A (Very Concise) History of Spain

  • The history of Spain dates goes back a long way. The pre-Roman peoples were subjected to colonization by the Greeks. Carthaginians, and Romans. The Romans referred to the entire Peninsula as Hispania, giving us the modern name of Spain.
  • Numerous invasions of Germanic tribes followed, during the 4th and 5th centuries.
  • Next came the Umayyad conquest, from 711, marking the introduction of Islam to the Iberian Peninsula, which became known as Al-Andalus.
  • The Reconquista. in the late Middle Ages, resulted in a number of Christian kingdoms, including Navarre (a Basque kingdom centred on the city of Pamplona), León (in the northwest), Castile (in the centre), and Aragon ( Catalonia and the east). These kingdoms eventually consolidated into two roughly equivalent domains, Castile and Aragon.
  • Castile and Aragon were united with the marriage Isabella I of Castile and Ferdinand II of Aragon in 1469. These Catholic monarchs founded the Hapsburg dynasty and conquered Granada, unifying the whole of the peninsula (except for Portugal). They went on to institute the Inquisition and and support various explorers and conquistadores, leading to the world's first global empire.
  • Wars, such as that with with England, and especially France, led to the slow decline,of first the Hapsburgs and then Spain, with the country becoming a puppet state under Napoleon.
  • The monarchy returned, but weakened. Military dictatorships in the twentieth century were followed by General Franco, who took over after prolonged Civil War and led a fascist dictatorship for almost four decades.
  • Franco's death ushered in a return of a constitutional monarchy in 1978.

Is Spain in the EU?

  • The 'Kingdom of Spain' as it’s officially known, is the second largest country in the EU. Spain covers about 85 percent of the Iberian Peninsula, which it shares with Portugal.
  • Spain has 17 autonomous regions with diverse geography and cultures. These were derived from a number of separate kingdoms with different languages,which were unified in the 15th century after the marriage of Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabella of Castile.
  • Spain uses the Euro as currency

Facts and Factoids

  • Spain is the only European Country to have a physical border with an African country. It has a small outpost next to Morocco, called Ceuta
  • Don Quixote, by Spanish author, Cervantes is thought to be the first ever novel
  • The Spanish National Anthem Has No Words
  • Almost half of the world’s olive oil is produced in Spain
  • Siesta still happens - Afternoon naps of about 20 minutes. Many stores and establishments are closed for siesta time.
  • There's no tooth fairy in Spain. When Spanish children lose a tooth, they put it under their pillow and a small mouse called Ratoncito Pérez comes to collect it and leaves a small gift or money in its place.
  • Spain has numerous names. The Spanish people sometimes refer to their country as La Piel de Toro (The Bull Skin). Apparently, the Greek geographer Strabonis, thought the shape of Spain looked like a bull skin stretched out under the sun. The Spanish were very happy to adopt this reference to their historically favourite sport- bullfighting. – and is also, no doubt, a reference to the country’s longstanding obsession with bull-related activities. The Greeks called it Hesperia, “Land of the Setting Sun", in the west of the Mediterranean. The North Africans named the area Iberia, the “Land of Rivers”, a name that has attached to the whole peninsula. The Carthaginians, version was Ispania, “Land of Rabbits”, later latinised by the Romans to Hispania, and subsequently España. Not quite as impressive as bulls.

Madrid the Capital of Spain

Capital city Madrid is an elegant place: manicured parks, boulevards, the Baroque Royal Palace and Armory, museums and galleries including the renowned Prado Museum (El Bosco, El Greco, Goya, Velázquez and other Spanish masters) and churches (of course). The old centre, with the Plaza Major at its heart is known as El Madrid de los Austrias, It was built during the reign of the Habsburg Dynasty (1516–1700), the House of Austria. Madrid is situated on an elevated plain, about 190 miles from the closest seaside location and therefore has hot summers and cool winters. Apparently, it's not true that 'the rain in Spain falls mainly in the plain'. The wetter areas are on some of the coasts (not all of them - the Almeria area is very dry) and in the north.

One more fact: Madrid has the oldest restaurant in the world. the Casa Botin, opened in 1725,

Last time I was there I whipped round on a bus tour, in the dusk.

What Else is There to See and Do in Spain?

Spain is a tourist paradise - one of the most popular destinations in all of Europe and apparently the second most visited nation on the planet. Beaches, (681 Blue Flag beaches, the most of any country in the Northern Hemisphere), islands (lots of them), historic cities, iconic buildings tranquil mountains, art (El Greco, Velázquez, and Goya, Picasso, Dali, Miro, Gaudi and so on ), great food (tapas means cover - they were originally intended to cover your drink on small plates between sips) and vibrant nightlife. ( Wine of course, and more bars than any other EU Country). And the festivals - the Running of the Bulls, in Pamplona or La Tomatina, the world’s biggest food fight (throwing tomatoes) .

I've travelled a lot of Spain (there's still a great deal left to see). You can read posts on:

A Little Too Close to Benidorm?

I am a little concerned when I realise that Albir is close to Benidorm. I remember Benidorm as having crammed beaches, tea as mother makes it, fish and chips on every corner and towering garish apartment blocks. In the event we drive through parts of it on our airport transfers - is has calmed down considerably - but we don’t really experience its delights.


Albir is lovely. We stay on the edge of an urban seaside sprawl. But it is a gentle one, though full of bars and restaurants mainly frequented by the Spanish, Germans and Dutch. The beach is tiny pebbles, backed by a small vibrant marina and a wide esplanade. The town's website boasts that the Playa de Racó de l’Albir, has 'received many times over the European Union Blue Ribbon award'. The beach side promenade, the Paseo de Las Estrellas has Hollywood style plaques honouring the stars who have won awards at Albir's own film festival. I hire a bike and cycle alongside it every day.

There is a lighthouse on cliffs to stroll to and pleasant views across the rocky bay. Dolphins cavorting Not to mention caves and old ochre mines with red and yellow veins.


When you get to the end, past the various eating establishments you are rewarded by Altea. There is a charming old town precariously balanced on the top of a hill. This naturally involves cobbled streets, wrought iron balconies and countless flights of steep stone steps.

Also picturesque churches with gorgeous domes. The most photographed has to be Nuestra Senora del Consuelo with its blue and white tiled domes. There's a great view across town from the Mirador Cronistas de Espana, at the Plaza de la Iglesia, alongside. I'm lucky enough to hit on the colourful Tuesday morning street market, down in the new town.. All very authentic Spanish.

The Spa, Albir

The spa at Albir isn’t bad either. I have juice for four days. And I lose weight, even though some of the offerings come in very strange colours and consistencies. There’s a menu to choose from in advance, but it’s hard to know which raw vegetables are going to taste acceptable after they've been whizzed up. And I’m not sure how fair it is to supply the juice at the same time as everyone else is tucking into a heaving vegetarian buffet. There is also a full programme of yoga and other exercise classes - if you want to do them. There are plenty of sun beds.

Read more about Spain here.

Playa Blanca

This is a singles holiday and I’m making the most of it, so it doesn’t really matter that the southernmost town of Lanzarote (Playa Blanca) is a concrete jungle, with a very long paseo maritimo and a sprawl of hotels. The coastline around Playa Blanca is essentially one large nine kilometre wide bay broken up into three smaller, (but still large) bays: Playa Dorada, Playa Blanca and Playa Flamingo.

The bars are lively and night has become day, if you see what I mean. So it doesn’t really matter either, that the weather isn’t great, and when I do surface, during daylight, I have to wear a jumper on my sunbed. I think the advertised 'warm all year round' or 'Island of Eternal Spring', is stretching things a little.

Seeing What Lanzarote Has to Offer

Guiltily deciding that I should see some of what the island has to offer, while I am here, I rashly offer to drive some of the female members of the group on a tour. I’ve hardly driven on the right hand side of the road before so I have a practice run alone. It’s a wise decision, as I find myself turning into the wrong side of a two lane highway. Fortunately, the roads are quiet and I manage to reverse without too much kerfuffle. Once we are (relatively) safely off, the island proves to be a treasure trove of chic sightseeing opportunities.


This is the third largest of the Canary Islands, the northern most and eastern most. Only 80 miles from mainland Africa. Its full name (long abandoned) is Insula de Lanzarotus Marocelus, after the Genoese navigator who landed there in 1336. It had previously been settled by the Phoenicians (possibly), the Majos tribe of the Guanches and the Arabs.

Cesar Manrique’s Home

The most memorable is the artist Cesar Manrique’s home, built into the boulders in a lava field. He is Lanzarote’s favourite son and his works abound around the island. I like them. The ground floor of his extraordinary house is an exhibition space with works by some of his contemporaries, including, impressively, Picasso, but the architecture steals the show with views of volcanic cones artfully framed by huge windows. Basalt steps lead to turquoise pools and five lava bubbles linked by passages in the volcanic rock.

Timanfaya National Park

The islands are famously volcanic and Timanfaya National Park’s rocky landscape is suitably lunar and grandly impressive. We have to abandon the car and take a small bus tour here to see the extraordinary striated rock formations. The focal point of this vast black landscape is the Islote de Hilario volcano. Most of the spectacular sights resulted from eruptions in the 1730s. There are distant volcanic islands to admire too from the summit, where there is a restaurant designed by (guess who), Manrique. The food is cooked on a grill, using heat coming up from inside the volcano.


The little town of Teguise was the original capital of Lanzarote and it has colonial buildings, cobbled streets, plazas, convents and windmills galore.

Cactus Gardens of Lanzarote

Last, but not least, the weird and fascinating cactus gardens - a spiny wonderland - complete with more windmills. This was also the work of Manrique, who set out to create attractions that harmonised with the landscape.

Read more about Spain here.


I knew Bilbao was a port, I knew it was the centre of the Basque separatist movement and  latterly it had come to my attention because of the of the Guggenheim Museum. I adore Frank Gehry’s scaly monstrosities, so it was an ideal weekend trip.

Bilbao is the largest city in northern Spain, a port on the Bay of Biscay and the de facto capital of the Basque Country. The construction of the Museum was a masterstroke that revitalised the city. It has won several prizes for urban transformation

The museum dominates the city and the River Nervion, that runs through the centre of Bilbao. There's a tiny medieval centre - Las Siete Calles. The name means Seven Streets, so you get the idea. It used to be the walled part of the town, until the end of the nineteenth century. It's a European city so there's a city hall, a cathedral and lots of churches, a couple of squares and a theatre. There isn’t a great deal else to see other than fish restaurants, tiled bars with wooden benches oozing character and plenty of chain shops, like Zara (good bargains). But the gallery and surrounding artworks are absorbing and a stroll alongside the river, with its fancy new bridges and sculptures is rewarding.

The Greatest Building of Our Time?

The Guggenheim Building is stunning. I could sit and watch it glinting in the sun for hours. I could swear it almost undulates against the blue sky. The Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, who own all the Guggenheim galleries challenged Canadian American architect Frank Gehry to design something daring and innovative. He rose to the challenge producing what some would describe as the greatest building of our time. I wouldn't go that far - my money is still on La Sagrada Familia, with possibly the Pompidou Centre as runner up. But this is definitely a masterpiece.

The Guggenheim, Bilbao

Opened in 1997, Gehry said that the titanium covered curves on the exterior of the building were intended to appear random, catching the light. Others say it's a dream ship or fish scales. Gehry did give the atrium a theme - he nicknamed it The Flower, because of its shape. There are nineteen galleries, with stone, glass and more titanium cladding.

It’s a shame the exhibitions inside all this space are ditch water dull. The best Guggenheim experience, by far is the view from the far side of the river. And thankfully alongside, the gallery, on the quay, is one of the captivatingly grotesque editions of Louise Bourgeois’s Maman spider. The sculpture is one of the largest in the world and the original starred at the opening of Tate Modern. Further stiff competition is provided by Jeff Koons giant hedge Puppy sculpture. But the winner has to be the grandly named Quantum Field X3, an outdoor installation by Japanese artist Hiro Yamagata. These are huge ‘Holographic Cubes Reflecting a Dazzling Spectrum of Colours’. I could watch the better than kaleidoscopic patterns for hours.

Read more about Spain here.


If you type Barcelona into Google you'll get the football club rather than the city. I'm not sure anyone had really thought of Barcelona as a tourist destination before it was revamped and celebrated as the host of the 1992 Olympics. They used the Estadi Olímpic de Montjuïc, 1936 Olympic stadium, (accessibly by cable car). Before I finish with sport, I also need to say that Barcelona Football Club has the biggest stadium in Europe - the Camp Nous.

I'm here, with Neil, to wander the city. now the most visited in Spain. The Barri Gòtic ( Gothic Quarter) is the centre of Barcelona. Here, medieval buildings sit alongside others that even date back to Roman times. The quarter melds with the nineteenth and twentieth century city, where Catalan modernista architecture an offshoot of Art Nouveau proliferates. The Illa de la Discòrdia – or ‘Block of Discord’ is the place to go to see the work of four important Catalan modernista architects close to each other: Antoní Gaudí, Josep Puig i Cadafalch, Enric Sagnier and Lluís Domènech i Montaner. The houses in question are Casa Batlló, Casa Amatller, Casa Mulleras and Casa Lleó Morera respectively. I'll get to Gaudi later. There's also a Triumph Arch at the north end of the Promenade (built for a world fair) and churches aplenty.

The main street of Barcelona, La Rambla, pedestrianised wide and flanked with plane trees, divides the centre of Barcelona, for over a kilometre. It links the Plaça de Catalunya at the centre to the Christopher Columbus Monument at the port. It is crowded and over touristy, with its gold painted posing mannequins and acrobats, cafes and kiosks, but there’s always something intriguing to watch. I discover you need to watch out for your belongings too.

Off La Rambla, the Mercat de la Boqueria, where the locals shop is vibrant, and very camera - rewarding. Close to the square, especially. the shops are good - El Cortes Ingles and the many shoe shops, for some affordable Spanish chic.

And a first time for squid ink risotto (not bad at all once you get past how it looks). It's a specialty in the local restaurants - particularly down by the, much quieter, harbour area, where there’s also a great deal of disappointing, overcooked paella.


Montserrat is a small mountain range with some fat fingered peaks 37 miles from Barcelona. There's a monastery nestled up the main slope, dedicated to Santa Maria de Montserrat. It dates back to the eleventh century, but is heavily restored and about 80 Benedictine monks still live here. You can pop inside, but most folk go for the walking. You can get to the trails via a cable car.


Sitges is a slightly easier train ride away - 35 kilometres - to join the throngs on the sands. This is Barcelona's go to beach, chic restaurants, boutiques and an old town. We can just about find space to put the towel down.

Picasso, Dali and |Miro

Above all, the amazing art - the Miro Foundation (up the Monjuc Mountain), the authenticity of the stone roomed Picasso Museum, the sheer bonkers-ness of Dali’s work. He was born in Catalonia and his output is displayed at the three locations on “The Dalinian Triangle”:

  • the Dalí Theatre-Museum in Figueres, ( a two hour train ride away),
  • his house at Portlligat (a one hour bus ride from Figueres),
  • and the Gala Dalí Castle (train and long walk or taxi).


And of course, Antoni Gaudi. All this Catalan architect's beyond exotic palaces, like La Pedrera and  Casa Batlló ,with their extraordinary sculptures and the madcap mosaics of Park Güell are must - sees, involving much map reading, wandering and more bus rides. But so rewarding. The most sublime of them all is La Sagrada Familia, the begun in 1882, still unfinished, straight out of Mervyn Peake cathedral, incongruously surrounded by cranes. (Completion is now scheduled for 2025). In my opinion, this is possibly the most interesting/beautiful building in the world. (In the interests of equality I have to report that other cathedrals are also available in Barcelona). It is best observed illuminated at night. There are plenty of bars in the square opposite.

Read more about Spain here.

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