Some clichés hold true. Spain, stretching sun-drenched and untamed to the south of the wild and majestic Pyrenees, is a passionate nation littered with glittering beaches where beach lovers soak up pitchers of sangria over steaming paella (at its tasty best in Valencia). Flamenco bailaors (dancers) stamp and swirl in flounces of colour, while toreros flaunt their bravado in the bullrings. Scratch this surface and a vast, unexpected panorama unfolds before you. It is extraordinary what splendours remain off the beaten track: the green hills and ocean coves of the north; proud, solitary castles and medieval towns, like Toledo, across the interior; the white villages of Andalucía; and mountain ranges such as the Gredos and Sierra Nevada (Europe's southernmost ski resort).
Spain is a country on the move, a place of rapid change. High-speed railways have conquered the country’s mountainous terrain and many cities now have modern metro and tram networks, testifying to a vibrant and growing economy.
Full country name: Kingdom of Spain
Area: 505,000 sq Km
Population: 44,1 million
People: Spaniards (though Catalans and Basques display a fierce independent spirit)
Language: Castilian Spanish (also Catalan, Galician & Basque)
Religion: 90% Roman Catholic
Government: Parliamentary monarchy
GDP: €840 billion
GDP growth: 3,4%
GDP per head: €20,020
Unemployment rate: 9,1%
Major industries: textiles & apparel, food & beverages, metals, chemicals, shipbuilding, tourism
Major trading partners: EU (esp. France, Germany, Italy, Portugal, UK, Benelux), US
Visas: Spain, along with Austria, Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands and Portugal, forms part of the border-free travel zone subject to the Schengen Agreement. US, Canadian, Australian, New Zealand and Israeli citizens are among those who may enter Spain as tourists without a visa and stay up to 90 days. EU passport holders can come and go as they please.
Time: GMT/UTC +1 (+2 in summer)
Electricity: 220V, 50 Hz
Weights & measures: Metric
When to go
Depending on what you’re after, Spain is a year-round destination. The ideal months to visit are May, June and September (plus April and October in the south). At these times you can rely on good to excellent weather, yet avoid the sometimes extreme heat – and the main crush of Spanish and foreign tourists – of July and August, when temperatures can climb to 45°C in inland Andalucía; at this time, Madrid is unbearable and almost deserted.
There’s decent weather in some parts of Spain virtually year-round. Winter (December to February) along the south and southeast Mediterranean coasts is mild, while in the height of summer (June to August) you can retreat to the northwest, to beaches or high mountains anywhere to escape excessive heat. You can be sitting outside enjoying a beer in a T-shirt in Granada in February, or rugged up against the cold while trekking the Picos de Europa mountains in July.
Skiing is cheap and the facilities and conditions are surprisingly good. The season runs from December to May and the most accessible resorts are in the Sierra Nevada, the Pyrenees and in the ranges north of Madrid. Spain is a trekking paradise, especially the Pyrenees and the Picos de Europa.
You can also hike the Camino de Santiago, the famous pilgrims route running from Navarra to Santiago de Compostela Cycling is popular but there are deterrents, like the often-mountainous terrain, crowded roads and summer heat. Take your pick of the hundreds of beaches offering fine swimming, but be prepared to tiptoe over package tourists during summer. The coast of the País Vasco (Basque Country) has good surf.