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Quick Facts
CapitalMadrid
Governmentparliamentary monarchy
Currencyeuro (EUR)
Area504,782 sq km
Population42,717,064 (2003)
LanguageCastilian Spanish (official) 100%, Catalan 17%, Galician 7%, Basque 2%
ReligionRoman Catholic 72%, none 20% other 8%
Calling Code34
Internet TLD.es
Time ZoneUTC +1

Spain is a diverse country in Mediterranean Europe, sharing the Portugal at the western end of the Mediterranean Sea. Once the centre of a global empire with territories in North,Central and South America, Africa and the Philippines, contemporary Spain has overcome civil war and fascism in the 20th century to stand proud and centered in itself. With great beaches, fun nightlife, many cultural regions and historic cities, Spain makes a great destination for any kind of trip.

A country of large geographical and cultural diversity, Spain is sometimes a surprise to people who know its reputation for great beach holidays. There is everything from lush meadows in the Northern provinces, snowy mountains to almost desert in the South.

Regions

  • Andalucia
  • Balearic Islands (Catalan: Les Illes Balears,Spanish: Las Islas Baleares)
  • Basque Country (Spanish: El Pa�s Vasco, Basque: Euskadi)
  • Canary Islands (Spanish: Las Islas Canar�as)
  • Cantabria
  • Castilla La Mancha
  • Castile-Leon (Spanish: Castilla y Le�n)
  • Catalonia (Catalan: Catalunya, Spanish: Catalu�a)
  • Galicia
  • Madrid -- capital of Spain, Prado, Escorial
  • Murcia
  • Navarra
  • Principality of Asturias (Spanish: Principado de Asturias)
  • Valencia (Spanish: Comunidad Valenciana)

Cities

Spain has hundreds of interesting cities. These are some of the major travel destinations among them.

  • Barcelona A lively cosmopolitan city that is capital of the Catalans. Famous for the Architecture of Antoni Gaudi.
  • Benidorm A valencian city where you can enjoy a seaside tourism and lots of pubs and discos. Famous for its skycrapers and beaches.
  • Bilbao Former industrial city, home to the C�rdoba The Grand Mosque ('Mezquita') of Cordoba is one of the world's finest buildings.
  • Coru�a, La A picturesque city in the northwest of Galicia. Typical Galician Architecture and great cultural life.
  • Cuenca Located on a mountain surrounded by a deep canyon, you can visit the hanging houses (casas colgadas).
  • Granada Stunning city in the south, surrounded by snow capped mountains of the Sierra Nevada, home of the Alhambra.
  • Las Palmas de Gran Canaria
  • Leon A lovely city in the northwest of Spain, it boosts one of the most important gothic Cathedrals in the world.
  • Madrid Capital of Spain. Lively city with great museums and wild nights
  • M�laga Capital city of the Costa del Sol. A fine, typical Spanish city, hometown of Picasso and its Picasso Museum, with one of the most popular beaches.
  • Marbella Situates in the Costa del Sol it is an luxury resort town with exclusive restaurants, hotels and clubs.
  • M�rida Well preserved roman ruins.
  • Murcia A gateway to the South of the Costa Blanca, Murcia is a university city.
  • Pamplona Famous for the San Fermin 'Running of the Bulls' Festival.
  • Salamanca A picturesque historical university city.
  • Santiago de Compostela
  • San Sebasti�n A wealthy city with a large sandy beach bay.
  • Segovia See the roman aqueduct in the middle of town
  • Seville beautiful, beautiful see the Giralda
  • Toledo City of gold plates.
  • Valencia Paella was invented here
  • Valladolid The best Spanish language is spoken here.
  • Jerez de la Frontera - the home of Sherry wine
  • El Arenosillo
  • Andorra - one of the smallest countries in the world, a principality nestling in the Pyrenees
  • Gibraltar - apes, pounds sterling and cause of long dispute between Spain and the UK
  • B�jar - A really nice place to visit

Understand

  • Tour Espa�a (http://www.spain.info/) - official website of the Spanish Tourism authority

Get in

Spain is a member of the European Union and the Schengen Agreement. European visa policy will be covered in the article about the EU. No visa is required for citizens of other EU member states, and those of some selected nations with whom the European Union special treaties.

As of May 2004 only the citizens of the following countries do not need a visa for entry into Spain. Note that citizens of these countries (except EU nationals) must not stay longer than three months in half a year and must not work in Spain: Andorra, Argentina, Australia, Austria, Belgium, Bermuda, Bolivia, Brazil, Brunei, Bulgaria, Canada, Chile, Costa Rica, Croatia, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Denmark, El Salvador, Estonia, Finland, France, Greece, Guatemala, Honduras, Hong Kong, Hungary, Iceland, Ireland, Israel, Italy, Japan, Latvia, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Macao, Malaysia, Malta, Mexico, Monaco, New Zealand, Nicaragua, Netherlands, Norway, Panama, Paraguay, Poland, Portugal, Romania, San Marino, Sweden, Switzerland, Singapore, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, South Korea, United Kingdom, United States, Uruguay, Vatican City and Venezuela.

Also, there are no border controls between Spain and other Schengen Agreement nations, making travel less complicated.

There are a number of ways to get into Spain. From neighboring European countries, a drive with the car or a train ride are feasible; visitors from further away will probably be using air travel.

By plane

The busiest airports are Madrid,Palma de Mallorca, Malaga, Murcia, Barcelona, Jerez de la Frontera, Seville, Bilbao and Alicante.

An example North American fare, from Toronto to Madrid round-trip in March 2005, was $748 CAD. ($900 after fees).

By train

  • RENFE (http://horarios.renfe.es/hir/ingles.html) - Timetables and Prices

By bus

  • Galician (Spanish: gallego), which is similar to Portuguese, is spoken in Galicia and the west of Asturias. Basque (Basque: Euskera), a language with no known linguistic relatives, is spoken in the Basque Country. Catalan (Catalan: catal�), is spoken in Catalonia, the Balearic Islands, where is known as Balearico, and the Valencia, where it is often referred to as Valenciano. (NB: there are arguments among st linguists and politicians as to whether these are dialects of Catalan or languages in their own right).

    Surprisingly, Spanish has developed very few local dialects and once you are able to understand Spanish you will be able to do so all over Spain. French and English are commonly studied in school, however many people have difficulties understanding and pronouncing English.

    See also: Spanish phrasebook

    Buy

    Spain is part of the European Union and the Eurozone; as such it replaced Spanish pesetas with the Euro (symbol: �) in the year 2002. Since it has been only a few years since the introduction of Euro cash, a few people will still use the old national currency names. For example, it is entirely possible that a Spaniard would still refer to peseta. They mean Euros and Cents, so just mentally substitute the two.

    Do not expect anybody to accept other types of currency, or to be willing to exchange currency. An exception are shops and restaurants at airports. These will generally accept at least US Dollars at a slightly worse exchange rate. If you wish to exchange money, you can do so at any bank, where you can also cash in your traveller's cheques. Currency exchanges, once a common sight, have all but disappeared since the introduction of the Euro. Again, international airports are an exception to this rule.

    Credit cards are well accepted. Most ATMs will allow you to withdraw money with your credit card, but you'll need to know your card's PIN for that. Notice many Spanish stores will ask for your passport, driving license or ID card before accepting your credit card. Athough somehow awkward for people from Eurozone countries that do not have an ID Card, this measure helps avoid credit card robbery.

    Eat

    Spanish are very passionate about their food and wine and Spanish cuisine is home of the world famous Paella. Spanish food can be described as quite light with a lot of vegetables and a huge variety of meat and fish. The Spanish cuisine does not use many spices; it relies only on the use of high quality ingredients to give a good taste.

    Bars and fast food

    The entry level to Spanish food is found in bars. Often you find a variety of different tapas and bars often specialize on some tapas. A Spanish custom is to have one tapa and one small drink and then go to the next bar and do the same. Tourists are easily spotted when they load their plates full of tapas. Fast food has not yet established a strong grip on the Spaniards and you will find McDonalds and BB only in bigger towns in the usual places. Pizza is increasingly popular and you will find some outlets in bigger towns as well.

    Restaurants

    Restaurants deliver a wide range of food and in coastal areas seafood deserves some attention, especially in the north Atlantic coast. Spanish are very concerned about the freshness of seafood and it can happen that you place an order and the waiter tells you that he can not serve this dish, because they did not receive this particular seafood freshly on the day. It is very unlikely to find dishes that had been prepared from frozen fish in real Spanish restaurant. Obviously so much freshness has its toll and seafood is quite pricy. Meat products are usually of very good quality, because Spain had maintained a quiet high percentage of free range animal. A speciality is "jamon iberico" from free range pigs.

    Service

    Despite the good food the service in Spain is often lousy and waiters seem to be not very skilled in their profession or least they are not bothered about anything. Double that for touristy place, when you are a foreigner, and / or you are not fluent in Spanish. On the contrary I have found almost all Spanish waiters friendly and competent. As a non Spanish speaker I find them most helpful and always willing to help especially if you are trying to learn a few words of their language which they appreciate.

    Tipping

    A little tip is common and you are free to increase that if you are very pleased, but obviously you don�t have to tip a lousy waiter. Large tips are uncommon and are not expected. You would typically leave the small change after paying with a note.

    Special offers

    Many restaurants offer a lunch time menu for a fixed price and this often works out as a bargain. It is quite common that water and wines are included in the fixed deal. This is usually called in Spanish "men� del d�a".

    Lunch and dinner times

    Spaniards have a slightly different timetable than most people are used to: the main lunch time starts at around 2 pm. Most shops and public offices will also close from 1.30 pm to 4.30 or 5 pm, excluding those located in large malls or belonging to big stores. Dinnertime starts at around 9 or 10 pm so don�t be surprised that a restaurant looks completely deserted at 8 pm and crowded at 11 pm.

    Touristy places

    Typical Spanish food can be found all over the country, however top tourist destinations such as Costa Brava and Costa del Sol have turned all existing traditions upside down. Meaning that drinks are generally more expensive (about double) and it is difficult to find proper Spanish food in the tourist centres. However you will get Schnitzel, original English breakfast, Pizza, Doner, frozen fish and all the good things that modern society has invented to supersize you.

    However, if you are prepared to look a little harder then even in the busiest tourist towns, you can find some exceptional traditional Spanish restaurants. If you are on the coast then think fish and seafood and you wont be disappointed.

    Spanish dishes

    Typical dishes are:

    • �Calamares en su tinta�: Squid in its ink.
    • �Chorizo�: Spain's most popular sausage is made from pork, ham, salt, garlic and pepper and is produced in multitude of varieties, in different sizes, shapes, short and long, spicy, in all different shades of red, soft, air dried and hard or smoked. Be careful: this kind of sausage may keep repeating on you.
    • �Fabada asturiana�: bean stew from Asturias
    • �Gambas pil pil�: a little prawn with garlic and chilli
    • �Gazpacho Andaluz�: cold vegetable soup
    • � Merluza a la Vizcaina� : The Spanish are not very fond of sauces. One of the few exception is merluza a la Vasca. The dish contains hake (fish of the cod family) prepared with white asparagus and green peas.
    • �Morcilla� - sausages made from pig blood flavoured with anise, it comes as a fresh, smoked or air dried variety.
    • �Aceitunas, Olivas�: Often served for nibbling, they are the fruit of olive tree.
    • �Lentejas Espa�olas�: A dish made from lentils with chorizo sausage and/or Serrano ham.
    • �Paella�: famous rice dish originally from Valencia and now eaten all over Spain.
    • �Pimientos rellenos�: filled peppers stuffed with minced meat or seafood. The peppers in Spain taste different than all other peppers in Europe.
    • �Potaje de espinacas y garbanzos�: chick pea stew with spinach
    • �Jam�n Serrano�: (=Serrano ham) An air cured ham similar to Italian Parma Ham
    • �Tortilla de patatas�: probably the most popular dish in Spain. You can easily assess how good a restaurant is by having a small piece of �Tortilla de patatas�.
    • �Rabo de toro�: Oxtail is a very famous dish in Spain. Obviously, availability increases after a bull fight!

    Drink

    Bars

    Probably one of the best places to meet people in Spain is in bars. Everyone visits them and they are always busy and sometimes bursting with people. There are no age restriction imposed to enter these premises. They are mainly to have drink or a small tapa. Usually Spaniards can control their drink better than their northern European fellows and drunk people are rarely seen here or on the streets.

    Beer

    The Spanish beer is not too bad at all and well worth a try. Most popular local brands include San Miguel, Cruzcampo, Mahou and many others, including local brands at most cities; import beers are also available. In Spain, beer is often served from a tap in 25 cl ("ca�a") or 33 cl ("tubo") tube glasses. Bigger servings are rare, but you can also ask for a "corto", "zurito" (round the Basque country) or simply "una cerveza" (south of the country) to get a half size beer, perfecto to drink in one go and get quickly to the next bar while having tapas.

    Cava

    Cava is the latest name for Spanish sparkling wine and was invented after a long lasting dispute with the French about the right name for the sparkling wine. The Spanish called it for a long time champan, but the French argued that champagne can made only from grapes grown in the Champagne region in France. Nevertheless, Cava is a quite successful sparkling wine and 99% of the production comes from the area around Barcelona.

    Sangria

    Sangria is drink made of wine and fruits and usually is made from simple wines. You will find sangria mainly in touristy places prepared for tourists. Spanish prepare sangria for fiestas only and not every day as seen in Mallorca. Best avoided unless you are very sad!

    Sherry (Fino)

    The wines around Jerez are very high in alcohol and they produce the famous sherry. If you would like to have one in a bar you have to order a fino.

    Wine

    Spain is a country with great wine-making traditions: 22% of Europe's wine growing area is located in Spain, however the production is about half of what the French produce. The most famous wines come from Rioja and from Ribera del Duero. The later ones are becoming more and more popular and are slightly more expensive than Rioja wines. White, rose and red wines are produced, but the red wines are certainly the most important ones. Spanish wines are produced with time and they have been in a oak barrel for at least one year (Crianza) and then another two years in a bottle, Reservas are first released after five years and Gran Reservas leave the wine estate after 10 years. Spain has seen a tremendous rise in wine prices over the last decade and Spanish wines are not any more such a bargain as they were one decade before. However you will still find 5, 10 and 20 year old wines for affordable prices.

    To order a red wine in a bar you have to ask for a "un tinto por favor", white wine "un blanco por favor" and last not least rose "un rosado por favor".

    Young people in Spain have developed their own way to have wine. When having "botellones" (big outdoor parties with drink and lots of people from the same town), most of them will be mixing some red wine with coke and drink such mix straight from the coke bottle. The name of this drink is "calimocho" or "kalimotxo" (depending on the part of the country you're in) and is really very popular... But don't ask for it while in an upper class bar, or among adults, since they will most certainly not approve the idea!

    Sleep

    Paradores

    A parador (meaning: inn) is a state owned hotel in Spain (rating from 3 to 5 stars). These are a chain of hotels founded in 1910 by the Spanish King Alfonso XIII. The unique aspects of Paradores are their location and their history. Most are in historical buildings, like convents, Moorish castles (like the Costa del Sol. Hospitality has been harmoniously integrated with the restoration of castles, palaces and convents, rescuing from ruin and abandonment monuments representative of Spain's historical and cultural heritage.

    For example the Parador in Santiago de Compostella is located next to the Cathedral in a former royal hospital built in the year 1499. Rooms are decorated in an old-fashioned way, but nevertheless have modern facilities. Other notable Paradores are in Arcos de la Frontera, Ronda, Santillana del Mar (Altamira cave) as well as more than 100 other destination all over Spain.

    Paradores will serve breakfast (ca 10 euro) and often have very good local cuisine typical for their region (ca 25 euro).

    Accommodation prices are a good value, when you consider that the hotels are often found in the heart of scenic areas, varying from 85 euro's a double room to 245 euro's for a twin room (like in Granada). Two of the most beautiful paradors are in L�on and Santiago de Compostella.

    There are some promotions available:

    • 60+ can enjoy a discount.
    • youngsters under 30 can visit the paradors at a fixed rate of 35 euro per person.
    • two nights half board have a discount of 20%.
    • a dreamweek of 6 nights is cheaper.
    • 5 nights at 42 euro's per person.

    The promotions do not always apply, especially in August, they are not valid. It's not possible to have a discount at the parador of Granana, which had no vacancies, unless you book at least 6 months before your arrival.

    http://www.parador.es/english/index.jsp

    Stay safe

    Police

    There are four kinds of police:

    • 'Polic�a Municipal' or 'Local' (metropolitan police). Uniforms change from town to town, but they use to wear blue clothes with pale blue shirt and a blue cap (or white helmet) with a checkered white-and-blue strip. This kind of police keeps order and rules the traffic inside cities, and they are the best people in case you are lost and need some directions. Although you can't officially report theft to them, they will escort you to 'Policia Nacional' headquarters if required, and they will escort the bad guys to be arrested also, if needed.
    • 'Polic�a Nacional' wear dark blue clothes and blue cap (sometimes replaced by a baseball-like cap), unlike Polic�a Municipal, they do not have a checkered flag around their cap/helmet. Inside cities, all offenses/crimes should be reported to them, although the other police corps would help anyone who needs to report an offense.
    • 'Guardia Civil' keeps the order outside cities, in the country, and regulates traffic in the roads between cities. You would probably see them guarding official buildings, or patrolling the roads. They wear plain green military-like clothes; some of them wear a strange black helmet ('tricornio') resembling a toreador cap, but most of them use green caps or white motorcycle helmets.
    • Given that Spain is the European country with a higher grade of political autonomy released to their regional governments, some of them also have regional law forces, such as the Ertzaintza in the Basque Country or the Mossos d'Esquadra in Catalunya.

    Theft

    Spain is a safe country, but you should take some basic precautions:

    • Try not to show expensive cameras in depressed areas.
    • Do not carry large amounts of money with you.
    • Beware of pickpockets when visiting areas with large numbers of people, like crowded buses or the Puerta del Sol.
    • In Madrid and also in Barcelona, some criminal groups think far east people (especially those from Japan) are easy prey.
    • Don't hesitate to report crimes to local police.
    • In general, you must bear in mind that those areas with a larger number of foreign visitors, like some crowded vacation resorts in the East Coast, are much more likely to attract thieves than places which are not so popular among tourists.
    • Avoid gypsy old women offering rosemary, refuse it always; they will read your future, ask for some money, and your pocket will probably be picked.

    Swindles you should avoid

    Some people could try to take advantage of your ignorance of local customs.

    • In Spanish cities, all taxis should have a visible fare table. You shouldn't agree a fixed price to go from an airport to a city: in most cases, the taxi driver will be earning more money than without a pre-agreed tariff.
    • In many places of Madrid, especially near Atocha station, there are people ('trileros') who play the "shell game". They will "fish" you if you play, and they will most likely pick your pocket if you stop to see other people play.
    • If you rent a car in an airport, specially in Madrid airport, and are hailed by a man to help him repair a tire flat on his car, DO NOT STOP. A few people have been robbed when they stopped to help false broken car drivers.

    Other things you should know

    • All stores, hotels and restaurants should have an official complaint form, in case you need it.

    Stay healthy

    • Chemicals (pharmaceuticals) are not sold at supermarkets, they're sold at 'farmacias' (chemistries), identified with a green cross or a Hygeia's cup.
    • People from European Union and a few more European countries can freely use public health system, if they have the appropriate intereuropean sanitary card. That card does not work in private hospitals. Agreements are stablished to treat people from a few American countries; see the tourspain link below for more info.
    • However, do not hesitate to go to any healthcare facility should you be injured or seriously ill, as it would be ilegal for them not to cure you, even if you are uninsured.
    • Although Spain is often warm, it can be very cold in the Winter, especially in the North, and in some places it is rainy in summer. Remember to travel with adequate clothes.
    • In summer, avoid direct exposure to sunlight for long periods of time to prevent sunburn and heatstroke. Drink water, walk on the shady side of street and keep a container of sun cream handy.
    • Most cities have a good water supply, especially Madrid, but you may prefer bottled water to the alkaline taste of water in the east and south.

    Respect

    • Spaniards in general are very patriotic about both their country and province in which they live. Try to avoid arguments about whether people from Catalonia or the Basque Country are Spaniards or not. Respect and interest of the culture is very important. If you're Mexican or Argentinian, chances are you'll get the attention of some Spaniards.
    • It is customary to kiss friends, family, and acquaintances on both cheeks upon seeing each other and saying goodbye, except family members, male-to-male kiss is not accepted, so don't do it, but in the gay communities. Spaniards do not directly kiss on the cheek, but in the air next to the cheek.
    • During lunch or dinner, Spaniards do not begin eating until everyone is seated and has begun. Likewise, they do not leave the table until everyone is finished eating.
    • When Spaniards receive a gift or are offered a drink or a meal, they usually refuse for a bit, so as not to seem greedy. This sometimes sparks arguments among especially reluctant people, but it is seen as polite. Remember to offer more than once (on the third try it must be fairly clear if they will accept it or not). On the other hand, if you are interested in the offer try and smile and refuse, but not saying that you strictly do not want to, but rather that you do not want to be a nuisance, etc.
    • When in a car, the elderly and pregnant always ride in the passenger's seat, unless they request not to.
    • Looking drunk in public is generally not seen as acceptable.

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