Spain (ES)

Spain travel guide (Europe)

The Kingdom of Spain is in south western Europe and is the largest country on the Iberian peninsula, which it shares with Portugal. Spain also borders on France and Andorra and has a coastline on the Atlantic Ocean and the Mediterranean Sea. The strait of Gibraltar, only 13 kilometers or 8 miles wide, separates Spain from Africa, or more precisely from Morocco, where Spain also has the two enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla. Spain's territory includes the Balearic and the Canary Islands.

Geography: Spain has a very mountainous landscape. More than half of its territory lies at an altitude of between 400 to 1 000 m (1 300 to 3200 ft). The center of the country, Castilla and Extremadura, is taken up by the Meseta plateau, which is at an altitude of 600 to 1 000 meters (1 900 to 3 200 ft). The plateau ends in the north at the Cantabrian Mountains, where the highest mountain has an altitude of 2 648 m or 8 687 ft. The Meseta is divided into two by a central cordilleras. In the north of the country, the Pyrenees form a natural border with France and Andorra, and continue for 435 km (270 miles) to the Mediterranean. In the centre of this mountain range the highest mountains reach a height of 3 355 meters (11 007 ft). The Sierra Nevada is in the south of the country, and the location of the highest mountains on the mainland, the highest of which is the Mulhacen, rising to a height of 3 482 meters (11 423 ft). In the south, around the mouth of the Guadalquivir, is the widest plain in the country and in the north east there is also a smaller area of flatland. On the Atlantic the coastline has very a steep, rugged coastline, for example in Galicia. The coast on the Mediterranean Sea is made up of rugged sections alternating with long, sandy beaches, which are popular with tourists.

Climate and best time to travel
: Due to the variety of the landscape and the influences that shape the country, Spain has different climate zones. The country can be divided up into three zones: on the northern Atlantic coast the climate tends to be oceanic, with very mild and wet winters and relatively mild summers; the center of the Iberian peninsula enjoys a continental climate, characterized by very hot summers and very cold winters; along the Mediterranean coast the climate is Mediterranean with very hot summers, made more bearable by the sea winds, and mild winters. The best time to visit Spain is during the mid-seasons. At these times visitors can avoid the extreme temperatures as well as the inundation by tourists.

Official languages: in Spain the official language is Castilian Spanish, but Catalan, Galician and Basque enjoy a similar status in the autonomous communities where they are spoken.

Health and vaccinations
: the usual vaccination requirements apply to Spain. Health care is in general of a good standard.

Entry requirements:
Spain is a member of the EU; passports are required.

Travel: the airport Madrid-Barajas (MAD) has the largest terminal in the world and is located 13 km or 8 miles northeast of the capital.

The capital: Madrid, capital of Spain since 1561 when Felipe II came to power, is situated on a wide plain, almost exactly in the geographical center of the country and counts about 3 500 000 inhabitants, 6 million if the whole greater city area is taken into consideration. Madrid is one of the most densely populated European cities. The city is the political and economic center of the country and a very popular tourist destination, housing countless treasures, whether architectural or cultural.
Among the most noteworthy monuments of the city is the Royal Palace. It is still officially the residence of the royal family, although they, in fact, live in the Zarzuela Palace on the outskirts of the city. The Royal Palace was built in magnificent neo-classical style between 1738 and 1755 and occupies an area of 135 000 square meters and is therefore one of the largest palaces in Europe after the Louvre in Paris. It has three floors and houses a large amount of treasures, including paintings by great masters such as Goya, Velasquez, El Greco and Rubens.

Just opposite the Royal Palace is the Almudena Cathedral, which, although having a long history - building work having been started and stopped time and time again since the 16th Century - was actually only completed in 1993. A special feature of the cathedral is that it was built externally in the neoclassical style in order to not stand out next to the royal palace, but inside the architecture is in the Gothic style with Romanesque elements. The cathedral was consecrated in 1993 by Pope John II.

A trip to the Prado Museum, housed in a building dating from the 18th century, is undoubtedly a must when visiting Madrid, being one of the most important art museums in the world. It hides an incredibly rich collection of paintings, originating from between the 14th and 19th Centuries, representing the best-known European art schools. It would be futile to attempt to name all the great masters on exhibit in the Prado, but they include Velasquez, Goya, Bosch, El Greco, Rubens, Botticelli and Raphael.

The Plaza Mayor is a rectangular square built in the 17th century and close to the inner city. The square was renovated to its former splendor in the 1960s and can be entered through nine arches; in the center is an equestrian statue of Philip III. The square is lined by a great number of cafes and restaurants, catering for the numerous tourists who visit this impressive architectural gem every year. The square becomes even livelier during the summer when buskers and street artists entertain guests.

Opera lovers should not miss a visit to the Teatro Real, the Royal Theatre, one of the most prestigious operas in the world. The opera house was opened in 1850 and has a turbulent history, having been damaged during the construction of the Madrid subway. Fortunately, the Teatro Real was renovated during the 1990s and is now once again one of the most important international stages, also due to its resident Orchestra, the Symphonic Orchestra of Madrid.
In its lively downtown, Madrid also houses a green sanctuary, the Retiro Park. This park was founded in the 17th century, between 1630 and 1640 and has a total area of 145 hectares. It houses several buildings such as the beautiful Crystal Palace, a very romantic artificial lake and numerous statues.

Attractions and beaches: Barcelona, Spain's second largest city is on the Mediterranean, about 180 km (111 miles) away from le Perthus, the border with France. The city has approximately 1 600 000 inhabitants, 5 330 000 counting the whole greater city area. Barcelona is a very popular tourist destination, having a very rich historical, architectural and cultural heritage, as well as varied natural treasures with the Mediterranean Sea and the mountains as its backdrop. The city is further enhanced by a busy nightlife. In order to gain a first impression of the city, visitors could take a stroll along la Rambla, the main street in downtown Barcelona, which connects with the old port. Many cafes and boutiques line this lively street, and this is also the location of the world-famous opera house, the Gran Teatre del Liceu. The opera house was opened in 1847 and can accommodate up to 2 300 spectators. It was destroyed twice by fire, and was last faithfully reconstructed in 1994, at the time also thoroughly modernized so that it is today equipped with the latest technology. One of the many other noteworthy monuments in the city is the Cathedral of St. Eulalia. The cathedral was built between the 13th and 15th Centuries in the Gothic style and is in one of the oldest quarters of the city, the Barri Gotic, where many buildings dating from the Middle Ages can also be admired.

Another interesting district is Eixample. It was erected during the second half of the 19th Century, as part of an urban planning project to extend the city. In this part of the city many examples of modernism can be admired including the architectural works of the city’s famous architect, Antonio Gaudi. It is virtually impossible to visit Barcelona without seeing Gaudi’s distinctive buildings that dominate the cityscape. The most famous of these buildings is without doubt the Sagrada Familia, a monumental project begun in 1882 and still unfinished today. It is estimated that the Cathedral will be completed in 2030, it is however already open to visitors, and during 2008 should also be open to worship. The Sagrada Familia was declared a World Heritage Site in 2005. Another important work by Gaudi in Barcelona is the Park Güell. The park was created between 1900 and 1914 as a private contract and is now one of the most frequented places in the city with a unique mix of nature and architecture. Also a very impressive example of Gaudi's ability and style is La Casa Batllo, a very strange organic structure, the balconies looking like skulls and the columns like bones. La Casa Milà and the Palau Guell are also buildings worth a visit.

Andalusia is in southern Spain and is one of the most beautiful and varied regions in the country. Cities such as Seville, Granada and Cordoba house invaluable historical and architectural treasures, each year attracting large numbers of tourists.

Seville is the capital of Andalusia, and is really its economic, political and cultural center. The city has approximately 700 000 residents. Throughout its history the city was occupied several times, and this is still to be seen in the city today. Seville was first Roman, then Visigoth, then Muslim for more than 500 years, and then Christian. It has an unbelievable number of architectural jewels including many religious buildings. The most beautiful of these is undisputedly the Cathedral of Seville, which was begun in 1402 to symbolize the countries return to Christianity. The cathedral is one of the largest Gothic buildings in the world, with an incredibly expensive interior decoration and is also home to Christopher Columbus’ grave. Not far from the cathedral are the India archives, built in 1785 to document Spain’s colonial history. The Alcazar Royal Palace is another of Seville’s most famous sights. Work on the palace was already in progress in the 9th Century during the occupation of the Moors, but in the course of its history the building was repeatedly extended by other buildings, and is now unbelievably splendid. Today the Alcazar is still a royal residence and the whole architectural complex is on the UNESCO list of World Heritage Sites.

Cordoba is also in Andalusia and has approximately 320 000 residents. The city’s history is similar to that of its neighbor Seville, and likewise, it still bears witness to the various occupations. Cordoba was capital of the Emirate of Cordoba between the 8th and 13th Centuries and many traces of this magnificent era are still to be found scattered around the city, including the great mosque, the second largest in the world just after Mecca. In 1236, the city once again became Christian and the mosque was converted into a cathedral and a huge nave in the Renaissance style was added. Since 1984, the cathedral has been on the list of UNESCO World Cultural Heritage Sites.

Granada is in the south-east of Andalusia, has approximately 238 000 inhabitants and is regarded as a major tourist attraction along with Seville and Cordoba, in particular due to the Alhambra, one of the finest examples of Moorish architecture in the country. The Alhambra is in actual fact a collection of palaces that includes the palace of Charles V, built in the Renaissance style as a symbol of his victory.

Religion: the greatest majority of the Spanish population is Catholic, but there are also Jewish, Muslim and Protestant communities.

Large cities and accommodation
: Madrid, Barcelona, Bilbao, Cordoba, Granada, Marbella, Pamplona, Salamanca, Santiago de Compostela, Seville, Toledo Valencia and Zaragoza.

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