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. 

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. 

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 Americas, returning with its riches. Too often, the conquistadors revealed the dark side of European character, including brutality in the name of honor and glory.

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.

You must accept the rhythms of daily life—so unlike the rest of Europe—and think nothing of going to dinner after 10pm and then closing down the flamenco bar after the 3am final set. You must spend the evening in a seafront promenade, walking and talking and nodding at the other walkers and talkers. You must elbow your way to the bar, pointing at the tapas to order, and having your fill. For that matter, you must resolve to eat something new every day that you would otherwise spurn: blood sausage, roasted suckling pig, squid in its own ink. In some places, shops and museums close in the heat of the afternoon, and you must be patient and while away the hours with lunch in a cool, shady courtyard. Do all that, and you will be ready for everything Spain will throw at you.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.