A truly diverse country
The two principal cities, Madrid and Barcelona, illustrate in themselves just how diverse Spain is – these two are the nation’s half-brothers, each quite distinct but with a shared pedigree that neither quite wants to admit. While the capital, Madrid, has a reputation as somewhat haughty and austere – no doubt its Austrian Habsburg parentage has a little to do with this – its Catalan rival, Barcelona, sees itself as hip, alternative and cosmopolitan. Geography can explain some of this: the Mediterranean takes Barcelona’s gaze outwards while land-locked Madrid stares out over those much-quoted plains.
Both cities reward patient investigation to get beyond these stereotypes – they are surely among the most enriching cities in Europe for a traveler to visit. Madrid boasts some of the world’s finest art collections, historic and contemporary, in the signature galleries of El Prado, Reina Sofia and Thyssen-Bornemisza as well as in lesser known venues such as Caixa Forum, CentroCentro Cibeles and Ivory Press. Ernest Hemingway asserted (with customary hyperbole) that “Nobody goes to bed in Madrid till they have killed the night!” and while it is certainly true that bars, restaurants, clubs and cafés line its elegant streets and plazas and one is never short of places to go at any hour of the night, this is largely true of any Spanish city – Madrid just happens to be the largest! Barcelona also offers top-notch art and nightlife, but its status as a world-class city is augmented by its innovative contemporary Catalan cuisine. Celebrated chefs such as Ferran Adrià treat food like a cross between art and science and their restaurants offer real culinary explorations, plus the produce can all be sourced in one of the world’s outstanding food markets, La Boquería, as well as in local markets such as Mercat de Santa Caterina, where you will find stalls heaped with curvaceous Montserrat tomatoes, piles of pig parts, and huge displays of fresh fish and seafood. Football, the national passion, is also prominent on the CV of each city, with the Barça-Real rivalry, one of the most intense in club football, driving the acquisition of the world’s most talented players – the so-called “galácticos”.
Although Spain’s coastline is well-known, its vast and relatively unexplored hinterland, with a great variety of landscapes, is one of the country’s jewels. From the sweeping sands of Atlantic beaches to walled medieval hill-top towns, imposing mountain ranges like the Pyrenees and the Picos de Europa to rivers, lakes and reservoirs, and an agriculture that is still fundamentally tied to day-to-day life, Rural Spain has it all. While a car and some local knowledge is helpful in penetrating the deeper reaches, the Spanish train network is a great asset, with high-speed (AVE) trains connecting the major cities (in door-to-door times that the airlines are hard-pressed to better) and a good coverage of regional TALGO and ALVIA trains taking you into the depths of the countryside en route to the medium-sized cities. It is here where Spain’s cultural and historic DNA is most readily seen. Among countless contenders, those of Ávila, Cuenca, Salamanca, Segovia, Pamplona, Girona, Oviedo and Cáceres merit special mention.
Perhaps the best means of really connecting with the land is to walk across it – and here the centuries-old pilgrims’ way of St James offers the perfect itinerary. The Camino de Santiago consists of several routes, all of which converge on the Galician town of Santiago de Compostela, and which take you into some of the more remote parts of the Iberian Peninsula. The legend of St James (“Santiago” in Spanish”) bringing Christianity to these lands is venerated to this day, but for most people the natural beauty of the way, and the chance it offers for fellowship and contemplation, are the main motivations. Reasons to visit Spain, as a whole, are infinite – and our Sample Itineraries aim to inspire in you a few more…