Spain is nothing if not enthusiastic about sport, with football and basketball all but national obsessions, and bullfighting – whether or not you agree it’s a “sport” – one of its cultural highlights. There are also plenty of opportunities to get out and enjoy the country’s stunning outdoors, whether it’s ambling around a golf course, skiing in the southern slopes, chasing surf off the Basque Country coast or canyoning in the Pyrenees.
Basketball (baloncesto) comes second only to football in national interest, and the 2014 World Championships (fiba.com/pages/eng/fc/even/worldcup.asp) will be held in Spain, the second time the country has hosted the world’s biggest basketball tournament. Domestically, there are eighteen professional teams competing in the national league, ACB (acb.com), whose season runs from September to June; while other big competitions include the Copa del Rey and the Europe-wide Euroleague. The two biggest teams are, not entirely coincidentally, owned by the two most successful football teams, Barcelona and Real Madrid, and have won the ACB (until 1983 known as the Liga Nacional) dozens of times between them. There’s more basketball information on the Federacion Española de Baloncesto website (feb.es). Games are broadcast on TV, or match tickets cost from around €15.
The bullfight is a classic image of Spain, and an integral part of many fiestas. In the south, especially, any village that can afford it will put on a corrida for an afternoon, while in big cities such as Madrid or Seville, the main festival times are accompanied by a season of prestige fights. However, with the exception of Pamplona, bullfighting is far more popular in Madrid and all points south than it is in the north or on the islands. Indeed, many northern cities don’t have bullrings, while the regional governments of both Catalunya and the Canary Islands have gone so far as to ban bullfighting. Spain’s main opposition to bullfighting is organized by ADDA (Asociación Defensa Derechos Animal; addaong.org), whose website has information (in English) about international campaigns and current actions.
Los Toros, as Spaniards refer to bullfighting, is certainly big business, with the top performers, the matadors, on a par with the country’s biggest pop and sports stars. To aficionados (a word that implies more knowledge and appreciation than mere “fan”), the bulls are a culture and a ritual – with the emphasis on the way man and bull “perform” together – in which the arte is at issue rather than the cruelty. If pressed on the issue of the slaughter of an animal, they generally fail to understand. Fighting bulls are, they will tell you, bred for the industry; they live a reasonable life before they are killed, and, if the bullfight went, so, too, would the bulls.
If you decide to attend a corrida, try to see a big, prestigious event, where star performers are likely to despatch the bulls with “art” and a successful, “clean” kill. There are few sights worse than a matador making a prolonged and messy kill, while the audience whistles and chucks cushions. The most skilful events are those featuring mounted matadors, or rejoneadores; this is the oldest form of corrida, developed in Andalucía in the seventeenth century.
The bullfight season runs from March to October, and tickets for corridas start from around €5 – though you can pay much more (up to €150) for the prime seats and prestigious fights. The cheapest seats are gradas, the highest rows at the back, from where you can see everything that happens without too much of the detail; the front rows are known as the barreras. Seats are also divided into sol (sun), sombra (shade) and sol y sombra (shaded after a while), though these distinctions have become less crucial as more and more bullfights start later in the day, at 6pm or 7pm, rather than the traditional 5pm. The sombra seats are more expensive, not so much for the spectators’ personal comfort as the fact that most of the action takes place in the shade.
The corrida begins with a procession, to the accompaniment of a pasodoble by the band. Leading the procession are two alguaciles, or “constables”, on horseback and in traditional costume, followed by the three matadors, who will each fight two bulls, and their cuadrillas, their personal “team”, each comprising two mounted picadores and three banderilleros.
Once the ring is empty, the first bull appears, to be “tested” by the matador or his banderilleros using pink and gold capes. These preliminaries conducted (and they can be short, if the bull is ferocious), the suerte de picar ensues, in which the picadores ride out and take up position at opposite sides of the ring, while the bull is distracted by other toreros. Once they are in place, the bull is made to charge one of the horses; the picador drives his short-pointed lance into the bull’s neck, while it tries to toss his padded, blindfolded horse, thus tiring the bull’s powerful neck and back muscles. This is repeated up to three times, until the horn sounds for the picadores to leave. For many, this is the least acceptable stage of the corrida, and it is clearly not a pleasant experience for the horses, who have their ears stuffed with oil-soaked rags to shut out the noise, and their vocal cords cut out to render them mute.
The next stage, the suerte de banderillas, involves the placing of three sets of banderillas (coloured sticks with barbed ends) into the bull’s shoulders. Each of the three banderilleros delivers these in turn, attracting the bull’s attention with the movement of his own body rather than a cape, and placing the banderillas while both he and the bull are running towards each other.
Once the banderillas have been placed, the suerte de matar begins, and the matador enters the ring alone, having exchanged his pink-and-gold cape for the red one. He (or she) salutes the president and then dedicates the bull either to an individual, to whom he gives his hat, or to the audience by placing his hat in the centre of the ring. It is in this part of the corrida that judgements are made and the performance is focused, as the matador displays his skills on the (by now exhausted) bull. He uses the movements of the cape to attract the bull, while his body remains still. If he does well, the band will start to play, while the crowd olé each pass. This stage lasts around ten minutes and ends with the kill. The matador attempts to get the bull into a position where he can drive a sword between its shoulders and through to the heart for a coup de grâce. In practice, they rarely succeed in this, instead taking a second sword, crossed at the end, to cut the bull’s spinal cord; this causes instant death.
If the audience is impressed by the matador’s performance, they will wave their handkerchiefs and shout for an award to be made by the president. He can award one or both ears, and a tail – the better the display, the more pieces he gets – while if the matador has excelled himself, he will be carried out of the ring by the crowd, through the puerta grande, the main door, which is normally kept locked.
Popular current matadors include the veteran Enrique Ponce, Julián “El Juli” López, and Granada’s David “El Fandi” Fandila, Francisco Rivera Ordoñez and Manuel Jesús Cid Sala “El Cid”; currently the top female matador is María Paz Vegá from Málaga. But the torero who sets most male aficionados’ hearts aflutter (and many female ones, too) is the moody, quixotic and media-shy José Tomás Román Martín; fighting under the name José Tomás, his fans claim that his courageous, high-risk style – he has been seriously gored on numerous occasions – has taken the art back to its roots.
Spanish fútbol is indisputably hot at present – after decades of habitual underperformance, the national team became European champions in 2008, world champions in 2010, and Under-21 European champions in 2011, while the current Barcelona club side – mercurial tiki-taka (pass-and-move) masters – have been hailed as the world’s best team. Certainly, if you want the excitement of a genuinely Spanish sporting event, watching a Sunday-evening game in La Liga (lfp.es) usually produces as much passion as anything you’ll find in the bullring.
For many years, the country’s two dominant teams have been big-spending Real Madrid and FC Barcelona, and these two have shared domestic league and cup honours more often than is healthy. Opposition in recent years has been from Valencia, the Andalucian powerhouse of Sevilla and the emerging force of Villarreal, who have experienced a rags-to-riches success story under president and ceramics tycoon Fernando Roig. Other significant teams include Athletic Bilbao, who only draw on players from Euskal Herria (the Basque Country in both Spain and France and Navarra) or who came through the club’s youth ranks, while Real Madrid and Barcelona’s respective local rivals are Atlético Madrid (the third-biggest team in terms of support) and Espanyol.
The league season runs from late August until May, and most games kick off at 5 or 7pm on Sundays, though live TV usually demands that one key game kicks off at 10pm on Saturday and 9pm on Sunday. With the exception of local derbies, major European games, and the so-called clásicos between Real Madrid and Barcelona, tickets are not too hard to get. They start at around €30 for La Liga games, with the cheapest in the fondo (behind the goals); tribuna (pitchside stand) seats are much pricier, while to see an average Real Madrid or Barcelona game could easily cost you up to €100.
When Cantabria boy Severiano “Seve” Ballesteros died in 2011, aged just 54, the whole nation mourned. He and his fellow golfers, like José María Olazábal, Sergio García and Miguel Ángel Jiménez, have raised the country’s golf profile immeasurably in recent years, while with around three hundred golf courses Spain is one of the best European destinations for the amateur golfer too. Temperatures, especially favourable in the south, mean that you can play more or less year-round on the Costa del Sol, while a number of courses have built away from the traditional centres, for example along the Costa de la Luz and the Atlantic coast, which, while not as nice in winter, tend to be a little cheaper. There are increasing concerns, however, about the amount of water used by courses in a country that is experiencing a severe water crisis.
Plenty of tour operators can arrange golf-holiday packages, while for more information visit the very useful Golf Spain website (golfspain.com), which details all the country’s golf courses and golf schools, plus green fees and golf-and-resort packages.
Spain is one of the most mountainous countries in Europe, and as such is hugely popular with walkers. Aside from the classic long-distance routes, there are fantastic day-hikes, climbs and circuits possible almost everywhere, though you’ll need to be properly equipped with map, compass or GPS, hiking boots and mountain gear.
In Andalucía, the Sierra Nevada mountain range and national park offers spectacular walking among the highest peaks in Europe after the Alps. It can be pretty hard going, but there are less-challenging hikes in the foothills, particularly the lush valleys of Las Alpujarras. For the best trekking in central Spain, head for the Sierra de Gredos, two hours’ drive from Madrid, where there are lots of excellent one- and two-day hikes in the shadow of the highest peak, Almanzor (2592m). To the north, in the Pyrenees, the largest concentration of peaks lies in the eastern half of the range, particularly in Catalunya’s Parc Nacional d’Aigüestortes i Estany de Sant Maurici, where there are walks of all levels, from afternoon rambles to multi-day expeditions. Further challenges abound to the west, where the Aragonese Pyrenees are home to the two highest peaks in the range, Aneto (3404m) and Posets (3375m), while in Aragón’s Parque Nacional de Ordesa there are both rewarding day-hikes and more intensive climbs. If asked to choose just one corner of Spain, though, many would plump for the rugged Picos de Europa in Cantabria and Asturias, which, although only 40km or so across, offers a surprising diversity, from easy day-treks to full-blown expeditions.
There’s rafting (see Whitewater adrenaline rush) in various rivers across Spain, though the fast-flowing Noguera Pallaresa in the eastern Pyrenees is the most popular choice for expeditions. The season runs roughly from March to October, during which time you can fling yourself down the rapids in an inflatable raft from around €35 for a two-hour trip, and more like €70–80 for an all-day trip with lunch.
The Parque Natural Sierra de Guara (guara.org) and the Parque Nacional de Ordesa (ordesa.net) provide some of the best locations in Europe for canyoning (barranquismo) – hiking, climbing, scrambling and abseiling in caves, gorges and rivers. Operators in most of the local villages (including Alquézar and Torla) offer equipment and guides, with prices starting from around €70 for a full day’s expedition. The park websites have more information on routes and local organizations.
Spain offers a decent range of slopes, and often at lower prices than its more mountainous European neighbours. It is also home to the southernmost skiing in Europe, in the form of the Sol y Nieve resort in the Sierra Nevada (Andalucía), which has the longest season in Spain, running from November to April and sometimes even May, allowing you to ski in the morning and head to the beach in the afternoon – really, the only thing the resort’s got going for it. Much more challenging skiing is to be had in the north of the country in the Pyrenees. The Aragonese Pyrenees are home to a range of resorts catering for beginners to advanced skiers, while the resorts in the Catalan Pyrenees, to the east, encompass Andorra; the biggest resort here is Soldeu/El Tarter. Other options include the more intimate Alto Campoo, near Santander, and, for a day’s excursion, easy-to-intermediate skiing just outside Madrid at Valdesqui and Navacerrada.
There are ski deals to Spain from tour operators in your home country, though it often works out cheaper if you go through a local Spanish travel agent or even arrange your trip directly with local providers. Many local hotels offer ski deals, and we’ve covered some options in the Guide. Equipment rental will set you back around €20–30 a day as a general rule, and daily lift-passes around €25–40, although the longer you rent or ski for, the cheaper it will be.
Spain offers a vast range of watersports, especially along the Mediterranean coast where most resorts offer pedalo and canoe rental (from €10/hour), sailing tuition, and boat rental (€40/hour) and waterskiing (from €30/15min).
Surfing is best on the Atlantic coast, backed up by the fact that the area plays regular host to a number of prestigious competitions such as the Billabong Pro, Ferrolterra Pantín Classic and the Goanna Pro. Breaks such as the legendary Mundaka (Costa Vasca), considered by many as the best left-hander in Europe, along with a superb run of beaches with waves for all abilities, make the region’s reputation. The surfing season runs roughly from September to April, meaning that a full wet suit is a basic requirement in the cold Atlantic waters. If you prefer to surf in warmer waters, the Andalucian coastline has a few decent spots. For more information, beachwizard.com is an excellent website giving full details of all the best spots in Spain, along with reviews, maps and travel information.
Tarifa on the Costa de la Luz is the spot in Spain – indeed, in the whole of Europe – for windsurfing and kitesurfing, with strong winds almost guaranteed, and huge stretches of sandy beach to enjoy. You’ll also find schools dotted around the rest of the coast, with another good spot being the rather colder option of the Atlantic coast in Galicia. Prices are around €25 for an hour’s board and sail rental, and €10 for wet suits, while lessons start at €35 an hour including board rental.
It’s a whole different ballgame in the Basque Country, where sporting obsessions are of a very distinct kind. Pelota (a version of which is known as jai alai, Basque for “happy party”) is played all over Spain, but in Euskal Herria even the smallest village has a pelota court or fronton, and betting on the sport is rife. Rowing is also hugely popular, and regattas are held every weekend in summer. During local fiestas, you’ll also see other unique Basque sports including aizkolaritza (log-chopping), harri-jasotzea (stone-lifting), soka-tira (tug-of-war) and segalaritza (grass-cutting). The finest exponents of the first two in particular are popular local heroes (the world champion stone-lifter Iñaki Perurena’s visit to Japan resulted in the sport being introduced there – he remains the only lifter to surpass the legendary 315kg barrier).
The country’s major footpaths are known as GR (Grande Recorrido) or PR (Pequeño Recorrido), some of which make up part of the trans-European walking routes that extend across the entire continent. GR paths are the longest, and are marked by red-and-white stripes, while the smaller PR routes (yellow-and-white) can usually be done in a day. The best-known routes are the GR11, which crosses the Pyrenees from coast to coast, via Andorra; the GR65 and its variants, the Camino de Santiago; and the GR7, which starts from Tarifa in Andalucía, heads through the Sierra Nevada and up the Catalan coast before reaching the Pyrenees.