Spain is a unique country, populated by passionate, lively and exciting people who lead a very laid-back way of life. Its landmass stretches from the northern border with France, across the Pyrenees and down to the enchanting Mediterranean coastline. It has a very large number of UNESCO World Heritage sites and is also a proud sporting nation, with football front and centre. Expect to come across one of the many thousands of festivals or fiestas that are held through the country on an annual basis and to immerse yourself in the unique Spanish culture while you are there.
Spaniards like to entertain and family life is very important to them. They will find any excuse to celebrate and extend the party festival atmosphere on into the night.
It’s good if you are a night owl, as you‘ll fit right in. Spaniards typically don’t eat dinner until very late in the evening and closer to 10 o’clock, so you’re not likely to find many people around earlier at your traditional dinner time. As things get going so late, expect the party to continue into the early hours and you might want to invest in a pair of earplugs if you’re an early bird.
While Spanish people are very open and friendly, it’s custom to proffer a hand when you meet somebody on the first occasion and only to become a little more intimate by kissing on the cheek or hugging at subsequent meetings.
Madrid is the capital city and is situated right in the middle of the country, but Barcelona on the Mediterranean coast is equally as well-known as a tourist destination. Spain is situated in the Central European Standard Time zone, one hour ahead of UTC in winter and two in the summer. Of the population of 45 million, the vast majority cite Catholic as their faith.
When to Visit
When is the best time to go? Experts recommend spring with its cooler nights, but longer warm days, and this is when the festival season starts to crank up into the summer. There are a variety of different microclimates across the country, with the interior getting very hot in the summer, but the favoured Mediterranean destinations enjoying comfortable weather year-round. For example, expect temperatures between five and 14°C in the winter, rising to the high 20s in the summer along the coast.
It’s fairly easy to get around, with the Spanish government having invested heavily in public transportation over the years. There are a variety of airports with internal flights, good quality bus transportation and an exceptional, high-speed rail network. Within the big cities like Barcelona and Madrid you can ride on the underground metro, but also remember that Sunday is an important day of rest in the Catholic culture and you may find public transportation less frequent.
Australians do not need a visa for a stay of up to 3 months and the currency here is the Euro, with an approximate exchange rate of 0.66 to the Australian dollar. You’ll need to drive on the right side of the road and will need to take an electrical adapter for your devices. When you go out at night, the legal drinking age is 18 (but 16 in some areas) and tipping of up to 20% is the norm for good service.
It’s little wonder that Spain is one of the top 10 destinations in the world. There is so much to see and an immersive culture to enjoy. Spain is well-known for its culinary masterpieces, it’s adventure and geography. The word fiesta, meaning party, was of course invented here and the Spaniards like to throw a good one. You’re almost certain to run into such a celebration no matter where you are.
Five of the big cities stand out as worthy of your visit.
If you visit in the winter, you can base yourself in Granada and take advantage of the many different types of winter sport in the Sierra Nevadas.
The capital Madrid is the commercial hub but has a variety of different architectural and historic sites to enjoy as well. Why not take in a bullfight here, or discover just how passionate the Spanish people are about their football?
The second-largest city in the country is Barcelona, world-famous for its amazing Gaudi architecture, sunkissed beaches and welcoming people.
Further down the Mediterranean coast towards the West is Malaga, which has its own unique style of architecture, influenced by the Moroccan and Arabian cultures.
The city of Valencia has its own array of stunning beaches to tempt you with a huge variety of waterborne sports. Here you will also find a number of different theme parks and the largest aquarium on the continent.
Unusual architecture and structures abound in Spain and none more so than the famous aqueduct which spans a chasm near to the old town of Segovia. The structure was built two centuries ago and is incredibly dramatic and well preserved, covering 800m and sure to take your breath away.
In Bunol, the concept of the fiesta almost gets out of hand every August, as the world’s largest food fight takes place. It’s estimated that more than 100 tonnes of tomatoes are used in a friendly free for all, covering all of the walls in the town in a bright red colour. Of course, it’s all in good humour, but can you imagine the clean-up job afterwards!
Few places in the world can offer you the chance to go snow skiing one day and sunbathing on the beach the next, but the Sierra Nevada mountain range in Spain is perfectly placed geographically. If you like snowshoeing or bobsledding you will be well catered for. Then you could try some snow skiing at the end of your day before a quick trip to nearby Salobrena for some water skiing on the Med.
Football is almost like a second religion in Spain and perhaps even more so in Barcelona. The famous Camp Nou is almost a shrine to football and worth a visit, especially on game day when more than 100,000 fans make it a raucous, energy-packed atmosphere. This stadium has hosted the World Cup and you’ll be able to take part in a behind-the-scenes tour of the venue on certain dates. Don’t forget to check out the museum to football on site as well, but buy your ticket well in advance at the stadium office if you want to get in on the action on game day.
Festival Internacional de Benicassim
If you love music – and who doesn’t – you’ve got to schedule a visit to the Festival Internacional de Benicassim. This annual festival takes place in July and thousands of partygoers take the opportunity to visit the nearby beaches in the daytime, before the music cranks up at night. A variety of famous artists appear, with pop, rock and electro music to the fore. Nearby art shows and parades complement the festival as well.
What to Eat
The Spanish people love to eat and invented a variety of unique and tasty foods that are well known around the world. Why not try an authentic paella dish, packed with a delicious variety of meat or seafood, shrimp, rabbit, chicken, pork – you name it. The Spanish omelette called tortilla de patatas, is sure to fill you up with its eggs, potatoes and onions.
If you’re peckish and just want a small snack, why not trying a tapas when you’re out for a drink? There are many different types available and you should find a waterhole that specialises in these appetisers. If you’ve still got an appetite after all that, the flan de huevos (egg flan) is made from sweet custard, lemon rind, milk and eggs.
The Canary Islands
Did you know that there is another Spanish territory, several hundred miles to the south-west? The Canary Islands are an amazing destination in their own right and enjoy warm weather year-round, due to their proximity close to the equator. One particular island in this range hosts the famous Garajonay National Park with some amazing scenery. It’s a UNESCO World Heritage site, very popular with nature lovers. If you fancy an exhilarating hike, there is a very well marked system of trails throughout to suit all types. If you’ve got plenty of energy, you can climb to the summit of the mountain, 1500 m above the forest below, which could be cloaked in an otherworldly mist.
Back in the Mediterranean and on the island of Majorca, it’s time to go underground for an unforgettable experience. There are four distinct cave systems called the Caves of Drach, where you’ll see some amazing limestone rock formations, some of which are more than 1 km in length. There is also a massive underground lake, which you can take a boat trip across. Your enterprising host will even lay on a classical music arrangement, so you can hear just how amazing the acoustics in this underground world really are.
Finally, take in as much of the superb Mediterranean coastline as you can and explore some of the very many unique seaside towns and beach resorts. To do this, it’s best to rent a car, although the rail network is well served and could certainly get you where you want to go. Tarifa, which is on the far south-west and near to the border with Portugal, is favoured by artisans, while the Costa Del Sol and Costa Brava are year-round destinations for Europeans, escaping from the worst of the weather up there.
Spain is one of the most welcoming countries on earth and is typically a very safe destination for travellers. You’ll want to exercise the normal degree of caution, but remember that petty crime can be found anywhere and pickpocketing may be more of a risk in the many festivals and outdoor gatherings that take place. Unfortunately, the rate of unemployment is very high in this country and this can sometimes fuel petty theft.
Spain is not known for violent assault, but tourists are definitely in the crosshairs when it comes to pickpocketing. This is especially the case in some of the more famous streets and attractions in the big cities such as Barcelona or Madrid. It’s best to keep your wallet and handbag very close and in front of your body and never to show that you’re carrying large amounts of money. Have your wits about you if you are withdrawing money from an ATM on the street, and you may like to get cash inside banks or hotels instead. If you do happen to be unlucky and become the victim of a pickpocket, remember to get a police report to help you claim from your insurance.
Beware of those that may approach you quite openly and engage in conversation while a separate team member goes after your valuables. They may even pose as surveyors or charity workers and while you’re being interviewed, somebody else is focusing on all of your stuff. Teams may also work together to create a bottleneck in an area where a lot of people are gathering, as the close contact is an ideal opportunity for them to lift a wallet or purse.
The Spanish government gives universal health coverage to all of its citizens and the medical infrastructure and hospital system is advanced. Be aware, however, that Australians will need to pay the bill for any treatment or provide proof of insurance at the time and some providers won’t proceed unless this is the case.
Be aware also of the local laws before engaging in consumption of alcohol outside. Contrary to what you may think, many cities have now outlawed this. You may also find that drink measures are larger than what you may be used to, so be careful to regulate your consumption and it’s never a good idea to be visibly drunk in a public place. Female tourists should always travel in groups when going to bars and clubs and be on the lookout for anyone who may seek to spike a drink. Always get a taxi back to your hotel if you’ve been partying into the wee hours of the night. Remember also that smoking is banned in all public places and this includes areas outside restaurants or bars, as well.
As terrorism has unfortunately become more of a fact of life these days, you should always be aware of the general threat and monitor advisory messages as they come out. Sometimes, separatist organisations in the country have been known to become active and there is an ongoing risk posed by Islamic extremists.