It’s just over 40 years ago that Spain emerged from itsgrim-faced isolation under the one-party state of General Franco. What followed was… a big party, which even the economic buffeting of the past decade still hasn’t quite managed to dampen down.
Spain has a unique history as a European tourist destination. For excitable northern visitors, it was a byword for wildness, colourful customs – and sexiness. ‘What men call gallantry, and gods adultery,’ Lord Byron wrote in the poem Don Juan, ‘Is much more common where the climate’s sultry’. The opera Carmen, by the French composer Bizet, capitalised on a new appetite for everything gypsy, Spanish, romantic and southern encouraged by the building of a very unromantic thing: the railway.
Just as prosaic was the eruption of concrete high-rise hotels that accompanied the mass-market tourist boom of the 1950s and ’60s. The post-Franco movida (nightlife) attracted a new crowd: younger, style conscious, interested in the city and the beach – and they found both in the new top honeypot for switched-on weekenders: Barcelona and its flamboyant neighbour, Sitges.
Spain still doesn’t attract the well-heeled crowd in quite the numbers its Latin neighbours Italy and France do. This is a mystery. With its historic towns intact, its wine and food the toast of connoisseurs, its distinctive art and fashion scenes and above all its harsh, heartbreaking landscape, there is still so much of the undiscovered left to discover.
PARADORES MI AMOR
What to do with so many historic forts, monasteries and palaces? Convert them into a countrywide network of state-run upmarket hotels with restaurants celebrating the local gastronomy, of course. Of the more than 90 options, most are cinematically atmospheric with stone walls, medieval armour, turrets, tapestries and resident ghosts; a few are glassy new-builds erected in prime locations. Santo Estevo, Siguenza and Santiago de Compostela rank among the best loved.
NEW BASQUE CUISINE
San Sebastián is one of the world’s top foodie destinations, home to three of Spain’s eight three-star Michelin restaurants: Arzak (pictured), Akelarre and Martín Berasategui. A new generation, trained by the masters, is continuing the local tradition. Iñigo Peña’s Narru restaurant, Daniel Lopez’s Kokotxa and Rubén Trincado’s Mirador de Ulía all offer Eastern fusion artistry, foams, reductions and baby squid, along with shorter queues and lower prices.
Spain is Europe’s second-most mountainous country, filled with peaks, glacial lakes, pine forests and gorges. Most of them are clustered around a flat rock in the enormous biosphere reserve of Picos de Europa, which stretches across parts of Cantabria, Asturias and León. Canyoning and hang-gliding are available for extremists, while well-marked trails through Spain’s many Unesco-designated biosphere reserves bring unparalleled peace and joy.
When someone arranges to meet you at ‘eight in the afternoon’ the concept of the siesta starts to make sense. Spain’s movida is legendary, if only for the scheduling. Eat after 10pm and party well after midnight when seemingly dead streets come alive. Start in Barcelona’s El Born district, or Valencia’s Barrio del Carmen or Playa de la Malvarrosa. In Madrid head to Sol, Malasaña and Chueca (mainstream, smart, gay respectively). People will drift off at 4am – not for bed, obviously, but for deep-fried churros and hot chocolate.
Spanish jamón is legendary, but contented, free-range, sweet acorn-snuffling pigs from the hilly southwest of Spain produce the finest jamón Ibérico de bellota. Their fatty legs are salted and hung to dry for months before being served in transparent, translucent slivers alongside a glass of fino sherry.
There are the magnificent: Gaudí’s Sagrada Família in Barcelona, Zaragoza’s Our Lady of the Pillar and the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Galicia among them; and then there are the candlelit baroque, rococo, medieval riches of small village churches that never disappoint. They have the added benefit of being shady, cool and full of places to sit. Respectful visitors making small donations are welcome.
TWO LEGS GOOD, TWO WHEELS BETTER
Coverage of the Tour of Spain (the Vuelta), limited time for walking long-distance routes and the palpitating stress of negotiating the narrow streets of an unfamiliar Spanish city in a car are behind a bike boom. Half-day guided and self-guided sightseeing tours are available in every city. The wineries of Rioja, the olive groves of Jaen, the Moorish castles of Andalucía and the vertiginous cliffs of the costas can all be explored on two wheels. The Vías Verdes, more than 90 routes along disused railway lines across the country, make a good (flat) option.
Sunday lunchtimes in Spain are an event in their own right, but they take on a new flavour in Andalucía. Family-run roadside bar/restaurants feature home cooking, local wine, barflies, framed photos from the 1970s and local TV, along with supplies that reflect the needs of the community – everything from hand-stitched saddles and wine in plastic bottles to live cockerels. Prime time (as anywhere) is 2pm on Sunday, when extended families gather for a raucous four-hour lunch. Ask about the three-course menu del día and expect to pay around €10 (HK$85) a head.
ISLANDS OF THE GODS
The national definition of a top beach is one with a nice crowd, bars and parking, but if you are prepared to go the extra mile, you’ll find private coves, silent dunes and miles of virgin sand. Try Cabo de Gata, Almería, for coves inaccessible by car, or hike east from Matalascañas on Huelva’s Costa de la Luz into the protected beaches of Doñana National Park. Better still, take a ferry across crystal waters to Vigo’s Cíes Islands. Not for nothing was this Atlantic archipelago named the Islands of the Gods by the Romans.
Barcelona’s Passeig de Gràcia has Spain’s densest concentration of tear-jerkingly expensive designer clothing, but Carrer Verdi and the surrounding streets that make up the super-cool boho Gràcia neighbourhood is where you’ll find local designers and unique boutiques (Boo, Madam Pum Pum, Malahierba – all on Carrer Bonavista), jewellers and emporiums of desirable things (Doctor Paper), as well as cava and cake in a shady plaza at the end of the day.
Rastros are the traditional paseo – a leisurely stroll – paired with shopping. Madrid hosts the largest of the country’s flea markets, with 3,500 or so stalls erected along Ribera de Curtidores and surrounding sidestreets. It’s tawdry at the top, but the lower end is where to find ‘gasolina’ cassettes, books and vinyl, religious artefacts, cool Madrileños, hipster bars, quality art, junk shops piled with plastic toys, civil war memorabilia and beautiful retro furniture. No visit is complete without toast with olive oil, mashed tomato, and your choice of anything from octopus to chorizo served at speed at Capricho Extremeño on Calle de Carlos Arniches.
Southern Spain was once part of a great Islamic kingdom. When the tide receded it left Andalucía’s white villages with their steep and narrow streets, towers, crag-top castles, tiled courtyards, arches, figs, dates and lemons, and some of Spain’s most spectacular and exotic monuments. The Alhambra in Granada, the Alcazaba in Almería, the Córdoba mosque and Giralda of Seville are as quintessentially Spanish as Real Madrid and chorizo, but quite a lot more exotic.
From June to September, the beaches are embellished with chiringuitos – beach huts of varying levels of sophistication – often constructed right on the sand, and offering anything from smoothies and breakfasts to gourmet seafood lunches, as well as mojitos and live music until dawn. All are a welcome sight on a hot day, but La Guingueta in Barcelona and Atenas Playa in Cadiz are among the loveliest.
Portions, etiquette and the effort invested by the chef vary, adding a frisson of excitement to bar-hopping. The basic rule is take what you’re given with your beer or wine, and if you want something different, pay for it. Famously, many Almería bars offer a choice of free, hearty tapas cooked to order with every glass. Catalonia’s known for exquisite gourmet creations (reaching their apogee at Barcelona’s Quimet i Quimet) while many provincial establishments stick to the original function of tapas as saucers on a glass to keep the flies out; anything on it is a bonus.
COOL AND CONTEMPORARY
Bold, abstract modern art takes pride of place in banks, offices and, increasingly, at the seaside. Valencia was first to build a destination gallery dedicated to contemporary art, and Gehry’s Guggenheim spectacularly resurrected the fortunes of Bilbao. Now it’s Malaga’s turn. With 36 museums and galleries including the pop-up Pompidou, branches of the Picasso Museum, Carmen Thyssen Museum, State Russian Museum, and a Centre for Contemporary Art championing national talent, the once down-at-heel grande dame of the Costa del Sol has become a vibrant, internationally recognised arts hub with its very own hip and arty Soho district.
Suitably magical locations all over Spain figure large in series six of HBO’s Game of Thrones. The castles of Zafra in Guadalajara and Santa Florentina in Barcelona become, respectively, The Tower of Joy and Horn Hill. Almería’s enormous Alcazaba represents Sunspear; the walled city of Peñiscola stands in for Meereen and various points around Girona for Braavos. The Dothraki Sea is actually two deserts: Bardenas in Navarre (pictured) and Tabernas in Almería. Fans visiting the latter on one of the many Game of Thrones location tours might find themselves in a cowboy shootout at Fort Bravo, as Tabernas is also, famously, the home of spaghetti westerns.
SUSPICIOUSLY CHEAP WINE
Trekking round the cathedral-like bodegas of the sherry triangle (Jerez-Sanlúcar-El Puerto) will teach you to know your oloroso from your fino. And a visit to the Bierzo wineries in Castilla y León reminds you that this old grape-pressing country still has a few surprises up its sleeve. The most important oenological lesson is: don’t judge a wine by its (lack of) label. Or by its price. There are wonderful wines made all over Spain on sale in local ventas and despensas for as little as €1 (HK$8.5) a litre. Plus, eight nationally available wines under €3 (HK$26) have made it onto Spain’s 2016 Supervino wine guide.
Cathay Pacific begins flying a four-times-weekly service to Madrid from Hong Kong from 2 June