Spain Travel Guide

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Visiting Spain

1052Spain is currently the third most visited country in the world, a statistic offering a strong indication that it is an excellent choice of destination for any traveller.

Most of the Iberian peninsula, which includes both Spain and Portugal, has been inhabited since early prehistoric times. In fact evidence has been unearthed at Atapuerca in northern Spain which reveals that this particular area has been populated for over eight hundred thousand years but modern man didn’t make his appearance until about 35,000BC.

In the centuries which have elapsed since his arrival, Spain has had many very different groups of settlers, all of whom had their own part in shaping the country’s history. Its central position on the peninsula between Europe and Africa meant that it was invaded frequently and had no choice but to follow the dominant religion and principles of the different groups of conquerors. Evidence of the influence of the Phoenicians, the Romans and the Germanic tribes can still be seen throughout Spain but those who had the greatest artistic and intellectual input into its development were the Islamic conquerors who ruled Spanish lands for over five hundred years – the Moors. In fact, their spectacular architecture and abstract designs continue to attract visitors from all over the world.

And, since this unique mélange of European and North African artistic style and flair began many centuries ago, Spain has continued to flourish in the world of the arts. Artists including El Greco, Goya, Picasso and Miro, writers such as Seneca, Cervantes and Nobel Prize-winner Camilo Jose Cela and singers including Montserrat Caballe and Placido Domingo have helped Spain become a major artistic player on a worldwide scale. Furthermore it is home to one of the most famous art galleries in the world, the Museo del Prado in Madrid as well as the site for the new and much talked about Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao.

Its natural landscape also helps maintain Spain’s enviable position in world tourism. It is Europe’s second most mountainous country after Switzerland and true alpine conditions in the north of the country make it one of the most popular ski destinations in the world. As well as the slopes, it also has many of the continent’s most impressive beaches, some of which are warm all year round including those on the Canary Archipelago. The perfect combination of both snow and sun holiday destinations all year round, as well as numerous man made attractions, clearly explain why Spain continues to remain such a popular choice.

Like the country itself, Spanish cuisine is a rich and varied one. A combination of excellent ingredients, century old traditions and a host of new culinary professionals have helped put Spain at the top of the list in Europe when it comes to quality food and drink.

Some of the more traditional Spanish dishes include tapas which are little snacks that you will sometimes receive free with your drink. Another favourite throughout the country whether you are on the coast or inland is deep fried fish. Among those you should sample are calamares (squid), lenguado(sole), boquerones (anchovies) and gambas (shrimp or prawn). Gazpacho is probably the best well known of all Spanish specialties and is a chilled soup which is like a liquid salad which had been thickened with bread dough and flavoured with olive oil, garlic and vinegar.

When it comes to regional favourites, fish and seafood is especially popular in the north and the Basque tradition of baby eels are one of the country’s top culinary attractions. Another popular dish, particularly in Asturias, is fabada which is a type of bean stew. If you are heading to Cataluna you are entering the land of the casserole but the area is also famous for its sausages, cheeses and sauces just in case casseroles are not really your thing. Valencia and the surrounding area are the rice specialists. Most of you are probably familiar with paella but you should also try some of the other dishes including caldera. Andalucia is where you will sample the best of the fried food mentioned above as well as Jabugo ham which is regarded as a true delicacy.

Finally, if it’s alcohol you’re after, and it probably is, the Spanish have also excelled themselves. The country is one of the top wine producers in the world and the favourites include Rioja and Catalan Cava as well sherry, the most international of all of the Spanish wines. Liqueurs are also extremely popular and although their brandy is probably the best known of these, there are also several herb liqueurs from Galicia and Ibiza, Pacharan from Navarre, Levantine Absinth, Anisette from Chinchon and Cazalla from Andalucia.

Getting There
Spain’s international carrier is Iberia Airlines and it has more connections into and within Spain than any other airline. Other Spanish competitor airlines include Air Europa and Spanair but most other international airlines also offer direct connections to Spain.

The country has numerous international airports including Madrid, Barcelona, Alicante, Bilbao, Malaga, Seville, Valencia and Santiago de Compostela. All are served by either a bus or rail service which will depart regularly and will take you to the respective city centre in a matter of minutes.
Spain also has direct rail connections between Madrid and Paris, Madrid and Lisbon, Barcelona and Paris, Barcelona, Zurich and Milan and Barcelona and Geneva. For other international services to and from the country you will need to change trains. Coming from the UK the most convenient way to travel by rail is to take the Eurostar to Paris and travel from there to Spain.

If you are traveling by road the main motorways from France are via Bordeaux or Toulous to Bilbao or via Marseille or Toulouse to Barcelona. There are a number of tour operators who operate coach services. Eurolines is just one which serves more than twenty destinations in Spain.
Finally, if you wish to sail, Brittany Ferries operate a service to Santander from Plymouth and P&O European Ferries sail twice weekly between Portsmouth and Bilbao.

Getting Around
The state railway network, RENFE, covers the entire country and is the cheapest in Europe. It has two principal classes and numerous special prices and discounts which make economy travel a great deal easier for the budget traveller. You should look out for ‘Dias Azules’ or blue days on which you will receive a fifty per cent discount. There is also a ‘Tarjeta Turistica’ or tourist card which is only available to non-Spanish residents and this will entitle you to numerous discounts on either class for periods of three, five or ten days.
As well as its regular trains and sleepers, RENFE have recently launched AVE, a high speed train linking Madrid and Seville as well as a number of special tourist trains. The most impressive of these services is the ‘Expresso Al Andalus’ which leaves Seville on a weekly basis and spends five days touring Seville, Cordoba, Granada, Malaga and Jerez de la Frontera. The ticket price also includes meals at top restaurants in each city, shows, lodging etc. For information on all the train services in the country you should contact any of the RENFE offices.

The country also has an extensive bus network which is operated by a host of different independent companies. It serves some of the more remote towns and villages which the train service doesn’t reach so quite often it is the better option for those of you who want to head to into the great unknown. Most towns and cities have one main bus station where buses arrive and depart and information is usually easy to come by in the terminal.

Museo del Prado, Madrid
Widely regarded as the world’s biggest art gallery, the Museo del Prado houses over two and a half thousand works of art dating from the 1400’s right up to the 1800’s. While a lot of the emphasis does lie with the great Spanish artists, El Greco, Goya and Velazques, you will also have the opportunity to see hundreds of works by Flemish and Italian artists including Botticelli, Mantegna, Rafaello, Bosch, Rembrandt and Ruebens. If you do visit, you really should take the whole day as it is impossible to see everything if you don’t. Attracting thousands of visitors each year since it opened as an art gallery in 1819, if you are in Madrid, this is one attraction you certainly don’t want to miss.

Catedral de Toledo
The Cathedral in the Spanish town of Toledo is one of the largest in the Christian world and as far as Gothic structures go, it is surpassed only by those in Seville and Milan. One hundred and twenty metres long and fifty nine metres wide with a central nave which reaches a height of forty four and a half metres and is held up by eighty eight columns, its true size and splendor cannot really be appreciated from outside as the narrow streets of Toledo do not give you a proper view. It also has seven hundred and fifty stained glass windows which date from the fourteenth, fifteenth and sixteenth centuries and light up the inside of the Cathedral in a most impressive fashion. And, because you are in such a predominantly Roman Catholic country, it would be a shame not to visit at least one of their magnificent churches while you are there.

The Alhambra, Granada
The city itself is famous for being the ancient Moorish capital and is set against the spectacular backdrop of the Sierra Nevada. It is also home to one of the country’s most impressive sights, the Alhambra. Originally built by the Muslims as a pleasure pavilion it is one of the best displays of Islamic art and architecture that you are ever likely to see. The magnificent palace and gardens as well as the views which you see from the fortress are something that you should certainly consider including in your trip to Spain. Also in Granada you can visit the Casa del Castril and the Arab Baths as well as the graves of Fernando III and Isabel and the Gypsy caves of Sacromonte.

The Guggenheim Museum, Bilbao
This is definitely one for the art and architecture buffs among you. The new Guggenheim was one of the most talked about new buildings of 1998 and 1999, particularly in architecture circles and once you get there you’ll see why. A collection of interconnected blocks which house galleries, an auditorium, a restaurant and administrative offices, these buildings are centred around a single composition which largely resembles a huge metallic flower. But as well as the originality of the structure itself, the museum is one of the most important centres of modern and contemporary art in the world. Housing numerous permanent and temporary exhibitions of twentieth century US and European art, it has recently being voted European museum of the year.

Palacio Real, Madrid
With 2,000 rooms, 870 windows, 110 doors, 240 balconies and 44 sets of stairs, you just know before you go that the Royal Palace of Madrid is destined to impress. No one has actually lived here since 1931 but everything that was in the house when the king fled has been excellently preserved. You can see the paintings, chandeliers, tapestries and frescoes that occupied the house when royalty did reside there. The empty thrones of King Juan Carlos and Queen Sofia are among the most popular artifacts in the palace. Outside, the gardens are as impressive as the interior, particularly when everything is in full bloom. In order to see everything in the Palace, it is recommended that you take a couple of days but if you don’t have that long, even a few hours is more than enough to appreciate how impressive the building is.

La Feria de Abril, Seville
This festival is the perfect opportunity to witness a little of every Spanish tradition there is. The celebrations begin on the last Monday in April with the official lighting of the lanterns when half a million lights are all turned on at the same time. As well as bullfighting and flamenco, there are numerous parades, concerts and more than a thousand tents where locals sing and dance the famous sevillanas. And, for those of you who like to frequent your childhood every now and again, there is a huge fairground with numerous rides which should help you recapture your youth. Most of the activities don’t start until after 10.00pm, however, so bring plenty of energy with you and ensure that you conserve some for the finale on the Sunday night which includes a spectacular fireworks display.

Running of the Bulls, Pamplona
Spain’s most famous festival is the Running of the Bulls (Sanfermines) and is held in Pamplona in July every year. Now, the bad news for all you who have difficulty getting out of bed in the morning is that the actual running takes place at 7.00am. The good news is that most people stay up all night in preparation. Basically, visitors and locals alike drink all night and by the time the bulls do actually run everyone is exhausted. The atmosphere, however, is enough to keep you going. As with most events in Spain, the Sanfermines festival is an excuse to party as much as you possibly can. As well as the run, most people get dressed up in traditional garb and the most amazing atmosphere descends upon the town. Definitely one to watch!

Carnival, Sitges
While Carnival takes place throughout Spain during February every year, the wildest of all celebrations is found in Sitges. What used to be a quite fishing village is now home to the most popular gay resort in the country and on some days during the carnival attracts over a quarter of a million people – gay and straight. While the revelers mainly travel from around Spain itself as well as France, England, Italy and Germany, the festival is rapidly attracting members of the gay population from all over the world as some of the best drag performances of the year are put on as part of this weird but wonderful event.

Las Fallas, Valencia
This is another of Spain’s wilder festivals, and like most of the celebrations in the country, it too has religious origins. But, what began as a feast day celebration for St. Joseph somehow became a five-day celebration of fire. Yes, you read correctly. During ‘las Fallas’ the whole town becomes a loud, smoky haven for party lovers of the weirdest sense. Meaning ‘the fires’ in the native dialect, the focus of the festival is the creation and destruction of huge cardboard and plaster statues that are placed all over the city. They can take up to six months to construct and many are several stories tall. And what happens to them, they’re stuffed with fireworks and completely destroyed in a matter of minutes. But, the atmosphere is fantastic and unlike anything you are ever likely to witness anywhere else in the world – strange yes, but seriously enjoyable too.

Flamenco
This traditional form of dance is experiencing somewhat of a revival in Spain at the moment so you should certainly try to see at least one performance while you are in the country. The best place to do so is in Andalusia, its traditional home. And, not only will you get to see the native dance, you will also hear some excellent guitar playing too. If you don’t make it to Andalusia, however, there are always excellent displays at all of the Spanish fiestas. Furthermore, many hotels and restaurants in towns and cities all over the country will have flamenco dancers who perform especially for visitors. It’s probably not as authentic, but it is fun nevertheless, particularly if you head to an establishment where they make you try your skills too.

Visa Requirements
Australian, Canadian, Japanese, New Zealand and US citizens can stay for a period of up to ninety days with a valid passport without a visa, as can residents of EU countries. If you intend staying for over ninety days you will need to obtain a visa before travelling. Citizens of South Africa are among the nationalities that need a visa to enter Spain and this can be obtained from the Spanish Embassy to the country.

Furthermore, if you are in any doubt as to whether or not you may need a visa to enter the country, you should also contact the Spanish Embassy in your home country.

Currency
The currency used in Spain is the Euro which is made up of 100 Cent. Notes come in denominations of €100, €50, €20, €10 and €5 and the coins in use are €2, €1, 0.50C, 0.20C, 0.10C, 0.05C, 0.02C and 0.01C.

Language
The official language in Spain is Castillian (Spanish). Other regions in the country speak different languages such as Basque in the Basque region and Catalan round Barcelona.

Climate
Spring and autumn are ideal times to visit Spain. July and August are the country’s hottest months where temperatures can soar into the nineties, particularly in the south of the country along the Costa del Sol. Due to it’s northerlu location in Spain, Barcelona doesn’t get as hot as other Spanish cities during the summer.

Medical Care
Visitors from EU countries are entitled to medical treatment under the EU Reciprocal Medical Treatment agreement. Before you travel you should collect an E111 form from your local social security office. This form may also be obtained in post offices also. For minor health problems visit the farmacia (pharmacy) where trained pharmacists should be able to assist you.

It is advised that you take out travel insurance before going.

Time Zone
Spain is located in the Central European Time (CET) zone which is one hour ahead of Greenwich Mean Time (GMT) and six ahead of Eastern Standard Time (EST).

Opening Hours
Shops in Spain are generally open between 9.00am and 2.00pm and again from 4.30pm until 7.30pm from Monday to Saturday. It is worth noting, however, that in smaller towns and villages they only open until 2.00pm on Saturdays. Office hours are generally the same as the shops but they don’t open at all on Saturdays.

Tourist Offices
Tourist offices are found in all the major cities as well as all major airports. Opening hours vary, but they are generally opened between 9am-8pm. English speaking staff will always be available.

Tax
In Spain, value added tax (IVA – impuesto sobre el valor anadido) is calculated at a rate of between 7% and 16%. With regard to accommodation and restaurants the flat rate is 7% whereas retail goods, alcohol and electrical appliances are all taxed at a rate of 16%. This is usually included on a quoted price but you should confirm this prior to payment to avoid any confusion. Non-EU residents can claim the tax back on any item for which you pay over €90. In order to avail of this incentive, you need to obtain a Europe Tax-Free Shopping Cheque when you purchase the item. Upon leaving Spain, present both the item and the cheque at customs, the officials will stamp it for you and you can then cash your cheque at any of the booths with the Tax-Free logo and Cash Refund sign. This is only applicable where you are leaving the country within three months.

Currency Exchange
While traveller’s cheques are widely accepted, there are some places which will refuse to do so, particularly in more remote parts of the country. Therefore, it is advised that you change them into Euro as soon as you arrive in Spain. For all currency exchange, banks are generally the most reliable and offer the best rates. There are also exchange offices at all major airports and train stations whose opening hours are usually more convenient but the commission is more expensive

Electricity
Electric current in Spain is 220 volts AC, 50 cycles.

Telephones
The country code for Spain is 34 so if you are calling from abroad you need to dial 00, followed by 34, the local area code and the local number. The same instructions apply when you are making an international call from within the country. To do so you will need to dial 07. You should also note that you need to omit the 0 from the local area code where applicable.

Post Offices
Post offices in Spain are open from round 8am-12pm, and open again at 5pm-7.30pm. Longer opening times operate in the country’s main cities.

Tipping
Because the service charge is normally included in most bills, tipping is not compulsory.
If the service you receive is particularly good, however, it is customary to leave a small additional amount. With regard to taxi drivers, it is usual to round the payment up to include ten per cent of the fare

Public Holidays
It is worth noting what the public holidays are before you travel to a country as the majority of businesses, banks and shops usually shut for the day. In Spain they take place on January 1st and 6th, Good Friday, May 1st, August 15th, October 12th, November 1st and December 6th, 8th and 25th. It is a good idea to check the particular area too as certain towns and cities also shut down during special events.

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