parts of Spain, are dealt with separately.
The Spanish capital is a vibrant, atmospheric city, short on famous monuments but rich in cultural sights. Pride of place belongs to the city’s three superb art museums. The Prado has one of the most remarkable art collections in the world, with works by major Spanish and European masters from the Renaissance onwards. The Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia is devoted to 20th-century Spanish art with representative works by Miró, Dalí, Juan Gris, and above all by the Cubists, including Picasso. The most famous work on show is his masterpiece from the Civil War period, Guernica. The Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza is one of the most important private collections of western painting in the world, with more than 800 paintings from the Italian Renaissance to the 20th-century avant garde.
The Royal Palace dates from the mid-18th century. There are more than 20 rooms open to the public, exhibiting priceless tapestries, paintings, carpets, clocks, furniture, silverware and porcelain. The armory has one of the most valuable collections in Europe, mainly from the 16th century. Madrid’s most historic square, the Plaza Mayor, is enclosed by arcades sheltering a variety of craft shops, restaurants and tapas bars. It was completed in 1617 during the reign of Philip III. The popular center of Madrid is the famous square, the Puerta del Sol, the main shopping district and hub of the city’s nightlife.
Madrid’s most accessible green space is the Retiro Park. A former royal retreat, its attractions include a boating lake and summer concerts. The Botanical Gardens, a short walk from the Prado, are worth a visit. The Casa de Campo, west of the city center, is a huge open space with a swimming pool, tennis courts, a jogging track and a zoo with aquarium. On the edge of Caso de Campo is the Parque de Atracciones, a large amusement park. Southeast of the city is the Parque Biológico, a new theme park on bio-diversity with pavilions recreating a variety of ecosystems. There is a 250-hectare Warner Brothers theme park in San Martín de la Vega. Many visitors to the city take the opportunity to see Real Madrid, one of the world’s most successful football clubs, at the Bernabéu Stadium.
EXCURIONS: There are numerous places of interest within easy reach of the city. The Monastery of San Lorenzo del Escorial (49km, 30 miles) was commissioned by Philip II as a mausoleum for Spanish rulers. The highlights are the art museum, with works by Rubens, Tintoretto, Titian and Veronese, the palace, the basilica and the library.
Approximately 9km (6 miles) from the Escorial is the Valle de los Caídos (Valley of the Fallen), a huge crypt cut into the mountainside surmounted by a stone cross of 152m (500ft). The dictator, General Franco, conceived this dramatic monument as a tribute to those on the Fascist side who died in the Civil War. Franco himself is buried here. Alcalá de Henares, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is the birthplace of the writer Miguel de Cervantes and the English queen, Catherine of Aragon. The main point of interest is the university, founded in the 16th century by Cardinal Cisneros. Other attractions include the 17th-century convent of San Bernardo and the oldest surviving public theater in Europe – as important to Spain as Shakespeare’s Globe is to England. Aranjuez is famous for its gardens, an 18th-century Summer Palace, built by the Spanish Bourbons and Charles IV’s enormously expensive folly, the Casita del Labrador, on the banks of the River Tagus. Aranjuez is known for strawberries and asparagus. The Strawberry Train (Tren de la Fresa), complete with steam engine and wooden carriages, operates between Madrid and Aranjuez between mid-April and July and September to mid-October. Chinchón is an attractive little town with an atmospheric main square, Plaza Mayor, still used for bullfights during the fiesta (August) and for a passion play at Easter. The mountains of the Sierra de Guadarrama are easily accessible from Madrid and are an important center for skiing and winter sports. Puerto de Navacerrada and Valdesquí are the main resorts.
Andalucia, Ceuta & Melilla
Andalucia is a mountainous region in the far south of Spain, rich in minerals and an important center for the production of olives, grapes, oranges and lemons. Andalucia (Al-Andalus) was the last stronghold of the Moors who first arrived here from North Africa early in the eighth century and were finally expelled in 1492. The Arab architectural legacy is an important reason for visiting the region, especially the three great cities of Córdoba, Granada and Seville.
The regional capital is Seville, one of the largest cities in Spain, bearing numerous traces of the 500 years of Moorish occupation. Seville is the romantic heart of the country, the city of Carmen and Don Juan; its cathedral is the largest Gothic building in the world and has a superb collection of art and period stonework. Christopher Columbus is buried here. The cathedral bell tower, known as the Giralda from its crowning weather vane, was originally a minaret and observatory. The climb is worth the effort for the commanding views. Of great importance is the Alcázar, the palace-fortress of the Arab kings and one of the finest examples of Mudéjar (Moorish) architecture, mostly dating from after the Christian re-conquest. Seville’s other sights include the Alcázar gardens, the evocative neighborhood of Santa Cruz with its white-washed houses and tiled patios, and the Torre de Oro, part of the Arab fortifications and later said to have been covered with gold leaf imported from the Americas.
Holy Week in Seville embodies the religious fervor of the Spanish and is one of the most interesting festivals in the country. Early booking for accommodation at festival time is essential. Holy Week is followed closely by the famous April Fair, during which couples parade the fairground mounted on fine Andalucian horses, dressed in the traditional flamenco costume. Drinking, eating, song and dance are the order of the day for the whole week and the fairground with its colored lanterns and casetas bordering the streets is a continuous movement of color.
Founded by the Romans, Córdoba’s heyday was during the early Moorish period when it was reputed to be the most splendid city in Europe. The Great Mosque built between 785 and 1002 is the main tourist attraction. Highlights include the Great Hall, characterized by delicately carved horseshoe arches of alternating white stone and red brick, the Patio de Los Naranjas, the Ablutions Courtyard still shaded by orange trees and cooled by fountains, and the Mihrab (prayer niche). In the 16th century the mosque was transformed into a Christian church with the building of a Renaissance Choir. Other reminders of Córdoba’s history are the old Jewish Quarter, which boasts a 14th-century mosque (one of only three in Spain), the Archaeological Museum with its substantial Roman and Moorish finds and the area by the river. Just outside town is the ruined palace of Medina Azaha – the site is still being excavated.
The last city to fall to the Christians, Granada’s outstanding monument is the Alhambra, the palace-fortress built by the Nasrid rulers in the 13th to 14th centuries. The most popular tourist attraction in Spain, tickets must be booked at least 24 hours in advance. The highlights include: the Palacios Nazariés, its halls, courtyards and loggias decorated with painted enamel tiles, delicately fretted arches, stalactite vaulting, marble sculptures and stucco ornament; the Alcazába, an 11th-century hilltop fortress and the Generalife, the gardens of the summer palace. Across the river from the Alhambra is the atmospheric Arab quarter of the Albaicín. The main sights here are the Arab baths, the Renaissance Casa de Castril and the Church of San Nicolás from where the views of the Alhambra and the surrounding countryside are outstanding. In the town itself, visitors should not miss the Gothic Capilla Real (Royal Chapel) built by Ferdinand and Isabella as a mausoleum and a symbol of their triumph over the Moors. The adjoining cathedral, built over several centuries, is impressive mainly in its proportions.
The Sierra Nevada
South of Granada and only about 40km (25 miles) from the coast, is the upland area of the Sierra Nevada, a mountain range running roughly east to west. It contains the highest peaks in Iberia; one of these, the Pico de Veleta (over 3400m/11,155ft), is accessible for most of its height by road and coach trips. The region offers the unique opportunity to combine a holiday of winter sports with coastal sunshine and watersports in the Mediterranean (see below). Mountain resorts include Capileira (south of the Pico de Veleta), Borreguiles and Pradollano (both in the Solynieve region). There are also coach excursions from Granada to the picturesquely isolated villages of the Alpujarra on the southern fringes of the Sierra Nevada. There are dramatic views of the valleys and ravines from the twisting mountain roads.
Jaén is an ancient town rich in historic buildings and art treasures: the Provincial Museum, the Cathedral, the Castle of Santa Catalina and the 11th-century Moorish baths among them. Baeza is noteworthy for its aristocratic town houses, mostly dating from the Renaissance period. The most distinguished is the Palacio de Jabalquinto, its ornamentation clearly revealing Mudejar influences. Like Baeza, Ubeda has many Renaissance palaces, but the outstanding monument here is the Capilla del Salvador, a fine example of Plateresque architecture.
Costa de la Luz
This attractive stretch of coastline extends from the Portuguese border in the west to Tarifa in the east and, while popular with Spanish tourists, is still relatively undeveloped.
Cádiz’s heyday as a port was in the 16th century when it traded in gold and silver from the Americas. Today, the town’s slightly down-at-heel appearance is part of its charm. Points of interest include the sea fortifications, the ‘old’ and ‘new’ cathedrals and the tower, Torre Tavira, worth the climb for the sweeping rooftop views. The nearest beach is the Playa de la Victoria, but there are plenty of alternatives in the direction of San Lúcar de Barremada. Less than 30 minutes away is the sherry town of Jerez de la Frontera. Several of the bodegas (bars), whose links with England began with the importation of ‘sherris-sack’ in the 16th century, are open to the public for tastings. Other attractions include the splendid Renaissance cathedral and a restored 11th-century Moorish Alcázar with baths. Another popular excursion from Cadiz is to the Sierra de Grazalema National Park where visitors can enjoy the wonderful mountain scenery. Points of interest along the route include the Puerto de las Palomas mountain pass which overlooks Grazalema itself, the fortified town of Zahara de la Sierra and Arcos de la Fronteira, a picturesque village with a commanding cliff top location overlooking the Rio Guadalete. The road from Cádiz to Algeciras offers spectacular views of the Straits of Gibraltar, the North African coastline and the Atlas Mountains. From Algeciras, ferries run to Tangier and Ceuta on the north African coast, as well as to the Canary Islands.
In the province of Huelva is the village of El Rocío where one of the most important Spanish festivals in honor of the Virgin Mary is held at Whitsun. Also of interest are the beautiful stalactite caves of Gruta de las Maravillas in Aracena in the north of Huelva province and the national park, Coto de Doñana.
Costa del Sol
This densely populated area, popular with tourists on account of its fine beaches and picturesque towns, extends along most of Andalusia’s Mediterranean coastline, from Almeria to Tarifa.
Usually regarded as little more than the gateway to the Costa del Sol, Málaga is an attractive and lively city with plenty to interest the passing visitor. The birthplace of Spain’s greatest 20th-century artist, Pablo Picasso, it is now home to the newly opened Picasso Museum which exhibits an important collection of his paintings. His parents’ house is also open to the public. Other sights worth a look are the unfinished Cathedral (16th to 18th centuries), the Tropical Gardens and two restored Moorish castles, the Alcazaba and Gibralfara. Marbella and Torremolinos, the main resorts of the Costa del Sol, are overdeveloped, but it is still possible to find a relatively uncrowded beach further afield. In the same province is Nerja, known as the ‘Balcony of Europe’ on account of its having a promontory look-out which is perched high above the sea with commanding views of the Mediterranean. It is also the home of well-preserved prehistoric caves. An excursion can be made from Málaga to the old mountain town of Ronda, spectacularly situated on a gorge in the Sierra de Ronda.
Costa de Almería
To the east of the Costa del Sol is the province of Almería, one of the most heavily developed tourist regions of the country. The capital of the same name is a former Roman port, dominated by its Moorish castle, the Alcazaba. Attractions here include the 16th-century Cathedral and the Church of Santiago el Viejo. The main resorts of Roquetas de Mar, Aguadulce, El Cabo de Gata and Mojácar lie east and west of the town.
The African Enclaves
Ceuta is a free port on the north coast of Africa. The city is dominated by the Plaza de Africa in the town center and the cathedral. The promontory has the remains of the old fortress. Bus services are available into Morocco and there are regular car-ferry sailings from Algeciras.
Melilla is also a free port on the north coast of Africa, and is served by car ferries from Málaga and Almería. The town is mainly modern, but there are several older buildings, including a 16th-century church.
Castile/La Mancha & Extremadura
This inland region lies between Madrid and Andalucia. Bordered by mountains to the north, east and south, it is irrigated by two large rivers, the Guadiana and the Tajo, both of which flow westwards to Portugal and thence to the Atlantic. Castile/La Mancha, the higher, western part of the region, is also known as Castilla La Nueva (New Castile).
To the south of Madrid is the ancient Spanish capital of Toledo. Rising above the plains and a gorge of the Rio Tajo, the city is dominated by the magnificent cathedral and Alcazar. The town seems tortured by streets as narrow as the steel blades for which it is famous. Toledo is justly proud of its collection of paintings by El Greco, who lived and painted here. El Greco’s most famous painting, The Burial of the Count of Orgaz, is preserved in the Santo Tomé Church. There are more El Grecos as well as works by Goya and other artists in the Hospital y Museo de Santa Cruz, a magnificent Renaissance building with a Plateresque façade. Other reminders of Toledo’s rich cultural heritage are its two medieval synagogues and a 10th-century mosque, currently undergoing restoration.
Guadalajara, capital of the province of the same name, is situated northeast of the capital, on the Rio Henares. Sights include the 15th-century Palacio del Infantado and the Church of San Gines.
The provincial capital of Ciudad Real is the chief town in the La Mancha region, the home of Don Quixote. There are many places in the surrounding area associated with Don Quixote, including Campo de Criptana, believed to be the setting for his fight with the windmills.
Cuenca, also a provincial capital, is famous for its hanging houses. It is one of the most attractive of Spain’s medieval towns and the Gothic cathedral is particularly richly decorated. The nearby countryside includes woods, lakes, spectacular caves, towering mountains and valleys, many with fortified towns and villages clinging to their sides. Albacete is the center of a wine-producing region. The town witnessed two exceptionally bloody battles during the Reconquista, but the considerable rebuilding of the town has left few reminders of its history. More evidence, however, is scattered in the surrounding countryside, where such places as the Moorish castle at Almansa and the old fortified towns of Chinchilla de Monte Aragón and Villena reflect the area’s stormy past.
This region consists of the provinces of Cáceres and Badajoz. Cáceres was founded in the first century BC by the Romans, and was later destroyed by the Visigoths and rebuilt by the Moors. There are traces of all the stages of the city’s history, although most of the buildings date from Cáceres’ Golden Age during the 16th century. Nearby is the beautiful village of Arroyo de la Luz. Around 48km (30 miles) away is the walled town of Trujillo, birthplace of the conquistador, Francisco Pizarro. Apart from two museums devoted to the conquest of the New World, visitors can see the fortress, a number of Renaissance town houses and historic churches. Also in this province is Plasencia, founded in the 12th century, which has a beautiful medieval aqueduct, cathedral and a 15th-century convent that has retained much of its original architecture, masonry, painting and murals.
The ancient fortified town of Badajoz (in the province of the same name), is situated very close to the Portuguese frontier and was founded by the Romans. The Alcazaba, the Moorish part of the town, is on a hill in the northeast of the town. Not far away is the town of Albuquerque, which has the ruins of a massive castle and a large Gothic church. In the same province is the town of Mérida, famous for ancient Roman ruins; the remains are housed in the Museum of Archaeology. A few kilometers away is Medellín, where Cortés was born in 1485.
Castile/León & La Rioja
The inland region of Castile and León lie to the north and northwest of Madrid and occupy the northern part of the Meseta Central, the plateau that covers much of central Spain. As with the Madrid region, Castile and León are hemmed in by high mountains to the north, east and south and are the catchment area for a large river, the Douro, which flows westward into Portugal. Hot and dry throughout much of the year, the region’s extensive plains nonetheless make it an important agricultural asset for a country as mountainous as Spain. The small wine region of La Rioja is tucked away to the northeast of Castile and León.
Castile la Vieja
Superbly situated on a plain overlooked by the Sierra de Gredos, Avila is the highest provincial capital in the country. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, it is famous for its perfectly preserved 11th-century walls and as the birthplace of the 16th-century mystic, St Teresa. Walking the ramparts is the most obvious attraction. The sights most closely associated with St Teresa are the 17th-century Convent now named in her honor (the small museum exhibits items of clothing and other possessions), the Convento de la Encarnación, where she served as a nun and the Convento de San José which she founded in 1562. The Cathedral is a curious hybrid of the Romanesque, Gothic and Renaissance styles.
Segovia is renowned for its 800m-long Roman aqueduct, one of the best preserved structures of its kind in the world. Its other attractions include 18 outstanding Romanesque churches and a Gothic cathedral by the Arab Alcazar. The turrets soaring from its rocky outcrop are said to be the inspiration for Walt Disney’s fairytale castles. A short distance from the town is the wonderfully sited Summer Palace and gardens of La Granja, built in the first half of the 18th century for Philip V.
The province of Soria has a large number of archaeological remains of the Celtiberian and Roman civilizations, many of which can be seen in the Museo Numantino in the provincial capital of the same name. Around 9km (6 miles) north of the town is the site of Numancia, a fortified Celtiberian town. Attractions in the town of Soria include the 13th-century Church of San Juan de Duero, the Cathedral of San Pedro and the Renaissance Palacio de los Condes de Gómara.
Burgos was the birthplace of the knight El Cid, the embodiment of the chivalric tradition. His tomb, and that of his beloved Doña Jimena, can be seen in the magnificent Gothic cathedral. Palencia, the capital of the province of the same name, was the one-time residence of the Kings of Castile and seat of the Cortes of Castile. The 15th-century Gothic Cathedral is the main point of interest, though it can not stand comparison with Burgos. The city has several other late-medieval buildings and an archaeological museum. The industrial city of Valladolid (population 500,000), capital of a province rich in castles and other ancient buildings, is famous for the Holy Week Procession at Easter and the Ferias Mayores (Great Fairs) in September. Towards the end of October, the city hosts a major international film festival. Book ahead if a visit is planned at any of these times. The city is associated with some of the most famous names in the history of the Iberian peninsula. Columbus (although not a Spaniard) died here in 1506 – the Museo de Colon has objects and artifacts from the Mayan, Aztec and Inca civilizations; the great Spanish poet, Miguel de Cervantes, also had a home here, which is now a museum. The Museo Nacional de Escultura has the best collection of polychromatic religious sculpture in the world. There’s also a beautiful medieval cathedral and a university. The superb castle at Peñafiel houses a Museum of Wine of the Ribera del Duero region, and commands stunning scenic views.
The lively city of León was recaptured from the Moors in 850, and the architecture reflects its long history under Christian rule. The cathedral is one of the finest examples of the Gothic style in the country and boasts some outstanding 13th-century stained glass. Also worth seeing is the Pantheon in the Church of San Isidoro, which contains the tombs of the medieval kings of Castile and León and is decorated with Romanesque wall paintings. There are several places of interest within easy reach of León, including the spectacular Puerto de Pajares, Benavente and the attractive region around Astorga, a town which, like other towns in the region, was a stopping point on the Way of St James (see Santiago de Compostela in the Northern Region section).
South of León is the province of Zamora; the provincial capital of the same name was the scene of many fierce struggles between the Moors and the Christians during the Reconquista, in which the Spanish hero El Cid figured prominently. The town has a Romanesque Cathedral and several 12th-century churches. Approximately 19km (12 miles) northwest of the town is an artificial lake, created in 1931; on the shores of the lake, in El Campillo, is a Visigoth church dating from the seventh century, which was moved when its original site was flooded by the new reservoir.
The southernmost province of León, Salamanca, has as its capital the ancient university town of the same name, awarded the title of ‘European City of Culture’ in 2002. It is situated on the swiftly flowing Tormes River and has many superb Renaissance buildings, weathered to a golden-brown hue. The most famous of these are the two Cathedrals, one Romanesque, the other late-Gothic in style but not completed until the 18th century. The university and the fine houses around the Plaza Mayor are also striking. More unusual is the Museo Art Nouveau y Art Deco, with its fascinating collections of objets d’art from the first half of the 20th century. The fiesta in September is very popular and bookings should be made well in advance.
This region is famous for its vineyards. The capital, Logroño, is in the center of the region. It is a district with a great historical past; the origins of poetry in the Castilian language lie here and it contains the channel of a European stream of culture – the Road to Santiago.
The Northern Region
This region comprises northwestern Spain and the northern coast stretching as far as the French frontier. The two outstanding natural features are the Cantabrian Mountains and the Rías Gallegas estuaries in Galicia. The highest peaks are the Picos de Europa (2615m/8579ft) in Asturias, favored by walkers, climbers and wildlife enthusiasts. There are excellent beaches along the entire coastline, mostly of fine sand, often surrounded by cliffs and crags. Much of the hinterland, however, is green, lush and forested. This is at least partly due to the climate, which is noticeably wetter than in the south.
Galicia is a mountainous region with large tracts of heathland broken by gorges and fast-flowing rivers. The coastline has many sandy bays, often backed with forests of fir and eucalyptus, and deep fjord-like estuaries (rías), which cut into the land. The dominant building material is granite. Galicia has its own culture and language (gallego, influenced by Portuguese) and many of the roadsigns are in two languages.
La Coruña is one of the largest towns in the region and is said to have been founded by the Phoenicians. Since then it has enjoyed a tempestuous history – the Armada set sail from here in 1588 and Sir John Moore’s British Army had to evacuate the town following an ignominious retreat from Napoleon’s forces in January 1809. Moore died in the encounter and is buried in the Jardín de San Carlos. La Coruña’s most attractive feature is the Ciudad Vieja (old quarter) on the north spur of the harbor. Santiago de Compostela has been a center of pilgrimage since the early middle ages and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The focal point for all visits is the Gothic Cathedral completed in 1188. Apart from the revered image of St James, it boasts a magnificent portico and crypt. For further information, see The Way of St James section. The Roman town of Lugo is noted for having one of the finest surviving examples of Roman walls. Orense first attracted the Romans on account of its therapeutic waters. The 13th-century cathedral was built on the site of one dating from the sixth century. Pontevedra, the region’s fourth provincial capital, is a granite town with arcaded streets and many ancient buildings. Further south is the important port of Vigo, the center of a region of attractive countryside. A good view of the town and the bay can be had from the Castillo del Castro.
The Way of St James
During the Middle Ages, the tomb of St James at Santiago de Compostela was regarded as one of the most holy sites in Christendom and thousands of pilgrims traveled through Spain each year to visit the shrine. This route, the Way of St James, was lined with monasteries, religious houses, chapels and hospices to cater for the pilgrims. Many of these buildings still survive, and any traveller following the route today will find it an uplifting introduction to the religious architecture of medieval Spain. The route began in Navarre, at Canfranc or Valcarlos; from there, traveling west, the main stopping places were Pamplona, Santo Domingo de la Calzada, Logroño, Burgos, León, Astorga and Santiago de Compostela. The Saint’s feast day, 25 July (the term ‘day’ is a misnomer since the festival runs for a full week) is celebrated in vigorous style in Santiago de Compostela and accommodation should be booked well in advance. There are several specialist books on the subject of this and other old pilgrim routes that may be followed, both in Spain and elsewhere in Europe.
This small, once independent principality is predominantly mountainous although there are also large tracts of forest. The resorts are known collectively as the Costa Verde on account of the rich vegetation. Oviedo, the capital of Asturias, is an historic town with an outstanding 12th-century Gothic Cathedral. The Camara Santa has some impressive Romanesque wall paintings and other artistic treasures. Asturias has a remarkably rich legacy of Romanesque churches, several of which can easily be visited from Oviedo. San Julian de los Prados dates from AD 830 and is decorated with medieval frescoes. The Palacio de Santa Maria del Naranco was also built in the ninth century for Ramiro I as a hunting lodge. The chapel of San Miguel de Lillo is nearby. There are many good beaches along the coast, especially around the large fishing village of Ribadesella and Lastres.
The Cantabrian resorts make a convenient base for expeditions to the mountains. Cantabria (and Asturias) are important centers for skiing and winter sports. The main stations are at Alto Campo, San Isidro and Valgrande-Pajares. Santander is a busy traditional resort set in a beautiful bay ringed with hills. The Gothic Cathedral was destroyed by fire in 1941, but has been carefully restored. The Municipal Museum contains a fine collection of paintings by many 17th- and 18th-century artists. Nearby are the fine beaches of El Sardinero and Magdalena. Santander hosts an impressive music festival throughout August. There are a number of smaller beach resorts to east and west of Santander: Comillas, San Vincente (an old fishing port with a hill-top Gothic church and ducal palace), Laredo and Castro Urdiales (an attractive village with a fine harbor, overlooked by a medieval church and the remains of a Knights Templar castle). The Caves of Altamira are decorated with wall paintings dating back 13,000 years. Note however that admission is strictly limited and advance applications are essential. 100 meters away is Neocuerva, a reproduction of the prehistoric original. Nearby is the well-preserved historic town of Santillana del Mar with buildings dating from the 12th to the 18th centuries. Solares is noted for the therapeutic qualities of its mineral waters.
The Basque Country (País Vasco)
Guipúzcoa, Vizcaya and Alava form the Basque provinces, to the east of the Cantabrian Mountains. The economy of this fertile region is based on agriculture, despite having been highly industrialized in the 19th century. The Basques are an ancient pre-Indo-European race and the origins of their language have baffled etymologists for centuries. An independence movement started to make headway around the turn of the 20th century and the separatists still have a following in parts of the region. The Spanish constitution allows the Basques a degree of autonomy, but Nationalist politicians are demanding a greater say in their own affairs.
A large though declining port, Bilbao is the main city of the region. The city was founded in the early 14th century and the Old Town is quite extensive with a Gothic Cathedral and an attractive Town Hall. Bilbao’s pre-eminent attraction is Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum, hailed as a masterpiece of 20th-century architecture. The vast exhibition spaces are given over to rotating exhibitions of modern art in all its forms. The Palacio Euskalduna is Bilbao’s new congress and music center.
The provincial capital of San Sebastián, situated very close to the French frontier, is one of the most fashionable and popular Spanish seaside resorts. Just 7km (4 miles) west of the town is Monte Ulia, which offers superb views across the countryside and the Bay of Biscay. The art treasures found in the 13th-century Castle of Butron, near Bilbao, are also worthy of note.
The third provincial capital of the Basque region, and also the regional capital, is Vitoria, famous as being the site of a British victory during the Peninsula War, an event commemorated in various places in the city. Vitoria is remarkable for having two cathedrals; one was completed in the 15th century, whilst the other, on which work commenced in 1907, has yet to be finished.
Navarre & Aragon
These two medieval kingdoms lie southwest of the French border, with the Pyrenees to the northeast. The landscape offers spectacular views, the mountains contrasting with the lush valleys of the lower ground. This is a popular area for skiing and winter sports. The main resorts include Astun, Candanchú, Cerler, El Formigal, and Panticosa.
Pamplona has been inundated with tourists ever since American writer Ernest Hemingway put the town on the map with his novel The Sun Also Rises (1927). His fascination was with the Corrida, the ‘running of the bulls’, at the Festival of San Fermín (Jul 6-14). During this week, brave or foolhardy visitors join the young men of the town in trying to outrun a large herd of bulls that stampedes through the town’s narrow, closed streets. Visitors should book early and expect relatively high prices. Outside the fiesta season, Pamplona’s main attractions are its old walled quarter, Renaissance Cathedral and imposing Citadel.
Aragon rose to prominence in the late 15th century when its kings resided at Zaragoza, now the regional capital. Situated on the River Ebro, it is a university town with a medieval Cathedral, a 17th-century basilica dedicated to the Virgin of Pilar (a focus of pilgrimage and celebrations in the second week of October) and the Aljafería, a Moorish palace dating from the 11th to the 15th centuries. The Museo de Zaragoza has finds dating back to the city’s Roman foundations. In the surrounding countryside there are several areas noted for their wine production, such as Borja and Cariñena, and several castles.
Huesca, situated in the foothills of the Pyrenees, is an important market town. There are several attractions within easy reach, including the Ordesa National Park, excellent walking and climbing country; the popular summer holiday resort of Arguis in the Puerto de Monrepós region; the spa town of Balneario de Panticosa; and the high-altitude resort and frontier town of Canfranc.
The third and southernmost province of Aragon is Teruel. The provincial capital is sited on a hill surrounded by the gorges of the Rio Turia. It has a pronounced Moorish influence (the last mosque was not closed until 10 years after the end of the Reconquista in 1492), and there are several architectural survivals from its Islamic period. Nearby is the small episcopal city of Sergobe, spectacularly situated between two castle-crowned hills.
Valencia & Murcia
Spain’s third-largest city (population 800,000), Valencia is famous for its orange groves, its fruit and vegetable market (one of the largest in Europe) and its lively nightlife. It is also a popular tourist resort with beaches a short bus ride from the town. The newest tourist attraction is Santiago Calatrava’s City of Arts and Science Park. The Hemispheric, an amazing glass structure, houses a planetarium, IMAX dome and laserium. The Palace of Arts boasts the largest oceanarium in Europe. Valencia’s Cathedral claims possession of the Holy Grail. The Fallas (Mar 15-19) is a major festival culminating in the burning of papier-mâché effigies satirising famous Spanish figures and a magnificent fireworks display.
Alicante & the Costa Blanca
The Costa Calida in the province of Murcia lies to the south of Alicante and is thinly populated except in the areas around the river valleys. Summer temperatures here can be unbearably hot in the resorts but especially inland. Murcia, the town, has a university, cathedral and small old quarter. The salt water lagoon at Mar Menor is good for watersports, while nearby, La Manga offers tennis, golf and so on. Other resorts include Mazarrón, La Unión and Aguilas. The best time to visit Cartagena, founded, as its name implies, by the Carthaginians in the third century BC, is during Holy Week. The town museum has a good collection of Roman and pre-Roman artifacts. Space on the beaches around Torrevieja is at a premium during the summer.
Further north along the coast is Alicante, the most important town on the Costa Blanca. The town is dominated by the vast Moorish castle of Santa Barbara, which offers superb views of the city. Excursions from Alicante include a run inland to Guadalest, a village perched like an eagle’s eyrie high in the mountains and accessible in the last stages only by donkey or on foot. Also of great interest are several historical sites, including the castles at Elda and Villena, and Elche, famous for its forest of a million palm trees, Botanical Gardens and Basilica, where a medieval Mystery play is performed to celebrate the feast of the Assumption (Aug 14-15).
The Costa Blanca has expanded rapidly in recent years and most of the coastal towns between the Peñón de Ifach and Alicante are primarily tourist resorts. Temperatures are higher than on the Costa Brava and the beaches tend to be more extensive. Benidorm is the largest and most intensively developed resort. The new Terramitica theme park is proving popular with visitors. One of many places of interest in the area is the Peñón de Ifach (Ifach Rock), 5km (3 miles) beyond the walled town of Calpe.
The Costa del Azahar
This coastal region extends from Vinaròs and the Gulf of Valencia to beyond Denia. The region has expansive beaches around Benicàssim, but its most outstanding feature is, perhaps, the medieval fortress town of Peñiscola, a dramatic sight when viewed from a distance. Other places of interest are the ruined castle of Chisvert, inland from Peñiscola; the 16th-century Torre del Rey at Oropesa; and the Carmelite monastery at the Desierto de las Palmas. North of Valencia is the attractive provincial capital of Castellón, Castellón de la Plana. This small town is situated on a fertile plain, and is the center of a thriving trade in citrus fruits.
Catalonia is the eastern coastal region, bordering France. It has an ancient culture quite distinct from its neighbors, and many of the inhabitants speak Catalan, a Romance language influenced by medieval French. Catalonia is Spain’s industrial and commercial powerhouse but agriculture (olive oil, wine, almonds and fruit) is also important in the region. Catalonia is an important focus of tourism, especially the seaside resorts of the Costa Brava and Costa Dorada. Skiing and winter sports are on offer for up to six months of the year in the Pyrenees: the resorts include Baqueira-Beret, Espot Esquí, Masella, La Molina, Nuria, Port del Compte and Rasos de Peguera.
Spain’s second-largest city (population 2.5 million) is a major commercial and industrial center and an important Mediterranean port. The Barri Gótic (Gothic quarter), as the name suggests, has buildings dating back to the 14th and 15th centuries. Highlights include the Seu (old cathedral), the Episcopal Palace, the Palau de la Generalitat and the Plaça del Rei.
The Museo Picasso focuses on the artist’s formative years, but includes works from the Blue and Rose periods. Las Ramblas, Barcelona’s main thoroughfare, occupies the site of the ancient city walls and extends from the Plaça de Catalunya to the port. Cafes, bookstalls, flower and bird markets and street artists are just some of the attractions of this fashionable avenue. Beyond Plaça Catalunya, the Eixample (Extension) boasts a wealth of Art Nouveau and Art Deco architecture. The still incomplete church of the Sagrada Familia (Holy Family) is the masterpiece of Spain’s greatest 20th-century architect, Antoni Gaudí. Other examples of his work are the Casa Batlló, the Casa Mila and Parc Güell. The funicular to Tibidabo, the highest of Barcelona’s hills, and the cable car to Montjuic in the southern suburbs, offer spectacular views over the city. There are funfairs on both summits. Barcelona’s best museums include the Picasso (see above), the Fundació Joan Miró with works by another of Spain’s most innovative 20th-century artists, the Museum of Catalan Art, the Maritime Museum, the Zoological Museum and the Monastery of Peldralbes , which houses part of the Thyssen-Bornemisza art collection.
A popular excursion from Barcelona (40km, 24 miles) is to the famed monastery of Montserrat and the shrine of the Black Madonna. The mountain setting, 1135m (3725ft) above the Llobregat River, is spectacular.
The Costa Dorada
The coastline from Barcelona to Tarragona has more fine sandy beaches. Tarragona was an important army base in Roman times and visitors can still see the remains of the forum, amphitheater, aqueduct and fortified walls. The city also has an impressive medieval quarter. Inland is the town of Montblanc with a fine Gothic church and the ruins of the 12th-century Cistercian monastery at Poblet. The two main resorts are Salou (the Port-Aventura Theme Park is a key attraction) and cosmopolitan Sitges.
The Costa Brava
This coastal strip northeast of Barcelona comprises pine-clad rocks, sandy bays and package resorts. Inland is Lleida, a province that borders the Pyrenees and boasts some of the most spectacular mountain scenery in Spain. Some resorts on the Costa Brava, such as Tossa de Mar, remain largely unspoilt despite the massive influx of holidaymakers; others (Blanes and Lloret de Mar for example) are intensely developed. In summer the crowds can begin to pall but, with persistence, relatively isolated beaches can be found. Coastal ferries operate between the main resorts. Girona (Gerona) is one of Catalonia’s oldest cities, dating back to the Roman period. The Gothic Cathedral has a remarkable collection of medieval religious art. Other attractions include the Arab baths, the former Jewish quarter and the fortified walls. Figueres was the birthplace of the artist Salvador Dalí and has a fascinating Museum devoted to his work. Cadaquès is an enchanting, but touristy, fishing village made famous by Dalí who was a regular visitor. Pals is an intact medieval village, complete with fortifications. Empúries (Ampurias) has impressive Graeco-Roman remains.