The regions of Spain
Rural Accommodation in Spain
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Deserted beach in Asturias
Segovia, Castilla y Leon
Northern Costa Brava
Evening in Barcelona
Catalonia is the richest and, with almost seven million inhabitants, the second most heavily populated region of Spain.
The first thing that surprises many visitors when they first visit Catalonia is that people in this region don't speak Spanish. Freed from the constraints of the Franco era, when Castilian Spanish was imposed throughout Spain, Castilian autonomous governments have reinstated Catalan as the regional language, to the point where it is now usually the only language used. For example, in museums, items are sometimes labeled in Catalan and English, but not in Castilian Spanish - to the annoyance of visitors from other parts of Spain. That being said, Catalan and Castilian are sufficiently close for most Spanish-speakers to be able to understand road-signs and other information.
The area round Barcelona, Spain's second city, a thriving business city and one of the major ports on the Mediterranean, is fairly densely built-up. The densely populated areas extend along the coast, and into the valleys northwest of Barcelona, where there is still a fair amount of heavy industry. Barcelona is linked to Madrid by the AVE, Spain's high-speed rail network, and work will soon be completed to the French border, allowing direct high-speed train services between Barcelona and Paris.
Catalonia, bordering on France, is the most easily accessible of Spain's regions, and the Costa Brava was the first part of Spain to rush headlong into mass tourism development. North and south of Barcelona, the coast is a string of suburban and holiday developments, crowding in on the small seaside towns. Today there are nevertheless still a few unspoilt places along the coastline, particularly in the north of the region; but it is the region's hinterland that offers the wide spaces and the natural areas that attract visitors in search of an escape from the crowds. The Catalonian Pyrenees, popular with hikers and outdoor enthuiasts, offer some magnificent rocky mountain scenery, dramatic gorges, peaks and magnificent vistas, but also a rich collection of historic sites, such as the UNESCO World Heritage listed mediaeval churches in the area of Tahull.
Bardenas Reales, Navarra
Windmill in Castilla la Mancha
Navarra: capital Pamplona.
Navarra is a region covering the foothills and central western section of the Pyrenees, bordering on France and the Basque country. But like Castile it is a region that is very dry in parts, even barren and inhospitable, and the Bardenas Reales natural park offers some spectacular semi-desert landscapes reminiscent of America's Wild West .
Navarra is the leading region of Europe in terms of renewable energy, with a target of 75% renewable energy use by 2010. Almost half the region's energy is produced by the area's 28 wind farms, with hydroelectricity being the second source. With its dry sunny climate, Navarra also has potential for the development of solar power.
To the south of Aragon , Rioja, along the upper Ebro valley, is the smallest region in Spain, and notably famous for its wines.
Castilla la Mancha
Castilla la Mancha is another sparsely populated region, but one where agriculture is more extensive. Between the cities of Albacete and Ciudad Real vast wheat fields stretch as far as the eye can see, and there are also important vineyards and other crops. Where there are hills, they are dry and barren, but windy too; this is the country where the legendary Don Quixote wanted to fight the windmills.
The cultural heritage of Castila la Mancha has remained remarkably intact, notably with the dramatic city of Toledo, the former home of the great Spanish painter El Greco. The area around Todedo is famous for its olives.
Plans by an American company to build a massive Las Vegas style casino close to Ciudad Real have been shelved, much to the relief of many local inhabitants.
Peñiscola, province of Valencia
Extremadura, bordering to its west on Portugal, is, and has long been, the poorest region in Spain; in the past, its poverty led to many of its population fleeing elswhere in search of better fortune, often to South America. Two of the greatest "Conquistadores", Pizarro and Cortés, were from this region, and they and others like them brought back from South America great wealth which they spent on large country estates and prestigious palaces in towns such as Caceres and Trujillo. Further south, the regional capital Merida was once an important Roman city, and boasts an amazing long Roman bridge as well as other Roman remains.
Today the region remains sparsely populated; large parts are too poor to cultivate, and are given over to subsitance farming. Elsewhere the landscape is of olive groves or scrub oak and in more fertile parts rolling fields of wheat. But the granite bedrock is never far below the surface, and indeed often breaks through in rocky tors.
The mountain areas of Extremadura are very wild, and popular with bird-watchers and hikers. Though for hikers, the infrastructure remains relatively limited. More information: Guide to Extremadura
Valencia & Murcia
Capitals: Valencia and Murcia.
The regions of Valencia and Murcia look steadfastly out to sea. In this dry central eastern part of Spain, it is on the coastal strip that the large majority of the population is concentrated; and it is a population that has vastly expanded in recent decades with the over-development of mile after mile of coastal resorts, "urbanizaciones" and their associated infrasructure. Yet the coastline is long, and there are still some relatively unspoiled sections of beach, or rocky coves, for those who want to get away from the crowds.
Apart from tourism, the main activity in this region is agriculture, particularly in the fertile valleys of Murcia, where large surfaces are given over to the production of fruit and vegetables. Valencia is the capital of the Spanish orange and citrus industry. The Moors introduced the cultivation of palm trees into this area, and the city of Elche, near Alicante, boasts Europe's only extensive palm groves.
Generally speaking this is a dry region, and the hills inland from the coast are arid and rocky, like much of Spain. Small villages and towns cling to hillsides, or stand beside rivers or streams; but this inland area is sparsely populated, and a world apart from the thronging crowds of Benidorm or La Manga.
Culturally, the region has plenty to offer, from the historic centres of Valencia and Murcia, to the palm groves of Elche and the moorish remains at Lorca and elsewhere.
In the Alpujjaras
Cordoba, the Mesquita
Andalucian coast, not too spoiled here
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Andalucia is the southernmost region of continental Europe; it is tha largest region in Spain, and has the largest population, most of it concentrated along the coast and in the Guadalquivir valley. While its once-beautiful coastline has been largely massacred by often uncontrolled property speculation and intensive agriculture (la "plasticultura"), inland, and often still quite close to the coast, Andalucia remains a magnificent region of hills and plains, with some of the richest cultural heritage in Spain.
Andalucia was the last European fief of the Moors, and "Al Andalus" boasts some of the finest historic vestiges of Moorish culture. The Moors were not driven out of Andalucia until 1492, the year in which Christopher Columbus first set foot in the Americas. The great Moorish heritage of Andalucia survives to this day in many Alcazars and other buildings, but most famously in the Mesquita at Cordoba and the Alhambra at Granada, among the most visited historic monuments in Europe.
Mostly dry and hot, Andalucia is one of the poorest regions of Spain, particularly away from the intensely tourist areas of the Mediterranean coast between Malaga and Marbella. Behind the coast, much of the region is very hilly and mountainous, culminating in the snowy peaks of the Sierra Nevada. Between the Sierra Nevada and the coast lie the Alpujarras, where the last Moors in Spain were sent to live. To this day, the area, with its white villages clinging to hillsides, is very similar to parts of Morrocco., The high Alpujarras and the Sierra Nevada offer great opportunities for hiking and other outdoor activities, specially in Spring and Autumn when the rest of Europe feels distinctly cooler.
Northern and eastern Andalucia is sparsely populated, many parts being characterised today by endless olive groves, largely a result of EU subsidies, not of any great historic tradition. Other parts, however, are dry and virtual semi-desert. Just inland from the port of Almeria lies the Desierto de Tabernas, the only area in Europe officially designated as a desert.
The most fertile part of Andalucia is the central valley of the river Guadalquivir which, flowing through Sevilla, reaches the Atlantic coast west of the port city of Cadiz. Though the flow of the river is very seasonal, the Guadalquivir and its tributaries sustain agricultural activity throughout the area, including the production of Sherry, which comes from the area aroung Jerez de la Frontera..
More information: Guide to Andalucia