Spain offers visitors a richness and complexity that may surprise. All the tempting postcard fantasy pictures are there in reality, side-by-side with other, less-expected ones.

You may come across fiesta dancers in a village square, a young man practicing flamenco guitar, a medieval Arab fortress or windmills so enormous Don Quixote could be forgiven for thinking they were giants.

But there’s also the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, its mind-bending shapes like those of no other museum in the world, just as the exuberant architecture of Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia in Barcelona makes it like no other church in the world. You may see ultracool young Madrilenos togged out in urban chic, talking endlessly on their cell phones; international businesspeople hurrying to appointments; and tourists and golfers of many nations flocking to Spain’s spectacular countryside and balmy beaches. There are super-fast trains, and there are villages where produce goes to market via donkey.

Spain today is a vibrant member of the European Union that has transformed itself from a remote backwater to a modern nation, all within living memory. The contrasts, the colors and the vibrant spirit of the place will stay with you for a long time.


Spain is Europe’s second-most mountainous country (only Switzerland has a higher terrain), and the climate varies dramatically according to altitude as well as latitude. In the province of Granada, it is possible to ski in the mountains and lounge on a beach, both in the same day.

True alpine conditions prevail in many of Spain’s mountains, from the Pyrenees along the border with France to the Sierra Nevada above Granada in the south, and the central two-fifths of the country is primarily high plains crossed by mountain ranges and rivers. Besides the mainland peninsula, Spanish possessions include the Mediterranean Balearic Islands, the Canary Archipelago (in the Atlantic off the coast of Africa) and the Moroccan coastal enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla.

Mainland Spain can be divided into three climatic zones: the Oceanic in the north (the rainiest and greenest part along the Bay of Biscay); the Mediterranean Zone (sunny and semiarid); and central Spain (hot in summer, cold in winter, relatively dry). Spain is also divided into distinctive, politically autonomous regions, each with its own culture and history, and several with their own languages (including Catalonia, Galicia and the Basque region). Hot, arid Andalusia, to the south, is the home of flamenco, bullfighting and spectacular Moorish architecture.