The once-accepted adage that "Europe ends at the Pyrenees" is no longer true. Today, the two countries forming the Iberian Peninsula at the southwestern end of the Continent -- Spain and Portugal -- are totally integrated into Europe as members of the European Union (E.U.), with democratic governments and vibrant economies of their own. In fact, Spain has the second-fastest-growing economy in the E.U.; new industries and an expanding infrastructure continue to alter its ancient landscape.
Political changes adopted after the 1975 death of Gen. Francisco Franco, Europe's remaining prewar dictator, contributed to a remarkable cultural renaissance. This rebirth has transformed Spain's two largest cities -- Madrid, the capital, and Barcelona -- into major artistic and intellectual centers. Amid some of the world's most innovative architecture and contemporary movements, art, literature, cinema, and fashion are constantly finding new and original expression; at night the cafes and bars hum with animated discussions on politics, the economy, and society. In every aspect of urban life, a visitor can feel the Spanish people's reawakened self-confidence and pride in their newfound prosperity.
These developments contrast with Spain's unhappy experiences last century, particularly during the devastating Civil War of 1936 to 1939, and Franco's subsequent long, iron-fisted rule. During the Franco years, political and intellectual freedoms were squelched, and Spain was snubbed by most of Europe.
Of course, Spain was previously a major world player. In the 16th century, it was the seat of a great empire; the Spanish monarchy dispatched fleets that conquered the New World, returning with its riches. Columbus sailed to America, and Balboa sailed to the Pacific Ocean; Cortés conquered Mexico for glory; and Pizarro brought Peru into the Spanish fold. The conquistadors too often revealed the dark side of the Spanish character, including brutality in the name of honor and glory, but they also represented boldness and daring.
It's difficult to visit this country without recalling its golden past: Those famous "castles in Spain" really do exist. Many Spaniards believe that Spain isn't a single country but a series of nations, united the way Yugoslavia used to be. Many groups, especially the Basques, the Catalans, and the Gallegos in the northeast, are asserting their individuality in everything from culture to language. For certain Basque separatists, that regional, "nationalistic" pride has at times taken violent turns. Castile and Andalusia, in the south, remain quintessentially Spanish. While linguistic and cultural differences are great, to the foreign visitor they are also subtle.
As the inheritors of a great and ancient civilization dating from before the Roman Empire, Spaniards inhabit a land that is not only culturally rich but also geographically varied, with wooded sierra, arid plateaus, and sandy beaches. It is this exciting variety in landscape -- as well as in art, architecture, music, and cuisine -- that makes Spain one of the top countries in the world to visit.