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Food and drink
Barrenechea, T, The Basque Table (1998), Harvard Common Press. A cookbook with traditional Basque recipes.
Casas, Penelope, The Foods and Wines of Spain (1982), Knopf. Considered by many as the definitive book on Spanish cooking, the author is married to a Madrileño and covers regional cuisine as well as tapas and traditional desserts.Radford, J, The New Spain: A Complete Guide to Contemporary Spanish Wine (2004), Mitchell Beazley. An updated guide to Spain’s wines and wineries. New edition should be due soon.
History and politics
Beevor, A, The Battle for Spain (2007), Phoenix. This prolific war historian’s take on the conflict. Detailed but readable, it’s not perhaps as good as Hugh Thomas’s, but it’s shorter and benefits from recent research.
Brenan, G, The Spanish Labyrinth (1943), Billings & Sons. A good explanation of the background to the Spanish Civil War.
Carr, R (ed), Spain: A History (2000), Oxford University Press. An interesting compilation of recent writing on Spanish history, with entertaining and myth- dispelling contributions from leading academics.
Elliott, J, Imperial Spain (1963), Edward Arnold. History as it should be, precise, sympathetic and very readable.
Gibson, I, Ligero de Equipaje (2006). A moving biography of poet Antonio Machado by excellent Spanish-based Irishman Ian Gibson. Hopefully it will appear in English soon.
Kurlansky, M, The Basque History of the World (1999), Vintage Press. A likeable introduction to what makes the Basques tick, what they eat, what they’ve done and what they’re like.
Rankin, N, Telegram from Guernica (2003), Faber & Faber. This biography of the fascinating war correspondent George Steer has more on his Ethiopian experiences than the Guernica events, but is still a decent read that evokes the frenzy of the Civil War.
Ross, C, Contemporary Spain: A Handbook (1997), Arnold Press. Slightly dry but useful overview of Spain’s politics and economy.
Steer, G, The Tree of Guernica (1938), Hodder & Stoughton. Written by a pro-Republican reporter who was an eyewitness to the atrocity of the bombing, this is of most interest for an evocative description of the event itself.
Thomas, H, The Spanish Civil War (1961/77), Penguin. The first unbiased account of the war read by many Spaniards in the censored Franco years, this is large but always readable. A superbly researched work.Zulaika, J, Basque Violence: Metaphor and Sacrament (2000), University of Nevada Press. An academic but intriguing exploration of the roots of Basque nationalist feeling, and the progression to violence.
Literature, art and reportage
Unamuno, M, Tragic Sense of Life (1913), Dover Publications (1990). The anguished and heroically honest attempt by the great Basque and Salamantine philosopher to come to terms with faith and death.
Alas, L (Clarín), La Regenta (1885). Good novel about small-town prejudices in Spain, set in mythical Vetusta, heavily based on Oviedo.
Atxaga, B, Obabakoak (1994), Vintage Books. A dreamlike series of anecdotes making up a novel by a well-respected contemporary Basque author. Drawn from Basque heritage rather than about Basque culture. Individual and profound.
Baroja, P, The Tree of Knowledge (1911). While mostly set in Madrid and Valencia, this is the best introduction to this powerful Basque novelist.
Burns, J, Spain: A Literary Companion (1995); John Murray. Good anthology of Spanish writers.
Cela, C, La Familia de Pascual Duarte (1942). Nobel-prize-winning writer’s first and best novel, a grimly realistic novel about post-war Spain. La Colmena is another good one that has been translated into English.
Cervantes Saavedra, M de, Don Quijote (1605/1615). Don Quixote is an obvious choice and a superbly entertaining read.
Cohen, J (ed), The Penguin Book of Spanish Verse (1988), Penguin. Excellent collection of Spanish poetry through the ages, with original versions and transcriptions.
Hemingway, €, Death in the Afternoon (1939), Jonathan Cape. Superb book on bullfighting by a man who fell heavily for it.
Hemingway, €, Fiesta/The Sun Also Rises (1927), Jonathan Cape. One of Hemingway’s greatest works, an evocative description of the Pamplona fiestas and trout-fishing in the Pyrenees.
Hooper, J, The New Spaniards (1995), Penguin. An excellent account of modern Spain and the issues affecting peoples’ lives.
Orwell, G, Homage to Catalonia (1938), Secker & Warburg. About Orwell’s experience of the Spanish Civil War, and characteristically incisive and poignant.Pérez-Reverte, A, The Dumas Club (1993), Harvill Press (Eng version). Not from the north, but a very popular light-reading novelist; this is his best work.
Arias Páramo, L, Guía del Arte Prerrománico Asturiano (1994), Trea. The best book around on Asturian pre-Romanesque architecture. Spanish, but with an English summary.
Ball, P, ¡Morbo! (2001) Excellent overview of Spanish football and its rivalries.Farino, T and Grunfeld, F, Wild Spain, Sheldrake Press. Knowledgeable book on Spain’s wildlife and the quiet corners where you find it.
Borrow, G, The Bible in Spain (1842), John Murray Press. Amusing account of another remarkable 19th-century traveller who travelled widely through Spain trying to distribute Bibles during the first Carlist War.
Brenan, G, The Face of Spain (1950), Turnstile Press. Although set in the south, this is worth a read for Brenan’s insights into the people he lived among for many years.
Ford, R, A Hand-Book for Travellers in Spain (1845), John Murray Press. Difficult to get hold of (there have been several editions) but worth it; comprehensive and entertaining guide written by a 19th-century British gentleman who spent 5 years in Spain.
Ford, R, Gatherings from Spain (1846), John Murray Press. Superb and sweeping overview of Spanish culture and customs; Richard Ford was something of a genius and has been surpassed by few if any travel writers since.
Jacobs, M, The Road to Santiago, Pallas Athene Publishers. One of the best guides to the architecture of the pilgrim route, full of knowledgeable insight but happily piety-free.
Lee, L, As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning (1969), Penguin. A poignant account of a romantic walk across pre-Civil War Spain.
Morris, J, Spain (1960), Penguin. Morris didn’t know Spain that well, and that is the book’s strength; it’s a good collection of insightful first impressions.
Morton, H, A Stranger in Spain (1955), Methuen. Not one of Morton’s best; he was fastidiously unwilling to adapt to Spanish culture, but still very readable.
Nooteboom, C, Roads to Santiago (1992), The Harvill Press. An offbeat travelogue that never fails to entertain. One of the best travel books around, soulful, literary and moving, by a Dutch writer with a deep love of Romanesque architecture. Highly recommended.Pillement, G, Unknown Spain (1964), Johnson Press. Likeable and useful (if not hugely entertaining) book describing various routes discovering the architecture of Northern Spain.
Art nouveau and art deco
First millennium BC
The first millennium BC saw the construction of sturdier settlements, usually on hilltops. The sizeable Iberian town of Numancia, though razed after a Roman siege, remains an interesting example and many of the cities of Northern Spain were originally founded during this period. The Celts, too, favoured hilly locations for the construction of castros. These fort/villages were typically walled compounds containing a large building, presumably the residence of the chieftain and hall for administration and trading, surrounded by smaller, circular houses and narrow lanes. These dwellings were probably built from mudbrick/adobe on a stone foundation with a thatched roof. The Galician palloza, still widely seen in villages well into the 20th century, had probably changed little since these times. There are many well-preserved castros in Northern Spain, principally in Galicia and western Asturias.Phoenician and Carthaginian remains are few in Northern Spain. The Carthaginians were based mostly in the south; their ancestors, the Phoenicians, were so adept at spotting natural harbours that nearly all have been in continual use ever since, leaving only the odd foundations or breakwaters. Greek presence has left a similarly scant architectural legacy in the north.
Austerity in monastic life ushered in the change to elegant remote purity. The whimsical carved capitals disappeared, and the voluptuous curves were squared off as the church authorities began to exert more control over buildings within their dioceses. It seems unbelievable that the word Gothic was originally a pejorative term, applied to the pointed style during the Baroque period to mean ‘barbarous’. Spanish Gothic architecture also owed much to French influence, although German masons and master builders did much work, particularly in and around Burgos. Advances in engineering allowed lighter, higher structures than their Romanesque forebears, and the wealth and optimism of the rapidly progressing Reconquista saw ever more imaginative structures raised. The cathedrals of León and Burgos are soaringly beautiful examples of this.
The basic unit of Gothic is the pointed arch, symbolic of the general enthusiasm for ‘more space, less stone’ that pervaded the whole endeavour. The same desire was behind the flying buttress, an elegant means of supporting the building from the exterior, thus reducing the amount of interior masonry. Large windows increased the amount of light; the rose window is a characteristic feature of many Gothic façades, while the amount of stained glass in the León cathedral seems to defy physics (to the ongoing concern of engineers). Elaborate vaulting graced the ceilings. The groundplan was often borrowed from French churches; as the style progressed more and more side chapels were added, particularly around the ambulatory.A feature of many Spanish Gothic churches, and unique to the country, is the enclosed coro (choir, or chancel) in the middle of the nave, a seemingly self-defeating placement that robs the building of much of the sense of space and light otherwise striven for. Nevertheless, the choirstalls are often one of the finest features of Gothic architecture, superbly carved in wood. Ornate carved decoration is common on the exteriors of Gothic buildings too. Narrow pinnacles sprout like stone shoots, and the façades are often topped by gables. Portals often feature piers and tympanums carved with biblical figures and scenes, circled by elaborate archivolts.
The 16th century was a high point in Spanish power and wealth, when it expanded across the Atlantic, tapping riches that must have seemed limitless for a while. Spanish Renaissance architecture reflected this, leading from the ornate ‘Isabelline’ late Gothic style into the elaborate peninsular style known as Plateresque. Although the style originally relied heavily on Italian models, it soon took on specifically Spanish features. The word refers particularly to the façades of civil and religious buildings, characterized by decoration of shields and other heraldic motifs, as well as geometric and naturalistic patterns such as shells. The term comes from the word for silversmith, platero, as the level of intricacy of the stonework approached that of jewellery. Arches went back to being rounded, and columns and piers became a riot of foliage and ‘grotesque’ scenes. The massive façade of San Marcos in León is an excellent example of the style, as is the university at Salamanca.A classical revival put an end to much of the elaboration, as Renaissance architects concentrated on purity. Classical Greek features such as fluted columns and pediments were added to by large Italianate cupolas and domes. Spanish architects were apprenticed to Italian masters and returned with their ideas. Elegant interior patios in palacios are an attractive feature of the style, found across the north, particularly in Salamanca, as well as Valladolid and smaller places such as Medina del Campo.
The Roman occupation of Hispania was largely administered from the south and east and the majority of architectural remains are in that region. Nevertheless, the Roman legacy is of great interest in the north also. They founded and took over a great number of towns; most of the provincial capitals of the region sit on Roman foundations. Zaragoza, Pamplona, Palencia and Lugo were all important Roman centres, while the abandoned settlements of Clunia and Numancia have extensive, if unspectacular remains.The Roman remains near Palencia are the finest villas of the north; something of an exception, as the presence in this region seems to have been largely of a military/ exploitative nature. The Seventh Legion was based at León to administer the mines of the Bierzo region, while the Duero and Ebro valleys produced large quantities of wine; but the majority of the peninsula’s wealthy Roman settlements were further south. Although shored up over the years, the walls of Lugo are an impressive sight indeed.
The style that spread across the whole of Northern Spain in the 11th and 12th centuries and is most dear to many visitors’ hearts is the Romanesque or románico. Although there are some examples of the ‘Catalan’ style, derived from contact with Italy, and of which the Lombard arch (exterior decoration in the shape of fingers) is a primary characteristic, most of Northern Spain’s Romanesque can be traced back to French influences. Many monks from France arrived in the north of the peninsula in the 11th century and built monasteries along the same lines as the ones of their home country, but the biggest single factor in the spread of the style was the Santiago pilgrimage. News of what was being built in the rest of Europe was spread across Northern Spain and it is fitting that the portal of the cathedral at Santiago is widely considered to be the pinnacle of Spanish Romanesque.The typical features of Romanesque churches are barrel-vaulted ceilings (stone roofs reduced the number of churches that burned down) with semicircular arches; these also appear on the door and window openings. The apse is also round. Geometic decoration is common, such as the chessboard patterning known as ajedrezado jaqués, first seen in the Pyrenean town of Jaca, from where it spread along the length of the pilgrim route. Fine carvings, once painted, are often present on capitals and portals; the cloisters of Santo Domingo de Silos and San Juan de la Peña as well as the church of San Martín in Frómista are excellent examples. The carvings depict a huge variety of subjects: biblical scenes are present and vegetal motifs recurring, but scenes of everyday life from the sublime to the ridiculous, the mundane to the erotic, are common (and often dryly labelled ‘allegorical’ in church pamphlets), as are strange beasts and scenes from mythology. This is part of the style’s charm, as is the beautifully homely appearance of the buildings, often built from golden stone. Some of the towns with an excellent assembly of the Romanesque are Soria and Zamora, as well as those all along the Camino de Santiago. The purest examples are often in the middle of nowhere; places where someone had the money to build a stone church in the 11th century, and no one’s had the cash to meddle with it since.
Arts and crafts
Spain’s artistic traditions go back a long way; right to the Palaeolithic, when cave artists along the north coast produced art that ranged from simple outlines of hands to the beautiful and sophisticated bison herds of Altamira.
The Iberians and the Celts produced fine jewellery from gold and silver, and some good sculpture. The Romans’ artistic legacy was not as strong in Spain’s north as in the south, although there are some fine pieces, including mosaic floors. Good bronze, silver and gold pieces are also known from the period of the Visigoths.
Monks of the Middle Ages produced some illustrated manuscripts of stunning beauty, particularly copies of the works of Beatus of Liébana. Wallpaintings in Asturian pre-Romanesque and in Mozarabic churches are also early examples of medieval art.Most of Spanish sculpture through the centuries has been in the religious sphere. The Romanesque master masons responsible for such gems as the cloisters of San Juan de la Peña and Santo Domingo de Silos are not known by name, but arguably the finest of them all is Master Mateo, whose tour de force was the Pórtico de la Gloria entrance to the Cathedral of Santiago.
The 20th century
The Gothic period
The ornate development of the Gothic style culminated in the superlative technical mastery of the works of the northern Europeans resident in Castilla, Simón de Colonia and Gil and Diego de Siloé, whose stunning retablos and tombs are mostly in and around Burgos. Damián Forment was a busy late Gothic sculptor who left his native Aragón to train in Italy, then returned and executed a fine series of retablos in his homeland. Saints and Virgins in polychrome (ie with applied colour) wood continued to be popular, and there are some fine examples from the period.As well as sculptors, there were many foreign painters working in the Gothic period in Northern Spain. As well as retablos, painted panels on gold backgrounds were popular, often in the form of triptychs. Frequently illustrating the lives of saints, many of these are excellent pieces, combining well-rendered expression with a lively imagination, particularly when depicting demons, subjects where the artist had a freer rein. Some of the better painters from this period are Fernando Gallego, whose paintings grace Salamanca, Jorge Inglés, resident in Valladolid and presumably an Englishman named George, Juan de Flandes (Salamanca; Flanders), and Nicolás Francés (León; France). These painters drew on influences from the Italian and Flemish schools of the time, but created a distinctive and entertaining Spanish style.
The I8th-19th centuries
The early 18th century saw fairly characterless art produced under the new dynasty of Bourbon kings. Tapestry production increased markedly but never scaled the heights of the earlier Flemish masterpieces, many of which can be seen in Northern Spain. The appropriately enough named Francisco Bayeu produced pictures for tapestries (‘cartoons’), as did the master of 19th-century art, Francisco Goya. Goya; his fresco work in northern Spanish churches never scaled these heights. His depiction of the vain Bourbon royals is brutally accurate; he was no fan of the royal family, and as court painter got away with murder. His etchings of the horrors of the Napoleonic Wars are another facet of his uncompromising depictions.After Goya, the 19th century produced few works of note as Northern Spain tore itself apart in a series of brutal wars and conflicts. The rebirth came at the end of the period with the ‘1898 Generation’. One of their number was the Basque painter Ignacio Zuloaga (1870-1945), a likeable painter with a love of Spain and a clear eye for its tragic aspects. His best work is portraiture, often set against a brooding Castilian landscape.
The transitional painter Pedro Berruguete hailed from near Palencia and studied in Italy. His works are executed in the Gothic manner but have a Renaissance fluidity that was mastered by his son, Alonso, who learned under Michelangelo and was court painter to Carlos V. His finest work is sculptural; he created saints of remarkable power and expression in marble and in wood. Juan de Juni, who lived in Valladolid, is also notable for his sensitive sculptures of religious themes.
As the Renaissance progressed, naturalism in painting increased, culminating in the portraits of Velásquez and the religious scenes of Murillo in the 17th century.
This was the finest period of Spanish painting; one of its early figures was the 16th-century Riojan painter Juan Fernández Navarrete, many of whose works are in the Escorial. He studied in Venice and his style earned him the nickname of ‘The Spanish Titian’; his paintings have a grace of expression denied him in speech by his dumbness. A fine portraitist, overshadowed by his contemporary Velásquez, was the Asturian noble Juan Carreño de Miranda (1614-1685). Late in life he became court painter and is noted for his depictions of the unfortunate inbred King Carlos II. Although not from the region, several works by the remarkable Francisco de Zurbarán hang in Northern Spain; his idiosyncratic style often focuses on superbly rendered white garments on a dark, brooding background, a metaphor for the subjects themselves, who were frequently priests. The religious atmosphere of imperial Spain continued to dominate in art; landscapes and joie de vivre are in comparatively short supply.Gregorio Hernández was a fine naturalistic sculptor working in Valladolid at this time. Retablos became more ornate, commissioned by nobles to gain favour with the church and improve their chances in the afterlife. As Baroque progressed, this was taken to extremes. Some of the altarpieces and canopies are immense and overgilded, clashing with the Gothic lines of the churches they were placed in; while supremely competent in execution, they can seem gaudy and ostentatious to modern eyes.
Another Oscar-winning director is Fernando Trueba, whose Belle Epoque (1993) is a romantic comedy set in the pre-Civil War republic, also starring Cruz. Bigas Luna explores the strange worlds of sex, the unconscious and food in films such as Jamón Jamón and La Teta y la Luna. Basque director Alex de la Iglesia’s latest film, The Oxford Murders, starring Elijah Wood, was based on the award-winning novel by the Argentine writer Guillermo Martínez. Another prominent director is José Luis Garcí, whose 2008 release Sangre de Mayo tells of the Spanish resistance against the French occupation in the early 1800s.
After years under the cultural anaesthetic of the fascist dictatorship, Spanish cinema has belatedly made a strong impression on the world stage. With an enthusiastic home audience of cinema-goers, increased funding, and a huge global Spanish-speaking population, it was perhaps only a matter of time.
One of the early pioneers of cinema was the Aragonese film-maker Segundo de Chomón who was hired by the French film company Pathé in order for them to compete against the great Georges Méliès in the late 19th century. He was an innovator in trick photography and made one of the earliest colour films Le scarabée d’or (The Golden Beetle). However, it was telling that he had to work outside his homeland. A shortage of capital and an underdeveloped home market meant that it was very difficult to develop any indigenous production facilities. As public awareness slowly mounted, the demand was mostly met by imported American films.
One of the greatest figures in the history of cinema came from a small town in the underdeveloped province of Teruel. Luis Buñuel sprang to prominence in France, where he collaborated with Salvador Dalí in the late 1920s, pioneering surrealism on the screen. Buñuel was sure that the critics were going to hate their first film, Un chien andalou, so he took some stones along to the première to lob at any that voiced their disapproval. Luckily, it went down a treat, and they followed it up with the successful L’Age d’Or; both produced images that are still iconic. Along with a whole generation of talented artists, Buñuel left Spain with the onset of fascism but did return shortly before his death to work on a number of collaborations. His work has influenced generations of directors.
The beginnings of a native Spanish film industry came during the 1930s with the help of the Republican Government. Locally produced films such as La Verbena de la Paloma (Paloma Fair) (1935) and Morena Clara (Clara the Brunette) (1936) proved to be immensely popular and produced the first Spanish-language star, the unlikely named Imperio Argentina. Another important development in this period was the move to dub imported films into Spanish, a practice which continues to this day.
The Civil War and its lead-up saw numerous propaganda films made, then the establishment of the Franco dictatorship saw the end of progress and development in the Spanish film industry. For the next 40 years the film industry was to be made subservient to the goals of the state, all film production had to be approved and censorship was strict. The emphasis was on films with a unifying message. Glorified histories, inoffensive comedies and chaste romances were the order of the day. Regional differences were not encouraged and the use of Catalan, Euskara and Gallego was forbidden.
Despite this, some film-makers managed to put their message across. The most important was Antonio Bardem. His films, especially Death of a Cyclist (1956) suggested that it was possible to introduce some elements of criticism into film-making. He founded the magazine Objectivo in 1953 which, for the 15 issues that it was allowed to operate, became a rallying point for critics of the Franco regime. However, Bardem was arrested on numerous occasions and it became increasingly difficult for him to produce in Spain. Luis Berlanga was another who risked persecution to satirize the state.
Carlos Saura was the stand-out figure of Spanish cinema in the 1960s and 1970s. Films such as La Caza (The Hunt, 1965) and Ana y los lobos (Ana and the Wolves, 1973) managed to employ symbolism to attack the institutions of the dictatorship, which had become somewhat freer by these times. A similar approach was taken by Victor Erice and his El espíritu de la colmena (Spirit of the Beehive, 1973), a film of haunting beauty set in post-war Castilla.
Since the abolition of censorship after Franco’s death, things have changed. Spanish cinema has witnessed the transformation mirrored in many aspects of life in the peninsula. Without a doubt, the best-known post-Franco director has been Pedro Almodóvar. Films such as Atame (Tie Me Up, Tie Me Down), Mujeres al borde de un ataque de nervios (Women on the Edge of a Nervous Breakdown) and the Oscar-winning Todo sobre mi madre (All About my Mother) explore the themes of desire and obsession in Madrid that have made Almodóvar one of the world’s most popular and prominent directors. His films have propelled actors Antonio Banderas and Penélope Cruz to international stardom. His film Volver won an Oscar nomination in 2007.
Carlos Saura is still directing; his Carmen (1983) was highly acclaimed and he has made several quirky films inspired by the world of art and music. Fernando León is another talented writer and director whose 2002 socially aware comedy Los Lunes al Sol (Mondays in the Sun) focused on a group of unemployed friends in a north-coast fishing town. It starred Javier Bardem, one of Spain’s most talented cinematic actors, nephew of the great Antonio. Bardem, who won an Oscar in 2008 for his role as Anton Chigger in No Country for Old Men. He had previously captured the world’s attention in 2004, starring in Mar Adentro (The Sea Inside), a moving story of a man crippled and bedridden by an accident.
At the end of September each year, the film world turns its attention to San Sebastián and over 200,000 visitors come to view the enormous number of both Spanish and international films on offer. As well as awarding internationally prestigious prizes the festival focuses attention on regional Spanish cinema and tries to ensure that it is seen outside the limited area of its production. Spain’s other main film event is the awarding of the Goya prizes, which are presented at the end of January.Recently there has been a recognition that although there is a basic production infrastructure in the North of Spain, especially in the Basque country, there is a need to develop skills in marketing and promotion. The establishment of a national film school in Ponferrada, and the recent successes of Galician-set films such as Mar Adentro (The Sea Inside) and Los Lunes al Sol (Mondays in the Sun) indicate that progress is being made.
If a broad definition of dance is that it is ritualized movement, then a strong case can be made for saying that dance is at the very core of Spanish society. What else is the paseo but an enormous communal dance where each participant has their allotted role and which tradition guides from beginning to end?
Local fiestas and weddings showcase traditional regional dancing, but it is during la marcha that Spain’s living dance culture comes into its own. Come 0200 the whole of Spain seems to be engaged in an enormous Bacchic celebration of hip-swinging, hand-waving dancing that goes on till the last person leaves.
Although modern in approach, Spain’s dance culture has deep roots. In the north, each region has its own traditional dances. Mostly seen at fiestas these dances reflect the historical background of each region. Thus in Galicia and Asturias the dances are Celtic in origin and are similar to Scottish dances, following the basic reel pattern.
Many of the Basque dances are extremely physical as may be judged by their names, such as Bolant Dantza (Flying Dance). Perhaps the most famous of all Basque dances are the Espatas (Sword dances). Performed using interlocking swords these dances reflect their martial origins although in contempary Basque culture they are preformed more to impress than intimidate. Less exclusive are the Basque social dances where men and women dance together in a circle linked by either holding hands or handkerchiefs. The dances of the Basque country are more complicated although the difficult parts are usually left to the dantzari, or experts.Northern Spain has a variety of both ballet and modern dance companies that perform all over Spain and abroad. Drawing on local traditions these groups are very much part of the European mainstream and a number of innovative dancers have come from them. They are, however, very much at the top of the dance pecking order. It is much more important to emphasize that dance in Spain is entirely democratic in spirit.
With Castile playing a major role in the Reconquista the language spread rapidly and was adopted as the official one of the kingdom of Alfonso X, which encompassed most of northwest Spain. The fact that it is now spoken by some 360 million people worldwide is perhaps more than an accident of history; its accessibility and comparatively simple grammar may have aided its spread in the first place. In Spain, the most respected institution dealing with it is the Real Academia Española, http://www.rae.es, a hoary old body whose remit is “to purify, clarify, and give splendour” to the language.There are many regional accents of castellano. Many words are purely local; olives are called aceitunas in some places and olivas in others; ordering buey in Castilla will get you an ox steak, in Galicia a large crab. Similarly, slang differs widely from city to city. One entertaining story about Castilian is that the /th/ sound used for the letters z and c came about because courtiers were anxious not to offend a lisping Habsburg king. It’s almost certainly not true – linguists point to the fact that not all /s/ sounds are converted to /th/ – but it’s often used to poke fun at mainland Spain by Latin Americans, who don’t do it (neither do Andalucíans).
The peninsula’s earliest known writers lived under the Roman occupation. Martial was born near modern Calatayud and wrote of his native land, while the poet Prudentius was from Calahorra in the Rioja region. After the Roman period, San Isidoro was a significant figure in Spain’s literary history .
In the 10th century a monk made notes in Castilian in the margins of a text at San Millán, in La Rioja; this is the earliest known appearance of the language in writing. Tucked away in his monastery in the Picos de Europa, the monk Beatus de Liébana wrote commentaries on the Apocalypse which became a popular monkish staple for centuries . In the 12th century, El Cantar de Mío Cid was an anonymous epic poem recounting the glorious deeds of the northern Spanish mercenary annd strongman, El Cid; it’s the earliest known work in Castilian. Another early author was the Riojan poet Gonzalo de Berceo, who wrote popular religious verses.
An important 13th-century figure was King Alfonso X. Dubbed El Sabio (The Wise), he changed the official language of the kingdom from Latin (much bastardized by this time) to Castilian. He was also a poet, and wrote verses in Galego (Galician). It wasn’t unusual for the nobility to take up the pen and the 15th century saw the Marqués de Santillana dashing off verse, including the first Spanish sonnets. The popular form of the period was the romantic ballad, dealing in damsels and knights, Christians and Moors.
One of the finest Spanish poets of any period was the theologian Fray Luis de León; the poems A Cristo Crucificado and En la Ascensión are noteworthy. Lazarillo de Tormes, an anonymous work, appeared in 1554. One of the first of the genre known as picaresque (after the Spanish pícaro, a rogue), it dealt with a journey across Northern Spain by a blind man’s guide. It’s frequently described as the first Spanish novel. The extraordinary life of Miguel de Cervantes (1547-1616) marks the start of a rich period of Spanish literature. Don Quijote came out in serial form in 1606 and is rightly considered one of the finest novels ever written; it’s certainly the widest-read Spanish work. Cervantes spent a portion of his eventful life in Valladolid. The royal archives are another frequently overlooked source of interest, particularly those of Felipe II. A fascinating glimpse of the period can be had from reading his tenderly written letters to family as well as his policy decisions that affected half the world.
The opening of public theatres in the 17th century saw the rise of the great dramatists Lope de Vega and Calderón de la Barca (who was expelled from Salamanca University for defaulting on his college fees). In the 18th century the Basque Felix María Samaniego penned popular childlike fables. Meanwhile the Galician priest Benito Feijóo, a major Enlightenment figure, wrote important essays from his Oviedo base, and the later Asturian Gaspar Melchior de Jovellanos wrote significant historical-political and sociological works; both were pestered by the Inquisition for their liberal outlook.
Several of the 19th century’s major writers emerged from the north. Born in Valladolid, José Zorrilla spent much of his life in Mexico; he is famous for his poems and a play about Don Juan, Don Juan Tenorio. The playwright José de Echegaray was of Basque descent, while Leopoldo Alas, known as Clarín, set his novel La Regenta in the fictional city of Vetusta, clearly his native Oviedo. It’s a fantastic depiction of Spanish provincial life of the time, seen through the eyes of its heroine. At the same time, Galicia’s favourite poet, Rosalía de Castro, was writing her soulful verses in Spanish and Gallego .
A watershed in Basque writing came in the late 19th century with the fiery works of Sabino Arana. Littered with inaccuracies and untruths, much of his writing reads more like propaganda than literature or non-fiction, but it created modern Basque nationalism; since then it has been difficult for Basque writings to avoid the issue.
At the end of the 19th century, Spain lost the last of its colonial possessions after revolts and a war with the USA. This event, known as the ‘Disaster’, had a profound impact on the nation and its date, 1898, gave its name to a generation of writers and artists who sought to express what Spain was and had been, and achieve new perspectives for the 20th century. One of the foremost was the scholarly Basque Miguel de Unamuno. His novel A Tragic Sense of Life is an anguished an honest attempt to come to terms with his faith and inevitable death. The slightly later novels of Pío Baroja often deeply reflect Basque rural life. Blas de Otero, who had a complex love for his native Bilbao, spent most of his writing life overseas.
Another of the Generación de ’98 was the poet Antonio Machado . His work reflects his profound feelings for the landscape of his homelands of Andalucía and Castilla; he lived for many years in Soria. Along with Federíco García Lorca, he is considered the greatest of Spanish 20th-century poets; Machado and Lorca, Republicans both, were lost in the Civil War. Another notable member was the essayist, historian and critic José Ortega y Gasset, who spent time in Bilbao.
Two writers that stand out in post-Civil War Spanish literature are from Northern Spain. Miguel Delibes (1920-) is from Valladolid and his works range from biting satire to evocative descriptions of the Castilian landscape. Camilo José Cela (1916-2002), was a Galician realist who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1989 . Although the latter fought on the Nationalist side in the Civil War, both battled censors in post-war Spain as editors of anti-Francoist newspapers.Bernardo Atxaga is a talented contemporary Basque writer whose best-known work is the anecdotal Obabakoak; Julián Ríos is an award-winning Galician writer whose most acclaimed work is the novel Amores que atan.
By far the most popular form of music is pop, with the reality-TV show Operación Triunfo having created a production line of stars who are adored by the younger public. Every summer is marked by a handful of canciones de verano, modish (and usually awful) hits that are played continuously until autumn comes and then forgotten.
The Spanish passion for dancing is carried out to this and also to the sounds of bacalao, light and happy Spanish techno, which is widely popular and an essential background track to any Spanish visit.
Rock music in Spain was a symbol of the Transición – the return to democracy, and is still enthusiastically embraced by that and younger generations. Groups of that era, such as León’s Los Cardiacos, still evoke all the frenetic passion of those years when played in bars. Younger rock groups play to packed houses, particularly in more working-class cities such as Vigo, Gijón, Bilbao or Ponferrada. Big northern Spanish acts include La Oreja de Van Gogh, a San Sebastián pop-rock outfit, Amaral, a folk-pop duo from Zaragoza, Café Quijano, three light-rock brothers from León, Bunbury, the idiosyncratic Aragonese singer-songwriter, and Asturian indie rocker Nacho Vegas.Jazz, soul and R&B are represented in nearly all of the larger towns, most of which have at least one bar or venue devoted to the style. Live appearances of local musicians are common, while internationally renowned artists mainly play Madrid and Barcelona only, with perhaps a concert in Vigo, Bilbao, Valladolid, Zaragoza, or Gijón thrown in.
Based on folk traditions the post-Franco years have seen a rapid evolution of traditional forms and their incorporation into the mainstream of musical life. The music is mostly performed during festivals, some of which were banned during the Franco period. As well as showcasing traditional music these festivals offer an opportunity for musicians to experiment in a variety of different styles.
The northwestern regions of Galicia and Asturias derive their musical traditions from Celtic origins. Traditional instruments include bagpipes, accordions, fiddles and tin whistles. in addition, industrial Asturias has a tradition of male voice choirs similar to that of Wales. The unaccompanied choirs sing traditional Asturian songs and of the labour struggles of the 20th century.
Galician groups such as Leilía or Habas Verdes explore traditional forms using instruments such as the pandereta (tambourine), caneveira, a kind of split cane used for making clapping sounds, and the zanfona, a Galician hurdy-gurdy.
Galician immigrant history has meant that some musicians have incorporated Latin and other external rhythms into traditional Galician songs. Bagpiper Carlos Núñez was probably the first to develop this trend. A veteran of the European circuit, he has collaborated with a variety of musicians, including Ry Cooder. Other recommended Galician bands are Na Lúa (In the Moon), Fia Na Roca and Dhais. For Asturian music Llan de Cubel are interesting, while Hevia is one of the region’s best traditionally based musicians.
Traditional Basque music is an important part of Basque culture and is mostly associated with the accordion, or trikitrixa. Musicians associated with this include Josepa Tapia and Kepa Junkera. The tensions inherent in Basque culture are reflected in both the lyrical content and the forms that are performed. Songs are therefore an important part of Basque musicians’ repertoire. On the other hand there is the desire to innovate within the traditional form in order to ensure that it remains a living tradition rather than one of concern only to musicologists.Benito Lertxundi is the Basques’ most revered singer/songwriter and has been an inspiration to musicians for a generation. The first Basque band were Ez doz Amairu (It’s Not 13) who were part of the Kantaldi Garaia (Its Time To Sing movement). The aim of this movement was to give Basque culture a modern appeal and its effects continue to this day. Independence-minded Basques have frequently found musical expression in anti-establishment hard rock and punk music; some other important bands include Kortatu, Negu Gorriak and Soziedad Alkoholika.
The history of Spain and the history of the Spanish Catholic church are barely separable but, in 1978, Article 16 of the new constitution declared that Spain was now a nation without an official religion, less than a decade after Franco’s right hand man, Admiral Luis Carrero Blanco, had declared that “Spain is Catholic or she is nothing”.
From the sixth-century writings of San Isidoro onwards, the destiny of Spain was a specifically Catholic one. The Reconquista was a territorial war inspired by holy zeal, Jews and Moors were expelled in the quest for pure Catholic blood, the Inquisition demonstrated the young nation’s religious insecurities and paranoias and Felipe II bled Spain dry pursuing futile wars in a vain attempt to protect his beloved Church from the spread of Protestantism. Much of the strife of the 1800s was caused by groups attempting to end or defend the power of the church, while in the 20th century the fall of the Second Republic and the Civil War was engendered to a large extent by the provocatively anticlerical actions of the leftists.
Although regular church-going is increasingly confined to an aged (mostly female) segment of society, and seminaries struggle to produce enough priests, it’s not the whole picture. Romerías (religious processions to rural chapels) and religious fiestas are well attended, and places of popular pilgrimage such as Santiago, Zaragoza, Loiola and Covadonga are flooded with Spanish visitors during the summer. Very few weddings are conducted away from the Church’s bosom, and at Easter a huge percentage of the male population of some towns participates in solemn processions of religious cofradías (brotherhoods). Although not involved to the same degree in education as it once was, the Church runs some 15% of Spanish schools and several universities. The Church and the right wing remain closely connected in Spain; the opposition Partido Popular is implicitly a largely Catholic party, and allegations of Opus Dei involvement are frequent .
One curious aspect of Spanish Catholicism is its Marian aspect. Worship and veneration of the Virgin seem to far outstrip that of Christ himself, who is often relegated to a side chapel; María is still by far the most common name in Spain (even being used for boys in combination with another name, eg José María), and the majority of girls are named after one incarnation of the Virgin or another (eg Carmen, Pilar, Mercedes, Esperanza, Concepción, Begoña).The practice of Catholicism in Spain is far more devotional than liturgical. The devotions of the Via Crucis, or Stations of the Cross (which arose in the 17th century), the Sacred Heart (which became popular in the 16th), and the Rosary are the focus of a sentimental rather than robust approach to the religion; the Bible itself has historically not been widely available to, or read by, the people. Encouraging the performance of these ritualistic elements was a way for the church to keep a superstitious populace in regular attendance; indulgences were traditionally offered as a carrot. The number of fiestas in Spain, which are nearly all religious in origin, historically had a similar aim. Faced with a recent census form, a massive 94% of Spaniards claim to be Catholics, but less than a third cut regular figures in their parish church.
Though at time of writing ‘la crisis’ was curtailing optimism in many economic sectors, the feeling that Spain has finally arrived at the table of major economic powers is unlikely to disappear. Nevertheless, despite the long-lasting boom in the country’s economy, Spain’s salary levels remain low, and the rapid rise in property prices over the early years of the 21st century has led to major difficulties in debt repayments for many people in tougher economic times.
Spain’s main products are textiles, machinery and automobiles, while tourism remains a vital sector; Spain receives more annual visitors than any other European country. The story in the north is a mixed one. Euskadi, an industrial powerhouse, is prosperous by any European standards, while Aragón is also strong, at least in urban areas. Galicia and Asturias are poorer; both have unemployment rates close to 20%, and Galicia’s GDP per head isn’t much more than half that of Euskadi.
The north still has a very important fishing industry, while the wine trade is also significant among agricultural products. Manufacturing, particularly in the Basque lands, is strong and there’s still a shipbuilding industry, although declining. Euskadi and Asturias still produce steel and coal respectively, but the boom years are long gone in that sector. Bilbao and Santander continue to be important banking centres.One interesting case in Euskadi is the Mondragón cooperative, based in a small town near San Sebastián. Formed by five workers in the 1950s, who were influenced by the social teachings of the local priest, the MCC is now one of Spain’s leading companies, with over 20,000 members involved in many types of manufacturing. It’s Spain’s leader in the production of domestic appliances and also runs a major supermarket chain. Easily the world’s most successful attempt at this enlightened form of business, the MCC has served as a model for much sociological study. One of the keys to the cooperative’s success was the creation of their own bank, the Caja Laboral, with branches throughout the region.
Conquest of the Americas
The treaty of Tordesillas in 1494 partitioned the Atlantic between Spain and Portugal, and led to the era of Spanish colonization of the Americas. In many ways, this was an extension of the Reconquista as young men hardened on the Castilian meseta crossed the seas with zeal for conquest, riches and land.Under the Habsburg monarchy, Carlos V and Felipe II relied on the income from the colonies to pursue wars (often unwillingly) on several European fronts. It couldn’t last; Spain’s Golden Age has been likened by Spanish historian Felipe Fernández-Armesto to a dog walking on hind legs. Although over the centuries many indianos returned from the colonies to their native Navarra, Galicia and Asturias with newfound wealth, the American expansion sounded a grim bell for northern Castilla. The sheer weight of administration required forced the previously itinerant monarchy to choose a capital, and Felipe II set himself up in Madrid. With Sevilla and Cádiz now the focus for the all-important trade with the colonies, Castilla had turned southwards, and its northern provinces rapidly declined, hastened by a drain of their citizens to the New World across the sea.
The principal inhabitants of the region are known as Iberians by default, but little is known of their origins apart from the fact that they spoke languages that are not from the Indo-European group that unites the vast majority of European and western Asian languages under its umbrella. The Basques, too, seem to have been around in those days. Their language isn’t Indo-European either, but no convincing evidence has been found that can link them and the Iberians (or anyone else for that matter). Certain genetic peculiarities in the Basque population have led to theories that they are directly descended from the Palaeolithic inhabitants of the region. This ties in nicely with their own opinion that they are a very old people; they like to say God created Adam from old bones he found in a Basque cemetery.The third important group were the Celts, who descended from the north in waves in the early to mid first millennium BC. They spoke an Indo-European tongue and settled mostly in the north and west of the peninsula. Their influence is very apparent in place names, language and culture. There are still very close parallels between European areas settled by Celts; sitting over a cider while listening to bagpipes in Asturias you might want to ponder just how old these traditions are. The principal architectural remnant of the early Celts is the castro, a fortified hilltop fort and trading compound of which there are very many in Asturias and Galicia.
Political repression and cultural rejuvenation
Aznar then turned to ETA, using the prevailing international climate to take strong action. In 2002, the democratically elected party, Batasuna, widely seen as linked to the terrorist group, were banned by the courts after a purpose-built bill was resoundingly passed in parliament. The governing Basque Nationalist Party (PNV), wholly against terrorism, denounced the move against their political opponents as ‘undemocratic’ and ‘authoritarian’, which it undoubtedly was. Nevertheless, things quietened down and the move, backed by a massive police operation resulting in many arrests, seemed to have paid off.
However, Aznar’s heavy-handed and undemocratic methods appalled international observers and stirred the ghosts of Francoism in Spain. Then, the Prestige disaster seemed to reflect the government’s refusal to see the bigger picture, and Aznar took the country to war in Iraq against the wishes of a massive majority of the population. On 11 March 2004, three days before the general election, a series of 10 bombs exploded in four commuter trains approaching Madrid’s Atocha station; nearly 200 people were killed. The government was quick to blame ETA for the attack despite that group’s denial and substantial evidence for involvement by Islamic extremists. The electorate was angered at what was perceived as a vote-minded cover-up and punished Aznar’s hand-picked successor, Mariano Rajoy, at the election. Far adrift in the polling only a few days before, the PSOE were elected to government and the new prime minister, 43-year-old José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, from León, immediately pledged to withdraw Spanish troops from Iraq and re-align the country with ‘old Europe’.
Zapatero’s government pursued a decidedly liberal course. Spain’s religious right were outraged by the legalization of same-sex marriage, and when Zapatero agreed to pass a statute granting the Catalan government more autonomy (approved in a local referendum in Catalunya) the PP, who maintain the ideal that Spain is indissoluble, were furious. Zapatero has also pursued peaceful solutions to the Gibraltar question and initially favoured dialogue with ETA, despite the right’s condemnation of “dealing with terrorists”. ETA declared a ceasefire in March 2006, but broke it, and stepped up their bombings and assassinations in 2008 in response to a major government crackdown that saw several of their leaders arrested. Zapatero was, however, re-elected in 2008, and faces the difficult task of negotiating ‘la crisis’, the economic downturn that, at time of publication, was already beginning to severely affect Spain, with the key industries of construction and tourism suffering significant reverses.
The region is still divided along political lines. The Basques have their PNV, and rural Asturias remains firmly leftist in orientation. On the other side, Navarra is still conservative, Galicia hasn’t shaken off its Francoist tendencies, and one suspects plenty in parts of Castilla y León would vote for the man himself if he were still alive (and in democratic mood). The Franco era is rarely discussed; neither is the Civil War, which remains a sensitive issue with perpetrators of dark deeds still alive and sipping wine in the corner of local bars. No judicial investigation of events of the war or the dictatorship has ever been undertaken; there’s a sort of consensus to let sleeping dogs lie: understandable, given the turbulent history of the 19th and 20th centuries.
Most of the cities of Northern Spain have shaken off the torpor of the Franco era and the preceding centuries of decline and are today prosperous, attractive places once more. EU funding has helped to rejuvenate their superb architectural heritage, and the lively social life remains a marvel of European society. In most urban areas, Francoist street names have been changed and statues and memorials pulled down. In some rural areas, though, particularly Castilla and Galicia, depopulation is a serious issue. Many villages are inhabited only by pensioners, if at all, as the young seek employment and fulfilment in urban centres.On a more positive note, the years since the return to democracy have seen a remarkable and accelerated reflowering of regional culture. The banned languages Gallego and Euskara are ever-more in use, and local artists, writers and poets are being keenly promoted by the regional governments. Museums are mostly free, not so much to lure tourists away from the beaches of the south as to encourage their own population to visit and learn. Salamanca, that great university town of the Middle Ages, is a flourishing example; whether the angels speak Castilian or Euskara these days is of little importance.
The comunero revolt of the early 16th century expressed the frustrations of a region that was once the focus of optimistic Christian conquest and agricultural wealth, but had now become peripheral to the designs of a ‘foreign’ monarchy. Resentment was exacerbated by the fact that the king still found it difficult to extract taxes from the cortes of Aragón or Catalunya, so Castilla bankrolled a disproportionate amount of the crippling costs of the day-to-day running of a worldwide empire. A plague in the early 17th century didn’t help matters, wiping out about a tenth of the Castilian population. Burgos’ population in the middle of that century was a quarter of what it had been at the beginning of it; the same was true throughout the region.
Meanwhile, as an important focus of Spanish naval and maritime power, the north coast continued in a better vein. Much of the shipbuilding for exploration, trade and war took place here, and many of the ships were crewed by Basques and Galicians. Elkano, a Basque from Getaria, and his crew, became the first to circumnavigate the world after the death of the expedition’s leader, Magellan, half-way round. The ill-fated Spanish Armada sailed from Galicia in 130 ships built on this coast.Aragón, meanwhile, had become a backwater since civil strife in the 15th century had deprived it of Catalunya and, thereby, of most of its Mediterranean trade. Above all regions, it suffered most from the loss of the Muslims and Jews; many of its cities had thrived on the cultural mixture. The union with Castilla had eventually deprived it of political significance too, and it retreated behind its fueros, stubbornly avoiding taxes and conscriptions, and maintaining a largely feudal system of land ownership, with all-powerful lords free to do as they pleased. This situation was changed partly after Felipe II put down a revolt in the late 16th century, but the province continued to be a minor player, especially compared to its thriving Catalan neighbour. After supporting the wrong side in the war of Spanish succession in the early 18th century Aragón was deprived of its fueros and laws and brought to heel, a minor region now in peninsular life. Navarra, meanwhile, had been conquered by Fernando earlier in the century and this, as well as the Basque lands, were under Castilian control.
The 13th-15th centuries
With the flush of war fading, the north settled down to a period of prosperity. Castilla became a significant producer of wool and wheat, and the towns of the north coast established important trading links with northern Europe to distribute it. In 1296 the Hermandad de las Marismas, an export alliance of four major ports (A Coruña, Santander, Laredo and San Sebastián) was formed to consolidate this. The Basques were doing very well at this time. Demand for Vizcayan iron was high, and Basque sailors explored the whole Atlantic, almost certainly reaching north America a century or more before Columbus sailed.
Places like Burgos and Medina del Campo became powerful centres controlling the distribution of goods to the coastal ports. Guilds and societies became more and more important in the flourishing urban centres. Meanwhile the Castilian kings still pursued military aims. Becoming an increasing anachronism in an increasingly urban society, these crusading kings came to rely heavily on the towns for political and financial support. In order to keep them onside, they began to grant fueros, or exemptions from certain taxation and conscription duties, and proto-democratic assemblies, the cortes, began to assemble to keep the kings honest.
Towns spent vast sums in constructing soaring cathedrals, symbols of faith in new architectural principles as well as in Christianity. But already in Castilla’s time of prosperity the seeds of decline were sprouting. Cities that had forged the Reconquista, Oviedo and León, became insignificant country towns as populations moved southwards in the war’s wake. The massive numbers of sheep being grazed in migratory patterns across the land caused large-scale degradation and erosion of the soil; in many ways, the ‘war on trees’ was to prove as significant as any that had been waged against Moors. The barren landscapes of today’s Castilla are a direct result of these post-reconquest years. The fueros that were so indiscriminately handed out meant that later kings were barely able to govern the towns, which understandably were reluctant to concede their privileges. The glory of the soldiering years rubbed off on Castilian attitudes too. Sons of minor nobles (hidalgos, from hijos d’algo, ‘sons of something’) yearned for the smell of battle, and scorned the dull attractions of work and education, an attitude that has cost Spain dear over the centuries and was memorably satirized in Cervantes’ Don Quijote. The church, too, was in a poor state. Bled of funds by successive crusading kings, it developed a hoarding mentality and was in no condition to act as a moral light for the young Christian kingdoms. Furthermore, it was far from being a peaceful pastoral and urban golden age. The nuggety walled towns of the Reconquista battle lines provided perfect bases for power-hungry nobles; civil strife was exacerbated by the fact that most kings openly kept mistresses outside their arranged dynastic marriages, and illegitimate children were a dime-a-dozen.
Spain was drawn into the Hundred Years War as the bastard Henry of Trastámara waged war with French help on his English-backed brother Pedro I (the Cruel). After Pedro was murdered, his son-in-law John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, claimed the Castilian throne. Landing in Galicia, he waged an inconclusive war with Henry before agreeing to marry his daughter to the king’s son. He returned to England happy enough with this outcome and with a substantial retirement package from Castilian funds.Such conjugal ties were of vital political importance, and it was one, in 1469, which was to have a massive impact throughout the world. The heir to the Aragonese throne, Fernando, married Isabel, heiress of Castilla, in a top-secret ceremony in Valladolid. The implications were enormous. Aragón was still a power in the Mediterranean (Fernando was also king of Sicily), and Castilla’s domain covered much of the peninsula. The unification under the Reyes Católicos, as the monarchs became known, marked the beginnings of Spain as we know it today. Things didn’t go smoothly at first, however. There were plenty of opponents to the union and forces in support of Juana, Isabel’s elder (but assumed illegitimate) sister waged wars across Castilla.
The decline of the empire
The struggle of the Spanish monarchy to control the spread of Protestantism was a major factor in the decline of the empire. Felipe II fought expensive and ultimately unwinnable wars in Flanders that bankrupted the state; meanwhile, within the country, the absolute ban on the works of ‘heretical’ philosophers, scientists and theologists left Spain intellectually behind in Renaissance Europe. In the 18th century, for example, the so-called ‘Age of Enlightenment’ in western Europe, theologists at the noble old University of Salamanca debated what language the angels spoke; that Castilian was proposed as an answer is certain. The decline of the monarchy paralleled a physical decline in the monarchs, as the inbred Habsburgs became more and more deformed and weak; the last of them, Carlos II – a tragic victim of contorted genetics – died childless and plunged the nation into a war of succession. “Castilla has made Spain, and Castilla has destroyed it”, commented early 20th century essayist José Ortega y Gasset. Despite these misfortunes, the 17th century had been a time of much inspiration in the arts; Spanish Baroque was a cheerful façade on a gloomy building, and painters such as Velásquez, Zurbarán and Murillo hit the heights of expression.
The war of the Spanish succession didn’t have a massive impact on the north, apart from in Aragón , but the headlong decline continued throughout the 18th century. The Catholic Church was in a poor state intellectually, and came to rely more and more on cults and fiestas to keep up the interest of the populace; a tradition that is still very strong today. The Jesuits, an order that had its origins with the Basques, and a more enlightened lot than most, were expelled in 1767. They were allowed to take with them only their religious clothing and a supply of chocolate, a commodity that was extraordinarily popular at this time in Spain. After decentralization of trade with the New World, it was the Basques who established a monopoly over the import of the stuff, and for a brief time brought prosperity to their lands as a result.
Napoleon took advantage of the weak King Carlos IV’s domestic problems to install his own brother Joseph (known among Spaniards as Pepe Botellas or ‘Joe Bottles’ because of his heavy drinking) on the throne. Spain revolted against this arrogant gesture, and Napoleon sent in the troops in late 1808. The ensuing few years are known in Spain as the Guerra de Independencia (War of Independence). Combined Spanish, British and Portuguese forces clashed with the French all across the north, firstly disastrously as General Moore was forced to retreat across Galicia to a Dunkirk-like embarkation at A Coruña, then more successfully as the Duke of Wellington won important battles at Ciudad Rodrigo, Vitoria and San Sebastián. The behaviour of both sides was brutal both on the battlefield and off. Marshal Soult’s long retreat across the region saw him loot town after town; his men robbed tombs and burned priceless archives. The allied forces were no better; the men Wellington had referred to as being comprised of the ‘scum of the earth’ sacked the towns they conquered with similar destructiveness.
Significant numbers of Spaniards had been in favour of the French invasion, and were opposed to the liberal republican movements that sprang up in its wake. The 19th century was to see clash after clash of liberals against conservatives, progressive cities against reactionary countryside, restrictive centre against outward-looking periphery. Spain finally lost its empire, as the strife-torn homeland could do little against the independence movements of Latin America. In 1823 the French put down a democratic revolution and restored the king (Fernando VII) to the throne. When he died, another war of succession broke out between supporters of his brother Don Carlos and his infant daughter Isabella.
The so-called Carlist Wars of 1833 to 1839, 1847 to 1849 (although this is often not officially counted as a ‘Carlist War’) and 1872 to 1876 were politically complex. Don Carlos represented conservatism, and his support was drawn from a number of different sources. Wealthy landowners, the church and the reactionary peasantry, with significant French support, lined up against the loyalist army, the liberals and the urban middle and working classes. The Carlist stronghold was Navarra and the rural Basque region; liberal reforms were threatening the two pillars of Basque country life: the church and their age-old fueros. In between and during the wars, a series of pronunciamientos (coups d’état) plagued the monarchy. During the third Carlist War, the king abdicated and the short-lived First Spanish Republic was proclaimed, ended by a military-led restoration a year later. The Carlists were defeated but remained strong, and played a prominent part in the Spanish Civil War. There’s still a Carlist party in Navarra and various nominal pretenders to the Spanish throne.
Despite all the troubles, industrialization finally began to reach Spain, and several of the ports of the north coast thrived. Vigo, A Coruña and Santander all flourished; Bilbao, on the back of its iron ore exports, grew into a major industrial and banking centre, and Asturias mined large quantities of coal. Basque nationalism as it is known today was born in the late 19th century. Spain lost its last overseas possessions, Cuba, Puerto Rico and the Phillippines, in the ‘Disaster’ of 1898. The introspective turmoil caused by this event gave the name to the ‘Generación de 98’ (1898 Generation), a forward thinking movement of artists, philosophers and poets, among whom were the Basques Miguel de Unamuno and Ignacio Zuloaga and the poet Antonio Machado. It was a time of discontent and strikes began to occur more and more regularly in the towns and cities of the north, particularly in Asturias, although Spanish industry profited from its neutrality in the First World War.After the Second Republic had been established in 1931, a series of petty struggles between conservatives, liberals and socialists undermined the potential value of the democratic process. Unlike the rest of the left, the Asturian miners were fairly united, with anarchists, socialists and trade unionists prepared to cooperate; they went on strike in protest against the entry of the right-wing CEDA into the vacillating centrist government. Proclaiming a socialist republic, they seized the civil buildings of the province. The arms factories worked 24-hour shifts to arm the workers; the army and Civil Guard were still holding out in Oviedo. The government response was harsh. Sending in the feared Foreign Legion and Moroccan troops under Generals Goded and a certain Franco, they swiftly relieved the garrison, defeated the insurrection and embarked on a brutal spree of retribution for which they are rightly unforgiven in Asturias.
The Holy War
The nature of the Reconquista was very similar to that of the Crusades; a holy war against the enemies of the faith that also conveniently offered numerous opportunities for pillage, plunder and seizure of land. Younger sons, not in line for any inheritance under local customs, could fight for the glory of God and appropriate lands and wealth for themselves at the same time. Knightly orders similar to those of the Crusades were founded; the Knights of Calatrava, Alcántara and Santiago.
Santiago (Saint James), although already dead for a millennium or so, also played a major role in the Reconquista. The spurious discovery of his tomb at Compostela in the ninth century had sparked ongoing pilgrimage; it effectively replaced the inaccessible Holy Land as a destination for the devout and the penitent. The discovery came in time to resemble some sort of sign from God, and Saint James took on the role of Matamoros, Moor-slayer, and is depicted crunching hapless Andalusi under the hooves of his white charger in countless sculptures and paintings – quite a career-change for the first-century fisherman. With an apostle risen from the dead onside, it’s little wonder that Christians flocked to the Reconquista banners.
By the mid-12th century Northern Spain was effectively secured under Christian rule. For largely geographical reasons, it had been the fledgling kingdom of Castilla that ended up with the biggest slice of the pie, and Spain’s most powerful political entity. It had already been frequently united with the Leonese kingdom by dynastic marriages and this was confirmed in 1230, when Fernando (Ferdinand) III inherited both crowns (a fact still lamented by separatists in León!).While Navarra was still going, up in the mountains, it was Aragón that was the other main beneficiary from the reconquest. Uniting with Catalunya in 1150, it began looking eastwards to that great trading forum, the Mediterranean. After the famous battle of the Navas de Tolosa in 1212, the Moors lost Córdoba in 1236 and Seville in 1248 and were reduced to an area around their third great city, Granada, where they held out for another 250 years.
Arriving across the Straits of Gibraltar in AD 711, the Moors had taken most of Spain before the prophet had been dead for a century. Under Arab leadership, most of the invaders were native North African Berbers, but there was a substantial mercenary element, many of them from eastern Europe. The state created was named Al-Andalus, and the Moors swept on into France, where they were eventually stopped by the Franks at Poitiers in AD 732.
Geography breaks Spain into distinct regions, which have tended to persist through time, and it was one of these, Asturias, the Moors had some trouble with. They were defeated in what was presumably a minor skirmish at Covadonga, in the far northern mountains, in AD 717. While they weren’t too bothered by this at the time, Spain views it today as an event of immense significance, a victory against all odds and a sort of mystical event where God proved himself to be on the Christian side. It was hardly a crippling blow to the Moors, who were on the autoroutes of southern France before too long, but it probably sowed the seeds of what became the Asturian monarchy.
A curious development in many ways, this line of kings emerged unconquered from the shadowy northern hills and forests. Whether they were a last bastion of Visigothic resistance, or whether they were just local folk ready to defend their lands, they established an organized monarchy of sorts with a capital that shifted about but settled on Oviedo in AD 808. Their most lasting legacy has been a number of churches and royal halls; beautifully proportioned stone buildings that show some Visigothic characteristics but are also very original in style – far more graceful than the name it has been saddled with, Asturian Pre-Romanesque.
Although turned back in France, they Moors remained strong enough to repulse Charlemagne in northeast Spain in AD 778. After failing to take Zaragoza, he returned huffily to France but had his rearguard ambushed by Basques in the Navarran pass of Roncesvalles. The Basques were infuriated that he’d taken down the walls of Pamplona on his way through; the defeat suffered in the pass became the basis for the fanciful epic poem Chanson de Roland, which attributes the attack to Muslims.
Although the southern portion of Al-Andalus was a flourishing cultural centre, the Moors couldn’t establish complete control in the northlands, and several cities changed hands numerous times in skirmishing and raids in the ninth century. Life in Muslim Spain was relatively good for Christians and Jews, though. Many converted to Islam; those Christians that didn’t became known as Mozárabes.
While the Covadonga defeat was insignificant, the Asturian kingdom began to grow in strength and the long process of the Reconquista, the Christian reconquest of the peninsula, began. The northmen took advantage of cultural interchange with the south, which remained significant throughout the period despite the militarized zone in between, and were soon strong enough to begin pushing back. The loose Moorish authority in these lands certainly helped; the northern zone was more or less administered by warlords who were only partially controlled by the amirs in Córdoba (who called themselves caliphs as of AD 929). Galicia and much of the north coast was reclaimed and in AD 914 the Asturian King Ordoño II reconquered León; the capital shortly moved to here, and the line of kings took on the name of that city.
Asturias/León wasn’t the only Christian power to develop during this period. The Basques had been quietly pushing outwards, and the small mountain kingdom of Navarra emerged and grew rapidly. Aragón emerged too, and gained power and size via a dynastic union with Catalunya. The entity that came to dominate Spain, Castilla, was also born at this time. In the middle of the 10th century a Burgos noble, Fernán González, declared independence from the Kingdom of León and began to rally disparate Christian groups in the region. He was so successful in this endeavour that it wasn’t too long before his successors labelled themselves kings.
The Moors weren’t finished by any means. The formidable Al-Manzur managed to sack almost every Christian city in Northern Spain within a couple of decades; surely one of the greater opportunistic military feats of the Middle Ages. Both sides were made painfully aware of their vulnerability and constructed a series of massive fortresses that faced each other across the central plains. The Muslim fortresses were particularly formidable; high eyries with commanding positions, accurately named the ‘front teeth’ of Al-Andalus. There are around 3000 fortresses and castles in various states of repair in Spain; a huge number of them are to be found in this area.
It was just after Al-Manzur’s death that things began to go wrong for the Moors, as kinstrife and Civil War over succession fatally weakened the Caliphate while the Christian kingdoms were gaining strength and unity. The king of Navarra Sancho III (the Great) managed to unite almost the whole of Northern Spain in the early 11th century; although this inevitably dissolved, the rival kingdoms at least had a common goal. The caliphate disintegrated in 1031, to be replaced by a series of city-states, or taifas. Pitted against each other as well as the northern kingdoms, they were in no state to resist, and were forced to pay protection money to the Christian armies, enriching the new kingdoms. The big beneficiary was Castilla; King Alfonso VI, with the help of his on-off mercenary El Cid.Alfonso must have dreamed of reconquering the whole peninsula at that point, but he was stopped by the Almoravids, a by-the-book Islamic dynasty that quickly crossed from Morocco to re-establish the caliphate along stricter lines. They soon lapsed into softer ways though, and much of modern Andalucía was lost before a similar group, the Almohads, crossed the straits and took a degree of control back.
The Phoenicians and Carthaginians
The Roman conquest
The Romans were given a tough time in the north, which it took them two centuries to subdue. The Celtiberian towns resisted the legions in a very spirited manner. Numancia, near Soria, held out against Roman sieges for many years, and was the centre of resistance that lost Rome tens of thousands of troops. Problems with the Cantabrians and Asturians lasted until Augustus and Agrippa finally defeated them in the late years of the first century BC. The Romans gave up trying to impose their culture on the northern fringes; the Basques and Galicians were very resistant to it, and a ‘live and let live’ stance was eventually adopted in those areas.
While the south of Spain became a real Roman heartland, the north was always viewed as borderland of a sort. Though vast quantities of gold and silver were mined in the northwest, and wine and oil poured from the Ebro and Duero valleys, few towns were founded in the north, and few wealthy Romans seemed to settle here; a handful of noble villas notwithstanding.<p>Christianity spread comparatively rapidly into Spain. The diocese of Zaragoza was founded as early as the first century AD, while León and Burgo de Osma were other important early Christian centres. Christianity was certainly spread out to fit over existing religious frameworks; the Basques had few problems with the Virgin Mary considering their own earthmother figure was named Mari, and here as elsewhere the Christian calendar was moulded around pagan festivals.
The Spanish Civil War
In July 1936 a military conspiracy saw garrisons throughout Spain rise against the government and try to seize control of their towns and provinces. Within a few days battlelines were clearly drawn between the Republican (government) and the Nationalists, a coalition of military, Carlists, fascists and the Christian right. Most of Northern Spain was rapidly under Nationalist control, although frightening numbers of civilians were shot ‘behind the lines’ after control had been established. The major resistance in the north was in Asturias – where the miners came out fighting once again – Cantabria and the Basque provinces. These latter were in a difficult position; the Basques were democratic in outlook but very Catholic, and the Catholic church was on the Nationalist side for its own protection from the anticlerical Republic and through innate conservatism: a 1927 catechism had claimed that it was a mortal sin for a Catholic to vote for a liberal candidate. Carlist-oriented Navarra sided with the Nationalists, as did Alava, but the majority of Euskadi came out fighting on the side of democracy.
There was long fighting on fronts in Aragón, but the prize, Zaragoza, stayed in rebel hands throughout the war. Meanwhile, the Republican government approved a statute of autonomy for the Basques, and a Basque government was sworn in under the oak tree in Gernika, long a symbol of Basque government and fueros. The young and able leader, José María Aguirre, assured the Republic that “until Fascism is defeated, Basque nationalism will remain at its post”. It did, with Basques fighting Nazi forces right through the Second World War, but the government was forced into exile when Bilbao fell in June 1937. This came in the wake of the appalling civilian bombings of Durango and Gernika, when German and Italian planes rained bombs on the defenceless country towns, killing almost 2000. Franco claimed that the devastation of Gernika and Durango was perpetrated by the Basques as a publicity gesture.
Franco’s junta, after being formed at Salamanca, had set up base appropriately in deeply conservative Burgos; Castilla was a heartland for Nationalist support and the venue for many brutal reprisals against civilians perceived as leftist, unionist, democratic or owning a fertile little piece of land on the edge of the village. Republican atrocities were equally appalling, but an important distinction is that they were rarely sanctioned or perpetrated by the government.
Separated from the rest of the Republic, Asturian and Cantabrian resistance was whittled away; Santander fell in August 1937, Asturias in October. Franco never forgave the Basques or Asturians, and the regions were treated harshly during his oppressive rule. Development was curtailed and use of the Euskara language was banned (as was Gallego, although Franco himself was Galician). Navarra and Castilla, on the other hand, were rewarded for their roles, if being blessed with a series of concrete crimes against architecture can be called a reward.The Basques held out high hopes as the Second World War reached its end. Their government-in-exile was officially recognized by the Allies, and many hoped that Franco would soon be deposed and an independent Basque state be established. Their hopes were dashed when the USA decided that the new enemy was communism. If Franco was anything, he was anti-communist, and the Americans under Eisenhower granted Spain a massive aid package and resumed diplomatic relations. This betrayal of the Basques, followed by that of Britain and France, was a bitter pill to swallow.
The Upper Palaeolithic period
Some of the same caves and others, particularly in Cantabria and Asturias, have produced the first signs of homo sapiens sapiens in the peninsula. Dating from the Upper Palaeolithic (18,000 BC onwards), these hunter-gatherers produced fairly sophisticated stone and bone tools including arrows and spears. They also experimented with art, and found it to their liking; primitive whittling of deer bones and outlines of hands on cave walls suddenly gave way to the sensitive, imaginative and colourful bison, deer and horses found in several locations but most famously at Altamira in Cantabria, where the work is of amazing artistic quality. This so-called Magdalenian culture seemed to extend across northern Spain and into southern France, where related paintings have been found at places such as Lascaux.A more settled existence probably began to emerge around 4000 BC. The most striking archaeological remnants are a great number of dolmens, large stone burial chambers, common across much of northern Europe at the time. These are mostly found along the north coast, particularly in the Basque lands and Galicia. There are also other remnants, such as standing stones and more simple pit burials.
Transition to democracy
The dollars were dirty, but the country made the most of them; Spain boomed in the 1960s as industry finally took off and the flood of tourism began in earnest. But dictatorship was no longer fashionable in western Europe and Spain was regarded as a slightly embarassing cousin. It was not invited to join the European Economic Community (EEC) and it seemed as if nothing was going to really change until Franco died.
ETA, had their most popular moment when they assassinated Franco’s right-hand man, Admiral Carrero Blanco, in 1973. The aging dictator died two years later and his appointed successor, King Juan Carlos II, supervised a return to democracy; La Transición. Northern Spain has largely flowered since the first elections in 1977. Autonomous status was granted to Euskadi and Galicia, and then to Asturias, Cantabria, Navarra, La Rioja, Aragón and Castilla y León, which operate with significant freedom from central government. However, the new constitution, specified that no further devolution could occur; Spain was ‘indissoluble’.In 1982, the Socialist government of Felipe González was elected. They held power for 14 years and oversaw Spain’s entry into the EEC (now EU), from which it has benefited immeasurably, although some rural areas remain poor by western European standards. González was disgraced, however, when he was implicated in having commissioned ‘death squads’ with the aim of terrorizing the Basques into renouncing terrorism, which few of them supported in any case. In 1996 the rightist PP (Partido Popular) formed a government under young ex-tax inspector José María Aznar, who was re-elected in 2000. Economically conservative, Aznar strengthened Spain’s ties with Europe and set a platform for strong financial performance.
Land and environment
The green hills of the north coast are that way for a reason: it rains a hell of a lot. Parts of Galicia get 2 m of rain a year, more than 10 times the precipitation of some towns in Castilla. It’s a typically maritime climate, with mild summers and winters, and the rain fairly constant through the year; up to 150 rainy days per annum.
The high meseta has a continental climate with very low rainfall, scorching summers and freezing winters. Adding to the winter discomfort is the biting wind, which ‘can kill a man but can’t blow out a candle’ according to locals. The climate in places like Burgos and León is popularly characterized as nueve meses de invierno, tres meses de infierno (nine months of winter, three months of hell).The mountains, too, receive high rainfall, particularly the coastal Cordillera Cantábrica. Snow is usually there to stay from January on, and many of the higher passes can still be snowbound as late as June.
Spain’s area of 500,000 sq km makes it the fourth largest country in Europe and second largest in the EU after France. It’s also high; the average altitude is second only to Switzerland. Geographically, Spain is divided into very distinct areas; to a large degree these have corresponded with cultural and political boundaries over time.
Although if you arrive over the Pyrenees it may not seem it, Spain’s central plateau, the meseta, is high, with an average elevation of some 600-700 m. It covers most of Castilla y León as well as extending further to the south. It’s bounded by mountains; the Pyrenees to the northeast, the Cordillera Cantábrica to the north and the Montes de León in the northwest. In itself, it’s not particularly flat either.
While Spain’s highest peak is in the south, in the Sierra Nevada, it’s the Pyrenees that are its biggest and most rugged, straddling the northern border. The highest summit of the Pyrenees is Aneto (3404 m), one of many that tops the 3000-m mark. The Cantábrica is basically a westwards extension of it, and includes the Picos de Europa in its westwards run along the coast. Further west still, at the corner of Spain, Galicia is fairly hilly with a wild coast indented with sheltered inlets (rías).The two great rivers of Northern Spain are the Ebro, rising in Cantabria and flowing eastwards to its Mediterranean destiny, and the Duero, flowing west right across the meseta and into Portugal, where it becomes the Douro. Galicia’s Miño is another major river; it forms a long section of the border with Portugal. The scarcity of water on the meseta has dictated settlement patterns; most towns and villages are on or near rivers.
The war on trees conducted in Castilla through the centuries is over, with the sinister trunked creatures successfully eliminated. Most of the arid plains of the meseta were once covered with Mediterranean forest, but systematic deforestation, combined with over- grazing and war, have left it barren and bare; some of it barely able to support the sparse, scrubby matorral that covers the land deemed unfit for agriculture.
Reforestation schemes in Castilla have primarily been for logging purposes, and the region needs a more enlightened environmental programme such as that of Asturias, which preserves some superb stretches of ancient forest.
The forest cover of the northern Spanish coast and mountains is impressive in many parts, with chestnut, beech and holm oak at lower levels, and Scots pine and silver fir higher up, among other species. South of Burgos, one of Castilla’s few forested areas is Europe’s largest expanse of juniper trees.In spring, the wildflowers of the Pyrenees and the Cordillera Cantábrica are superb, with myriad colourful species. The meseta, too, can be attractive at this time, with fields of poppies and cultivated sunflowers bright under the big sky.
The best havens for wildlife in the peninsula are the mountainous parts of Asturias and the Pyrenees, where conservation is most advanced and the habitats less accessible. While the meseta can be good for birdwatching, deforestation and the Spanish passion for hunting have made most four-legged creatures larger than a mouse fairly scarce.
In the mountains, a common sight are chamois or isard (rebeco or sarrío), a type of agile antelope that like the high altitudes. Also common are jabalí (wild boar), but being nocturnal, they’re harder to see. Extensively hunted, they tend to be extra-wary when people are about. Still present, but in smaller numbers, are brown bears, subject to an Asturian conservation programme, which will hopefully ensure their survival in the wild, and wolves, which still howl in the Galician and Castilian hills. A variety of deer are present both in the mountains and on the plains, where their heads make popular trophies.
Smaller mammals include the stoat/ermine, which changes colour in winter, the fox, pine marten, red squirrels and several species of bat. Wildcats are also present, although interbreeding with feral domestic cats has created a debased population.
Other creatures you might spot are salamanders, brightly coloured in yellow and black, and many species of lizard and snake in the dustier lands of Castilla. Few of the snakes are poisonous, although there are a couple of species of viper. Frogs can create deafening noise around some of Castilla’s rivers.
Northern Spain is a popular destination for watching flocks of migrating species, with plentiful birdlife. Largest of all are the plentiful storks of Castilla in the summer months. One of the most dramatic species is the lammergeyer, or bearded vulture. Known as ‘bone-breaker’ (quebrantahuesos) in Spanish for its habit of dropping bones on rocks to shatter them and get at the marrow, it’s a superb sight, drifting up valleys on its massive wings. Smaller but far more plentiful is the endemic common or griffon vulture (buitre). Golden eagles (águila real) can also be spotted in the Pyrenees. Numerous other birds of prey are common sights both in the mountains or circling the the endless horizons of the meseta. The rivers of Northern Spain have always been full of trout and salmon, yet overfishing and hydroelectric projects have reduced their numbers in many areas.Rare sights in the mountains include capercaillie (urogallo) and wallcreepers; woodpeckers, choughs and owls are more common. On the plains, larks, doves and grouse are common sights, as are two species of bustard. Coastal areas are home to a wide variety of waterbirds, as are some inland lakes; Galicia, Navarra and La Rioja are good areas for these species. There are many species of interesting butterflies and moths; clouds of them grace the Pyrenees and the Picos in early summer.
Eating and drinking
Nothing in Spain illustrates its differences from the rest of Europe more than its eating and drinking culture. Whether you’re halfway through Sunday lunch at 1800, ordering a plate of octopus some time after midnight, snacking on pintxos in the street with the entire population of Bilbao doing the same around you, or watching a businessman down a hefty brandy with his morning coffee, it hits you at some point that the whole of Spanish society more or less revolves around food and drink.
Eating hours are the first point of difference. Spaniards eat little for breakfast, usually just a coffee and maybe a croissant or pastry. The mid-morning coffee and piece of tortilla is a ritual, especially for office workers, and then there might be a quick bite and a drink in a café or bar before lunch, which is usually between 1400-1530. This is the main meal of the day and the cheapest time to eat, as most restaurants offer a cheap set menu. Lunch (and dinner) is extended at weekends, particularly on Sundays, when the sobremesa (chatting over the remains of the meal) can go on for hours. Most folk head home for the meal during the working week and get back to work about 1700; some people have a nap (the famous siesta), some don’t. It’s common to have an evening drink or tapa in a bar after the paseo, if this is extended into a food crawl it’s called a txikiteo (Basque country) or tapeo. Dinner (cena) is normally eaten from about 2200 onwards, although sitting down to dinner at midnight at weekends isn’t unusual. In smaller towns and midweek you might not get fed after 2200. Be aware that any restaurant open for dinner before 2030 could well be a tourist trap. After eating, la marcha (the march) hits drinking bars (bares de copas) and then nightclubs (discotecas; a club is a brothel). Many of these places only open at weekends and are usually busiest from 0300 onwards. Some don’t open until 0400.Eating and drinking hours vary between regions. Week nights are quieter but particularly so in the Basque country and in rural areas, where many restaurants close their kitchens at 2200. Bar food changes across the area too. In the Basque country, pintxos (bar-top snacks) are the way forward; in León or Salamanca a free small plate of food accompanies the smallest drink; while in some other places you’ll have to order raciones (full plates of tapas).
In good Catholic fashion, wine is the lifeblood of Spain. It’s the standard accompaniment to most meals, but also features very prominently in bars, where a glass of cheap tinto or blanco can cost as little as €0.70, although it’s more normally €1. A bottle of house wine in a restaurant is often no more than €4 or €5. Tinto is red (although if you just order vino it’s assumed that’s what you want); blanco is white, and rosé is either clarete or rosado. A well-regulated system of denominaciones de origen (DO), similar to the French appelation controlée has lifted the reputation of Spanish wines high above the party plonk status they once enjoyed. Much of Spain’s wine is produced in the north, and recent years have seen regions such as the Ribera del Duero, Rueda, Navarra, Toro, Bierzo, and Rías Baixas achieve worldwide recognition. But the daddy, of course, is still Rioja.
The overall standard of Riojas has improved markedly since the granting of the higher DOC status in 1991, with some fairly stringent testing in place. Red predominates; these are mostly medium-bodied bottles from the Tempranillo grape (with three other permitted red grapes often used to add depth or character). Whites from Viura and Malvasia are also produced: the majority of these are young, fresh and dry, unlike the traditional powerful oaky Rioja whites now on the decline. Rosés are also produced. The quality of individual Riojas varies widely according to both producer and the amount of time the wines have been aged in oak barrels and in the bottle. The words crianza, reserva and gran reserva refer to the length of the ageing process , while the vintage date is also given. Rioja producers store their wines at the bodega until deemed ready for drinking, so it’s common to see wines dating back a decade or more on shelves and wine lists.
A growing number of people feel, however, that Spain’s best reds come from further west, in the Ribera del Duero region east of Valladolid. The king’s favourite tipple, Vega Sicilia, has long been Spain’s most prestigious wine, but other producers from the area have also gained stellar reviews. The region has been dubbed ‘the Spanish Burgundy’; the description isn’t wholly fanciful, as the better wines have the rich nose and dark delicacy vaguely reminiscent of the French region.
Visiting the area in the baking summer heat, it’s hard to believe that nearby Rueda can produce quality whites, but it certainly does. Most come from the Verdejo grape and have an attractive, dry, lemony taste; Sauvignon Blanc has also been planted with some success.
Galicia produces some excellent whites too; the coastal Albariño vineyards produce a sought-after dry wine with a very distinctive bouquet. Ribeiro is another good Galician white, and the reds from there are also tasty, having some similarity to those produced in nearby northern Portugal.
Among other regions, Navarra, long known only for rosé, is producing some quality red wines unfettered by the stricter rules governing production in Rioja, while Bierzo, in western León province, also produces interesting wines from the red Prieto Picudo and Mencía grapes. Other DO wines in Northern Spain include Somontano, a red and white appelation from Aragón and Toro, whose baking climate makes for full-bodied reds.
An unusual wine worth trying is txakolí, with a small production on the Basque coast. The most common is a young, refreshing, acidic white which has a green tinge and slight sparkle, often accentuated by pouring from a height. The best examples, from around Getaria, go well with seafood. The wine is made from under-ripe grapes of the Ondarrubi Zuria variety; there’s a less common red species and some rosé.
One of the joys of Spain, though, is the rest of the wine. Order a menú del día at a cheap restaurant and you’ll be unceremoniously served a cheap bottle of local red (sometimes without even asking for it). Wine snobbery can leave by the back door at this point: it may be cold, but you’ll find it refreshing; it may be acidic, but once the olive-oil laden food arrives, you’ll be glad of it. It’s not there to be judged, it’s a staple like bread and, like bread, it’s sometimes excellent, it’s sometimes bad, but mostly it fulfils its purpose perfectly. Wine is not a luxury item in Spain, so people add water to it if they feel like it, or lemonade (gaseosa), or cola (to make the party drink called calimocho).
In most bars, you can order Rioja, Ribera, Rueda, or other regions by the glass (usually €1.20-2.20). If you ask for crianza or reserva, you’ll usually get a Rioja. A tinto or blanco will get you the house wine (although many bartenders in tourist areas assume that visitors don’t want it, and will try and serve you a more expensive kind). As a general rule, only bars serving food serve wine; most pubs and discotecas won’t have it.
Spanish beer is mostly lager, usually reasonably strong, fairly gassy, cold and good. On the tapas trail, many people order cortos (zuritos in the Basque lands), usually about 100 ml. A caña is a larger draught beer, usually about 200 ml. Order a cerveza and you’ll get a bottled beer. Many people order their beer con gas, topped up with mineral water, sometimes called a clara, although this normally means it’s topped with lemonade. A jarra is a shared jug. In some pubs, particularly those specializing in different beers, you can order pints (pintas).
Cider (sidra) is an institution in Asturias, and to a lesser extent in Euskadi. The cider is flat, sour and yeasty; the appley taste will be a surprise after most commercial versions of the drink. Asturias’ sidrerías offer some of Spain’s most enjoyable bar life, and the cider poured from above head height by uniformed waiters to give it some bounce. In Euskadi in springtime, people decamp to cider-houses in the hills to eat massive meals and serve themselves bottomless glasses of the stuff direct from the vat.
Spirits are cheap in Spain. Vermouth (vermut) is a popular pre-dinner aperitif, as is patxarán . Many bars make their own vermouth by adding various herbs and fruits and letting it sit in barrels; this can be excellent, particularly if its from a solera. This is a system where liquid is drawn from the oldest of a series of barrels, which is then topped up with the next oldest, resulting in a very mellow characterful drink. After dinner or lunch it’s time for a copa: people relax over a whisky or a brandy, or hit the mixed drinks (cubatas): gin tonic is obvious, as is vodka con cola. Spirits are free-poured and large; don’t be surprised at a 100 ml measure. A mixed drink costs €3.50-6. Whisky is popular, and most bars have a good range. Spanish brandy is good, although its oaky vanilla flavours don’t appeal to everyone. There are numerous varieties of rum and flavoured liqueurs. When ordering a spirit, you’ll be expected to choose which brand you want; the local varieties (eg Larios gin, DYC whisky) are marginally cheaper than their imported brethren but lower in quality. Chupitos are shots; restaurants will often throw in a free one at the end of a meal, or give you a bottle of orujo (grape spirit) to pep up your black coffee.
Juice is normally bottled and expensive; mosto (grape juice; really pre-fermented wine) is a cheaper and popular soft drink in bars. There’s the usual range of fizzy drinks (gaseosas) available. Horchata is a summer drink, a sort of milkshake made from tiger nuts. Water (agua) comes con (with) or sin (without) gas. The tap water is totally safe to drink, but it’s not always the nicest; many Spaniards drink bottled water at home.Coffee (café) is usually excellent and strong. Solo is black, mostly served espresso style. Order americano if you want a long black, cortado if you want a dash of milk, or con leche for about half milk. A carajillo is a coffee with brandy, while queimado – a Galician drink of ritual significance – is a mixture of coffee and orujo (grape spirit), made in a huge vessel. Tea (té) is served without milk unless you ask; herbal teas (infusiones) are common. Chocolate is a reasonably popular drink at breakfast time or in the afternoon (merienda), served with churros, fried doughsticks that seduce about a quarter of visitors and repel the rest.
One of the great pleasures of travelling in Northern Spain is eating out, but it’s no fun sitting in an empty restaurant so adapt to the local hours as much as you can; it may feel strange leaving dinner until after 2200, but you’ll miss out on a lot of atmosphere if you don’t.
The standard distinctions of bar, café and restaurant don’t apply in Spain. Many places combine all three functions, and it’s not always evident; the dining room (comedor) is often tucked away behind the bar or upstairs. Restaurantes are restaurants, and will usually have a dedicated dining area with set menus and à la carte options. Bars and cafés will often display food on the counter, or have a list of tapas; bars tend to be known for particular dishes they do well. Many bars, cafés and restaurants don’t serve food on Sunday nights, and most are closed one other night a week, most commonly Monday or Tuesday.
Cafés will usually provide some kind of breakfast fare in the mornings; croissants and sweet pastries are the norm; freshly squeezed orange juice is also common. About 1100 they start putting out savoury fare; maybe a tortilla, some ensaladilla rusa or little ham rolls in preparation for pre-lunch snacking. It’s a workers’ tradition to drop down to the local bar around 1130 for a pincho de tortilla (slice of potato omelette) to get them through until two.
Lunch is the biggest meal of the day for most people in Spain, and it’s also the cheapest time to eat. Just about all restaurants offer a menú del día, which is usually a set three-course meal that includes wine or soft drink. In unglamorous workers’ locals this is often as little as €7; paying anything more than €13 indicates the restaurant takes itself quite seriously. There’s often a choice of several starters and mains. To make the most of the meal, a tip is to order another starter in place of a main; most places are quite happy to do it, and the starters are usually more interesting than the mains, which in the cheaper places tend to be slabs of mediocre meat. Most places open for lunch at about 1300, and stop serving at 1500 or 1530, although at weekends this can extend; it’s not uncommon to see people still lunching at 1800 on a Sunday. The quality of à la carte is usually higher than the menú, and quantities are larger. Simpler restaurants won’t offer this option except in the evenings.
Tapas has changed in meaning over the years, and now basically refers to all bar food. This range includes free snacks given with drinks (now only standard in León and a few other places), pintxos , small saucer-sized plates of food (this is the true meaning of tapa) and more substantial dishes, usually ordered in raciones and designed to be shared. A ración in Northern Spain is no mean affair; it can often comfortably fill one person, so if you want to sample a range of things, you’re better to ask for a half (media) or a tapa (smaller portion, when available). Prices of raciones basically depend on the ingredients; a good portion of langostinos (king prawns) will likely set you back €12, while more morcilla (black pudding) or patatas than you can eat might only be €4 or so.
Most restaurants open for dinner at 2030 or later. Although some places do offer a cheap set menú, you’ll usually have to order à la carte. In quiet areas, places stop serving at 2200 on week nights, but in cities and at weekends people sit down at 2230 or later. A cheap option at all times is a plato combinado, most commonly offered in cafés. They’re usually a greasy spoon-style mix of eggs, steak, bacon and chips or similar and are filling but rarely inspiring.Vegetarians in Spain won’t be spoiled for choice, but at least what there is tends to be good. There’s a small but rapidly increasing number of dedicated vegetarian restaurants, but most other places won’t have a vegetarian main course on offer, although the existence of raciones and salads makes this less of a burden than it might be. Ensalada mixta nearly always has tuna in it, but it’s usually made fresh, so places will happily leave it out. Ensaladilla rusa is normally a good bet, but ask about the tuna too, just in case. Tortilla is simple but delicious and ubiquitous. Simple potato or pepper dishes are tasty options (although beware of peppers stuffed with meat), and many revueltos (scrambled eggs) are just mixed with asparagus. Annoyingly, most vegetable menestras are seeded with ham before cooking, and bean dishes usually contain at least some meat or animal fat. You’ll have to specify soy vegetariano/a (I am a vegetarian), but ask what dishes contain, as ham, fish and chicken are often considered suitable vegetarian fare. Vegans will have a tougher time. What doesn’t have meat nearly always contains cheese or egg, and waiters are unlikely to know the complete ingredients. Better restaurants, particularly in cities, will be happy to prepare something to guidelines, but otherwise better stick to very simple dishes.
While the regional differences in the cuisine of Northern Spain are important, the basics remain the same. Spanish cooking relies on meat, fish/seafood, beans and potatoes given character by the chef’s holy trinity: garlic, peppers and, of course, olive oil. The influence of the colonization of the Americas is evident, and the result is a hearty, filling style of meal ideally washed down with some of the nation’s excellent red wines.
Regional specialities are described in the main text, but the following is an overview of the most common dishes.
Even in areas far from the coast, the availability of good fish and seafood can be taken for granted. Merluza (hake) is the staple fish, but is pushed hard by bacalao (salt cod) on the north coast. Gambas (prawns) are another common and excellent choice, backed up by a bewildering array of molluscs and crustaceans as well as numerous tasty fish. Calamari, squid and cuttlefish are common; if you can cope with the slightly slimy texture, pulpo (octopus) is particularly good, especially when simply boiled a la gallega (Galician style) and flavoured with paprika and olive oil. Supreme among the seafood are rodaballo (turbot, best wild, or salvaje) and rape (monkfish/anglerfish). Fresh trout from the mountain streams of Navarra or Asturias are hard to beat too; they are commonly cooked with bacon or ham (trucha a la navarra).
Wherever you go, you’ll find cured ham (jamón serrano), which is always excellent, but particularly so if it’s the pricey ibérico, taken from acorn-eating porkers in Salamanca, Extremadura and Huelva. Other cold meats to look out for are cecina, made from beef and, of course, embutidos (sausages), including the versatile chorizo. Pork is also popular as a cooked meat; its most common form is sliced loin (lomo). The Castilian plains specialize in roast suckling pig (cochinillo or lechón), usually a sizeable dish indeed. Lechazo is the lamb equivalent, popular around Aranda de Duero in particular. Beef is common throughout; cheaper cuts predominate, but the better steaks (solomillo, entrecot, chuletón) are usually superbly tender. Spaniards tend to eat them rare (poco hecho; ask for al punto for medium-rare or bien hecho for well done). The chuletón is worth a mention in its own right; a massive T-bone best taken from an ox (de buey) and sold by weight, which often approaches a kilogram. It’s certainly an imposing slab of meat. Pollo (chicken) is common, but usually unremarkable (unless its free-range – pollo de corral – in which case it’s superb); game birds such as codorniz (quail) and perdiz (partridge) as well as pato (duck) are also widely eaten. The innards of animals are popular; callos (tripe), mollejas (sweetbreads) and morcilla (black pudding in solid or liquid form) are all excellent, if acquired, tastes. Fans of the unusual will be keen to try jabalí (wild boar), potro (foal), morros (pig cheeks) and oreja (ear, usually from a pig or sheep).
Main dishes often come without any accompaniments, or chips at best. The consolation, however, is the ensalada mixta, whose simple name (mixed salad) often conceals a meal in itself. The ingredients vary, but it’s typically a plentiful combination of lettuce, tomato, onion, olive oil, boiled eggs, asparagus, olives and tuna. The tortilla (a substantial potato omelette) is ever-present and often excellent. Revuelto (scrambled eggs), are usually tastily combined with prawns, asparagus or other goodies. Most vegetable dishes are based around that New World trio: the bean, the pepper and the potato. There are numerous varieties of bean in Northern Spain; they are normally served as some sort of hearty stew, often with bits of meat or seafood. Fabada is the Asturian classic of this variety, while alubias con chorizo are a standard across the region. A cocido is a typical mountain dish, a massive stew of chickpeas or beans with meat and vegetables; the liquid is drained off and eaten first (sopa de cocido). Peppers (pimientos), too, come in a number of forms. As well as being used to flavour dishes, they are often eaten in their own right; pimientos rellenos come stuffed with meat or seafood. Potatoes come as chips, bravas (with a garlic or spicy tomato sauce) or a la riojana, with chorizo and paprika. Other common vegetable dishes include menestra (delicious blend of cooked vegetables), which usually has some ham in it, and ensaladilla rusa, a tasty blend of potato, peas, peppers, carrots and mayonnaise. Setas (wild mushrooms) are a delight, particularly in autumn.Desserts focus on the sweet and milky. Flan (a sort of crème caramel) is ubiquitous; great when casero (home-made), but often out of a plastic tub. Natillas are a similar but more liquid version, and arroz con leche is a cold, sweet, rice pudding typical of Northern Spain. Cheeses tend to be bland or salty and are normally eaten as a tapa or entrée. There are some excellent cheeses in Northern Spain, however; piquant Cabrales and Basque Idiázabal stand out.
Regional styles tend to use the same basic ingredients treated in slightly different ways, backed up by some local specialities. Most of Spain grudgingly concedes that Basque cuisine is the peninsula’s best, the San Sebastián twilight shimmers with Michelin stars, and chummy all-male txokos gather in private to swap recipes and cook up feasts in members-only kitchens. But what strikes the visitor first are the pintxos, a stunning range of bartop snacks that in many cases seem too pretty to put your teeth in. The base of most Basque dishes is seafood, particularly bacalao (salt cod; occasionally stunning but often ordinary), and the region has taken full advantage of its French ties.
Navarran and Aragonese cuisine owes much to the mountains, with hearty stews and game dishes featuring alongside fresh trout. Rioja and Castilla y León go for filling roast meat and bean dishes more suited to the harsh winters than the baking summers. Asturias and Cantabria are seafood-minded on the coast but search for more warming fare in the high ground, and Galicia is seafood heaven, with more varieties of finny and shelly things than you knew existed; usually prepared with confidence in the natural flavours; the rest of the area tends to overuse the garlic.Food-producing regions take their responsibilities seriously, and competition is fierce. Those widely acknowledged to produce the best will often add the name of the region to the foodstuff (some foods, like wines, have denomination of origin status given by a regulatory body). Thus pimientos de Padrón (Padrón peppers), cogollos de Tudela (lettuce hearts from Tudela), alubias de Tolosa (Tolosa beans), puerros de Sahagún (Sahagún leeks) and a host of others.
Bars and clubs
Theatre, cinema and galleries
There are theatres in almost every medium-sized town upwards. They tend to serve multiple functions and host changing programmes of drama, dance, music and cinema. There’s often only one or two performances of a given show. Tickets are very cheap by European standards.
Nearly all foreign films shown at cinemas in Spain are dubbed (dobladas) into Spanish; a general change to subtitling is resisted by the acting profession, many of whom have careers as dubbers for a Hollywood star. Entrance to cinemas is usually about €4-6; usually cheaper on weekdays. When a film is shown subtitled, the term is versión original (v.o.).There are many museums and galleries throughout the area, including stunning modern icons like the Guggenheim. Every provincial capital will have a museum. These are normally free and often full of interesting objects. While most modern museums have multilingual information, the majority are Spanish-only, although a general leaflet or audioguide might be available in English.
Accident and emergency
Spaniards are friendly and accommodating towards children, and you’ll undoubtedly get treated better with them than without, except perhaps in the most expensive restaurants and hotels. Few places, however, are equipped with highchairs, unbreakable plates or baby-changing facilities. Children are expected to eat the same food as their parents, although you’ll sometimes see a menú infantil at a restaurant, which typically has simpler dishes and smaller portions.
Kids are kings in Spain, and it’s one of the easiest places to take them along on holiday. Children socialize with their parents from an early age here, and you’ll see them eating in restaurants and out in bars well after midnight. The outdoor summer life and high pedestrianization of the cities is especially suitable and stress-free for both you and the kids to enjoy the experience.
The cut-off age for children paying half or no admission/passage on public transport and in tourist attractions varies widely. RENFE trains let children under 4 travel for free, and its discount passage of around 50% applies up to the age of 12. Most car rental companies have child seats available, but it’s wise to book these in advance.As for attractions, beaches are an obvious highlight, but many of the newer museums are hands-on, and playgrounds and parks are common. Campsites cater to families and the larger ones often have child-minding facilities and activities.
Northern Spaniards are fairly reserved (except when on the dance floor), particularly towards foreigners, in whom they tend to show little curiosity. They are usually polite and courteous, but cultural differences can give first-time visitors the opposite impression. Use of ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ is minimal, but it is usual to greet and bid farewell to shopkeepers or bartenders when entering/exiting. There’s a different concept of personal space in Spain than in northern Europe or the USA; the idea doesn’t really exist. People speak loudly as a matter of course; it doesn’t mean they are shouting.Every evening, people take to the streets for the paseo, a slow stroll up and down town that might include a coffee or pre-dinner drink. It’s a great time to observe Spanish society at work; the ritual is an integral part of Spanish culture. Especially in summer, the whole evening is spent outdoors.
Customs and duty-free
Spain isn’t the best equipped of countries in terms of disabled travel, but things have improved. By law, all new public buildings have to have full disabled access and facilities (as do all hotels built since 1995), but disabled toilets are rare in other edifices. Facilities are significantly better in the touristed south than in Northern Spain. Most trains and stations are wheelchair friendly to some degree, as are many urban buses, but intercity buses are often not accessible for wheelchairs. Hertz offices in Madrid and Barcelona have a small range of cars set up for disabled drivers, but book them well in advance. Nearly all underground and municipal car parks have lifts and disabled spaces, as do many museums and castles. An invaluable resource for finding a bed are the regional accommodation lists, available from tourist offices. Most of these include a disabled- access criterion. Many pensiones are in buildings with ramps and lifts, but there are many that are not, and the lifts can be small. Nearly all paradors and modern chain hotels are fully wheelchair-accessible, but it’s best to check. While major cities are quite straightforward, towns and villages often have uneven footpaths, steep streets (frequently cobbled) and little disabled infrastructure.Blind visitors are comparatively well catered for in Spain as a result of the efforts of ONCE, http://www.once.es, the national organization for the blind, which runs a lucrative daily lottery. Contact them for information and contacts.
Confederación Nacional de Sordos de España (CNSE), http://www.cnse.es. Links to local associations for the deaf.
Federación ECOM, T934 515 550, http://www.ecom.es. A helpful Barcelona-based organization that provides information on disabled-friendly tourist facilities in Spain.
Global Access, http://www.globalaccessnews.com. Reports from disabled travellers and links.
Jubilee Sailing Trust, Hazel Rd, Woolston, Southampton, SO19 7GB, T023 8044 9108, http://www.jst.org.uk. Tall ships running sailing journeys for disabled and able-bodied people, some around Northern Spain.RADAR, T020 7250 3222, http://www.radar.org.uk. A British network for disabled people that can help members get information and contacts for disabled travel around Europe.
Drugs and prohibitions
Embassies and consulates
Australia, 15 Arkana St, Yarralumla, Canberra ACT 2600 T6273 3555, email@example.com.
Austria, Argentinierstr.34. A 1040 Wien, T505 5788, firstname.lastname@example.org
Belgium, 19, rue de la Science, 1040 Bruxelles, T230 0340, email@example.com
Canada, 74 Stanley Av, Ottawa, T747 2252, firstname.lastname@example.org.
Denmark, Kristianiagade 21, 2100 Copenhagen, T35 424700, email@example.com.
France, 22 Av Marceau, 75008 Paris, Cédex 08, T44 431 800, firstname.lastname@example.org.
Germany, Lichtensteinallee 1, D-10787, Berlin, T254 0070, http://www.spanischebotschaft.de.
Ireland, 17A Merlyn Park, Ballsbridge, Dublin 4, T269 1640, email@example.com.
Italy, Palacio Borghese, Largo Fontanella di Borghese 19, 00186 Rome, T684 0401, http://www.amba-spagna.com.
Japan, 1-3-29 Roppongi Minato-ku, Tokyo 106-0032, T3583 8531, firstname.lastname@example.org
Netherlands, Lange Voorhout 50, 2514, The Hague, T302 4999, email@example.com.
New Zealand, 50 Manners St, Wellington 6142, T04 802 5665, firstname.lastname@example.org.
Norway, Oscarsgate, 35, 0258 Oslo 2, T22 926 690, email@example.com.
Portugal Rua do Salitre 1, 1296 Lisbon, T213 472 381, firstname.lastname@example.org.
South Africa, 337 Brooklyn Road Menlo Park Pretoria 0181, T460 0123, email@example.com.
Sweden, Djurgårdsvägen 21, 11521 Stockholm, T667 9430, firstname.lastname@example.org.
UK, 39 Chesham Place, London SW1X 8SB, T020 7235 5555,email@example.com.USA, 2375 Pennsylvania Av, Washington DC 20037, T452 0100, firstname.lastname@example.org.
Gay and lesbian travellers
Cogailes, http://www.cogailes.org. A gay organization with a handy information service on email@example.com or a freephone hotline, T900 601 601 (daily T1800-2200).
COLEGA, http://www.colegaweb.net. A gay and lesbian association with offices in many cities.Shanguide, http://www.shangay.com, is a useful magazine with reviews, events, information and city-by-city listings for the whole country.
http://www.gayinspain.com Wide-ranging listings of bars, clubs, zones, etc.
http://www.colegaweb.net National gay and lesbian association.
http://www.es.gay.com National portal of principal use for contacts and chat.
http://www.damron.com Subscription listings and travel info.http://www.guiagay.com, http://www.gay.com, http://www.gaywired.com (English), are websites with listings and information about various Spanish cities.
Health for travellers in Spain is rarely a problem. Medical facilities are good, and the worst most travellers experience is an upset stomach, usually merely a result of the different diet rather than any bug.The water is safe to drink, but isn’t always that pleasant, so many travellers (and locals) stick to bottled water. The sun in Spain can be harsh, so take adequate precautions to prevent heat exhaustion/sunburn. Many medications that require a prescription in other countries are available over the counter at pharmacies in Spain. Pharmacists are highly trained but don’t necessarily speak English. In all medium-sized towns and cities, at least one pharmacy is open 24 hours; this is performed on a rota system; details are posted in the window of all pharmacies and in local newspapers.
British citizens should get hold of a European Health Insurance Card (EHIC), available via http://www.dh.gov.uk or from post offices in the UK, before leaving home. This guarantees free medical care throughout the EU. Other citizens should seriously consider medical insurance, but check for reciprocal Spanish cover with your private or public health scheme first.Insurance is a good idea anyway to cover you for theft, etc. In the event of theft, you’ll have to make a report at the local police station within 24 hours and obtain a report to show your insurers. (English levels at the police station are likely to be low, so try to take a Spanish speaker with you to help).
For travelling purposes, everyone in Northern Spain speaks Spanish, known either as castellano or español, and it’s a huge help to know some. Most young people know some English, and standards are rapidly rising, but don’t assume that people aged 40 or over know any at all. Spaniards are often shy to attempt to speak English. While many visitor attractions have some sort of information available in English (and to a lesser extent French and German), many don’t, or have English tours only in times of high demand. Most tourist office staff will speak at least some English, and there’s a good range of translated information available in most places.
While efforts to speak the language are appreciated, it’s more or less expected, to the same degree as English is expected in Britain or the USA. Nobody will be rude if you don’t speak any Spanish, but nobody will think to slow their rapidfire stream of the language for your benefit either, or pat you on the back for producing a few phrases in their tongue.The other languages you’ll come across in Northern Spain are Euskara/Euskera (the Basque language), Galego (Galician), Bable (the Asturian dialect) and perhaps Aragonés. (Aragonese). Euskara is wholly unrelated to Spanish; if you’re interested in Basque culture, by all means learn a few words (and make instant friends), but be aware that many people in Euskadi aren’t Basque, and that it’s quite a political issue. Bable and Galego are more similar (in descending order), and a limited knowledge of a couple of key words will be helpful for road signs, etc.
Newspapers and magazines
The Spanish press is generally of a high journalistic standard. The national dailies El País (still a qualitative leap ahead), El Mundo and the rightist ABC are read throughout the country, but regional papers often eclipse these in readership. In the Basque lands, there is El Correo, a quality Bilbao-based syndicated chain. El Diario Vasco is another Basque daily, while there’s also El Norte de Castilla, El Diario de León, El Heraldo de Aragón, El Comercio (Asturian) and El Correo Gallego (Galician). Overall circulation is low, partly because many people read the newspapers provided in cafés and bars.The terribly Real Madrid-biased sports dailies Marca and As, dedicated mostly to football, have an extremely large readership that rivals (eclipses, in Marca’s case) any of the broadsheets. There’s no tabloid press as such; the closest equivalent is the prensa de corazón, the gossip magazines such as ¡Hola! (forerunner of Britain’s Hello!). English- language newspapers are widely available in kiosks in the larger towns.
ATMs and banks
The best way to get money in Spain is by plastic. ATMs are plentiful in Spain, and just about all of them accept all the major international debit and credit cards. The Spanish bank won’t charge for the transaction, though they will charge a mark-up on the exchange rate, but beware of your own bank hitting you for a hefty fee: check with them before leaving home. Even if they do, it’s likely to be a better deal than exchanging cash.Banks are usually open 0830-1400 Mon-Fri (and Sat in winter) and many change foreign money (sometimes only the central branch in a town will do it). Commission rates vary widely; it’s usually best to change large amounts, as there’s often a minimum commission of €6 or so. Nevertheless, banks nearly always give better rates than change offices (casas de cambio), which are fewer by the day. If you’re stuck outside banking hours, some large department stores such as the Corte Inglés change money at knavish rates. Traveller’s cheques are accepted in many shops, although they are becoming less common.
Cost of living and travelling
Prices have soared since the euro was introduced; some basics have risen by 50-80% in 3 years, and hotel and restaurant prices are rapidly approaching the Western European norm. Spain’s average monthly salary of €1300 is low by EU standards, and the minimum monthly salary of €600 is very low indeed.
Spain is a still reasonably cheap place to travel if you’re prepared to forgo a few luxuries. If you’re travelling as a pair, staying in cheap pensiones, eating a set meal at lunchtime, travelling short distances by bus or train daily, and snacking on tapas in the evenings, €50 per person per day is reasonable. If you camp and grab picnic lunches from shops, you could reduce this considerably. In a good pensión or hostal, €150 a day and you’ll not be counting pennies; €250 per day and you’ll be very comfy indeed unless you’re staying in 4- or 5-star accommodation.
Accommodation is more expensive in summer than in winter, particularly on the coast. The Basque lands are significantly more expensive year-round than the rest of Northern Spain, particularly for sleeping, eating and drinking. The news isn’t great for the solo traveller; single rooms tend not to be particularly good value, and they are in short supply. Prices range from 60% to 80% of the double/twin price; some establishments even charge the full rate. If you’re going to be staying in 3- to 5-star hotels, booking them ahead on internet discount sites can save a lot of money.
Public transport is generally cheap; intercity bus services are quick and low- priced, though the new fast trains cost more.Petrol is fairly cheap: standard unleaded petrol is around €0.90 per litre and diesel around €0.80. In some places, particularly in tourist areas, you may be charged up to 20% more to sit outside a restaurant. It’s also worth checking if the 7% IVA (sales tax) is included in menu prices, especially in the more expensive restaurants; it should say on the menu whether this is the case.
Northern Spain is generally a very safe place. While port cities like Bilbao, Vigo and Santander have some dodgy areas, tourist crime is very low in this region, and you’re more likely to have something returned (that you left on that train) than something stolen. That said, don’t invite crime by leaving luggage or cash in cars. If parking in a city or, particularly, a popular hiking zone, try to make it clear there’s nothing to nick inside by opening the glovebox, etc. Muggings are very rare, but don’t leave bags unattended.There are several types of police, helpful enough in normal circumstances. The paramilitary Guardia Civil dress in green and are responsible for the roads (including speed traps and the like), borders and law enforcement away from towns. They’re not a bunch to get the wrong side of but are polite to tourists and have thankfully lost the bizarre winged hats they used to sport. The Policía Nacional are responsible for most urban crimefighting. Brown-shirted folk, these are the ones to go to if you need to report anything stolen, etc. Policía Local/Municipal are present in large towns and cities and are responsible for some urban crime, as well as traffic control and parking. The Ertzaintza are the most dashing force in Spain, with cocky red berets. They are a Basque force who deal with the day-to-day beat and some crime. There’s a similar corps in Navarra.
There’s a public telephone in many bars, but hearing the conversation over the ambient noise can be a hard task and rates are slightly higher than on the street. Phone booths on the street are mostly operated by Telefónica, and all have international direct dialling (00 is the prefix for international calls). They accept coins from €0.05 upwards and phone cards, which can be bought from estancos. For international reverse-charge calls, dial T900 99 00 followed by 44 (UK), 15 (USA and Canada), 61 (Australia) or 64 (New Zealand).
For directory enquiries, dial T11818 for national or T11825 for international numbers. The local operator is on T1009 and the international one on 1008.
Domestic landlines have 9-digit numbers beginning with 9 (occasionally with 8). Although the first 3 digits indicate the province, you have to dial the full number from wherever you are calling, including abroad. Mobiles numbers start with 6.Mobiles (móviles) are big in Spain and coverage is very good. Most foreign mobiles will work in Spain (although older North American ones won’t); check with your service provider about what the call costs will be like. Many mobile networks require you to call up before leaving your home country to activate overseas service. Spanish recharge cards for multinational companies such as Vodafone will work on foreign mobiles. If you’re staying a while, it may be cheaper to buy a Spanish mobile or SIM card, as there are always numerous offers and discounts.
Spain operates on western European time, ie GMT +1, and changes its clocks in line with the rest of the EU.‘Spanish time’ isn’t as elastic as it used to be, but if you’re told something will happen ‘enseguida’ (’straight away’) it may take 10 mins, if you’re told ‘cinco minutos’ (5 mins), grab a seat and a book. Transport, especially buses, usually leaves promptly.
Explore Holidays, www.explore holidays.com.au. Organizes several northern Spanish trips.
Ibertours, www.iber tours.com.au. Spanish specialist and booking agent for Parador and Rusticae hotels.
Outdoor Travel, http://www.outdoortravel.com.au. Affiliated with several Spanish outdoor tourism operators.Timeless Tours and Travel, www.time less.com.au. Specializes in tailored itineraries for Spain.
Abercrombie and Kent, www.aber crombiekent.com. High-class packages and tailor-made trips.
Heritage Tours, www.heritagetours online.com. Interesting, high-class itineraries around the north of Spain, including one tour of the Jewish history of Tarazona and its region.
Magical Spain, http://www.magicalspain.com. American-run tour agency based in Sevilla, which runs a variety of tours in the north, including a wine-tasting one. San Francisco office also.
Sarah Tours, www.sarah tours.com. City and study trips, activity breaks, culinary courses. Spain specialists.Saranjan Tours, http://www.saranjan.com. Tours to the Sanfermines in Pamplona, as well as a yacht tour around the Rías Baixas and Santiago, the Camino de Santiago, the Batalla de Vino in Haro, the Transcantábrico train route, and gourmet wine and food tours.
Exodus, www.exodus. co.uk. Walking and adventure tours.Spirit of Adventure, www.spirit-of- adventure.com. All kinds of activities, from caving to kayaking, mountain biking to windsurfing.
Archaeology and art history
Bravo Bike Travel, http://www.bravobike.com. Biking tours, including wine-tasting itineraries in La Rioja and Ribera.
Cycling Through The Centuries, http://www.cycling-centuries.com. Guided tours of the Camino de Santiago and Picos de Europa.
Irish Cycling Safaris, Belfield House, University College Dublin, Dublin 4, Ireland, http://www.cyclingsafaris.com. Runs tours to Northern Spain.Saddle Skedaddle, T44 1912 651 110, http://www.skedaddle.co.uk. Mountain-biking and cycling trips in Northern Spain.
Food and wine
Epiculinary Tours, http://www.epiculinary.com. Culinary tours and lessons that get into the heart of San Sebastián gastronomic societies.
Euroadventures, C Velásquez Moreno 9, Vigo, Spain, http://www.euroadventures.net. Interesting tours and lessons, including culinary tours of the Basque region.
The Unique Traveller, www.theunique traveller.com. Spanish specialists offering good Rioja wine tours, and gourmet Basque country excursions, among other trips.Vintage Spain, http://www.vintagespain.com. Tailor-made tours in Northern Spain, including wine tasting.
UK and Ireland
Abercrombie and Kent, www.abercrombie kent.co.uk. Upmarket operator offering packages and tailor-made itineraries in Spain.
Alternative Travel Group, www.alternative- travel.co.uk. A variety of interesting trips to Northern Spain, many involving walking.
Blue Green Spain, www.bluegreen spain.com. Organizes self-catering accommodation in Asturias. The boss is from Gijón and knows the area well.
Casas Cantábricas, http://www.casacantab.co.uk. Self-catering holidays in Northern Spain.Mundi Color, http://www.mundicolor.co.uk. An offshoot of Iberia, specializing in Spanish fly-drive packages.
The tourist information infrastructure in Northern Spain is organized by the regional governments and is generally excellent, with a wide range of information, often in English, German and French as well as Spanish. Offices within the region can provide maps of the area and towns, and lists of registered accommodation, usually with 1 booklet for hotels, hostales, and pensiones; another for campsites, and another, especially worth picking up, listing farmstay and rural accommodation, which has taken off in a big way; hundreds are added yearly. Opening hours are longer in major cities; many rural offices are only open in summer. Average opening hours are Mon-Sat 1000-1400, 1600-1900, Sun 1000-1400. Offices are often closed on Sun or Mon. Staff often speak English and other European languages and are well trained. The offices (oficinas de turismo) are often signposted to some degree within the town or city. Staff may ask where you are from; this is not nosiness but for statistical purposes.
The regional tourist boards of Northern Spain have useful websites, the better of which have extensive accommodation, restaurant, and sights listings. You can usually order brochures online too. They are:
Castilla y León, www.turismo castillayleon.com
País Vasco (Euskadi), http://www.turismoa.euskadi.net
La Rioja, http://www.lariojaturismo.comNavarra, http://www.turismo.navarra.es.
Other useful websites
http://maps.google.es Street maps of most Spanish towns and cities.
http://www.alsa.es Northern Spain’s major bus operator. Book online.
http://www.bilbao.net The city’s excellent website.
http://www.cyberspain.com Good background on culture and fiestas.
http://www.dgt.es The transport department website has up-to-date information in Spanish on road conditions throughout the country.
http://www.elpais.es Online edition of Spain’s biggest-selling non-sports daily paper. English edition available.
http://www.feve.es Website of the coastal FEVE train service.
http://www.guiarepsol.com Excellent online route planner for Spanish roads, also available in English.
http://www.idealspain.com A good source of practical information about the country designed for people relocating there.
http://www.inm.es Site of the national metereological institute, with the day’s weather and next-day forecasts.
http://www.movelia.es Online timetables and ticketing for several bus companies.
http://www.paginasblancas.es The White Pages.
http://www.paginasamarillas.es Yellow Pages.
http://www.parador.es Parador information, including locations, prices and photos.
http://www.red2000.com A good introduction to Spanish geography and culture, with listings.
http://www.renfe.es Online timetables and tickets for RENFE train network.
http://www.soccer-spain.com A website in English dedicated to Spanish football.
http://www.spain.info The official website of the Spanish tourist board.
http://www.ticktackticket.com Spain’s biggest ticketing agency for concerts, etc, with online purchase.
http://www.tourspain.es A useful website run by the Spanish tourist board.http://www.typicallyspanish.com News and links on all things Spanish.
Working in Spain
The most obvious paid work for English speakers is to teach the language. Even the smallest towns usually have an English college or two; it’s a big industry here. Rates of pay aren’t great except in the large cities. The best way of finding work is by trawling around the schools, but there are dozens of useful internet sites; http://www.eslcafe.com, http://www.eslusa.org, or http://www.escapeartist.com. There’s also a more casual scene of private teaching; noticeboards in universities and student cafés are the best way to find work of this sort, or to advertise your own services.
Bar work is also relatively easy to find, particularly in summer. Irish theme bars in the larger cities are an obvious choice, but smaller towns along the north coast also have plenty of seasonal work, though this has decreased with economic conditions in recent times. Live-in English- speaking au pairs and childminders are also popular with wealthier city families wanting to give young children some exposure to the English language.EU citizens are at an advantage when it comes to working in Spain; they can work without a permit. Non-EU citizens need a working visa, obtainable from Spanish embassies or consulates, but you’ll need to have a firm offer of work to obtain it. Most English schools can organize this for you but make sure you arrange it before arriving in the country.
Festivals and events
The holidays listed here are national or across much of Northern Spain; local fiestas and holidays are detailed in the main text. These can be difficult times to travel; it’s important to reserve travel in advance to avoid queues and lack of seats. If the holiday falls mid-week, it’s usual form to take an extra day off, forming a long weekend known as a puente (bridge).
1 Jan: Año Nuevo, New Year’s Day.
6 Jan: Reyes Magos/Epifanía, Epiphany; when Christmas presents are given.
Easter Jueves Santo, Viernes Santo, Día de Pascua (Maundy Thu, Good Fri, Easter Sun), Lunes Santo (Easter Mon; Euskadi only).
23 Apr: Fiesta de la Comunidad de Castilla y León and Día de Aragón (Castilla y León and Aragón).
1 May: Fiesta de Trabajo, Labour Day.
25 Jul: Día del Apostol Santiago, Feast of St James (Navarra, Euskadi, Galicia; Cantabria’s holiday is on 28 Jul).
15 Aug: Asunción, Feast of the Assumption.
12 Oct: Día de la Hispanidad, Spanish National Day (Columbus Day, Feast of the Virgin of the Pillar).
1 Nov: Todos los Santos, All Saints’ Day.
6 Dec: El Día de la Constitución Española, Constitution Day.
8 Dec: Inmaculada Concepción, Feast of the Immaculate Conception.25 Dec: Navidad, Christmas Day.
Most provincial capitals in Northern Spain have an airport that is serviced from Barcelona and Madrid at least once daily. The drawback is the cost; a full fare return from Madrid to Oviedo, for example, costs around €300. If you are fairly flexible about when you fly, you can pick up some good advance-purchase prices; there are some budget routes operated by Ryanair, Clickair, Easyjet, Vueling, and other airlines. Otherwise, by far the best way is to go to a local travel agent, who can often find excellent deals on domestic flights. Flying within Northern Spain itself is less attractive, as you usually have to go via Madrid, although there are connections to Bilbao from Vigo, A Coruña and Santiago.
Most internal flights in Spain are operated by Iberia; Spanair and Air Europa also run some routes. If you’re flying into Spain from overseas, a domestic leg can often be added at comparatively little cost.If you’re flying into Spain from outside Europe on a OneWorld affiliate airline, you may want to consider the OneWorld airpass, which offers set-rate flights with Iberia that cost €55 for up to 318 km, or €80 up to 638 km. Spanair have a Spanair Pass, but you have to buy 10 vouchers and it’s not very good value.
The Michelin road maps are reliable for general navigation, although if you’re getting off the beaten track you’ll often find a local map handy. Tourist offices provide these, which vary in quality. The best topographical maps are published by the Instituto Geográfico Nacional (IGN) or the army. These are not necessarily more accurate than those obtainable in Britain or North America. A useful website for route planning is http://www.guiarepsol.com. Car hire companies have navigation systems available, though they cost a hefty supplement.Stanfords (12-14 Long Acre, Covent Garden, London, WC2€ 9LP, T020 7836 1321, http://www.stanfords.co.uk) with over 80 well-travelled staff and 40,000 titles in stock, is the world’s largest map and travel bookshop. It also has a branch at 29 Corn Street, Bristol.
The Spanish national rail network RENFE (T902 240 202 (English-speaking operators), http://www.renfe.es) is, thanks to its growing network of high-speed trains, becoming a more useful option. AVE trains run from Madrid to Valladolid, Zaragoza, and Huesca, with other routes under construction to nearly all of Northern Spain’s major cities. These trains, though expensive, cover these large distances impressively quickly and reliably. They are an expensive but excellent service that refunds part or all of the ticket price if it arrives late. Elsewhere though, you’ll find the bus is often quicker and cheaper.
Prices vary significantly according to the type of service you are using. The standard fast-ish intercity service is called Talgo, while other intercity services are labelled Altaria, Intercity, Diurno and Estrella (overnight). Slower local trains are called regionales.
It’s always worth buying a ticket in advance for long-distance travel, as trains are often full. The best option is to buy them via the website, which sometimes offers advance- purchase discounts. You can also book by phone, but they only accept Spanish cards. In either case, you get a reservation code, then print off your ticket at the terminals at the station. If buying your ticket at the station, allow plenty of time for queuing. Ticket windows are labelled venta anticipada (in advance) and venta inmediata (six hours or less before the journey). A better option can be to use a travel agent; the ones that sell tickets will display a RENFE sign, but you’ll have to purchase them a day in advance. Commission is minimal.
All Spanish trains are non-smoking. The faster trains will have a first-class (preferente) and second-class sections as well as a cafetería. First class costs about 30% more than standard and can be a worthwhile deal on a crowded long journey. Other pricing is bewilderingly complex. Night trains are more expensive, even if you don’t take a sleeping berth, and there’s a system of peak/off-peak days that makes little difference in practice. Buying a return ticket is 10 to 20% cheaper than two singles, but you qualify for this discount even if you buy the return leg later (but not on every service). A useful tip: if the train is ‘full’ for your particular destination, try to buy a ticket halfway (or even one stop), get on, and then ask the ticket inspector whether it’s possible to go further. You may have to shuffle seats a couple of times, but most are fairly helpful – you can pay the excess fare on board.
An ISIC student card or under-26 card grants a discount of between 20% to 25% on train services. If you’re using a European railpass, be aware that you’ll still have to make a reservation on Spanish trains and pay the small reservation fee (which covers your insurance). If you have turned 60, it’s worth paying €5 for a Tarjeta Dorada, a seniors’ card that gets you a discount of 40% on trains from Monday to Thursday, and 25% at other times.
The other important Northern Spanish network is FEVE (http://www.feve.es) whose main line runs along the north coast from Bilbao to Santander, Asturias and as far as Ferrol in Galicia; there’s another line from Bilbao to León. It’s a slow line, but very picturesque. It stops at many small villages and is handy for exploring the coast. They also operate the luxury Transcantábrico, a week’s journey along the whole network, with numerous side trips, and gourmet meals. A third handy network is Eusko Trenbideak, a short-haul train service in the Basque country. It’s an excellent service with good coverage of the inland towns.Both FEVE and RENFE operate short-distance cercanías (commuter trains) in some areas, essentially suburban train services. These are particularly helpful in Asturias and Bilbao.
Buses are the staple of Spanish public transport. Services between major cities are fast, frequent, reliable and fairly cheap; the four-hour trip from Madrid to León, for example, costs €21. When buying a ticket, always check how long the journey will take, as the odd bus will be an ‘all stations to’ job, calling in at villages that seem surprised to even see it.
While some cities have several departure points for buses, most have a single terminal, the estación de autobuses, which is where all short- and long-haul services leave from. Buy your tickets at the relevant window; if there isn’t one, buy it from the driver. Many companies don’t allow baggage in the cabin of the bus, but security is pretty good. Most tickets will have a seat number (asiento) on them; ask when buying the ticket if you prefer a window (ventana) or aisle (pasillo) seat. There’s a huge number of intercity bus companies, some of which allow online booking; the most useful in Northern Spain is ALSA (T902 422 242 , www.alsa.e) s which is based in Asturias and runs many routes. The website http://www.movelia.es is also useful. The platform that the bus leaves from is called a dársena or andén. If you’re travelling at busy times (particularly a fiesta or national holiday) always book the bus ticket in advance. If the bus station is out of town, there are usually travel agents in the centre who can do this for you at no extra charge.
Rural bus services are slower, less frequent and more difficult to coordinate. They typically run early in the morning and late in the evening; they’re designed for villagers who visit the big city once a week or so to shop. If you’re trying to catch a bus from a small stop, you’ll often need to almost jump out under the wheels to get the driver to pull up. The same goes when trying to get off a bus; even if you’ve asked the driver to let you know when your stop comes up, keep an eye out as they tend to forget.
All bus services are reduced on Sundays and, to a lesser extent, on Saturdays; some services don’t run at all on weekends. Many local newspapers publish a comprehensive list of departures; expect few during siesta hours. While most large villages will have at least some bus service to their provincial capital, the same doesn’t apply for many touristed spots; it’s assumed that all tourists have cars.Most Spanish cities have their sights closely packed into the centre, so you won’t find local buses particularly necessary. There’s a fairly comprehensive network in most towns, though; the Ins and outs and Transport sections indicate where they come in handy.
The roads in Northern Spain are good, excellent in many parts. While driving isn’t as sedate as in parts of northern Europe, it’s generally of a very high standard, and you’ll have few problems. To drive in Spain, you’ll need a full driving licence from your home country. This applies to virtually all foreign nationals, but in practice, if you’re from an ‘unusual’ country, consider an International Driving Licence or official translation of your licence into Spanish.
There are two types of motorway in Spain, autovías and autopistas; the quality both is generally excellent, with a speed limit of 120 kph. They are signposted in blue and may have tolls payable, in which case there’ll be a red warning circle on the blue sign when you’re entering the motorway. Tolls are generally reasonable, but extortionate in Euskadi.
Rutas Nacionales form the backbone of Spain’s road network. Centrally administered, they vary wildly in quality. Typically, they are choked with traffic backed up behind trucks, and there are few stretches of dual carriageway. Driving at siesta time is a good idea if you’re going to be on a busy stretch. Rutas Nacionales are marked with a red ‘N’ number. The speed limit is 100 kph outside built-up areas, as it is for secondary roads, which are numbered with a provincial prefix (eg BU-552 in Burgos province), although some are demarcated ‘B’ and ‘C’ instead.
In urban areas, the speed limit is 50 kph. Many towns and villages have sensors that will turn traffic lights red if you’re over the limit on approach. City driving can be confusing, with signposting generally poor and traffic heavy; it’s worth printing off the directions that your hotel may send you with a reservation. In some towns and cities, many of the hotels are officially signposted, making things easier. Police are increasingly enforcing speed limits in Spain, and foreign drivers are liable to a large on-the-spot fine. Drivers can also be punished for not carrying two red warning triangles to place on the road in case of breakdown, a bulb-replacement kit and a fluorescent green waistcoat to wear if you break down by the side of the road. Drink driving is being cracked down on more than was once the case; the limit is 0.5 g/l of blood, slightly less than the equivalent in the UK, for example.
Parking is a problem in nearly every town and city in Northern Spain. Red or yellow lines on the side of the street mean no parking. Blue lines indicate a metered zone, while white lines mean that some restriction is in place; a sign will give details. Parking meters can usually only be dosed up for a maximum of two hours, but they take a siesta at lunchtime too. Print the ticket off and display it in the car. Once the day’s period has expired, you can charge it up for the next morning to avoid an early start. If you get a ticket, you can pay a minimal fine at the machine within the first half hour or hour instead of the full whack. Underground car parks are common and well signposted, but fairly pricey; €12-20 a day is normal. However, this is the safest option if you are going to leave any valuables in your car.
Liability insurance is required for every car driven in Spain and you must carry proof of it. If bringing your own car, check carefully with your insurers that you’re covered, and get a certificate (green card). If your insurer doesn’t cover you for breakdowns, consider joining the RACE (T902 120 441, http://www.race.es) Spain’s automobile association, which provides good breakdown cover.Hiring a car in Spain is easy but not especially cheap. The major multinationals have offices at all large towns and airports; a Spanish operator with an excellent network is ATESA (http://www.atesa.es) a cheaper company is Holiday Autos. Prices start at around €150 per week for a small car with unlimited mileage. You’ll need a credit card and most agencies will either not accept under 25s or demand a surcharge. Rates from the airports tend to be cheaper than from towns; with the big companies, it’s usually cheaper to book over the internet via a price-comparison website like http://www.kelkoo.com.
With budget airlines having opened up several regional airports to international flights, it’s easier than ever to get to Northern Spain. Ryanair fly to Santiago de Compostela, Valladolid, Santander, and Zaragoza from London, while Easyjet serve Bilbao and Asturias, and Air Berlin go to Bilbao and Asturias (among others), with a connection, from many German and Austrian airports. These airlines also run routes to other European cities. Clickair fly between London and Vigo, and Pyrenair between London and Huesca; other international airlines serve Bilbao (which is connected with London, Paris, Frankfurt, and several other European cities), Vigo, Santiago de Compostela, Zaragoza and Asturias. If you’re not on the budget carriers, however, it’s often cheaper to fly to Madrid and connect via a domestic flight or by land transport. Madrid is a major world airport and prices tend to be competitive.
Domestic connections via Madrid or Barcelona are frequent. Iberia connects Madrid with most cities of the north, while Spanair and Air Europa also operate some flights. Flights are fairly expensive, with a typical Madrid–Bilbao return costing €200. There are often specials on various websites that can bring the price down considerably. If flying into Madrid from outside Spain, an onward domestic flight can often be added at little extra cost.
While budget carriers often offer excellent value (especially when booked well ahead), they offer very little flexibility. Be aware that if you’re only booking a week or so in advance, it may be cheaper with other airlines such as British Airways or Iberia. Cheap fares will usually carry a heavy financial penalty for changing dates or cancellation; check the small print carefully before buying a ticket. Some airlines don’t like one-way tickets; it’s (ridiculously) often cheaper to buy a return.Before booking, it’s worth doing a bit of online research. Two of the best search engines for flight comparisons are http://www.kelkoo.com, and http://www.kayak.com, which compare prices from travel agencies and websites. To keep yourself up to date with the ever-changing routes of the bewildering number of budget airlines, http://www.whichbudget.com is recommended. Flightchecker (http://flightchecker.moneysavingexpert.com) is handy for checking multiple dates for budget airline deals.
Madrid Barajas is the main international airport of Spain, and for non-European visitors, is the most convenient point of entry for the north. Situated 13 km northeast of the centre, it has two distinct parts: the new Terminal 4, used for most EU flights, as well as services run by Iberia and partner airlines, and the old Terminals 1-3 (used by the rest). A free shuttle bus runs between terminals. There are tourist information offices in Terminals 1, 2, and 4 and many multinational car hire companies and banks with ATMs. There’s also a hotel booking service.The most convenient way of getting into Madrid is by taxi, which costs around €25 (including a €5 charge that the driver will add on: don’t let them add on any other extras), or to use the metro. There are entrances to the metro (http://www.metromadrid.es) from Terminals 2 and 3 and a separate station for Terminal 4. On the metro, you can be in central Madrid in as little as 20 minutes; a single ticket costs €2 from the airport. If you’re moving straight on to the north, change at Nuevos Ministerios (the end of the line). Jump on Line 10 (Dirección Fuencarral) for four stops to reach Chamartin, the main northbound train station. Nine stops on Line 6 (Dirección Legazpi), on the other hand, will get you to Méndez Alvaro, which has a passage connecting to the main northerly bus station. There are also buses into town from outside Terminal 1, but these can take significantly longer, especially in traffic.
Flying from Australia and New Zealand
Flying from Europe
There are many direct flights from Europe to Northern Spain, but most are overpriced apart from those on budget airlines; you’re often better flying in to Madrid. Budget routes to the north include Air Berlin services from numerous German, Austrian, and Swiss cities to Bilbao, Asturias, and Santiago de Compostela, usually via their Mallorca hub. Ryanair link Valladolid, Santander, and Zaragoza with European destinations such as Brussels Charleroi, Milan Bergamo, and Roma Ciampino, and Frankfurt Hahn. Other airlines like Clickair, Brussels Airlines and Vueling fly a few select European routes; check http://www.whichbudget.com for up-to-date routes in this rapidly changing market.On full-fare airlines, Bilbao is directly connected with several other European cities, including Frankfurt, Zürich, Brussels, Paris, Milan and Lisbon. There are flights to Madrid from most European capitals with both budget and full-fare carriers.
Flying from North America and Canada
Flying from South Africa
Flying from the UK and Ireland
Competition between airlines serving Spain has benefited the traveller in recent years. Budget operators have taken a significant slice of the market and forced other airlines to compete. There are several options for flying to Northern Spain from the UK and Ireland.
The cheapest direct flights are with the budget operators, whose fares can be as low as €21 return but are more usually €85-160. It’s easier to get hold of a cheaper fare if you fly off-season or midweek, and if you book well in advance. The routes offered at time of writing were: Ryanair London Stansted to Santiago de Compostela, Santander, Valladolid, and Zaragoza. Easyjet London Stansted to Bilbao, Asturias (Oviedo/ Gijón/Avilés). Aer Lingus Dublin to Santiago de Compostela and Bilbao. Clickair from London Heathrow or Gatwick to Vigo, Bibao, A Coruña. Ryanair’s flies to Biarritz, France, which is 30 minutes on the train to the Spanish border, from where it’s another 30 minutes to San Sebastián. Check http://www.whichbudget.com to keep apace of the changes.
Bilbao is also served from London by Iberia and British Airways. These flights often end up cheaper than Easyjet if you are flying at a weekend with less than a month’s notice. APEX fares tend to be about €138-202 return and can be more economical and flexible than the budget airline if you are connecting from another British city.
Direct flights from London to Madrid are operated by Easyjet, Ryanair, Air Comet, Iberia, British Airways, BMI, Air Europa, Aerolíneas Argentinas, Lufthansa and others. Iberia/British Airways also connect to Madrid directly from Manchester, Edinburgh, Glasgow and Birmingham, while Easyjet fly to Madrid from Edinburgh, Bristol, and Liverpool, BMI Baby from Birmingham and Manchester, and Ryanair from Liverpool.
KLM, Lufthansa and Air France are also major carriers to Spain for those who don’t mind changing at these airlines’ hub airports. As well as Madrid and Barcelona these airlines all fly to Bilbao. Iberia and British Airways code share on direct flights between London and Santiago de Compostela and Oviedo/Gijón several times a week, but these flights tend to be a lot dearer; it’s nearly always cheaper to connect via Madrid.
From Madrid airport (Barajas), it’s very easy to hop in a taxi or the Metro to the bus station (Metro stop: Méndez Alvaro) or train station (Chamartín) and be in Northern Spain in a jiffy.Iberia and Aer Lingus code share daily direct flights from Dublin to Madrid and Barcelona, while Aer Lingus runs budget flights from Dublin to Bilbao and Santiago. Ryanair operate budget flights between Dublin and London if you can find a cheap flight from the UK.
Air Berlin, http://www.airberlin.com.
Air Canada, http://www.aircanada.ca.
Aer Lingus, http://www.aerlingus.com.
American Airlines, http://www.aa.com.
BMI Baby, http://www.bmibaby.com.
British Airways, http://www.ba.com.
US Airways, http://www.usairways.com.Vueling, http://www.vueling.com.
Travelling from the UK to Northern Spain by train is unlikely to save either time or money; the only advantages lie in the pleasure of the journey itself, the chance to stop along the way, and the environmental impact of flying versus rail travel. Using Eurostar (T0870 160 6600, http://www.eurostar.com) changing stations in Paris and boarding a TGV to Hendaye can have you in San Sebastián 10 hours after leaving Waterloo if the connections are kind. Once across the Channel, the trains are reasonably priced, but factor in £100-200 return on Eurostar and things don’t look so rosy, unless you can take advantage of a special offer. Using the train/ferry combination will more or less halve the cost and double the time.
The main rail gateway from the rest of Europe is Paris (Austerlitz). There’s a Paris–Madrid sleeper daily, which stops at Vitoria, Burgos and Valladolid. Standard tourist class is €143 in a reclining seat to Madrid one-way, and proportionally less depending on where you get off. Check http://www.elipsos.com for specials. The cheaper option is to take a TGV from Paris to Hendaye, from where you can catch a Spanish train to San Sebastián and beyond.For students, the InterRail pass is an attractive and cheap possibility, which can be obtained from travel agents, but note that the pass is not valid on the high-speed AVE or EuroMed trains. If you are planning the train journey, Rail Europe (T0844 484 064, http://www.raileurope.co.uk) is a useful company. RENFE, Spain’s rail network, has online timetables at http://www.renfe.es. Also see the extremely useful http://www.seat61.com.
The main route into Northern Spain is the €05/€70 motorway that runs down the southwest coast of France, crossing into Spain at Irún, near San Sebastián. More scenic but slower routes cross the Pyrenees at various points. The other motorway entrance is the €7 that runs down the east coast of Spain from France. At Barcelona you can turn inland for Lleida and Zaragoza. Both these motorways are tolled but worthwhile compared to the slow, traffic- plagued rutas nacionales. Most other motorways are free and in good condition.Cars must be insured for third party and practically any driving licence is acceptable (but if you’re from a country that a Guardia Civil would struggle to locate on a map, take an International Driving Licence). Unleaded petrol costs €0.90-1.05 per litre in Spain.
Bear in mind that from the UK it’s usually cheaper to fly and hire a car in Northern Spain than bring the motor across on the ferry. For competitive fares by sea to France and Spain, check with Ferrysavers (T0844 576 8835, http://www.ferrysavers.com) .
P&O (T0871 6 645 645, http://www.poferries.com) operates a ferry service from Portsmouth to Bilbao but in reality it’s more of a booze cruise than a transport connection, which doesn’t come cheap at £400-500 return with a car. It’s a two-night trip on the way out, one night on the way back. and cabin accommodation is mandatory. Boats depart from Portsmouth at 2115 twice a week most of the year, with fewer crossings in winter. The return ferry leaves Bilbao at 1315. The ferry port is at Santurtzi, 13 km from the city centre.A cheaper and faster option is the service run by Brittany Ferries (T0871 244 0744, http://www.brittany-ferries.co.uk) from Plymouth and Portsmouth to Santander. There’s one weekly sailing on each route, taking around 24 hours from Portsmouth and 20 hours from Plymouth. Prices are variable but can usually be found for about £70-90 each way in a reclining seat. A car adds about £150 each way, and cabins start from about £80.
Although chain stores are gradually swallowing them up, one of the most endearing aspects of the country is the profusion of small shops, many little changed in recent decades and always family-run. While there are many supermarkets, people buy their bread from bakers, their newspapers from kiosks, their tobacco from tobacconists, and they get their shoes repaired at cobblers. Food markets are still the focus of many towns.Standard shop opening hours are Monday to Friday 1000-1400, 1700-2000, and Saturday mornings. Big supermarkets stay open through the lunch hour and shut at 2100 or 2200. Bargaining is not usual except at markets but it’s worth asking for a descuento if you’re buying in bulk or paying in cash. Non-EU residents can reclaim VAT (IVA) on purchases over €90; the easiest way to do this is to get a tax-free cheque from participating shops (look for the sticker), which can then be cashed at customs.
What to buy
Clothing is an obvious choice; Spanish fashion is strong. While the larger chains have branched out into Britain and beyond, there are many smaller stores with good ranges of gear that you won’t be able to get outside the country. The big cities of Bilbao and Zaragoza are the best places, but every medium-sized town will have plenty on offer. The average Spaniard is smaller than their British or American counterpart, so don’t be offended if you have to check a few places to find something in your size.
Leather is another good buy; jackets tend to be at least 30% less than in the UK, although the range of styles available isn’t as great. There are plenty of places that will make bespoke leather goods, although they usually aren’t in a huge hurry about it. If Spaniards seem to be obsessed by shoes, it’s because the shoe shops normally display their wares only in the window, so all the browsing is done outside in the street. Shoes are fairly well priced and unusual, although the long-footed will struggle to find anything. A popular souvenir of León and Asturias is the madreña, a wooden clog worn over normal shoes.
Ceramics are a good choice: cheap, attractive and practical in the most part. Galicia is known for its ceramics, local styles are everywhere. Zamora has a ceramics fiesta in June.
Local fiestas usually have handicraft markets attached to them; these can be excellent places to shop, as artisans from all around the region bring their wares to town; you’ll soon distinguish the real ones from the the imported South American versions.
An obvious choice is food. Ham keeps well and is cheap. Many ham shops arrange international deliveries. Chorizo is a more portable alternative. Aceitunas con anchoa (olives stuffed with anchovies) are a cheap and packable choice, as is the range of quality canned and marinated seafood.
Spanish wine is another good purchase. However, the price differential is only about 30% so try to find bottles that you can’t get at home. Vinotecas (wine shops) are common in wine-producing areas, but elsewhere you’ll find the biggest selection in department stores such as the Corte Inglés. Spirits are significantly cheaper than in most of Europe; a bottle of gin from London, for example, can in Spain cost as little as 35% of the British price. A good souvenir is a bota, the goatskin winebags used at fiestas and bullfights. Try and buy one from a botería, the traditional workshops where they are made, rather than at a tourist shop.Cigars (puros) can be as little as a tenth of UK prices, and there’s a large range in many tobacconists (estancos). Cigarettes, meanwhile, are seriously cheap too; about €2.65 a packet for most international brands.
There are a reasonable number of well-equipped but characterless places on the edges or in the newer parts of towns in Spain. This guide has expressly minimized these in the listings, preferring to concentrate on more atmospheric options. If booking accom- modation without this guide, always be sure to check the location if that’s important to you – it’s easy to find yourself a 15-minute cab ride from the town you want to be in. Having said this, the standard of accommodation in Northern Spain is very high; even the most modest of pensiones are usually very clean and respectable. Places to stay (alojamientos) are divided into three main categories; the distinctions between them follow an arcane series of regulations devised by the government.All registered accommodations charge a 7% value-added tax (IVA); this is often included in the price at cheaper places and may be waived if you pay cash. If you have any problems, a last resort is to ask for the libro de reclamaciones (complaints book), an official document that, like stepping on cracks in the pavement, means uncertain but definitely horrible consequences for the hotel if anything is written in it. If you do write something in it, you have to go to the police within 24 hours and report the fact.