Things to see and do - Spain
Spain Leisure tips
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Spain is living testimony that countries can change profoundly and permanently: from a closed society where views were rarely expressed in public to one where people speak their minds; from economically backward to a dynamic economy that attracts immigrants; from a centralised government to a land that thrives on regional diversity; from a repressive state to one whose prosecutors relentlessly pursue human rights abuses worldwide. And yet all this transformation has come about while maintaining essential values and the Spanish way of life. Elsewhere, the penetration of worldwide brands and fashion and slang will make the visitor feel at times as if he or she has never left home. But when you are in Spain, it is clear that you are nowhere else.
Government and administration
The Spanish Constitution, which was approved by referendum on 6 December 1978, defines the political status of the Spanish State as a constitutional monarchy in which sovereignty rests with the Spanish people. This political system can be broken down as follows: a Head of State , in the shape of the King, the Cortes Generales (Parliament) and a Government . The Cortes are elected by universal suffrage every four years. They are divided into two chambers: the Congreso de los Diputados and the Senado . The Government (Gobierno) performs executive functions and comprises a head of government ( Presidente del Gobierno or prime minister), vice-presidents and ministers. Judicial power is an independent authority administered by judges and magistrates. The Supreme Court acts as the highest tribunal in the land.
Spain can be broken down into the following administrative divisions:
Autonomous Communities: Spain is divided into 17 Comunidades Autónomas , in addition to two autonomous cities (Ceuta and Melilla, in North Africa). These communities may compose a single province or several provinces. The leading political figure in these is the Presidente de la Comunidad , who is elected by universal suffrage every four years. The transfer of decision-making to autonomous bodies has yet to be fully achieved; however, the system of autonomy developed in Spain is one of the most advanced in Europe.
The Basque Country is designated as a historical region in Spain for its independent sense of identity. Extremists known as the Euskadi Ta Askatasuna (Basque Homeland and Freedom)or ETA have fought a violent campaign of murders and kidnappings since 1959 to press for an independent country. The devolved nature of these Autonomous Communities has allowed parties such as the Euzko Alderdi Jeltzalea (Basque National Party) to campaign for Basque autonomy through democratic and peaceful means.
Catalunya has developed a separate identity since the Middle Ages, with its own language (Catalan) and culture epitomised by its centre of Barcelona. This came to a nadir during Franco‘s dictatorship, when the use of Catalan was forbidden in print and banned in public events. It is now an official language, taught publicly in schools and thrives alongside Spanish.
Other Autonomous Communities such as Galicia, Valencia and Andalucía have also identified themselves as nationalities and promoted their own languages and regional administrations.
Provinces: The need for greater administrative efficiency led the governments under Isabel II (19C) to establish an initial division of the country into provinces. At present, Spain has 50 provinces.
Municipalities: This is the smallest territorial division, comprising a town council (ayuntamiento) headed by a mayor (alcalde) .
Given the administrative system now operating within Spain, communities and municipalities are able to administer their territories, in one of the most decentralised countries in Europe.
A way of life
Whenever foreigners conjure up an image of Spain, their thoughts inevitably turn to a leisurely lifestyle, plentiful sunshine, noisy and lively towns and cities, and an extroverted, friendly people whose daily timetable is impossible to comprehend!
Yet, irrespective of the crazy rhythms imposed by the demands of modern life, the Spanish always attempt to extract the very maximum from life; the maxim that most applies to them is that of having to work to live rather than living for work.
Despite the differences that exist between the north and south, the coast and inland areas, and towns and cities, it can be said that a common bond exists among all Spaniards in the manner in which they approach life.
Life in the street
There’s no doubt that the excellent climate enjoyed by most parts of the country is one of the main reasons for the Spaniards’ “passion” for living outdoors; there are of course others, of lesser or equal importance. Spain is a country of informal get-togethers and social gatherings, in bars, cafés, restaurants, at work, and of chance meetings of a couple of friends – any excuse is good enough to indulge in a friendly chat or animated discussion. This affection for going out as a group, meeting friends for dinner, or enjoying an aperitif or drink, is to the Spanish a sign of identity, irrespective of their age or social standing. Nor is it uncommon for Spaniards to have a relaxed drink with friends or colleagues before heading home after a long day’s work.
The daily schedule of the Spanish is completely different from that of the rest of Europe and as such is the major characteristic that distinguishes the country from its European neighbours. Spaniards don’t usually have lunch before 2pm or 2.30pm, or dinner before 9.30pm, a custom that results in long mornings and afternoons and provides ample time for them to indulge in their passion for a leisurely stroll, shopping or meeting up for a snack with friends and work acquaintances.
Tapas and aperitif time
This gastronomic pastime is one of the most deeply rooted traditions in Spain, with youngsters, couples and entire families heading for bars to tapear , either standing at the counter or, if time allows, sitting down in a café terrace. An aperitif can be a frugal affair, although by ordering a number of tapas you can quite easily create an alternative to lunch or dinner.
These traditional appetisers come in many guises, ranging from the small tapa itself to larger portions known as a media ración or ración . Choose a media ración of Manchego cheese or Jabugo cured ham, a ración of chorizo sausage, or a selection of vegetarian, fish, seafood or meat dishes – washed down perhaps with a glass of draught beer (una caña) or a glass of fino sherry (una copa de fino) . Every region has its own specialities and its own way of presenting tapas, yet whether you’re in the Basque Country, Andalucía or in the middle of the Meseta, tapas are appreciated the length and breadth of the country.
There are literally tens of thousands of bars in Spain, including in the smallest and most remote hamlets and villages. They act as a focal point for locals, who congregate here with friends or family in the evening and at weekends. During the afternoon and early evening in smaller towns and villages you’re bound to come across locals playing cards or indulging in a game of dominoes over a coffee or something stronger. The mornings are busy in bars as well, with regulars stopping by for a pastry and coffee for breakfast.
With the onset of fine weather, terraces spring up across Spain – outside restaurants, cafés, bars and ice-cream parlours, on pavements and patios and in gardens and narrow alleyways. During the warmer months, it is pleasant at any time of day to take the weight off your feet for a short while and watch the world go by in front of your table.
In summer, many of the most crowded bars and clubs, particularly those by the sea, provide outdoor terraces for their customers.
These typical features of resorts along the Spanish coast come in various guises, ranging from the cheap and cheerful to the expensive and luxurious. These chiringuitos , as they are known, have grown in popularity, particularly given that customers can enjoy a drink or have a meal wearing only their swim suits. In the more popular tourist areas they have become a meeting-point for locals and visitors alike, with some also open for dinner.
The lively character of Spanish towns and cities and summer resorts is often a cause of great surprise to visitors. Nowadays, the choice of venues is often overwhelming, with something to suit every budget and taste: quiet cafés for a drink and a chat with friends; lively bars packed to the rafters, with dance floors and music played at full volume; clubs offering a variety of shows; and nightclubs ranging from holes-in-the-wall to mega-venues where the pace doesn’t stop until late the next morning.On Thursday and Friday nights and on weekends, as well as in summer and during holidays, the action is almost constant, with nightclubbers migrating from one club or bar to the next – don’t be surprised if you get stuck in a traffic jam at three or four in the morning! An example of this is on the Paseo de la Castellana, in Madrid, with its numerous outdoor bars open until the small hours.
Although the demands of modern life prevent most people from perpetuating this healthy custom, most Spaniards long to have an afternoon nap and will make sure that they take a restorative siesta on weekends and when they’re on holiday. Although less common nowadays, those Spaniards whose work schedule allows them three hours off from 2–5pm will try to make it home for lunch and a short sleep.
In line with other Latin countries, the family remains the bedrock of Spanish life, and is a determining factor in the behaviour and many of the habits of Spanish society at large. Without a solid family base, it would be hard to understand how a country with a high rate of unemployment and one in which children continue to live with their parents until their late-20s and even early-30s could prosper without too many problems. It should also be added that numerous Spanish celebrations and fiestas are based upon these close family ties.
The work ethic
Those foreigners who have chosen to live in Spain soon realise that the old image of Spain as a country where very little work is done – a view perpetuated by the country’s way of life and daily schedule, and the Spaniards’ well-documented liking for enjoying themselves to the full – is far removed from modern reality.
Nowadays, the work ethic in Spain is similar to that in any other European country. Visitors may wonder how this is possible, given the unusual lifestyle. The answer is simple: the Spanish sleep less. Working hours are little different from those in the rest of Europe, but from an early age the Spanish are brought up used to sleeping less during the week and trying to catch up on lost sleep at the weekend.
Traditions and folklore
Spain has kept alive its old traditions, as can be witnessed by the huge number of fiestas fervently celebrated around the country throughout the year. These unique and varied outpourings of religious sentiment and joy are a clear demonstration of Spain’s rich cultural heritage and diversity.
A land of fiestas and traditions
Numerous fiestas are celebrated across Spain. Unbridled joy, pomp and ceremony, and a sense of theatre are just some of the characteristics associated with these traditional aspects of Spanish life.
To a greater or lesser degree, every Spanish town and city celebrates one main festival every year, normally in honour of its patron saint. These celebrations, many of which take place over the summer months, attract the entire local population, as well as inhabitants from outlying villages and rural areas. Typical events will include religious celebrations and processions, bullfights and bull-running, while many will attend just to indulge in animated discussions with friends until the early hours, or to enjoy rides on the fairground attractions that are traditional features of these events.
The most important festivals in Spain include:
Los Sanfermines de Pamplona , in honour of San Fermín (7 July), which starts on 6 July with the setting-off of a huge firework rocket or chupinazo . For an entire week the city is the backdrop for a non-stop celebration that enjoys its most spectacular moments during the morning running of the bulls (encierros) and at the early-evening bullfights. This ends at midnight on 14 July, with the candlelit singing of Pobre de Mí (Poor Me) .
Las Fallas de Valencia , held in March in honour of San José, are renowned for firework displays. This begins every day of the festival at 8am with la despertà (the wake-up call), a heady mix of brass bands and firecrackers. This culminates in the Nit del foc (Night of Fire), when the impressive ninots (pasteboard figures) dotted around the city are set alight.
Sevilla’s Feria de Abril (April Fair) is the most famous of these festivals, with a reputation that has stretched far beyond the borders of Spain. Andalucían fiestas are renowned for their exciting atmosphere, colourful costumes and spontaneous dance, with mountains of tapas consumed, accompanied by a glass or two of chilled dry sherry (fino) such as manzanilla . The streets of the fairground area are a mass of colour as Andalucían women parade up and down on foot or on horseback dressed in the breathtaking flamenco dresses (faralaes) for which the region is famous.
Romerías (pilgrimages) are an important aspect of religious life in Spain. Although each of these colourful events has its own specific characteristics, the basic principle is the same: a pilgrimage on foot, and occasionally on horseback, to a hermitage or shrine to venerate a statue. Usually, this religious peregrination will also include a procession, music, dancing and a festive meal in the countryside.
The pilgrimage to El Rocío (Almonte, Huelva) is the most extravagant and popular romería in the whole of Spain, attracting around one million pilgrims every year. Others of note include the St. John of the Mountain Festival in Miranda de Ebro dating from the 14C and the Festival of the Virgen de la Cabeza in Andújar, Jaén.
Holy Week processions are another vivid expression of the Spanish character. Numerous villages, towns and cities around the country participate in these outpourings of religious fervour, which see thousands of people taking to the streets to accompany the passion of Christ and the pain of his mother. Semana Santa tends to be a more sober affair in Castilla, and more festive in Andalucía, although across Spain the beauty of the statues (often works of art in their own right), the solemnity of the processions, some of which take place against a magnificent backdrop, and the fervour of those involved, create an atmosphere that will impress believers and non-believers alike.
Although Holy Week in Sevilla is undoubtedly the most famous, the processions in Valladolid, Málaga, Zamora and Cuenca are also worthy of particular note.
Carnival celebrations in Spain are generally extravagant affairs where the imagination is stretched to its limits and joy is unbounded. They often involve many months of hard work during which performances are rehearsed and costumes made.
In the Canaries, particularly on Tenerife, Carnival is an important aspect of island tradition, involving a procession of floats and the election of the Carnival queen – events that bring the island to a standstill. The Carnival in Cádiz, which is known for its groups of musicians and folk dancers, is the liveliest on mainland Spain.
The Christmas period in Spain is traditionally a time for family celebration. At home, where the Christmas tree and crib are essential decorative features, families congregate for dinner either on Christmas Eve or on Christmas Day, depending on the custom of their region. An equally traditional aspect of Christmas is the procession of the Kings: as a prelude to the most eagerly awaited night of the year, the Three Wise Men and their pages ride through the streets of towns and cities on the night of 5 January, handing out sweets to excited children lining their path.
It is impossible to broach the subject of fiestas without mentioning bullfighting – a subject that raises passions and criticism in equal measure. Bullfighting festivals are, indeed, just as much a part of Spanish culture as Holy Week processions; it is also true that the bullfighting world is indelibly linked with the major festivals around the country, and it is rare to find a town in which bullfighting is not present in some shape or form.
Very few cultural events are as regimented as a bullfight; consequently, a basic understanding of the various moves and stages of the contest is required to make any attempt to appreciate the spectacle.
The bullfighting season runs from the spring to the autumn, and the most important festivals are those in Sevilla, held during the April Fair, and the San Isidro festival in Madrid.
Flamenco, derived from gypsy and Arab sources, is a befitting expression of the Andalucían soul. It is based on the cante jondo, or deep song, which describes the performer’s profound emotions in ancient poetic phrases. The rhythm is given by hand-claps, heel-clicks and castanets. The Sevillana, from Sevilla, is a more popular type of dance and song. Sevilla and Málaga are the best places to see tablaos or performances of Andalucían music.
Flamenco and the Sevillana owe much of their grace to the Andalucían costume of brilliantly coloured flounced dresses for women and close-fitting short jacketed suits, wide flat hats and heeled boots for men.
No general rejoicing here goes without a jota , a bounding, leaping dance in which couples hop and whirl to the tunes of a rondalla (group of stringed instruments), stopping only for the occasional brief singing of a copla by a soloist.
Catalunya and the Comunidad Valenciana
The sardana dance is still very popular in Catalunya where it is performed in a circle in main squares on Sundays. The Castells , who form daring human pyramids, may be seen in festivals at El Vendrell and Valls. In the Levante, the rich local costume notable for its colour and intricate embroidery is worn during lively, colourful festivals. Valencia’s Fallas in March are a veritable institution which Alicante’s Fogueres try to rival.
La Tomatina , which takes place in the Valencian town of Buñol every August, has become a renowned food fight festival, where participants from all over the world come to throw overripe tomatoes in the streets, in honour of the town‘s patron saints. Lastly, the Moros y Cristianos festivals – those of Alcoy (22–24 April) are the best known – give a colourful replay of the confrontations between Moors and Christians during the Reconquest, where filaes (organised companies) represent the different legions with colouful medieval uniforms in a background of fireworks and music.
Galicia, Asturias and Cantabria
Romerías in Asturias and Galicia are always accompanied by the shrill tones of the gaita , a type of bagpipe, and sometimes by drums and castanets. The gaita is played during events in honour of cowherds, shepherds, sailors and others who work in the country’s oldest occupations. The most typical festivals are those held in summer for vaqueiros , or cowherds, in Aristébano and others for shepherds near the Lago de Enol. Common dances in Galicia include the muñeira or dance of the miller’s wife, the sword dance performed only by men, and the redondela .
Bowls (bolos) is a very popular game, supposedly brought to the region by pilgrims on the Way of St James.
País Vasco and Navarra
The Basque Country and Navarra have preserved many of their unusual traditions. Men dressed in white with red sashes and the famous red berets dance in a ring accompanied by zortzikos (songs), a txistu (flute) and a tamboril . The most solemn dance, the aurresku , is a chain dance performed by men after Mass on Sundays. The espata-dantza , or sword dance, recalls warrior times while others, like the spinners’ dance or another in which brooms are used, represent daily tasks. The Basques love contests, such as tug-of-war, trunk cutting, stone lifting and pole throwing. But by far the most popular sport is pelota , played in different ways: with a chistera , or wickerwork scoop, or with the very similar cesta punta in an enclosed three-walled court (jai alai) , or with a wooden bat or pala or, finally, simply with the hand, a mano . There is a famous pelota university at Markina in Vizcaya.
Few regions in Spain are as mystical or have such sober customs as Castilla. Traditional dances include the seguidilla, originating from La Mancha region, and the paloteo, also known as the danza de palos, which is accompanied by flute, tambourine, and sometimes by a bass drum or the most typical of Castilian instruments, the local reed-pipe, or dulzaina. Peasant costumes around Salamanca are richly embroidered with precious stones, silk thread and sequins.
Mallorca’s traditional dances include the copeo , the jota , the mateixes and the bolero . Dances and festivals are accompanied by a xeremía (local bagpipes) and a tambourine. In Menorca, a festival, dating back to medieval times and calling for about 100 horsemen in elegant costumes, is held at Ciutadella on Midsummer’s Day (The Feast of St John or Sant Joan , on 23–24 June). Popular dances in Ibiza have a poetical accompaniment to guide the performers’ movements.
The folklore of the Canaries shows influences from the Spanish mainland, Portugal and South America (the last as a consequence of the strong links created by emigration); these in turn have become intertwined with local traditions. The isa , the malagueña , the folía and the tajaraste are the four best-known types of dance from the islands. The timple is a type of small guitar which is typical of the archipelago. The salto del pastor (shepherd‘s leap) is a traditional folk sport throughout the islands involving long pole vaults known as garrotes .
Food and drink
Spanish food is distinctively Mediterranean: it is cooked with an olive oil base, seasoned with aromatic herbs and spiced with hot peppers. It nevertheless varies enormously from region to region. Among dishes served throughout the country are garlic soup, cocido (a type of stew accompanied by beans or chickpeas), omelettes with potatoes, like the famous tortilla, typical pork meats like chorizo (a kind of spicy sausage), savoury rice dishes and delicious lean serrano hams. Fish and seafood are also used in a great many dishes.
No description of Spanish food should be complete without mentioning the ubiquitous tapas – the hors d’oeuvres which appear on the counters of most bars and cafés just before lunch and dinner. This often vast array of colourful appetisers comes in two different forms: tapas (small saucer-size amounts) or raciones , more substantial portions. A selection of two or three tapas or one or two raciones makes for a very pleasant lunch accompanied by a glass ( caña ) of draught beer.
The country is also renowned for its magnificent wines, which include famous appellations such as Rioja and Penedès, and the sherries of the Jerez region.
Galicia’s cuisine owes its delicacy to the quality of its seafood : octopus, hake, gilthead, scallops (vieiras) , mussels (mejillones) , goose-barnacles (percebes) , prawns (gambas) , king prawns (langostinos) and mantis shrimps (cigalas) . There is also el caldo gallego , a local soup, lacón con grelos (hand of pork with turnip tops) and another common traditional recipe, pulpo gallego (Galician-style octopus), often served as a tapa or ración . All these dishes may be accompanied by local wines such as red or white Ribeiro or white Albariño. The region’s desserts include tarta de Santiago , an almond-flavoured tart, and filloas , a type of sweet fritter.
Asturias and Cantabria
In Asturias, fish and seafood are also important but the main speciality is a casserole dish called fabada made with white beans, pork, bacon and spicy sausages. As far as cakes and pastries are concerned, mention should be made of sobaos , delicious biscuits which originated in Cantabria and are cooked in oil. Cider is often drunk at meals.
Cooking in the Basque Country has been raised to the level of a fine art and requires laborious preparation. Meat is mostly served roasted, grilled or cooked in a sauce, while fish such as cod or hake is often accompanied by a green parsley sauce (salsa verde) or by peppers. Chipirones en su tinta is a dish of baby squid in their own ink. Marmitako , a typical fishing village dish, is composed of tuna fish, potatoes and hot red peppers, and is often served with a good txacolí , a tart white wine.
Navarra and La Rioja
Navarra and La Rioja are the regions for game, excellent market-garden produce and the best Spanish wines, especially reds. The food is varied and refined, with partridge, quail and woodpigeon competing with trout for pride of place in local dishes. Navarra has noteworthy rosés and fruity white wines. Delicious Roncal cheese is made in the valleys from ewe‘s milk.
Aragón is the land of chilindrón , a stew made with meat or poultry and peppers, and of ternasco (roast kid or lamb). These dishes may be washed down with heavy red Cariñena wines.
Catalunya has a typically Mediterranean cuisine. Look out in particular for pan con tomate (bread rubbed with a cut tomato and occasionally garlic and sprinkled with olive oil), red peppers cooked in oil, and wonderful fish dishes with a variety of sauces such as all i oli (crushed garlic and olive oil) and samfaina (tomatoes, peppers and aubergines).
Among pork meats are butifarra sausages, various kinds of slicing sausage and the fuet sausage from Vic. Dried fruit is used in a great many dishes or may be served at the end of a meal. The most widespread dessert is crema catalana , a kind of crème brûlée. Catalunya is also home to cava , a sparkling wine. Excellent light wines are made in the Empordà region, fruity whites in Penedès and reds in Priorato.
Castilla and Extremadura
Castilian specialities from local produce include roast lamb (cordero asado) , suckling-pig ( cochinillo tostón or tostado ) and the ubiquitous cocido , all of which may be accompanied by a light fresh Valdepeñas red.
Rueda wines from the province of southern Valladolid are fresh fruity whites, while those from Ribera del Duero are generally acidic reds.
Castilla is also known for its cheeses, with a ewe’s milk speciality from Burgos and many varieties of Manchego, Spain’s best-known cheese, which is best served with dulce de membrillo , a sweet spread made from quince paste. Among local sweets are the famous marzipans (mazapán) from Toledo.
Extremadura enjoys an excellent reputation for its hams, such as those from Guijuelo (Salamanca) and Montánchez (Cáceres).
The Levante is the kingdom of rice dishes, including the famous paella , which is cooked with a saffron rice base and chicken, pork, squid, mussels, shrimps and king prawns. As for sweets, turrón (made of almonds and honey or castor sugar, rather like nougat) is a Levantine speciality.
A traditional drink of horchata de chufas , made from tiger-nuts, water and sugar, makes for a pleasantly refreshing summer drink.
Soups are specialities in the Balearics; Mallorca’s Mallorquina has bread, leeks and garlic, while other soups are made with fish. Tumbet is a well-known casserole of potatoes, onions, tomatoes, courgettes and peppers. Sobrasada , a spicy sausage, flavours many local dishes. Cocas , pastries with sweet or savoury fillings, and ensaimadas , light spiral rolls, make delicious desserts.
The Canary Islands
Canarian specialities include papas arrugadas , small and wrinkly potatoes with a dry, salty coating, best served with mojo , a red or orange sauce made from garlic, paprika and cumin.
Stoneground flour made from roasted maize, called gofio , is added to many foods or made into dough-like balls called pella .
The Canary Islands are also known for their wine, made from malvasia grapes and for ronmiel (literally “honey rum”).
The region’s best-known dish is gazpacho , a cold cucumber and tomato soup made with oil and vinegar and flavoured with garlic. Andalucíans love food fried, especially seafood. Pigs are reared in the Sierra Nevada and Sierra de Aracena for the exquisite serrano ham. Among local desserts, tocino de cielo is as sweet as an Oriental pastry.
The region is especially well known for its dessert wines: the famous Jerez or sherries, Montilla-Moriles and Málaga .