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Frommer's Spain

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Written by outspoken, authoritative experts, Frommer’s Spain shows travelers how to experience the country the way the locals do. This classic Frommers series includes exact prices; candid reviews of the best restaurants, attractions and hotels in every price range (from hostels to glamorous paradores); and dozens of detailed maps. We also include advice the tourist board wouldn’t approve of: which sites to skip, how to avoid the crowds, and how to stretch your travel budget further, whether you’re on a lavish honeymoon or backpacking it.

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1 THE BEST OF SPAIN

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A horse dressed for Feria del Caballo in Jerez.

We agree with the sentiment apocryphally attributed to Ernest Hemingway: “If you visit only one foreign country in your lifetime, make it Spain,” Don Ernesto supposedly said. He might have added that after your first visit, you might not be tempted to go anywhere else. No other country is quite as flamboyantly romantic as Spain.

Even before Hemingway first visited in 1922 to write about trout and tuna fishing, 19th-century European writers and painters had mythologized Spain as the quintessential romantic country. It was the land of Moors and Gypsies, of swirling flamenco skirts and narrow-hipped matadors. It was the land of such legendary heroes as El Cid, such wise fools as Don Quijote, and of kings with such names as Pedro the Cruel and Alfonso the Wise. Hemingway’s contribution was to give that romance both a macho gloss and an air of tragic loss.

The funny thing is that it’s all still true—it’s just not the whole truth. In fact, flamenco is enjoying a renaissance, and if some parts of the country have turned thumbs-down on bullfighting, many Spaniards are still obsessed with matadors. As the old Saturday Night Live routine goes, Franco is still dead. But Spain is very much alive. Having exported its talent during Franco’s dictatorship, Spain jumped straight from the 19th century to the 21st. A flamenco beat still drives it, but Spain is now a country of high-speed trains and cutting-edge Web technology, of a radical avant-garde in food and art alike, of vibrant modern metropolises like Barcelona, Bilbao, and Madrid that can hold their own on the world stage.

 

2 SPAIN IN DEPTH

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A bullfighter in Sevilla.

One of the few things that the French and English used to agree on was that “Europe ends at the Pyrenees.” Those mountains kept Spain in splendid isolation, where it developed along its own path. Consequently, Spain has evolved customs, art, architecture, and even cuisine that owe as much to Islamic North Africa as to its onetime sister provinces of the Roman Empire. The country does not look like, sound like, or even taste like the rest of Europe, and nowhere else is quite as rich or demanding. When you go to Spain, you must surrender to Spain.

You must accept the rhythms of daily life—so unlike the rest of Europe—and think nothing of going to dinner after 10pm and then closing down the flamenco bar after the 3am final set. You must spend the evening in a seafront promenade, walking and talking and nodding at the other walkers and talkers. You must elbow your way to the bar, pointing at the tapas to order, and having your fill. For that matter, you must resolve to eat something new every day that you would otherwise spurn: blood sausage, roasted suckling pig, squid in its own ink. In many places, shops and museums close in the heat of the afternoon, and you must be patient and while away the hours with lunch in a cool, shady courtyard. Do all that, and you will be ready for everything Spain will throw at you.

 

3 SUGGESTED SPAIN ITINERARIES

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The Patio de los Arrayanes at the Alhambra.

It would be a delight to get “lost” in Spain, wandering about at your leisure, discovering unspoiled villages off the beaten path. Indeed, we highly recommend this approach. But we also recognize that few of us have enough time (or money) for an unstructured love affair with a country. A schedule lets you get the most out of your available time, but just because you have a point of departure doesn’t mean that serendipity and surprise can’t intervene from time to time.

Plan on using several kinds of transportation. Because Spain is big, it’s worth covering long distances either by plane or, except in the north, by high-speed train. You can take a train from Madrid to Barcelona nearly as fast as going to the airport and waiting to get through security. In practice, you’ll end up using trains, planes, buses, and rental cars for maximum convenience and efficiency.

Highlights of Spain in 2 Weeks

Spain is so large and so diverse that it’s hard to think of hitting all the highlights in just 2 weeks. But this tour strikes most of the notes in the Spanish chord. And all your travel is on RENFE trains, making a Eurail Spain Pass an economical way to go.

 

4 MADRID

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The cafes of Plaza Mayor.

You’ll never forget your first sight of Plaza Mayor. As you emerge from a shady stone portico into a vast sun-struck plaza, you are greeted by a very large and very royal equestrian statue of Felipe III. Surrounded by three-story buildings, Plaza Mayor seems the grandest imaginable stage set, where more than 200 balconies become regal box seats on the scene below. The perimeter is marked with the umbrellas of cafe tables that lure people to while away the afternoon over cold beers or strong coffees. Children race back and forth across the paving stones, flushing pigeons into flight. Travelers with backpacks lean against the plinth of the equestrian monument, eating ice cream. Plaza Mayor may be important—just look at its name, the Major Square—but more than that, it is alive.

It is Madrid in a nutshell. Spain’s capital is at once real (“ray-AL,” as the Spanish say “royal”) and real (as English speakers put it). Families row on the lake in Parque del Retiro where kings once staged mock naval battles. When football club Real Madrid wins a cup or league title, the players wrap their team scarves around the elegant Cibeles fountain. People recline in the grass on the green center strips of the paseos, the boulevards built to the king’s order. Dog-walkers with packs of canines strut past some of the greatest museums in the world. Tapas-hoppers make the rounds of bars beneath the sculpted visages of Spain’s great playwrights. And, yes, Felipe III continues to ignore the backpackers eating ice cream beneath him.

 

5 CASTILLA-LA MANCHA

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A windmill in the La Mancha region of central Spain.

In popular imagination, La Mancha is a vast, arid plain where Don Quijote does battle with windmills. As you travel the region, you will find that every hillock seems to be topped with an old-fashioned windmill or the ruins of a medieval castle. The countryside is a land of olive trees, herds of sheep, and vast tracts of wine grapes, but the cities of Castilla-La Mancha are another story. Crowning high bluffs above the plains’ few rivers, the cities are visionary places. Every culture from the Romans onward has made Toledo a citadel on the plain: From its castellated walls, defenders could see attackers coming from days away. But their heights proved as important to art as to war. El Greco looked out from the walls of Toledo and saw the earth far below but the heavens at eye level—a perspective repeated again and again in his paintings of the Ascension. A millennium younger, Cuenca recapitulates the geography of Toledo in easternmost La Mancha, perching at a seemingly impossible height far above its river gorge. In the 20th century, Cuenca became a haven for artists who found in its improbable verticality inspiration for abstract flights of fancy. Cuenca’s casas colgadas, or “hanging houses,” cling to the edges, a perfect balancing act between solid ground and soaring faith.

 

6 CASTILLA Y LEÓN

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The sculpted altar of Cartuja de Miraflores.

No part of Spain speaks so eloquently of the country’s warring past as Castilla y León. Its warrior kings carried the battles of the Reconquista to the Moorish conquerors and won back the Iberian Peninsula league by bloody league. The northern pair of cities in this chapter, León and Burgos, held the grand castles from which the Christian armies marched and the great cathedrals that glorified the faith. Just south of them were the frontier fortresses in the battle between the cross and the crescent. As you approach them, imagine that you are leading an invading army. After a long march, you finally reach the outskirts of Segovia, Avila, or Zamora. You crane your neck to look up at the walled fortress city high on the hill. Its defenders have been watching your arrival for days, and their swords are ready. . . . It is the tale of central Spain written over and over—only the names of the invaders and defenders changed.

SEGOVIA

 

7 ANDALUCÍA

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Flamenco dancer in Sevilla.

Much of what the world imagines as Spain is, in fact, Andalucía. It was the cradle of flamenco, the stomping grounds of the amorous Don Juan, and the tragic setting for Carmen. It’s the region where bulls are bred and matadors are more famous than rock stars. Nothing in Andalucía is done halfway. The flowers are brighter and the music is both more melancholy and more joyful. Although Andalucía is often a stand-in for Spain in the popular imagination, it was, in fact, the last stronghold of the Moors, who held al-Andalus for over 7 centuries. Consequently, Andalucía shines with all the medieval Muslim glories of Europe: the world-famous Mezquita (mosque) of Córdoba, the Alhambra Palace of Granada, and (in their own way as Christian-Muslim hybrids) Sevilla’s imposing Alcázar and looming Gothic cathedral. Its smaller towns can be haunting in their beauty: the whitewashed mountain villages, the Renaissance grace of Ubeda, the drama of gorge-split Ronda, the languor of sherry-besotted Jerez de la Frontera, and the brilliance of gleaming Cádiz. Spend a week or a month, and you’ll have only skimmed the surface.

 

8 THE COSTA DEL SOL

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A beautiful beach in Marbella.

Some of Spain’s nicest beaches—and worst traffic congestion—coexist along the Mediterranean shoreline of the Costa del Sol, the sandy strip along the southern coast of Andalucía. From the quiet sands of Estepona, it stretches east to the jet-set resort of Marbella and the port city of Málaga, then continues east as the Costa Tropical to Almuñécar. Along with the strands are sandy coves, whitewashed houses, olive trees, lots of new apartment houses, high-rise hotels, fishing boats, golf courses, souvenir stands, fast-food outlets, theme parks, and widely varied flora and fauna. You’ll likely also find bargains on lodging, thanks to overbuilding.

There’s good reason why millions of travelers ignore the ugly new architecture and brave the traffic jams. With an average of 325 days of sunshine a year, the Costa del Sol lives up to its name. It’s best to know yourself before you go. Do you want to simply bake on the beach? Do you crave nightlife? Do you long to hobnob with the beautiful people? Or do you hanker for the least built-up fishing village? There’s an option for everyone.

 

9 VALENCIA & THE COSTA BLANCA

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Valencia is known for its rich food culture.

Spain’s third-largest city, Valencia is a lyrical metropolis with world-class architecture, a literal river of museums and parks, excellent beaches, and great food. In fact, it is the gastronomic touchstone for the entire country. The Moors introduced rice to Europe here, and Valencia combined it with the vegetables and legumes of its fertile alluvial plain, the shellfish of its coast, and the rabbits and snails of its gardens to give the world paella.

VALENCIA

Geography is destiny in Valencia. With the easternmost sheltered harbor on the central Iberian coast, it became a stepping-stone from North Africa to central Spain and back during the Moorish occupation. El Cid prevailed against the Moors here—and they recaptured the strategic port by driving his successors back into the hills. A millennium ago, the city changed hands with staggering frequency. Between container ships shuttling to and from China and petroleum tankers (there are nearly four dozen refineries in or near Valencia), the port is still Valencia’s lifeblood. Yet industry is so sequestered and clean that visitors only see it if they bicycle along the coast to L’Albufera (see “Side Trip from Valencia,” p. 301).

 

10 BARCELONA

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The ceiling at Palau de la Musica Catalana.

The Catalan language has a verb that must have been invented for Barcelona. “Badar” means (more or less) to walk around with your mouth wide open in astonishment. You’ll be doing a lot of that in Barcelona. The city’s artists have always had a fantastical vision—from the gargoyles along the roofline of the cathedral, to Antoni Gaudí’s armored warrior chimneys on La Pedrera, to the surreal amoeboid sculptures of Joan Miró (they’re on a roof, too).

Barcelona really is an original, with its own unique history, language, gastronomy, and overall sense of style. When Madrid was still a dusty fortress village on the Río Manzanares, Barcelona was already a force to be reckoned with on the Mediterranean. It has been at the intersection of cultures—Iberian, Roman, Visigothic, Moorish, French, and Aragonese—for 2,000 years. Today it is the capital of the autonomous region of Catalunya, forever chafing to leave the federal fold of Spain but enjoying near-country status within the European Union.

 

11 COSTA DAURADA

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Sitges’ Església de Sant Bartomeu i Santa Tecla, overlooking the harbor.

Before there was Barcelona, there was Tarragona, which served as the Roman capital of the east end of the Iberian Peninsula for more than 700 years. It still boasts some of the most extensive Roman ruins in the country. They have been respectfully assimilated into the modern city, creating a sense of timelessness that, in its own provincial way, rivals eternal Rome. Closer to Barcelona, Sitges is a beach resort that has grown up into a genuine city that offers art and culture to round out your stay when you’ve had enough sea, sand, and sun. If you seek more of the shore experience, head south of Tarragona to the long crescents of golden sand—each with a small village—that punctuate the Golden Coast (Costa Daurada) en route to the great fan delta of the Ríu Ebre.

TARRAGONA

For sheer historic sites, the Roman port city of Tarragona is one of the grandest, yet most overlooked cities in Spain. A natural fortress, the city perches on a rocky bluff 82m (269 ft.) above its deep and sheltered harbor. Although the Romans landed farther north at Empúries in 218 b.c. to savage the Carthaginians during the Second Punic War, they made their military and administrative headquarters at Tarraco, now Tarragona. At its Roman apogee, Tarraco boasted a population of nearly 1 million people and launched the legions on the conquest of the peninsula, bringing the western reaches of Europe under Roman control.

 

12 GIRONA & THE COSTA BRAVA

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Off the beaten path in Cadaqués.

Spain’s northeast corner was almost ruined in the 1960s when real estate speculators somehow decided that its medieval fishing coves could be turned into sun-and-sea resorts to rival the already overgrown Costa del Sol in Andalucía. Fortunately, geography conspired against the Costa Brava, or “Wild Coast” (as the region was dubbed), from going too far down the road of overdevelopment. Yes, there are some blights on the landscape, and some of the communities closest to Barcelona sold their character to the holiday package industry. But other communities resisted and have preserved their identities along with their historical buildings, wild natural scenery, and sweeping crescent beaches.

GIRONA

Girona is Barcelona’s country cousin—slower-paced and more compact, yet strikingly sophisticated and cosmopolitan. It is the perfect escape valve when the pressure of the Barcelona crowds begins to get to you. Girona is simply a charming, disarming Catalan city with lots to look at and some delicious things to eat. It was founded by the Romans on a hill crouching above the Ríu Onyar, and the shape of the city remains as Roman as it was 2,000 years ago. As those Romans realized, the river crossing here was so strategically important that Girona has been besieged 25 times over the centuries, beginning with Charlemagne in 785. The most devastating siege was by Napoleon in 1809, when he starved the city into submission.

 

13 ARAGÓN

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An example of Mudéjar architecture in Aragón.

Landlocked Aragón, along with adjacent Navarra, forms the northeastern quadrant of Spain. Most travelers find this ancient land terra incognita, which is unfortunate because Aragón is one of the most history-steeped regions of the country. You can visit it as an extension of your trip to Castilla y León to the west, or as a segment of your journey through Catalunya to the east.

Aragón is best known for two former residents: Catalina de Aragón (better known in English as Catherine of Aragón), the unfortunate first wife of Henry VIII of England; and her father, Fernando of Aragón, whose marriage to Isabel, queen of Castilla y León, in the 15th century led to the unification of Spain.

Aragón also prides itself on its exceptional Mudéjar architecture, a synthesis of the architectural forms of Christian Europe with the decorative motifs and construction techniques of the Muslim world.

ZARAGOZA

Zaragoza was the seat of the ancient kingdom of Aragón. Today it is a bustling, prosperous, commercial city of wide boulevards and arcades. Its cathedral is a Mudéjar landmark and its basilica is an important pilgrimage center. According to legend, the Virgin Mary appeared to Santiago (St. James the Apostle), patron saint of Spain, on the banks of the Rio Ebro and ordered him to build a church there.

 

14 NAVARRA & LA RIOJA

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The running of the bulls in Pamplona.

The ancient land of Navarra (Nafarroa in Basque) shares a 130km (82-mile) frontier with France, with nine crossing points making it an important link between Iberia and the rest of the continent. As a border region, Navarra has seen its share of conflict, and to this day the remains of lonely castles and fortified walled towns bear witness to the struggles. But this kingdom, one of the most ancient on the peninsula, has preserved its own government and strong Basque traditions. Euskera and Castilian Spanish are both official languages of the autonomous region.

Romans, Christians, Muslims, and Jews have all left their stamp on Navarra, and its architecture is as diverse as its landscape. It is also a province rich in folklore. Pagan rites were blended with Christian traditions to form a mythology that lives on today in Navarra’s many festivals. Dancers and singers wear the famous red berets, the jota is the province’s most celebrated folk dance, and its best-known sport is pelota, sometimes called jai alai in other parts of the world.

 

15 THE BASQUE COUNTRY

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Louise Bourgeois’s spider sculpture, “Maman,” outside the Bilbao Guggenheim.

The Basque Country (El Pais Vasco in Castilian) is seductive. Visitors come in droves to see the Guggenheim Bilbao Museum, only to discover that there is so much more: a dynamic modern city and a nearby coastline of long sandy strands, rocky promontories, and great surfing. They venture a little farther and plumb the depths of Basque identity at Gernika (Guernica in Castilian) and discover the sumptuous pleasures of the Basque table in the Belle Epoque beach resort of San Sebastián. Basque Country is still Spain, but it is Spain with a decidedly piquant accent.

The Basques are the oldest traceable ethnic group in Europe. Their language, Euskera (also spelled Euskara, Uskara, or Eskuara, depending on the dialect), predates any of the commonly spoken Romance languages; its origins, like those of the Basque race itself, are lost in obscurity. One theory holds that the Basques are descended from the original Iberians, who lived in Spain before the arrival of the Celts some 3,500 years ago.

 

16 CANTABRIA & ASTURIAS

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Las Arenas de Cabrales.

Clinging to the northern coast of Spain as a succession of coastal fishing villages, verdant lowlands, and high rolling hills and mountains, the autonomous regions of Cantabria and Asturias are united by geography and history. They are the core of “green Spain,” flanked on the west by Galicia and the east by Basque Country. The high peaks and ridges of the Cordillero Cantábrico capture the moisture rolling off the Atlantic, dumping it on the green fields and mountain forests of Cantabria and Asturias.

Some of the earliest evidence of human habitation in Europe (as long ago as 140,000 years) has been found in the limestone caves of this region. When the Romans arrived they found thriving Celtic communities on the coast, and when the Moors came riding in, they were fiercely resisted by local Visigothic warlords.

Protected by the mountains, many Christians found refuge along this northern strip during the centuries of Moorish domination of lands farther south. By tradition, the Christian Reconquista began with the a.d. 722 Battle of Covadonga, led by the warrior Pelayo, later crowned king of Asturias. A great deal of religious architecture remains in the region, including a handful of country churches in a style between Gothic and Romanesque.

 

17 GALICIA

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A fishing boat in O Grove.

Extending above Portugal in the northwest corner of Spain, Galicia is a rain-swept land of grass and granite, much of its coastline gouged by fjord-like inlets called rías. It is a land steeped in Celtic tradition. In many areas its citizens, called Galegos, speak their own language, closely akin to Portuguese. Although much of the region is mountainous interior, Galicia is famous across Europe for its fisheries, including the extremely expensive percebes (goose barnacles) and its swordfish catch.

The Romans made quite an impression on the region. The Tower of Hercules at A Coruña is part of that legacy. The Moors came, too, and did a lot of damage along the way. But finding the natives none too friendly and other battlefields more promising, they moved on.

Nothing did more to put Galicia on the tourist map than Camino de Santiago, the route of religious pilgrims. It is the oldest, most traveled, and most famous route in continental Europe. To guarantee a place in heaven, pilgrims journeyed to the supposed tomb of Santiago (St. James the Apostle), patron saint of Spain. They trekked across the Pyrenees by the thousands, risking their lives in transit. The Camino de Santiago contributed to the development and spread of Romanesque art and architecture across Spain and provided a rallying point for Christian armies to expel Muslim conquerors. More than 140,000 people make the trek each year.

 

18 THE BALEARIC ISLANDS

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Cala’n Porter beach on Menorca.

The Balearic Islands (Los Baleares)—an archipelago of the major islands of Mallorca, Menorca, and Ibiza, plus Formentera and other diminutive islands—lie off the coast of Spain between France and the coast of northern Africa. The islands have been ruled and occupied by Carthaginians, Greeks, Romans, Vandals, and Moors. But despite a trove of Bronze Age megaliths and some fine Punic artifacts, the invaders who have left the largest imprint on Balearic culture are the sun-seeking vacationers who descend every year.

After Jaume I expelled the Moors in 1229, the islands flourished as the kingdom of Mallorca, but declined after being integrated into the kingdom of Castilla in the mid–14th century. The 19th century provided a renaissance, as artists such as George Sand, Chopin, and, later, poet Robert Graves established the islands as a haven for musicians, writers, and artists. Gradually the artists’ colony attracted tourists of all dispositions.

 

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