If you’re visiting Spain for the first time, be warned: this is a country that fast becomes an addiction. You might intend to come just for a beach holiday, a walking tour or a city break, but before you know it you’ll find yourself hooked by something quite different – the wild celebration of some local fiesta, perhaps, or the otherworldly architecture of Barcelona. Even in the best-known places to visit – from the capital, Madrid, to the costas, from the high Pyrenees to the Moorish cities of the south – there are genuinely surprising attractions at every turn, whether it’s hip restaurants in the Basque country, the wild landscapes of the central plains, or cutting-edge galleries in the industrial north. Soon, you’ll notice that there is not just one Spain but many – and indeed, Spaniards themselves often speak of Las Españas (the Spains).
Partly, this is down to an almost obsessive regionalism, stemming from the creation in the late 1970s of seventeen comunidades autonomías – autonomous regions – with their own governments, budgets and cultural ministries, even police forces. You might think you are on holiday in Spain – your hosts may be adamant that you’re actually visiting Catalunya, and will point to a whole range of differences in language, culture and artistic traditions, not to mention social attitudes and politics. Indeed, the old days of a unified nation, governed with a firm hand from Madrid, seem to have gone forever, as the separate kingdoms that made up the original Spanish state reassert themselves in an essentially federal structure.
Does any of this matter for visitors? As a rule – not really, since few tourists have the time or inclination to immerse themselves in contemporary Spanish political discourse. Far more important is to look beyond the clichés of paella, matadors, sangría and siesta if you’re to get the best out of a visit to this amazingly diverse country.
Even in the most over-touristed resorts of the Costa del Sol, you’ll be able to find an authentic bar or restaurant where the locals eat, and a village not far away where an age-old bullfighting tradition owes nothing to tourism. The large cities of the north, from Barcelona to Bilbao, have reinvented themselves as essential cultural destinations (and they don’t all close down for hours for a kip every afternoon). And when the world now looks to Spain for culinary inspiration – the country has some of the most acclaimed chefs and innovative restaurants in the world – it’s clear that things have changed. Spain, despite the current economic uncertainty, sees itself very differently from a generation ago. So should you – prepare to be surprised.Read More
On the tapas trail
On the tapas trail
Everyone thinks they know tapas – the little nibbles served up in bars – yet nothing can prepare you for the variety available on their home soil. If all you’ve ever encountered is deep-fried squid and spicy potatoes, then a treat awaits. That’s not even to say that those dishes aren’t authentic – but the truth is that your first beachfront plate of Andalucían calamari or patatas bravas in back-street Barcelona really make you sit up and take notice. The proper way to eat tapas is to wander from one bar to another to sample a particular speciality, since the best bars tend to be known for just one or two dishes… and the locals wouldn’t dream of ordering anything else. So you might duck into one place for jamón serrano (cured ham), another for pulpo gallego (pot-cooked octopus), a third for pimientos de Padrón (small green peppers – about one in ten being fiery-hot), and then maybe on to a smoky old bar that serves just fino (dry sherry) from the barrel along with slices of mojama (dried, pressed roe). And that’s not counting the creative, new-wave bars where sculpted montaditos (canapés), yucca chips, samosas, sushi-fusion titbits or artisan-produced cheese and meat are all vying for your attention before you sit down later to the serious business of dinner.
Spanish time is notionally one hour ahead of the UK – but conceptually Spain might as well be on a different planet. Nowhere else in Europe keeps such late hours. Spaniards may not take a traditional midday siesta as much as they used to, but their diurnal rhythms remain committedly nocturnal. They’ll saunter out around 8 or 9pm in the evening for a paseo, to greet friends and maybe have a drink and tapas, and if they’re eating out, they’ll commonly start at 10 or 11pm, often later in Madrid, where it’s not unusual for someone to phone around midnight to see if you’re going out for the evening.
Like everything else, practices differ somewhat by region. Madrid – its inhabitants nicknamed los gatos or “the cats” for their nocturnal lifestyle – is famed for staying up the latest, with Andalucía a close second. In the north, particularly in Catalunya, they keep more northern European hours. And, of course, summer nights never seem to really end.