The rest of the world is finally awakening from its long siesta, and realising that Spain is more than just Benidorm, Marbella, paella and sangría. Fortunately, the Moorish pueblos, hidden lagoons, and white peaks whose snow is still untainted by footprints are just as ready for tourists as their cousins on the Costas, ensuring charming guesthouses, well-marked trails and wonderful local food and wine. Behind the high rises, Spain’s true belleza has been hidden in plain sight.
Most people can reel off more destinations in Spain than for most other countries. But for every place you’ve heard of, there are a dozen more that you haven’t. Every village has a fiesta, a fine and friendly restaurant and a plaza or two to sip a cafe con leche – and with the country covered with coast, mountains or forest, there’ll be excellent landscapes to match – with no other tourists.
Spain’s spiky crown sits at the top of this mighty country, complete with wildlife fit for royalty – brown bears, bearded vultures and wolves. Just a few hours from home, you’ll be immersed into another world: of roadless villages, wild shepherd culture and snowy limestone peaks reaching over 2.5km into the sky. And you’ll have it to yourself.
Barcelona may be Spain’s favourite city – but it barely scratches the surface of what this autonomous province has to offer. The famed Pyrenees are just one of Catalonia’s many mountain ranges offering walking, cycling and excellent birding, and the craggy beaches are isolated and pristine. There’s a reason why Picasso, Dali and Gaudi loved it here – come and find out for yourself.
It’s not all bull runs, beaches and bars... The sun-scorched Moorish cities of Andalucia are about as far removed from the soggy green hills of Galicia as you can imagine. But you don’t need to travel far to experience extremes. 2,000m high mountains tumble virtually into the sea, flamenco bars back onto clubbing districts and the regionalism of the Basques, Catalans and Galicians contrasts with the proud patriotism of Spain.
The southern cities of Seville, Granada and Cordoba are strangely timeless, transporting visitors back to the Moorish kingdom of Al-Andalus. The Alcazar, Alhambra and Mezquita may be amazing monuments, but “modern” life is just as magical – streets so narrow you can reach out and touch both walls, tiny doorways, exquisitely patterned tiles and the eerie sound of flamenco quivering through an open window.
Spanish restaurants are springing up across the UK, but anyone accustomed to overpriced Latin-Spanish fusion dishes is in for a delicious surprise. The sunny climate, Mediterranean and Atlantic oceans and forests and mountains produce superb fish, fruit, vegetables, olive oil, wine and free-range meat – often organic, frequently local, and all cooked to absolute perfection.
This humble trail across northern Spain draws pilgrims from across the globe to share in the classic landscapes, the hearty northern dishes and the very Spanish sense of “solidarity”. Roughing it in hostels is still possible – but plusher accommodation is now springing up along the Camino, meaning you can enjoy the trail’s highlights but with a quiet, comfy bed to collapse into at the end of each day.
With one of the best climates in Europe (more sun, less rain), some of the widest open spaces and terrain ranging from cliffs to caves, mountains to plains, Spain is the place for an outdoor vacation – regardless of age and ability. Hiking and cycling are wonderful year-round if you choose the right region, plus there’s whitewater rafting, sea kayaking and canyoning.
“Blackpool with sunshine” was one supplier’s description of Spain’s classic beach destinations. This may be a little harsh, but the truth is that to avoid traveling inland misses the true encanto of Spain. And if you must head to the beach – the lesser known coves and cliffs of Catalonia, the Atlantic and the far southeast offer Spanish culture and isolation – with the sun and sand that we all love.
Spain may be synonymous with “summer vacation” but it’s actually our least favourite time. It’s too hot and humid to walk or cycle (except in the far north or high mountains), the beaches are packed and prices rise. Come for the Catalonian spring wildflowers, the warm light of Almeria in December, or the evocative scent of orange blossom in April. Delicious.
These are undeniably fairytale-esque, with their dramatic settings and snow-white paintwork, and are a nice addition to any Andalucian itinerary. However, it could be said that their success has somewhat spoiled them, with daytripping coachloads swarming the streets. The south is packed with tiny, picturesque Moorish towns – get out into the hills and discover your own.
Ok, it has its uses but half the fun of being in a new country is communicating with the locals – even if your broken Spanish is supplemented with hand gestures and charades. Fortunately, many activity vacations can now also be combined with Spanish lessons so you can learn as you go. You’ll lose your inhibitions in no time.