Regional Specialties - Travel Through The Country's Regions & Explore Spain's Colourful Culture
What we call provinces, Spain calls regions and, a tad confusing perhaps, regions have within them provinces.
The Balearic Islands officially belong to Spain. Unofficially they belong only to themselves. They include Ibiza (the party-lovers’ island), Menorca, Formentera, and the main island, Mallorca, home of the Balearic capital Palma de Mallorca.
Mallorca, an hour’s flight from Barcelona, offers big-city bustle and nightlife, a delightful Old Town in Palma, and a varied countryside ranging from mountains to almond orchards. (It was here that author George Sand brought her lover Franz Liszt in an effort to cure his consumption.)
Fishing villages-turned-tourist resorts dot the coast, and inland villages and towns seem timeless. Challenge-loving cyclists and hikers tackle the mountains, which lend ruggedness to the coastal scenery.
Ibiza is the domain of those who love wild parties and clubbing. It’s deejay heaven, with an ongoing contest to find the best mixer and spinner. Rubbing shoulders with the beat is history, culture and a walled Old Town.
Minorca, sized between Mallorca and Ibiza, is synonymous with peace and luxury. Accommodations range from the ultra-spectacular to charming rural hotels along the coast. You’re less likely to find bargain vacations on this island but when you want to splurge and enjoy historical sites, secluded beaches, sailing and golf, this is the place. Formentera, the smallest of the Balearics, has a wealth of bird life and a relaxed feel.
Spain’s other maritime region, the Canary Islands, lies in the mid-Atlantic only 115 kilometres off the African coast. Tourism is booming among these once almost-forgotten islands, but agriculture remains strong despite the new ports, hotels and golf courses. Of the seven large islands Tenerife, Lanzarote, La Palma, and Gran Canaria are best known, appealing to active vacationers.
In southern Spain, Andalucia’s coastline spans 900 kilometres along the Mediterranean and Atlantic, the two bodies of water divided by the Strait of Gibraltar. North Africa is a near neighbour. The vast coastline curls into bays and coves with geological quirks like the steep summit of Farallon and rocky Calaburras Point.
Andalucia is not only a haven for beach lovers. It draws hikers, birders and cyclists to its 22 national parks where they find mountains and plains, rivers and lakes, and the famous White Villages – 19 inland settlements around the province of Cadiz. These hilly, winding streets are hemmed with blindingly whitewashed buildings, designed to keep interiors cool. Nestled among the rocky peaks of Sierra de Grazalema Nature Reserve, they’re a photographer’s delight.
One of Andalucia’s best-known exports is sherry from Jerez de la Frontera, also renowned for its horses, its flamenco, and its well-preserved historic centre.
Extremadura hugs the middle of neighbouring Portugal like a good friend. In fact the River Tagus runs through the region, flowing into Portugal and the Atlantic.
As in so many parts of Spain, the area has seen a number of conquerors, from Roman to Visigoth, and their legacies are found in the architecture. In fact Merida, the regional capital, boasts more Roman monuments than any other Spanish city. It was the ancient capital of Roman Lusitania and it’s on Spain’s Silver Route.
Extremadura also has its White Villages in Badajoz province, southwest of Caceres. And it has a literary heritage, keenly celebrated in Almendralejo, south of Merida, on the first weekend in June when residents dress in 19th-century style.
Castile – La Mancha
The first image that comes to mind is Don Quixote tilting at windmills on the plains of La Mancha. Follow the route of Cervantes’ immortal knight for a fascinating tour.
The journey starts in Argamasilla de Alba where, it’s thought, Cervantes began his tale while imprisoned in the town. The route passes through quiet towns like Ruidera, Ossa de Montiel, and El Bonillo, and into the Lagunas de Ruidera nature reserve, a UNESCO Biosphere.
Something Quixote probably did not do was explore a mine, an attraction recently developed in Spain. In the province of Ciudad Real, you can descend 700 metres below the earth’s surface at Almaden Mining Park, where mercury was extracted.
Castile – La Mancha boasts five archaeological parks. Carranque, in the province of Toledo, features Roman buildings with the remains of homes, a temple and mills. Recopolis in Zorito de los Canes (Guadalajara province) takes visitors to the Middle Ages. In Saelices, Cuenca province, Segobriga dates to the Iron Age with ruins of Roman theatres and thermal baths. And at El Tolmo de Minateda at Hellin in Albacete province Bronze Age settlements plus Roman and Moorish burial sites provide a feast for fans of historical architecture.
Thanks to its mineral-rich waters, this region on the Mediterranean has numerous spa resorts including the open-air Mar Menor. A combination of spa and golf is increasingly popular and the area boasts several courses – with layouts ranging from gentle to challenging – near the cities of Murcia and Cartagena.
Valencia, says the classic Spanish song, “is the land of flowers, light and love.” The region is home to Spain’s eponymous third largest city, which blends ancient and modern in a dynamic culture.
Stretching along Spain’s eastern coast, the region has many treasures to discover beyond the acres of modern tourist structures and miles of campgrounds, with antiquities and classical monuments dotted along the shores. It’s a popular destination for budget and family travellers who flock to the beaches, several of which hold the coveted European Blue Flag award.
Maritime sports thrive here and the region is renowned for sailing. (It has hosted the America’s Cup and launched the Volvo Round the World Ocean Yacht Race.)
The town of Valencia, with a population exceeding five million, celebrates a multitude of festivals through the year adding to its lively atmosphere.
Castile – Leon
Describing Castile – Leon in a few words is like trying to stuff an elephant into a Mini. This is Spain’s largest region, and can claim numerous superlatives: heritage cities like Burgos (with a glorious cathedral housing the tomb of El Cid), Salamanca, Segovia, Avila, and the capital Valladolid; rivers, lakes and the Castile Canal offering boat trips and water sports; Spain’s deepest, longest canyons; nature reserves; thousands of ancient monuments including four Royal Sites under the aegis of the Spanish National Heritage; more than 300 castles…and we could go on.
Beautiful monasteries abound in Spain but two in this region are worth special mention:
Royal Santa Clara Monastery in Tordesillas, a fine example of Mudejar (Arabic) art with old Moorish baths; and Santa Maria la Real de las Huelgas in Burgos, an active monastery with a well-known cloister and a textile museum.
My personal favourite is a little monastery in the village of Santo Domingo de Silos in Burgos province. After a tour of the site, I heard the Benedictine monks chanting at their 7 p.m. service. It was spine-tingling. I found out later that the group became a huge hit on Europe’s music charts, much to their astonishment.
Castile – Leon has something for everyone in the family, especially in reserves like Sierra de Gredos, with zip-lines, tree canopy walks and archery areas for Robin Hood games.
The name Aragon evokes princesses and dragons, fairy tales and mythology. It was once a kingdom, and does have myriad castles, medieval towns and remains of prehistoric habitation.
The region is known through Europe as one of the best places for adventure, thanks to the national park system. And thanks to its low population density (second lowest in Spain) Aragon is known for its unspoiled landscape.
The historic town of Jaca is well worth a visit. It has, arguably, Spain’s most important Romanesque cathedral.
Aragon’s thermal spas, known to the Romans and Arabs, continue to offer pampering rejuvenation treatments. The springs extend across the region, and spa vacations are increasingly popular.
Catalan people are fiercely independent, and have won the right to be educated and to do business in their own language. When you visit, you’ll see signs in Catalan and only sometimes in Castilian.
Barcelona is the lively capital, and the coastline – stretching along the Balearic Sea in the Mediterranean – is almost wall-to-wall resorts. The tourists have good reason to flock here. The beaches are mostly gorgeous and the sunshine’s warm.
If you go, take time to visit the active monastery at Montserrat. You can stay on site – it’s a lovely parador – and the Benedictine centre played a major role keeping Catalan alive during the dictatorship of Franco. The approach takes you through unique landscapes, and there are some magnificent hiking trails in these mountains.
If you enjoy ancient monuments, check out the Roman aqueduct outside Tarragona, a city that was an important ancient port.
Green Spain – The North
Embracing the regions of Galicia to the west, Asturias, Cantabria, and Pais Vasco (Basque country) on the eastern border, Green Spain, or Costa Verde, is a delight to discover.
The sun is less predictable along this Atlantic coast (it’s in the Bay of Biscay which can be stormy) but the beaches are pristine, beautiful, natural.
Each region has its own character. Galicia, for example, includes Cabo Finisterre, where Santiago de Compostela pilgrims traditionally burn their staffs, or some other item (socks, T-shirts, underwear) carried for weeks on the trail.
In Cantabria and Asturias, Picos de Europa National Park is an impressive range of volcanic peaks, a pleasure to explore by car, cycle, or on foot. Wild horses roam the heights – a delight to happen upon.
A number of nature reserves and caves dot the area, and the network of trails is superb, sometimes along unused railway lines, livestock trails, and even Roman roads.
You’ll also find charming “agriturismo” accommodation, and “casa aldea” – bed-and-breakfast guesthouses.
You’d have to work hard to miss a fiesta on any trip to Spain. Think Bull Running in Pamplona, tomato throwing in Bunol (La Tomatino), Seville’s Feria de Abril (not always in April) or La Feria de Malaga, commemorating Christian victory over the Moors in 1538. Check them out at www.spain.info/ca.
Flavours Of Spain
Spanish wines span the gamut of tastes. Rioja, tempranillo, verdejo, sherry of course, and many more. Liqueurs include Risoli from Cuenca, made from coffee, cinnamon, and orange peel. It goes well with local almond pastry, and sells in keepsake bottles shaped like Cuenca’s Casas Colgadas (hanging houses). Extremadura has fruit liqueurs from the Jerte valley: cherry, chestnut and blackberry especially. The area is also known for goat cheese and chestnut products.
Visit any tavern or bar in the evening for tapas – little bites of deliciousness like chorizo, tortilla Espanol (a potato and egg frittata), Serrano ham, white beans, and so on. Tapas vary with the region, are invariably good, and often free with your drinks.
Paella is the classic Spanish dish, originating in Valencia. The saffron-flavoured rice with seafood and meat is traditionally eaten on Sundays.
In Galicia, it’s hard to beat the shellfish. Octopus is also popular, served in stews or simply with olive oil and bread.
Castile – La Mancha is known for lamb, and pork appears in many traditional dishes of Extremadura and the northern regions. (The suckling pig is delectable.) In the Castile – Leon region, fresh fish from the Atlantic and from local rivers is excellent.
Vegetarian? It’s not easy in Spain, but your saviour is the cheese – creamy or crumbly, sharp or mild, sheep, goat, or cow – the variety is surprising and tasty.
Sweet tooth? Try turron, a confection made of honey, almonds, and egg whites.
Choose the Menu del Dia for the most economical way to eat in Spain. Almost every restaurant offers a three-course set lunch (the main meal in Spain) for a very reasonable price, with wine included.
More information from www.spain.info/ca.