I have lived in Spain for 30 years, while running my business Valuvillas in the resort of Javea, and I can tell you most visitors to Spain hit the beaches of the Costas for a week or two, take in a flamenco Show and eat paella, before leaving and thinking that they have ticked Spain off their travel list. With five official languages, beach and skiing resorts, the most varied cuisine in Europe, Medieval towns and Islamic palaces, Spain deserves a much closer look than most people give it. As a European country with enlightened Visa requirements and a friendly population, an extended visit to Spain is an essential part of any trip to Europe.
When to Go
As a Mediterranean country surrounded by the sea, Spain is a year-round destination. Beach lovers will prefer the hot summer months, although the Canary Islands off Morocco have year-round sunshine, while skiers will prefer the winter. Most cultural spots can be visited at any time and are less crowded outside the traditional summer and Easter holidays. Spain's Catholic heritage means that many of its world famous fiestas are celebrated around the Easter period, especially in the aouth. A festival calendar can be found on the Spain Festivals website.
Where to Go
Spain can be roughly divided into four zones. In the North, there is a Celtic influence and the Pyrenees mountains keep the climate wet and cooler than the rest of the country. The east of Spain is dominated by the cosmopolitan city of Barcelona and the beach resorts along the coast all the way down to the Costa del Sol in the southeast. The center of Spain is dominated by the Capital city Madrid and the historical cities of Toledo and Salamanca. The south of Spain is a fascinating mixture of Islamic history and vibrant Andalusian and gypsy culture, including the famous bullfights and Flamenco dancing.
Spain's modern rail system is easy to use and economical for tourists. Timetables can be viewed and tickets booked on the Rail Europe website. Spain also boasts an extensive local and intercity bus network. ALSA has an extensive regional bus network and its timetables can be viewed on the ALSA website. For internal flights, travelers should look at the Vueling website. Renting a car in Spain is easy and Spain's extensive road network makes a hire car a great way to explore a region or the whole country.
A basic knowledge of Spanish is very useful when in Spain, even in areas, such as the Basque Country, where it is not the most widely spoken language. Few Spanish people outside the large cities and main resorts speak English. Spain is a very safe country to travel in with an efficient police force. Visitors should watch out for the standard tourist scams in resort areas and apply normal late night precautions in the cities. The Basque terrorist group ETA is no longer the force it once was and has been inactive in 2010, although it still threatens to bomb tourist resorts and major transport hubs in Spain.
While everybody has heard of paella and sangria, many of Spain's regional cuisines are still largely unknown to visitors. The Basque Country, Galicia and the North East in general is famous for its varied seafood, cider and fresh produce while the Pyrenees are home to hearty dishes, such as the bean-based stew Fabada Asturiana. The East of Spain is dominated by the famous Mediterranean diet, based on olive oil, fresh vegetables and fruit and seafood. Valencia is the true home of the famous seafood risotto called paella, although it can be found all over the country. The south of Spain is the home of tapas and jamon Serrano, the delicious cured ham that is found hanging in most Spanish bars. The inland Center of Spain is where the nation's famous saffron crop is grown. Its most famous dish is the cold tomato and cucumber soup called gazpacho.
The Camino de Santiago or St James' Way is the traditional pilgrimage route across the North East of Spain to the Galician city of Santiago de Compostela. It has grown to be one of the great pilgrimages of Europe and has a well organized and affordable netwoek of guesthouses and hostels along its route. Barcelona and Madid both vie to be the must visit city in Spain, although Barcelona with its mixture of beaches, vibrant, nightlife and mix of modren architecture and medieval districts probably edges first place. In the south, the Medieval city of Granada and nearby Islamic palaces of the Alhambra are the highlight, while the historic University city of Salamanca is the quintessential Spanish architecture and tapas destination.