Castles, mountains, deserts, beaches; there is something for (almost) everyone in Spain. But we will be honest. It took a long time for us to get used to Spain, and even now, we are sort of colonizing it in our heads. We are happiest in the north-east, around Aragon and Navarra, or in parts of Catalunya, and it still happens quite often that we will fall in love with one city, town or village, and be totally unimpressed with another a few miles away, even to the extent of disliking it, more or less intensely. Fortunately, there is always somewhere else, just down the road.
One reason it took us so long is that Spain has changed enormously since we first went there together in 1982. In those days it was still oppressively Catholic, the worst kind of old-fashioned Catholicism, with huge churches dominating squalid, dusty villages. Women still wore black; girls were treated as property; many boys and men simply stared vacantly, if they weren't scowling. We used to pass through the country on the way to Portugal, and when you crossed the border out of Spain it was as if the sun came out: smiles, bright colours, a general sense of freedom and being able to breathe deeper.
Today, it's not like that. Of course Spain and Portugal are different, and probably, we still enjoy Portugal more; but to be honest, this is probably because of historical accident, in that we learned to like Portugal much faster. Put it this way: since about 2003, we go to Spain for its own sake, not just on the way to Portugal. Often, in fact, we don't go all the way to Portugal at all, but just stay in Spain.
But it's a deceptive country, much less like the rest of Europe than it seems at first sight, and this can be frustrating. Above all, most Spaniards eat at odd hours -- the very late Spanish dinner is legendary -- and prices are not always what you expect. Hotels can be hard to find, and while the Spanish can be very welcoming, they can also be very unwelcoming. The language is harder to understand than seems reasonable: unless a word is flawlessly pronounced, either in standard Castilian or the local accent, all you get is a blank stare, though you can get around this sometimes if you explain that you learned your Spanish in California or elsewhere overseas. Suddenly, it is as if a switch has been thrown, and a foreign accent recognition circuit has been engaged.
The point about Castilian or the local accent is however one of the fundamental clues to beginning to understand (and like) Spain. Spain is barely a country: it is almost federal. The Basque country -- Euskal Herria -- is the most noted for its separatism, thanks to ETA, but Catalunya/Catalonia is as close to an independent country as a region can be, and even up in the north-west, you see graffiti to the effect that Galicia (where the language is more like Portuguese) is not Spain.
This is a part of what we meant above, about colonizing Spain in our heads. We have to find areas we are comfortable with, and move outwards from there. Some Spaniards don't even like each other (or don't regard themselves, or the others, or both, as Spaniards), so it is hardly surprising that visitors will feel more at home in some areas than in others.
Remember too that there was no fixed capital until the reign of Charles V, who ruled from 1519-1556, and that Madrid is the capital of no specific natural, historical or political region of Spain: it survives by being pulled more or less equally in all directions.
One more point is that Hispanophiles are sometimes almost as hysterical as the worst type of Italophile, and will sing the praises of Spain to an altogether ridiculous degree: a degree that no country, even an earthly paradise, could ever live up to. This is especially true of the more overblown aficionados of tapas -- but we'll come back to that when we talk about food and drink.
It is therefore entirely possible that your first visit to Spain will begin either unreasonably well, or unreasonably badly. If it begins well, you have no problem, at least until you encounter a bit that you don't like; and if it begins badly, well, try somewhere else, a few hours away. We hope that this article will help you to get the best out of the country.
Roofs and chimney pots in the Pyrenees
The first area of Spain we started to like was Catalonia, but then we started to get more and more into the Pyrenees; this is near Jaca. The problem is that much of Spain is highly polarized: either mass tourism, or no tourism and very few hotels. Perhaps needless to say, the parts we prefer are the latter. This normally means finding a base (in this case Jaca), and exploring outwards from there.
The Iberian peninsula, comprising mostly Spain but also, on the lower right, Portugal, is the extreme south-west of Europe and is separated from the rest of Europe by the Pyrenees, a mountain chain that runs from the Atlantic (in the Bay of Biscay) to the Mediterranean.
The peninsula is very roughly square. The north side is bounded by the Atlantic on the western half, and by a land border with France. The land border is formed by the Pyrenees, which roughly follow the 43rd parallel; the southernmost tip of the south coast touches the 36th parallel. The Principality of Andorra, which is nominally ruled jointly (in their capacity of Princes) by the Bishop of Urguel in Spain and the President of France, is towards the eastern side of the border, between Spain and France.
The east coast is on the Atlantic, and the south is partly in the Atlantic and partly (east of Gibraltar) in the Mediterranean. The east coast is Mediterranean. Gibraltar itself is an anomaly, a British colony planted on Spanish land. The Spanish get very upset about this, to the extent of intermittently making border crossings as difficult as possible, but seem unable to see the parallels between Britain in Gibraltar and Spain's situation in the enclaves of Ceuta and Mellilla on the African mainland in Morocco.
Spain is extremely mountainous -- it is said that no city is more than an hour or two away from a ski resort -- but there are often wide plains between the five major mountain ranges: the Pyrenees, Cordillera Carpeto-Vetonica, Cordillera Oretana (Montes de Toledo), Cordilla Marianica (Sierra Morena), and Cordillera Penibetica. There is a lot of high desert that looks much like California, though often less desolate and scrubby as the result of millennia of human habitation and care. The average elevation of the country is surprisingly high at around 700 metres or 2200 feet.
The Devil's Gorge or Mouth of Hell, near Jaca
Many mountain roads just peter out when the going becomes too steep or too rough: a few km north of here, the road does just that. There may (or may not) be footpaths, but vehicle access is another matter. When planning your trip, make sure that two roads actually do link up: there may be a massive peak separating the ends of two entirely separate roads. We took these pictures just as the first snows of winter were falling, in November. The following March, they were still melting.
How to get there
Unless you are flying in (and there are plenty of international airports), or arriving by sea (there are a few ferry routes, most notably Plymouth/Santander from Europe, plus several from Africa), the obvious route for most Europeans is via France. Because both Spain and France are in the Schengen Zone, there are no border formalities on the road unless you go via Andorra, which is not in the EU or the Schengen Zone and is something of a duty-free haven. Then again, the street that links the twin Catalan towns of Bourg-Madame in France and Puigcerda in Spain quite often has border officials on it, checking papers, passports and cargo.
At the coast at either end of the Pyrenees you can cross between Spain and France at close to sea level, but most of the roads across the rest of the Pyrenees are steep and slow: snow chains are often required in the winter.
From inside the EU, there are effectively no customs controls except for prohibited items (drugs, weapons, pornography) but there are strange controls if you are carrying over 800 cigarettes. If you have 800 to 1200 cigarettes, you must be able to produce a receipt from the place where you bought them, and if you have over 1200, you need a piece of paper called a Documento de Acompaniamento -- though this would be an awful lot of cigarettes to carry on a motorcycle.
From outside the EU, the rules are the usual 200 cigarettes, 100 cigarillos, 50 cigars or 250g of tobacco products, plus one litre of spirits over 22 per cent alcohol by volume OR two litres of alcoholic beverage under 22%, plus 50g of perfume and 250 ml eau-de-toilette. There appears to be no 'Other Goods' limit, provided the goods imported are genuinely for your own use or as presents, but this is determined by the customs officials on arrival, so don't push your luck. Currency above 6010 euros (March 2008 values) must be however be declared.
It should already be clear by now that there are many Spains; and the more you explore the country, the more you find this to be true. Barcelona, for example, is one of the most fashionable destinations in Europe, and is therefore substantially ignored here: there is something of an inherent tension between fashionable destinations and semi-adventurous travel. Likewise the Mediterranean coasts: Marbella, Torremolinos and Benidorm are not names that conjure up much in the way of unseen sights and fascinating old folk-ways, though between the big resorts there are actually some delightful pieces of unspoiled coast. And for at matter, even such ancient cities are Iruna/Pamplona remain mostly as small nuclei surrounded by big, modern and essentially interchangeable developments.
Our own favourite places are the small cities and towns that are soaked in history, but where there has not been enough money or impetus to make any great changes to the architecture in the last two or three centuries. This mostly means going inland, and it also means walking a fine line. Go somewhere too small, too remote, and you will have to camp, because there will be nowhere to stay; go somewhere too big, and you might be anywhere.
Fields near Sos del Rey Catolico
If you like villages, ruins, landscapes, farmland, rivers, mountains, reservoirs, castles, towns and small cities, there is a tremendous amount to see and to photograph. Spain was first settled in the Stone Age, and there are extensive remains of both Neanderthal man and Homo Sapiens; many believe (with some justification) that the Basque language may have its roots in the Stone Age languages of the region. Three thousand years ago, the peninsula started to be colonized by Celts, Phoenicians and Greeks. In 218 BC, the Romans started to move in; there are still Roman ruins to be seen. Then came various northern tribes, especially the Visigoths (5th century CE); the Arabs, from the 8th century to the 15th, though the reconquista by Christians began as early as the 11th century; and the country was unified, more or less, in the late 15th century.
There was then a period of immense wealth and power in the 16th and 17th centuries, which has left many traces, though the War of the Spanish Succession (1701-1714) and the the Seven Years' War did the country no good whatsoever and the Peninsular War (1808-1814) consequent upon Napoleon's invasion reduced Spain to an enfeebled state from which she is was only beginning to recover when the Spanish Civil War broke out in the 1930s. Which brings us back to Barcelona...
Photographers will mostly do well to bring their equipment and supplies with them; such things are available in the larger towns and cities of Spain, but not at especially advantageous prices, and not in particularly many places, though memory cards are widely available as are colour films.
We have never tried either bus or rail in Spain, so what follows is entirely about road travel. The most remarkable thing about travelling by road in Spain is the speed with which road atlases go out of date. There is a veritable explosion of motorway building (often but not always toll roads), and older roads are constantly being modernized and improved.
Although Spain's road modernization programme sometimes means baffling detours, for the most part Spanish roads are fairly well signposted. Even so, it is worth carrying a compass, and the importance of an up-to-date road atlas cannot be overstressed if you are planning to travel far. Many toll roads take credit cards, but apparently not all, so have a handful of euros handy.
Alongside these excellent modern roads, though, there are plenty of pot-holed and even unsurfaced back-roads, and lots of tracks, that are a great way to see the country. It is mainly since the end of Franco in 1975 that Spain has ceased to be a backward land of peasant farmers, and although there are still plenty of peasants and farmers (including shepherds and goatherds) to be seen, there is also a great increase in what the French call 'désertification'. This includes, at times, the abandoning of whole villages; and there are plenty more that are in a semi-ruinous state, with half or fewer of the houses occupied, and many actually falling down. This seems to be reversing very, very slowly, and the prices of village houses are rising, so the nadir has been passed; but there are still many villages with roads that are unsurfaced, or cobbled, and where clouds of dust accompany the passage of vehicles. This can be especially unpleasant for motorcyclists, as can the loose, gravelly surfaces on some back roads.
We always take our own car or motorcycle, but Spain remains one of the cheaper places in Europe to hire cars; there is of course a flourishing Spanish motor industry, mostly Seat, based on Fiat designs. Alas the Spanish motorcycle industry is not what it was, with the lovely old one-lung Sanglas, once the pride of the Spanish police, now out of production.
Spanish drivers are neither unusually good, nor unusually bad. Their main fault, perhaps, is doggedness, combined with the view that as they always drive along this road at this hour at this speed, everyone else should make allowances: the classic 'local driver' syndrome.
The worst drivers are probably some of the truck drivers, who will overtake in places where it is flatly unsafe, and expect you to pull in and drop back as they cut in. They are not, however, vindictive: they won't try to cut you up in order to teach you a lesson, or to show off. It's just that they may be in a hurry.
In residential areas, speed limits as low as 20 km/h (12 mph) may sometimes be signposted but on most urban roads the limit is the European norm of 50 km/h (31 mph). On most roads in the countryside, its 90 km/h (56 mph); on dual carriageways, 100 km/h (62 mph); on motorways, 120 km/h (74 mph). Note that lower limits apply to vehicles towing trailers. I am not sure whether this includes motorcycles, but to be on the safe side, here are the figures: roads in the countryside, 70 km/h (42 mph), dual carriageways and motorways, 80 km/h (50 mph).
The Spanish are far better at posting 'speed limit on' signs than at 'speed limit off' signs, especially when very low limits are posted, e.g. for pedestrian crossings. Our reaction in this situation is to wait until we are overtaken and then speed up to the normal limit for the area, e.g. 50 km/h in a built-up area.
One odd Spanish trick is radar-controlled traffic lights. If you are going above the speed limit, these change the lights in front of you to red. There can be several such sets of lights, even in some quite small villages, starting with the first set at the beginning of the village. They are not, however, as common as some books and web-sites would have you believe.
The Spanish seem reasonably law-abiding about speed limits, though as in most countries, driving at five to ten per cent above the limit is widespread. Oh: and at road works (where speed limits are commonly set absurdly low) they are habitually ignored completely. Speeding fines are apparently calculated as 6 euros per kilometre per hour beyond the posted limit, though we have not verified this.
You might well think, when you visit Spain, that there are no parking rules at all: the Spanish don't so much park as abandon their cars. In fact, you can't legally park when there are signs telling you that you can't -- though some of the signs for this can be a bit esoteric, in that (for example) a blue kerb indicates residents' parking only -- or within 5 metres (16 feet) of junctions or entrances to public buildings, or within 7 metres (23 feet) of tram or bus stops.
On a two-way street, leave room for three vehicles abreast (or don't park), and on a one-way street, park on the side with the even numbers on even-numbered days, on the other side on odd-numbered days. Always park in the direction of traffic flow.
In cities, park in marked bays. You often see motorcycles parked on the sidewalk (pavement), but I have not been able to discover whether this is legal or merely tolerated. If there is an obstruction, it will certainly be neither.
Seat belts are obligatory in the front only; two warning triangles must be carried; so must spare bulbs, though first aid kits and fire extinguishers are only advisory; the minimum driving age is 18; and lights should, in theory, be on at all times, day and night, though this does not seem to be invariably regarded. Use of the horn in built-up areas is forbidden except in an emergency.
All overtaking is supposed to be signalled with the indicators, and if someone is indicating that he wants to overtake you, you are supposed to indicate a right turn to show that you have seen him and that he is free to overtake. The person overtaking is supposed to signal his intention by sounding his horn during the day (only on the open road, obviously) or flashing his lights at night. Hardly anyone bothers, but if you don't, and you get nicked, don't blame us. Do not cross a solid line in the middle of the road, even to turn left.
Priority is to the right, unless otherwise marked -- and don't pass trams picking up or setting down passengers. Just wait.
For motorcyclists, helmets are obligatory (a law that is not always observed by the village lads) along with spare bulbs and daylight riding lights.
The Spanish seem to be extremely tolerant of this; you do not get the disapproving looks you get in Britain or the United States. In fact, you may be amazed at how far the Spanish themselves go from the beaten track in their everyday, two-wheel-drive Euroboxes, and driving on unmade roads seems never to be frowned upon. Nor is there the anti-off-road movement you increasingly see in England. This may be because the Spanish assume that if you have an off-road vehicle, it is because you need it, and why you need it is no concern of theirs. Certainly, in a country as large, rugged and sparsely populated as Spain, Land Rovers and the like are popular.
River bed, Pyrenees
Motorcyclists are also treated as normal citizens, and there are a lot more big bikes in Spain than there used to be, though the noisy little moped, with few or no baffles in its silencer, is as popular among young Spanish men who cannot afford a car as it is in the rest of Europe.
Several firms offer motorcycle hire, though I have not got around to checking prices. Some are based in other countries but say that they have Spanish locations. Try www.admo-tours.com, www.2wheeltravel.co.uk and Moto Espana
Spain is also one of the cheapest places in Europe to buy fuel; it is typically 15 to 25 euro-cents cheaper than in France, which makes back-roads exploring especially feasible. There are plenty of petrol stations, the vast majority of which keep reasonable hours (including Sundays) and accept credit cards, though you still very occasionally run into a station that doesn't.
Self-service stations are however rare: normally, you get 'full service' which all too often translates into minor spillages with motorcycles or old Land Rovers. Also, Spanish efficiency (or lack of it) means that filling up may take longer than you think. On a related topic, we have frequently had to stop people putting diesel fuel into our (petrol) Land Rover, resorting almost to force on occasion. As far as they are concerned, Land Rovers are always diesel, therefore ours is a diesel, even if they can hear the petrol-engine note. Petrol is gasolina and comes in the usual 91 and 95 octane values.
Variations in fuel prices are tiny, typically under 3 euro-cents a litre, which is completely different from France where variations of 15 cents a litre or more are commonplace. The cheapest place to buy petrol is usually at a big supermarket, but it is only likely to be a cent a litre cheaper than most nearby filling stations. The differential with oil is rather greater, so if you have an old car or bike that drinks oil -- our Land Rover used to do about 1000 miles per gallon (350 miles per litre) before we had a new engine fitted -- then go for the supermarkets.
Spanish mechanics are reputedly very good, whether for motorcycles or cars, though we have to confess that we have never (touch wood!) had to call upon their services. Because the Spanish-built Santana is, in effect, a Series IV Land Rover, with many interchangeable parts with earlier Series, owners of old Land Rovers should be especially well served.
Leaf springs with a Defender-type grille and one-piece windscreen mark this as a Santana, the Spanish licence-built version of the Land Rover that is in many ways a Series 4. The little plate just above the number plate and to the right says 'Santana', too.
As already indicated, Spain is a big country, with extensive coastlines in both the Atlantic and the Mediterranean. It also varies greatly in altitude: the highest peaks in the north are around 3000 metres (10,000 feet) and much of the interior is a high plateau at 450 to 900 metres, 1500 to 3000 feet.
This translates into a wide range of climatic conditions. Most of Spain is hot in the summer -- indeed, inland areas can be intolerably hot -- but winter is another matter. Most of the larger towns of the interior are close enough to a mountain range that their inhabitants can go skiing for the day, or at most spend one night away.
The Mediterranean south is attractive at pretty much any time of the year, though July and August can be a bit too warm for some people, with average daily maxima close to 30 degrees C, the mid-80s F; this of course means a few days a month at 32 degrees C, 90 degrees F, or more. But even in January, the coldest month, daily maxima commonly top 16 degrees C, 61 degrees F, and daily minima across the month average out to 8 degrees C, 46 degrees F.
Go up the Mediterranean coast to Catalunya -- Barcelona, say -- and average summer temperatures (max and min) drop by about 1 degree C or 2 degrees F, while winter temperatures are about 3 degrees C, 5 degrees F, lower. Across the Mediterranean region, you can rely on lots of sunshine: an average of six hours a day in winter, twelve in summer, though Barcelona is wetter than the south and has a few more rainy days. It almost never rains at all in the south in July, and June and August each boast on average just one day with more than 1/10 mm (1/25 inch) of rain.
Inland, both the height of summer and the depths of winter are mostly to be avoided. The former is hot and dusty, and temperatures well over 38 degrees C, 100 degrees F, are not uncommon: some of the highest temperatures recorded in Europe have occurred in the Quadalquivir valley. This is where Seville finds itself, and while the record temperature there in July of 49 degrees C, 120 degrees F is obviously unusual, it gives some indication of how hot it can get. On average, Madrid is 5 or 6 degrees C (10 degrees F) cooler than Seville in summer.
In winter, on the other hand, although average daily minima are not low, there are frequent bitterly cold spells with icy winds blowing off the sierras. For example, in January, the coldest month, although the average daily minimum in Madrid is 2 degrees C, 35 degrees F, the lowest recorded is -10 degrees C, 14 degrees F. To balance below-freezing temperatures there are obviously some surprisingly warm days, but would you want to bet on which you would get?
This is a different version of the shot seen at the beginning of the article -- taken in December! In the sun, it was delightful; in the shade, or as soon as night fell, it was very chilly indeed. Also, because of the Spanish habit of eating very late (see below) there is a long gap between nightfall and the time the restaurants open. In the winter the paseo or evening stroll is nothing like as popular as in the summer, so unless you have a book to read or television to watch, there may not be a lot to do in the early evening.
For most of inland Spain, therefore, it comes down to spring and autumn, and given that the landscape in autumn looks burnt and blasted from the hot, dry summer, you may well prefer spring. By autumn I mean mid-September to mid-to-late November in Madrid, or October, November and even early December in Seville. Spring is early and short, but probably the best time of year: you can go to Seville as early as mid-February, when average daily maxima are already 17 or 18 degrees C, the mid-60s F, which they do not achieve in Madrid until late March.
The Spanish love public holidays. In addition to the national holidays, there are lots of regional holidays too, given as another list. Note that asterisked dates may be replaced by another day by autonomous communes:
1 January -- New Year's Day
6 January -- Epiphany*
19 March -- St. Jose*
1 May -- Labour Day
25 July -- Santiago
15 August -- Assumption
12 October -- National Day
1 November -- All Saints
6 December -- Constitution Day
8 December -- Immaculate Conception
25 December -- Christmas Day
Girl dancing, Isaba
Inadvertently, we found ourselves in Isaba in the Pyrenees during the fiesta. Finding a room was difficult and we had to move to another hotel after one night. But there were several very pretty girls dancing late into the night, with one another; strangely, the boys were nowhere to be seen. One (who spoke good English) was most amused when Roger said that the local lads must not be too bright, because when he was their age, such a concentration of girls would have ensured that he was there!
Other Christian festivals celebrated as public holidays but without a fixed calendar date are Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and (in some areas) Easter Monday and Corpus Christi. Local holidays include:
29 January (Ceuta)
28 February (Andalucia)
1 March (Balearic Islands)
23 April (Castile & Leon)
2 May (Castile & Leon, and Madrid)
15 May (Madrid)
17 May (Galicia)
30 May (Canary Islands)
31 May (Castille)
9 June (Murcia and La Rioja)
24 June (St John's Day -- not everywhere)
8 September (Asturias)
11 September (Catalunya)
15 September (Cantabria)
17 September (Melilla)
26 December (Balearics and Catalunya)
...and then of course there are the local saints' days, as in Isaba. Several surrounding villages shared the same saint's day, which made it even harder to find a room.
Part of the fiesta celebrations involved running up and down the main street carrying a stylized bull covered in lit fireworks. There was no attempt at crowd control; the Spanish Basques are a pretty anarchic bunch.
We have been perfectly happy with the Michelin atlas for Spain and Portugal, which is widely available in Spain but not Portugal. At a scale of 1:400,000 -- 1cm = 4km, about 6.3 miles to the inch -- it is marginal for fine detail but we find that we very seldom need anything more.
Six Michelin sheets -- 441 to 446 -- cover the whole country at the same scale or there are the Spanish IGN maps at 1:200 000 (1cm = 2km, just over 3 miles to the inch). These are hard to find outside major cities, as are the still more detailed IGN maps at 1:25 000 (1 cm = 250m, or 2.5 inches to the mile). These soon get bulky if you buy many. We have also heard of a map of Catalunya at 1:50 000 (1cm = 500m, one and a quarter miles to the inch) but we don't know who publishes it.
The most useful site -- dry, but with a lot of information -- is www.spain.info. Tourist offices inside Spain vary widely in quality: some are manned by well brought up young people who are not entirely at home with the concept of working for a living, and although glossy brochures are often available in several languages, you will usually do well to get the Spanish version as well as your own. No matter how poor your Spanish, you can improve both it and your knowledge of the area by trying to compare their translation into your own language with the original.
For books, the best we have found have been regional, and in Spanish, bought in Spanish bookshops. If you don't read Spanish, don't worry: look at the pictures and maps, and you can usually work out quite quickly what is worth seeing and how to get there. As you are doing so, it is amazing how much Spanish you can pick up.
Camp site, Pyrenees
EU citizens and citizens of the following countries need passports (or identity cards) but not visas: Andorra, Canada, Iceland, Japan, Liechtenstein, Monaco, New Zealand, Norway, Switzerland, USA. Citizens of other countries (including Australia and South Africa) do require visas.
EU photocard driving licences are acceptable: otherwise you need an International Driving Permit. The minimum age for riding bikes over 75cc is 18; under 75cc, 16. If you are an unusually hardy 17-year-old touring on a Honda 70, you must have a letter of permission from your parents if they are not with you. I believe (though I am not sure) that the same applies to pillion passengers under 18.
Carry your vehicle registration and (if the vehicle is borrowed) a letter of permission from the owner. Proof of insurance is compulsory. The motorcycle must carry a national identity plate. A bail bond is a good idea. On the spot fines for traffic offences must be paid literally on the spot by non-residents (though not by residents, which makes it of questionable legality under EU law) and if you don't have either the money or a bail bond they may very well lock you up and confiscate the vehicle until the fine is paid. On the other hand many vehicle insurances and travel insurances incorporate a Spanish bail bond.
There are no special health requirements. EU citizens should carry an E111 to get free medical care on the same terms as Spanish nationals. Everyone else is well advised to carry private insurance. For minor afflictions, as in much of Europe, Spanish pharmacists fulfill many of the functions of doctors, and can dispense quite heavy medication without a prescription. Look for a Farmacia.
Stained glass window, Farmacia
As noted above, pharmacists can prescribe a wider range of medicines than is normally possible in Britain or the United States.
The electrical supply is the European standard 220v with a European-standard plug (2x male live, female earth).
The siesta is alive and well in Spain, so expect shops to open at anything from 0900 to 1000; to close for lunch at anything from 1300 to 1400; and then to reopen from around 1630 to 2000. That's for weekdays; they may not re-open on Saturday afternoons, and they won't usually open on Sundays, except in touristy areas. In big shops in big cities, look for 1000 to 2100 without a siesta. Banks open from 0900 or 0930 to 1400 or 1530 from Monday to Thursday, 0900 to 1700 Friday, closed week-ends. Summer hours may differ from winter.
Currency is of course the euro. Credit cards are widely but not universally accepted, even in petrol stations; hole-in-the-wall cash dispensers are increasingly common and can pretty much be relied upon.
In restaurants, a standard service charge of 15 per cent is built into the bill, to be shared among all the staff; if you have had particularly good service, another small tip (the small change, or a maximum of 5 per cent) is appropriate but not necessarily expected. In cafe-bars, 10 to 15 per cent is normal.
The police have mellowed out a lot since Franco's day, but they are still inclined to be authoritarian and disinclined to take any argument whatsoever from anyone they run in for anything. Stay out of their way, but if you do fall foul of them, the best way to treat them is to be very formal, very polite, and (if necessary) very apologetic. Then, we are told, they are very proper and civil back. As far as we know, corruption is little known.
The police do not need to be called to accidents, but for all but the most minor bumps and spills, it is a good idea to call them before they call on you. There is a fine old Spanish tradition, only now beginning to diminish, of throwing everyone in jail and impounding their vehicles until the case comes to trial, maybe months later. This is another reason why a bail bond (noted above under 'papers') is an excellent idea. The universal emergency number, which works in most of Europe, is 112, but you can also dial three flavours of police (Policia National 091, Policia Municipal 092, Guardia Civil 062), ambulances (061) and the fire service (Bombeiros, 080 or 085).
The official Spanish line on breakdowns seems to be that as most European insurance policies include breakdown insurance these days, there's nothing much to worry about. Some British policies are however fiercely Little England and assume that you will never go abroad. Check your policy; if it's not helpful, change insurers or take out a separate recovery policy. Or join a club: we belong to the Automobile Club de l'Ouest, organizers of the Le Mans 24 hour races, who also have a motorcyclists' international breakdown service. There are emergency phones on some roads: ask for auxilio en carretera.
FOOD AND DRINK
The classic thing you are advised to eat in Spain is tapas, so it is as well to get these out of the way first. They started out as tiny snacks, to be eaten in the pastry caps that went on the glasses in bars to keep the flies out. Over the years (and indeed centuries) they evolved into a style of eating all of its own, whether at lunch or in the early evening, typically after finishing work.
A refugio is a refuge, and by extension, can be a guest house; restaurante is easy; so is bar; tapas de cocina are tapas 'from the kitchen', i.e. not just cold meat and canned delicacies; and bocadillos are sandwiches or snacks. Come what might, you would be in little danger of dying of hunger or thirst in this multi-talented corner of Torla. We ate a three-course dinner there: the food was very good, and the prices were extremely reasonable at 13.90 euros a head, including a bottle of wine between us.
Contrary to the impression conveyed by the illustration above, tapas bars rarely announce themselves as such; they just look pretty much like any other bar. But if you take a quick look inside you can see if they have a big, glass-fronted display case full of various kinds of food. If they do, they are probably a tapas bar. Or you can just ask, 'Hay tapas?' There will be dishes made with beans, or potatoes, or sausages, or a dozen other things. Prices vary wildly. In a small country bar, two people can have a good lunch, and a bottle of wine between them, for maybe ten or fifteen euros. In an unfashionable city tapas bar, you could easily triple that. In a fashionable bar, you could double or even triple that again: that's maybe 100 euros for the pair of you. The quality of the food is unlikely to vary much, but in the city there will probably be more choice and the surroundings will be flashier.
You can usually buy small or large portions. Small ones allow more variety; large ones are better to share, or if you are feeling hungry. Point to what you want, and say 'poco' (small) or 'grande' (big), then wait. Some will come cold; some will be luke-warm; and some will be hot (microwave ovens were a blessing to tapas bar owners).
Tapas can be excellent, but quite honestly, you wouldn't want to live on them. At least, we wouldn't. Apart from often being very, very salty -- part of their original purpose was to encourage you to drink, after all -- they become quite monotonous, quite quickly. Sure, eat them occasionally, and indeed, make a habit of eating them for a light lunch; but they don't seem to us to be much of a substitute for a proper dinner, whatever the more excitable variety of travel writer may say.
If you do eat dinner, you will find it true that the vast majority of Spaniards eat very, very late. More than once we have gone into a restaurant at a few minutes before ten, and found it deserted, which has led us to fear that we are too late to eat. Not a bit of it! We are too early. The Spaniards themselves start drifting in at around ten, and are still arriving at eleven. Often, you cant even get a meal (except tapas) before 21:30 or even 22:00.
At lunchtime, many restaurants offer a Menu del Dia, a fixed-price meal of several courses, wine sometimes included, that can be very good value. The same is true of the evening ceña, which is what we normally live on in Spain when we don't have picnics -- and Spanish picnic food is especially good. It is fair to say that learning about the ceña transformed our view of eating in Spain. A mediocre à la carte meal can easily cost twice as much as a ceña, and not be as good.
El Taillon, Torla
In the more heavily touristed areas, restaurants may open as early as 20:30, but unless you are prepared to live on tapas you should not rely on getting dinner much before that time. Many restaurants are also bars.
Watch out for 'iffy' shellfish near the Mediterranean coast, especially mussels and oysters; Atlantic seafood is a lot safer. It all tastes good, though, especially in paella, the closest the Spanish have to a national dish, a sort of risotto-with-everything-in-it. Like much Spanish food (including many tapas) it's heavy on garlic, though the olive oil that characterizes the rest of the Spanish menu is less in evidence.
Much as we find Spanish food pleasant, we have to say that we have yet to eat a truly memorable meal in Spain. But then, we've never been great fans of Italian food, either, despite the fact that many people rank it as a true cuisine, second only to French. We both greatly prefer Greek food to either Spanish or Italian -- and most food writers, of course, are uniformly rude about Greek food.
Some people rave about high-end Spanish wines, especially Riojas, but they seem overrated to us: we've only ever had a few that we really like, and the good ones really are expensive. On the other hand, the Spanish sometimes drink sherry with meals: we once had an entire bottle of Tio Pepe and paid no more for it than we would have expected to pay for a middling-to-decent bottle of ordinary wine: 8 euros in early 2003.
Mostly in Spain we drink cold pinks, because they are refreshing, lower in alcohol than most reds, and good value. They are normally quite satisfactorily dry. In a taberna or bodega, the wine comes straight from the barrel, and costs very little.
Spanish brandy is so-so, and many of the liqueurs are rather sickly. The coffee, however, is among the finest in Europe, and very cheap for the quality. Surprisingly many petrol (gas) stations have excellent little cafés attached.
There are plenty of mineral waters, both still and fizzy (gazeficada), and we haven't yet been caught out by any that are unusually salty. Although the tap water in much of the country is perfectly safe, some resorts are apparently a bit iffy so mineral water is a good idea.
In season, fresh orange juice -- zumo de naranja -- is widely available and a bargain. You even find it at motorway service stations.
The blood alcohol limit is 0.05, and penalties are fierce: loss of the licence for a year, and a fine or imprisonment for one or more week-ends. It's even worse if you have held your licence for under two years: the blood alcohol limit then is zero.
Canned, grilled red peppers are common; so are various forms of octopus or squid in sauce (lower right); and of course there are always olives, often stuffed: here, with anchovies. Although many people associate sherry with tapas, wine -- especially dry, pink wine -- is a lot more usual in most of Spain. Because tapas are often salty, it is easy to drink too much with them.
There is in theory a tremendous range of accommodation in Spain. As well as conventional hotels, there are paradores (state-run hotels, some of them very luxurious), albuerges (a cheaper version of paradores, in less touristy areas), fondas (inns, or rooms over bars); pensiones; casas de huespedas (guest houses); casas rurales (rooms in farms and the like, often with meals); hospedejas; hostales; and refugios, normally basic shelter for mountain-climbers and walkers, but sometimes apparently more like youth hostels or guest houses. Prices cover an enormous range, from the bottom of the European average to somewhere quite close to the top -- though for 50-75 Euros you should get a very pleasant double room in most places, and you may well find somewhere agreeable for well under 50 Euros if you are lucky: as little as 35 euros, out of season, in the smaller towns. If you don't want or need a private bathroom, prices go even lower, but at much under 25 euros you can fall into the flophouse-cockroach category.
In practice, if you are away from the tourist or business areas, especially if you are travelling out of season, it can be surprisingly hard to find a room. A useful trick is to stop at motorway rest hotels (honestly!) which are quite good and not too expensive -- though there is an obvious premium for the convenience. These are very different from from their British or American equivalents, with better facilities and decent restaurants: they are not just smelly truck stops (USA) or bleak dormitories with all the charm of a 1950s hospital (UK).
The historic centres of most Spanish towns, cities and villages antedate the motor-car by centuries, but the fascist rule of the Franco era meant that the country remained too poor and backward to have many cars even into the 1970s. As a result, parking today is commonly a nightmare; we should have found it very difficult indeed to stay in Tarragona if our hotel had not had parking in the basement -- as, fortunately, is the case with many hotels throughout Spain.
An important point for owners of Land Rovers and other tall vehicles is that the height limit in car parks is commonly 1.8m (about 6 feet 1 inch). With the roof-rack on but unloaded, our Land Rover is 2m (6 feet 7 inches) tall. We look forward to more motorcycle touring in due course, when parking will be much easier.
Most guide books agree about the risk of theft from parked vehicles, though theft of vehicles does not seem to attract the same concern. We have never worried about it that much, but then, we mostly avoid the obvious tourist areas where low-end criminals prey on low-end travellers. The Secretaria General de Turismo produces a comprehensive annual guide to accommodation.
There are lots of youth hostels, and the cheapest are seriously cheap: under 10 euros for a bed in a dorm-type room for travellers under 26. You would rarely have to pay as much as 20 euros anywhere, at any age, for a dorm bed. Breakfast is often included in these prices. In fact, we've not heard of any hostels where breakfast isn't included, but we've not looked very hard.
There are numerous campsites, ranked by facilities rather than charm: one that particularly attracted our attention was on a pig farm. 'Wild' camping is legal with permission, and widely tolerated (though officially illegal) even without permission. Do not camp in dry river beds (arroyos); areas liable to flood; urban areas; close to roads, military bases or sources of drinking water; or within 1 km of an official camp site. Sleeping rough is legal in most places (though not town parks), but get well out of the way or the police may wake you to see if you are a vagrant.
Granada, from the walls of Alhambra
The official language of the whole country is Spanish: to be precise, the Castilian dialect of Spanish. Only rarely, therefore, will you really need the other languages or dialects of Spain. As already noted, however, you may find that unless your pronunciation is either flawless Castilian or the local dialect, they just look blankly at you. The Spanish ear does not seem well attuned to mispronunciations and foreign accents.
On the other hand, Catalan is curiously attractive (or maybe it's just Catalunya itself) and for some unknown reason we both find it easier to read than Spanish, despite having had far more exposure to the latter. If a brochure is available in both Spanish or Catalan, but not English, we're happier with Catalan, and indeed, we'll as happily read Catalan (which we don't speak) as French (which we do, reasonably well). This is a bit of an aside but you might care to try a similar experiment yourself. If you do, you will often find that a few words of the local dialect open disproportionately many doors and ensure a much warmer welcome than you might otherwise expect.
Then again, there is plenty to choose from. In Leon they say el, ela, elos, elas instead of el, la, los and las. In Aragon, 'theirs' is lur and lures, not the su, sus of Castilian.
Among foreign languages, English is quite widely spoken, especially in the tourist areas, but we have often found German to be more use in the south, or French in the Pyrenees.
As usual, most road signs are standard European but there are always some that need to be interpreted. We have put in brackets our own sometimes idiosyncratic translations which help us remember what they mean.
Ceda el paso -- Give way, yield (cede the passage)
Cerrado/Cerrada -- Closed
Cuidado -- Caution (Careful!)
Curva peligrosa -- Dangerous bend (curve perilous)
Despacio -- Slow down (de-pace)
Desvio -- Deviation
Mantegna (or Llevar) su derecha -- Keep right (maintain your right)
Mantegna (or Llevar) su izquierda -- Keep left (maintain your left)
Obras -- Road works
Peligro -- Danger (peril)
Precaucion -- Caution
Prioridad a la derecha -- Priority to the right
Prioridad a la izquierda -- Priority to the left
Prohibido el paso -- No entry (prohibited the passage)
Salida -- Exit
Sentido unico -- One way (way unique)
Todas direcciones -- All directions
Salida -- exit
Vado -- ford, resource, expedient.
But you can work it out.
Please -- por favor (por fah-bor)
Thank you -- gracias (grathy-ass)
Yes -- si (see)
No -- no
Where/is? -- donde? (don-day)
Room -- cuarta (koo-arta)
Toilet -- servicios (sair-vee-thee-owes)
More -- mas
How much? -- cuanto? (kwan-toe)
Food/eat -- alimentacion/comer (alley-men-tathy-on/co-mare)
Republican and Franquist graffiti are still common. It is worth remembering that there was an attempted military coup on 23rd February 1981 -- though its complete failure, even then, suggests that Spain has now left such things behind.
Looking back, we find it hard to work out exactly why we (and especially Roger) disliked Spain so much for so long. Part of it, no doubt, is that Roger was first there in 1977, while Franco's legacy was vastly stronger than it is today, and Spain really was a very depressing place for anyone who looked beyond the mass-tourist 'Costas' (and it wasn't too good there either).
The main problem since then, we suspect, is that quite a lot of Spaniards still suffer badly from hardening of the categories. This makes them quite unable to understand that anyone might do things in a different way from themselves; and as for asking them to understand that someone else might do something in a different way, well, you might as well ask them to fly unaided. The only answer is to shrug your shoulders; remind yourself that this is the Spanish way; and (when necessary) console yourself with Choegyam's Law, that you can always go somewhere else, while they are stuck with where they are.
Reservoir on the Aragon river
The other big problem is that very few things seem to be reasonably priced in Spain. Instead, they tend to be either unreasonably cheap, or unreasonably expensive. Unless you have a modest idea of what you ought to pay (which we hope you may have gleaned to some extent from the above) and some idea of where to look for it (just hunt until you succeed), you can find yourself laying out a lot of money without too much reward.
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© 2008 Roger W. Hicks