My only regret after several months in Spain was not having discovered it sooner.  

Franco in 1969.
(Courtesy of Wikipedia.)

Maybe that avoidance stemmed from a prior trip to Spain and Portugal during the summer of 1971.  In those days Franco’s police patrolled the avenues fronting the Prado Museum, shouldering machine guns.  Lisbon seemed to sag under a pall of fog and drizzle.  After a cursory look around, I figured heading back to Paris was a good idea.

In recent decades what I’d mostly read about was how post-Franco Spain had transformed itself.  True, the papers reported that unemployment remained above 25% nationwide.  Catalonia was threatening to secede.  Again.  Basques demanded greater autonomy.  Still.  The royal family was entangled in a web of scandal.  Once more.

On the other hand the travel magazines were reporting the streets of Madrid alive with color and light.  Art lovers in line for the Prado encountered no automatic weaponry.  Along the Mediterranean coast Barcelona was busy enhancing its rep as a garden of modern architectural treasures; farther south tourists swarmed the beaches.  Local festivals — every provincial town seemed to advertise one — went on endless parade from San Sebastian on the Bay of Biscay to Cadiz off the coast of Africa.

San Sebastian coastline in the Basque region.

Tradition may have portrayed the Spaniard as laconic and stern, a product of somber landscapes which dominate the Castilian heartland. Was not Spain itself a remote backwater of Europe — religiously conservative, suspicious of outsiders — from the days of the Inquisition?  Hadn’t a fascist victory in the Civil War confirmed its narrow-minded character?

But, as the story continues, immediately after Franco passed from the scene in 1980 the nation began to resemble a racehorse bent on circling the field toward an oncoming 21st century.  An economy fed by the growth of sunshine tourism helped to “modernize” the recalcitrant Spaniard.  Or did it?

Since I’d managed to put aside the entire autumn of 2015 to ramble through the country, perhaps I could see for myself.

Celebrity cruise ship outside of Palma.

My wife and I decided that it might be a good idea to start with a cruise around the Spanish periphery, thereafter to explore the interior from north to south by car.  Finally, we would rent an apartment for several weeks enabling us to explore at least one locale in some depth.

The most attractive cruise offering, for our purposes, was a two week excursion on Celebrity out of Barcelona.  The liner would be making a stop in the Balearic Islands, at Palma de Mallorca, then continue south along the Mediterranean coast to Cartagena, Malaga, Gibraltar and Cadiz on its way to Lisbon.

Although a package cruise accompanied by 2000 other foreign tourists hardly seems the best way to encounter the real Spain, this one did provide a useful overview of several port cities.

Roman theater in modern Cartagena, Murcia.

The magnificent natural harbor at Cartagena, for example, has hosted a key naval base since Roman times.  Malaga, on the Costa del Sol, also claims ancient settlement by Romans, Phoenicians, and Arabs, as well as its current distinction as a magnet for sun seekers.

Of course the British enclave at Gibraltar is saturated with military significance, from Lord Nelson’s nineteenth century sea battles at nearby Trafalgar through World War II.   Passage alongside the iconic Rock into the Straits separating Europe from Africa is a memorable experience for everyone aboard. 

On the Atlantic side of the Strait, the region of Cadiz is notable as the point of debarkation both for Columbus’ explorations of the New World and subsequent campaigns of the Conquistadors.

Lisbon, like Spain now free of fascist dictatorship, has blossomed into a delightful capital city featuring a rich architectural heritage and lively night life.

Seville's Plaza de España.

On the whole, this cruise (with optional day trips to cities like Seville and Granada) provided as much of an introduction to southern Iberia as could be hoped for within a two week period.

For our travels across the Spanish mainland we planned an itinerary with one eye on the weather.

October meant northern Spain, the Pyrenees drawing down to the rainy coastline of the Bay of Biscay.  Bilbao and Pamplona in the Basque Country; chic San Sebastian, then Oviedo and Coruna ever westward along the coast; finally a drive through green Galician hills to the pilgrim’s shrine of Santiago de Compostela. Keep a jacket handy.  And an umbrella.

November was reserved for the central plains of Castile, liable to be chilly in that season.  En route places that recall Spain’s regal past:  Segovia, Salamanca, Avila, Toledo, and, of course, Madrid.

The Alhambra in Granada.

South in Andalusia, December would still yield sunny days for visiting cities of historically Moorish character:  Seville, Cordoba and Granada.

Such an ambitious travel plan for a pair of senior hands generates questions. At what point did exhaustion set in?  (Our backs and feet held out reasonably well.)   What did you like best about Spain?

Rather than pick out one locale or another, I’d have to simply say “Spain”, for its power to surprise and astonish.

A step back in time at the village of Santillana del Mar.

I had anticipated various separatisms (political, regional, linguistic, etc.). Thus my surprise at the impression of a vast and singular nation.  Expecting a flat, arid landscape, I had found forested mountains, rugged coastlines.   Braced for the gloomy Castilian, I discovered a lively populace quite happy to welcome foreign visitors.

Sights not to be missed:

As a glance at the guidebooks will attest, Spain offers such monuments in plenty. But abiding memories often come from unforeseen encounters along the way.

Our larger plan for Spain had included some breathing space--a month- long stay on the Mediterranean.   We chose to rent an apartment in the port town of Javea, an hour’s drive south of Valencia.  Javea and surrounding shoreline communities like Denia and Moraira have a reputation for conservative town planning.  (Nearby Benidorm, by contrast, is chock-a-block with high-rise development right down to the beach.) 

Birdseye view of Javea from Montgó.

Apart from Javea’s modest profile amid orange groves, its hinterland offers excursions into lovely mountain valleys nestling a number of traditional villages.

Plus an irresistible feature on this part of the Costa Blanca: it includes some of the best opportunities for tennis in all of Europe.

Call me quirky, but I find it difficult to go even weeks at a time without playing tennis.  Whereas in London some might seek out a cozy pub, in Paris a sidewalk café, I find myself peering into courtyards on the off-chance of discovering a tennis court.

The stunning Salamanca Cathedral.

I’d been forewarned that the Costa Blanca was “full of Brits”.  Be that as it may, I found myself quite comfortable amid the welter of Europeans.  The resort complex we lived in was largely British.  Within walking distance down to the port area were many restaurants offering not only Spanish cuisine — especially Valencian paellas and sea food—but also German, Indian, Mexican, English, and Italian cuisine.  There were French and Viennese cafes where one might pick up fresh baguettes and croissants every morning.   Vive le difference!

Although one hears a variety of tongues around Javea, English is pretty much the lingua franca here. British pubs, bookstores, groceries, even British thrift shops line the side streets.  Over the years, the attraction of warm weather and affordable living in an easy-going atmosphere has attracted thousands of British retirees.  English language newspapers are full of news about ex-pat communities and the real estate market.

Tapas are on the menu throughout Spain.

It is heartening to observe how well the foreign communities blend in with the Spanish populace. There appears to be very little of the “us vs. them” mentality encountered in many such environments.  Certainly the Spanish business community welcomes the infusion of euros from outsiders, but I’d like to think that affability among the locals plays a significant role as well. 

Writers in English long have been captivated by Spanish character and landscapes.

Washington Irving’s Tales of the Alhambra (1832) recounts his rambles around Andalusia and retells Moorish legends from old Granada.  Irving’s typical Spaniard is an amiable rustic comfortable amidst patterns of rural life.  The volume still makes for delightful reading; his detailed descriptions of Granada provide interesting background for those visiting the city today.

The Royal Palace in Madrid.

More recently we have Ernest Hemingway suggesting that the Spaniard — be he matador, guerilla fighter, or peasant — may be in touch with the fundamental nature of things to a greater degree than his brethren from the industrialized nations.  It is interesting, however, to compare his lyrical characterization of northern Spain around Pamplona in The Sun Also Rises (1926) with the darker portrait of Civil War battlefronts near Madrid in For Whom the Bell Tolls (1940).

Two English contemporaries of Hemingway have written remarkable memoirs of Spain in the first half of the twentieth century:  George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia (1938) is one of the finest reports of the Civil War; Gerald Brenan describes his life in the remote countryside during the 1920s in South from Granada (1957).

For information on travel to Spain the following websites are particularly useful: blog for Spain is also in Spanish:

— Feature by Jerry Nemanic, Jetsetters Magazine European Editor; photos by Donna Nemanic, except for Franco portrait.