Half the pleasure of traveling is in the anticipation. There’s magic in waiting for the day to come, the expectation of being somewhere new, somewhere exotic, inhaling strangely fragrant air, and feeling foreign breezes stroke your skin. To get maximum enjoyment from your pre-trip daydreaming, I always think it pays to learn a bit about where you’re going before you set foot out the door.
There are cities that can enchant you, where the flagstones of the piazzas and squares can capture your imagination, basilicas and palaces where you can succumb to musing on the generations of feet that trod the very spot where you now stand. But only if you have some inkling of their history.
Spain is one of those evocative destinations… a sweeping backdrop for some of the most intriguing, grand, and turbulent history that has ever been written. In case you find yourself España bound this year or next, here is a random smattering of geographic, historical and other tidbits to set your reveries in motion as you pack.
Occupying eighty-five percent of the Iberian Peninsula at the southwestern tip of Europe, Spain is the continent’s third largest country. Her outlying territories include the Balearic Islands — Majorca, Menorca and Ibiza — and the Canary Islands over six hundred miles south, off the North African coast.
Spain today is an exuberant blend of striking contrasts, a place where the traditional and the ultra-modern live side by side. Spanish identity has been shaped by a long, eventful history and by the large footprints left by those who first invaded and colonized the land.
Ancient Greeks and Phoenicians swept through the peninsular ahead of the Romans who came in 300 BC. The imperial conquerors brought their highly developed language and architecture, their agricultural techniques, and unusual new crops like wine grapes and wheat. Evidence of renowned Roman engineering, like the amphitheater in Merida and the great aqueduct in Segovia, remains in many parts of Spain today.
After the Romans, came the Visigoths, one of the many Germanic tribes who had converted to Christianity. They ruled Iberia from their court at Barcelona for three hundred years. Next to take center stage in Spain’s drama were the North African Moors who occupied Iberia for seven centuries, imprinting what would become the Spanish language, Spanish architecture and Spanish cuisine with their own unique eastern characteristics. Their influence and legacy are particularly visible in the south, in places like Granada where the great Moorish Fortress, the Alhambra, still stands.
Until the Moors were driven out of the Iberian peninsular in 1492, Spain remained a disconnected group of separate kingdoms. Andalusia, Galicia, Leon, Castilla, Aragon and Catalunya were autonomous and independent until Queen Isabel and King Ferdinand began the process of uniting them into one nation, España.
The ensuing turn of the century began the Golden Age of Spain. Intrepid explorers like Columbus, Pizarro and Cortes set sail around the globe, and for the next two hundred years Spain achieved naval and economic supremacy, making it one of the leading colonial powers of the day.
Predominantly catholic today, the Spain of earlier times was traditionally a cosmopolitan blended society with a reputation for humanistic tolerance. Medieval Moorish culture from 750 to 1050 was highly educated, particularly advanced in mathematics and medicine. For centuries, a substantial Jewish population which prized learning and philosophy endowed Spain with its wisdom and business acumen. Spanish Jews, Moors and Christians lived together in what we would regard today as a very progressive liberal society. The great university at Salamanca was founded in the early 13th century and became the brightest academic beacon in Europe, matched only by the famous bastions of education founded in the previous century in Paris, Bologna and Oxford. For several hundred
years a degree in the Sciences from Salamanca was the most coveted credential to which a scholar could aspire.
Down through the ages many empires have scaled Iberia’s mountain ranges, inhabited her shores and marched across her arid plains. Ultimately all succumbed to Spain’s siren song and were assimilated into her culture, impacting and changing it, as much as they were impacted and changed by it.
Today’s Spain is a parliamentary monarchy comprised of autonomous regions. Each has a distinctive landscape, its own unique history and cultural traditions, a regional cuisine, and sometimes a separate language which distinguishes its natives. The intoxicating energy of Spain can seduce, mystify and mesmerize. Few visitors escape the lure of her charms. You can ski the peaks and snow caps of the Pyrenees, sunbathe on endless white sand beaches, rub elbows with the jet set in Marbella, or take a dusty road up into the pueblos blancas and find your soul in the raw emotion of Andalusia’s gyspsy flamenco. Just bring your open heart… you won’t find a warmer welcome anywhere on the continent.
Copyright ©2006 Sue Rauch