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Tourist Profile: Spain

The exuberance of the Spaniards and the glorious predictability of the summer weather have been attracting refugees from northern Europe's damp and clammy lands for decades, but Spain is much more than the Costa del Sol and warm English beer. It is drenched in the historical pageantry of empire and conquistadors, the artistic legacy of Goya, Velázquez, Picasso and Dalí, and the romance of Don Quijote, Papa Hemingway and the International Brigades.

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  • Where to go
  • When to go
  • Money & Costs
  • History
  • Culture

In true Spanish style, cultural events are almost inevitably celebrated with a wild party and a holiday. Among the festivals to look out for are Festividad in San Sebastián in January, when the whole town dresses up and goes berserk. Carnaval takes place throughout the country in late February; the wildest is said to be in Sitges. In March, Valencia has a week-long party known as Las Fallas, which is marked by all-night dancing, drinking, first-class fireworks and colourful processions. Semana Santa (Holy Week) is the week leading up to Easter Sunday with parades of holy images through the streets; Seville is the place to be if you can get accommodation. In late April the Feria de Abril in Seville is a week-long party counterbalancing the religious fervour of Semana Santa.

The last Wednesday in August sees the Valencian town of Buñol go bonkers with La Tomatina, in which the surplus from its tomato harvest is sploshed around in a friendly riot. The Running of the Bulls (Sanfermines) in Pamplona in July is Spain's most famous festival. Along the north coast, staggered through the first half of August, is Semana Grande, another week of heavy drinking and hangovers.

The ideal months to visit are May, June and September (plus April and October in the south). At these times you can rely on good weather, yet avoid the sometimes extreme heat - and the main crush of Spanish and foreign tourists. That said, there's decent weather in some parts of Spain virtually year-round. Winter along the southern and southeastern Mediterranean coasts is mild, while in the height of summer you can retreat to the northwest, or to beaches or high mountains anywhere, if you need to get away from excessive heat. If you want to make sure you hit some parties, the best festivals are concentrated between Semana Santa (the week leading up to Easter Sunday) and September.

Currency: euro (EUR), formerly peseta (pta)

  • Budget: US$5-10
  • Mid-range: US$10-15
  • Top-end: US$15+
  • Budget: US$20-40
  • Mid-range: US$40-70
  • Top-end: US$70+

Spain is one of Europe's more affordable countries. If you are particularly frugal it's just about possible to scrape by for around US$20 a day. This would involve staying in the cheapest possible accommodation, avoiding eating in restaurants or going to museums or bars, and not moving around too much. A more comfortable budget would be US$40 a day, allowing for a basic hotel room, set meals, public transport and entry to museums. With $100 a day you can stay in excellent accommodation, rent a car and eat some of the best food Spain has to offer. Travellers cheques can be cashed at banks and exchange offices, and usually attract a slightly higher exchange rate than cash. Credit and debit cards are widely accepted at hotels and restaurants, especially from the middle range up, and also for long-distance train tickets.

These days, even small towns have an ATM (cajero automático) where you can withdraw pesetas from credit and debit accounts. Be careful carrying your money, whether it's jingling or plastic, as tourists are a major target of theft - hundreds of thousands of credit cards go missing in Spain every year. In restaurants the law requires menu prices to include service charge, and tipping is a matter of personal choice - most people leave some small change if they're satisfied and 5% is usually plenty. It's common to leave small change at bar and cafe tables. Markets and cheap hotels are the only places in Spain where you are likely to bargain.

At the crossroads between Europe and Africa, the Iberian Peninsula has always been a target for invading races and civilisations. The Romans arrived in the 3rd century BC but took two centuries to subdue the peninsula. Gradually Roman laws, languages and customs were adopted. In 409 AD, Roman Hispania was invaded by a massive contingent of Germanic tribes and by 419 a Visigothic kingdom had been established. The Visigoths ruled until 711, when the Muslims crossed the Strait of Gibraltar and defeated Roderick, the last Goth king. By 714, the Muslim armies had occupied the entire peninsula, apart from the mountainous regions of northern Spain. The Muslim occupation of southern Spain (which the Spanish called Al-Andalus) was to last almost 800 years. During this period, the arts and sciences prospered, new crops and agricultural techniques were introduced and palaces, mosques, schools, gardens and public baths were built. In 722, at Covadonga in northern Spain, a small army under the Visigothic king Pelayo inflicted the first defeat on the Muslims. Symbolically, this battle marked the beginning of the Reconquista, the reconquest of Spain by the Christians.

By the end of the 13th century, Castilla and Aragón had emerged as Christian Spain's two main powers, and in 1469 these two kingdoms were united by the marriage of Isabel, princess of Castilla, to Fernando, heir to the throne of Aragón. Known as the Catholic Monarchs, they united all of Spain and laid the foundations for the golden age.

In 1478, they established the notoriously ruthless Spanish Inquisition, expelling and executing thousands of Jews and other non-Christians. In 1482, they besieged Granada, and 10 years later the last Muslim king surrendered to them, marking the long-awaited end of the Reconquista. Spain developed an enormous empire in the New World, following Columbus' arrival in the Americas in 1492. Gold and silver came flooding into Spanish coffers from Mexico and Peru as the conquistadors claimed land from Cuba to Bolivia. Spain monopolised trade with these new colonies and became one of the most powerful nations on earth. However, this protectionism hindered development of the colonies and led to a series of expensive wars with England, France and the Netherlands. When Louis XVI was guillotined in 1793, Spain declared war on the new French republic, but was defeated. In 1808, Napoleon's troops entered Spain and the Spanish Crown began to lose its hold on its colonies. Sparked by an uprising in Madrid, the Spanish people united against the French and fought a five-year war of independence. In 1813, the French forces were finally expelled, and in 1814 Fernando VII was restored to the Spanish throne. Fernando's subsequent 20-year reign was a disastrous advertisement for the monarchy. During his time, the Inquisition was re-established, liberals and constitutionalists were persecuted, free speech was repressed, Spain entered a severe economic recession and the American colonies won their independence. The disastrous Spanish-American War of 1898 marked the end of the Spanish Empire. Spain was defeated by the USA in a series of one-sided naval battles, resulting in the loss of Cuba, Puerto Rico, Guam and the Philippines, Spain's last overseas possessions. Spain's troubles continued during the early 20th century.

In 1923, with the country on the brink of civil war, Miguel Primo de Rivera declared himself military dictator and ruled until 1930. In 1931, Alfonso XIII fled the country, and the Second Republic was declared, but it soon fell victim to internal conflict. The 1936 elections saw the country split in two, with the Republican government and its supporters on one side (an uneasy alliance of communists, socialists and anarchists, who favoured a more equitable civil society and a diminished role for the Church) and the opposition Nationalists (a right-wing alliance of the army, the Church, the monarchy and the fascist-style Falange Party) on the other. The assassination of the opposition leader José Calvo Sotelo by Republican police officers in July 1936 gave the army an excuse to overthrow the government. During the subsequent Civil War (1936-39), the Nationalists received extensive military and financial support from Nazi Germany and fascist Italy, while the elected Republican government received support only from Russia and, to a lesser degree, from the International Brigades, made up of foreign idealists. Despite the threat of fascism, England and France refused to support the Republicans.

By 1939, the Nationalists, led by Franco, had won the war. More than 350,000 Spaniards had died in the fighting, but more bloodletting ensued. An estimated 100,000 Republicans were executed or died in prison after the war. Franco's 35-year dictatorship saw Spain isolated by economic blockades, excluded from NATO and the UN and crippled by economic recession. It wasn't until the early 1950s, when the rise in tourism and a treaty with the USA combined to provide much needed funds, that the country began to recover. By the 1970s, Spain had the fastest growing economy in Europe. Franco died in 1975, having earlier named Juan Carlos, the grandson of Alfonso XIII, his successor. With Juan Carlos on the throne, Spain made the transition from dictatorship to democracy. The first elections were held in 1977, a new constitution was drafted in 1978, and a failed military coup in 1981 was seen as a futile attempt to turn back the clock. In 1982 Spain made a final break with the past by voting in a socialist government with a sizeable majority. The only major blemish on the domestic front since has been the terrorist campaign waged by separatist militant group ETA, which is trying to secure an independent Basque homeland. During 30 years of terrorist activity, ETA has killed over 800 people. In 1986 Spain joined the EC (now the EU) and in 1992 Spain announced its return to the world stage, with Barcelona hosting the Olympic Games, Seville hosting Expo 92 and Madrid being declared European Cultural Capital. In 1996 Spaniards voted in a conservative party under the leadership of the uncharismatic José María Aznar, an Elton John fan and former tax inspector. In March 2000 he was re-elected with an absolute majority; his success has been attributed to the buoyant state of the Spanish economy, which has experienced 4% annual growth since Aznar came to power.

Spain has an extraordinary artistic heritage. The dominant figures of the golden age were the Toledo-based artists El Greco and Diego Velázquez. Francisco Goya emerged in the 18th century as Spain's most prolific painter and he produced some wonderfully unflattering portraits of royalty. The art world in the early 20th century was influenced by a remarkable group of Spanish artists: Pablo Picasso, Juan Gris, Joan Miró and Salvador Dalí. Spain's architecture ranges from prehistoric monuments in Menorca in the Balearic Islands, through to the Roman ruins of Mérida and Tarragona, the decorative Islamic Alhambra in Granada, Mudéjar buildings, Gothic cathedrals, castles and palaces, fantastic modernist monuments and Gaudí's intricate fabulist sculptures. One of the world's greatest works of fiction is the 17th-century novel Don Quijote de la Mancha, written by Spain's Miguel de Cervantes. Important 20th-century writers include Miguel de Unamuno, Federico García Lorca and Camilo José Cela, winner of the 1989 Nobel Prize for literature. Prominent feminist writers include Adelaida Garcia Morales, Ana María Matute and Montserrat Roig. Spanish films were once synonymous with the work of surrealist genius Luís Buñuel, who spent much of his time abroad. They are now associated with the mad-cap kinky farces of Pedro Almodóvar, who has enjoyed huge international success.

The guitar was invented in Andalucía in the 1790s when a sixth string was added to the Arab lute. It gained its modern shape in the 1870s. Spanish musicians have taken the humble guitar to dizzying heights of virtuosity and none more so than Andrés Segovia (1893-1997), who established classical guitar as a genre. Flamenco, music rooted in the cante hondo (deep song) of the gitanos of Andalucía, is experiencing a revival. Paco de Lucia is the best known flamenco guitarist internationally. His friend El Camarón de la Isla was, until his death in 1992, the leading light of contemporary canto hondo.

In the 1980s flamenco-rock fusion (aka gypsy rock) was developed by the likes of Pata Negra and Ketama, and in the 1990s Radio Tarifa emerged with a mesmerising mix of flamenco, North African and medieval sounds. Bakalao, the Spanish contribution to the world of techno, has its headquarters in Valencia. Spaniards are sports crazy, and football (soccer) is huge; try to see a match, because the atmosphere is electric. Bullfighting is also very popular, despite continued pressure from international animal-rights activists. While Catholicism is deeply ingrained in all aspects of Spanish society, only about 40% of Spaniards are regular churchgoers. Many Spaniards have a deep-seated scepticism of the Church; during the Civil War, churches were burnt and clerics shot because they represented repression, corruption and the old order. Spanish food has a deservedly fantastic reputation, and tapas are probably one of the most civilised inventions since cold beer. Paella, gazpacho and chorizo may be familiar to most Western diners, but Spanish cuisine goes well beyond these, with a smorgasbord of rich stews, soups, beans, seafood and meats, all of which have been influential in Latin American cooking. It's a good idea to reset your stomach-clock when travelling in Spain because lunch, eaten between 1.30 and 4pm, is usually the main meal of the day. The evening meal is lighter and is served between 10 and 11pm.