Spain's Top Experiences
Plan your visit, if you can, to coincide with one of Spain's virtually countless fairs and festivals. With the possible exception of the Italians, nobody does annual celebrations like the Spanish: fireworks, solemn processions, historical reenactments, pageants in costume, and street carnivals of every description fill the calendar. The most famous fair of all is Seville's Feria de Abril (April Fair), when sultry señoritas dance in traditional flamenco garb, and the cream of society parade through the streets in horse-drawn carriages. Second only to Rio in terms of revelry and costumes, Spain's pre-Lenten Carnaval inspires serious partying: Santa Cruz de Tenerife, in the Canary Islands, is legendary for its annual extravaganza of drinking, dancing, and dressing up—the more outrageous the better—but Cadíz, on the Atlantic coast, and Sitges, south of Barcelona, have blow-outs nearly as good; celebrations typically carry on for 10 days. For Barcelona's Festa de Sant Jordi, honoring St. George, the city's patron saint, tradition dictates that men buy their true love a rose, and women reciprocate by buying their beau a book; on that day (April 23) the city streets are filled with impromptu book and flower stalls. In the Semana Santa (Holy Week: end of March to mid-April), the events of the Passion are recalled in elaborate processions of hooded and gowned religious brotherhoods carrying elaborate floats through the streets from local churches to cathedrals in cities all over Spain; the most impressive take place in Seville, Valencia, and Cartagena in Murcia. And did we mention fireworks? The fiesta of Las Fallas de San José, in Valencia (mid-March), is a week of rockets, firecrackers, pinwheels, and processions in traditional costume, culminating on the Nit del Foc (Night of the Fire), when hundreds of huge papier-mâché figures are dispatched in a spectacular pyrotechnic finale.
Dance 'til Dawn
A large part of experiencing Spain doesn't begin until the sun sets, or end until it rises again. The Spaniards know how to party and nightlife is, well, an essential part of life. If you really want to experience the ultimate party, head to the island of Ibiza, in the Balearic Islands, in the summer, but otherwise, any of the big cities can pretty much guarantee late-night fun.
Play the Market
Markets (mercados) are the key to delicious local cuisine and represent an essential part of Spanish life, largely unaffected by competition from supermarkets and hypermarkets. You'll find fabulous produce sold according to whatever is in season: counters neatly piled with shiny purple eggplants, blood-red peppers, brilliant orange cantaloupes, fresh figs, and cornucopias of mushrooms and olives. While cities and most large towns have daily fruit and vegetable markets from Monday through Saturday, Barcelona might be the best city for market browsers, with its famed Boqueria as well as smaller mercados in lovingly restored Moderniste buildings, with wrought-iron girders and stained-glass windows, all over the city. Take the opportunity to get a culinary education. Vendors are authorities on their offerings and only too happy to share their secrets.
Crisscrossed with mountain ranges, Spain has regions that are ideal for walking, mountain biking, and backpacking, and mountain streams throughout the country offer trout- and salmon-fishing opportunities. Perhaps the best thing about exploring Spain's great outdoors is that it often brings you nearer to some of the finest architecture and cuisine in Iberia. The 57,000-acre Parque Nacional de Ordesa y Monte Perdido, in the Pyrenees, is Spain's version of the Grand Canyon, with waterfalls, caves, forests, meadows, and more. The Sierra de Gredos, west of Madrid, in Castile and León, bordering Extremadura, is a popular destination for climbing and trekking. Hiking is excellent in the interior of Spain, in the Alpujarras Mountains southeast of Granada and in the Picos de Europa. The pilgrimage road to Santiago de Compostela, known as El Camino de Santiago, is still in vogue after hundreds of years; it traverses the north of Spain from either Roncesvalles in Navarra or the Aragonese Pyrenees to Galicia. The Doñana National Park, in Andalusia, is one of Europe's last tracts of true wilderness, with wetlands, beaches, sand dunes, marshes, 150 species of rare birds, and countless kinds of wildlife, including the endangered imperial eagle and lynx.
Drink Like a Madrileño
To experience Madrid like a local, you have to eat and drink like a local, and in the capital an aperitif is a crucial part of daily life. In fact, there are more bars per square mile here than in any other capital in Europe, so finding a venue poses no great challenge. Go the traditional route and try a vermut (vermouth) on tap, typically served with a squirt of soda. Or try a glass of ice-cold fino (dry sherry) with its common tapas accompaniment of a couple of gambas (prawns). Beer houses (cervecerías) typically specialize in local varieties on tap; in Madrid's Plaza Santa Ana some of the best-loved cervecerías line the pretty central square.
A quintessential experience for visitors to Spain is spending a night, or several, in one of the government-run hotels called paradors. The settings are unique—perhaps a restored castle, a citadel, a monastery, or a ducal palace, and most are furnished in the style of the region. Every parador has a restaurant that serves local specialties. The paradors attract Spanish and international travelers alike and receive almost consistently rave reviews.
Hit the Beach
Virtually surrounded by bays, oceans, gulfs, straits, and seas, Spain is a beach-lover's dream as well as an increasingly popular destination for water-sports enthusiasts. Oceanfront—8,000 km (5,000 mi) of it, not counting the islands—is Spain's most important hospitality asset, and sun worshippers can choose from long sweeps of beach on sheltered bays to tiny crescents of sand in rocky inlets that only boats can reach. There are 12 costas (designated coastal areas) along the Mediterranean, and seven more along the Atlantic from Portugal around to France. One of the great things about Spanish sands is that some of the best are literally extensions of the cities you otherwise come to Spain for—so you can spend a morning in the surf and sun, then steep yourself in history or art for an afternoon, and finish the day with a great meal and an evening of music. Among the best city beaches are La Concha (San Sebastian), Playa de la Victoria (Cadiz), and Barcelona's string of beaches, Playa de los Peligros (Santander) and El Cabanyal (Valencia).
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