Barbarian Invasions, the Moorish Kingdom & the Reconquest -- Around 200 B.C., the Romans vanquished the Carthaginians and laid the foundations of the present Latin culture. Traces of Roman civilization can still be seen today. By the time of Julius Caesar, Spain (Hispania) was under Roman law and began a long period of peace and prosperity.

When Rome fell in the 5th century, Spain was overrun, first by the Vandals and then by the Visigoths from eastern Europe. The chaotic rule of the Visigothic kings lasted about 300 years, but the barbarian invaders did adopt the language of their new country and tolerated Christianity as well.

In A.D. 711, Moorish warriors led by Tarik crossed into Spain and conquered the disunited country. By 714, they controlled most of it, except for a few mountain regions around Asturias. For 8 centuries the Moors occupied their new land, which they called al-Andalús, or Andalusia, with Córdoba as the capital. A great intellectual center, Córdoba became the scientific capital of Europe; notable advances were made in agriculture, industry, literature, philosophy, and medicine. The Jews were welcomed by the Moors, often serving as administrators, ambassadors, and financial officers. But the Moors quarreled with one another, and soon the few Christian strongholds in the north began to advance south.

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The Reconquest, the name given to the Christian efforts to rid the peninsula of the Moors, slowly reduced the size of the Muslim holdings, with Catholic monarchies forming in northern areas. The three powerful kingdoms of Aragón, Castile, and León were joined in 1469, when Ferdinand of Aragón married Isabella of Castile. The Catholic kings, as they were called, launched the final attack on the Moors and completed the Reconquest in 1492 by capturing Granada.

That same year, Columbus landed in the West Indies, laying the foundations for a far-flung empire that brought wealth and power to Spain during the 16th and 17th centuries.

The Spanish Inquisition, begun under Ferdinand and Isabella, sought to eradicate all heresy and secure the primacy of Catholicism. Non-Catholics, Jews, and Moors were mercilessly persecuted, and many were driven out of the country.

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The Golden Age & Later Decline -- Columbus's voyage, and the conquistadors' subsequent exploration of the New World, ushered Spain into its Golden Age.

In the first half of the 16th century, Balboa discovered the Pacific Ocean, Cortés seized Mexico for Spain, Pizarro took Peru, and a Spanish ship (initially commanded by the Portuguese Magellan, who was killed during the voyage) circumnavigated the globe. The conquistadors took Catholicism to the New World and shipped cargoes of gold back to Spain. The Spanish Empire extended all the way to the Philippines. Charles V, grandson of Ferdinand and Isabella, was the most powerful prince in Europe -- king of Spain and Naples, Holy Roman Emperor and lord of Germany, duke of Burgundy and the Netherlands, and ruler of the New World territories.

But much of Spain's wealth and human resources were wasted in religious and secular conflicts. First Jews, then Muslims, and finally Catholicized Moors were driven out -- and with them much of the country's prosperity. When Philip II ascended the throne in 1556, Spain could indeed boast vast possessions: the New World colonies; Naples, Milan, Genoa, Sicily, and other portions of Italy; the Spanish Netherlands (modern Belgium and the Netherlands); and portions of Austria and Germany. But the seeds of decline had already been planted.

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Philip, a fanatic Catholic, devoted his energies to subduing the Protestant revolt in the Netherlands and to becoming the standard-bearer for the Counter-Reformation. He tried to return England to Catholicism, first by marrying Mary I ("Bloody Mary") and later by wooing her half-sister, Elizabeth I, who rebuffed him. When, in 1588, he resorted to sending the Armada, it was ignominiously defeated; that defeat symbolized the decline of Spanish power.

In 1700, a Bourbon prince, Philip V, became king, and the country fell under the influence of France. Philip V's right to the throne was challenged by a Habsburg archduke of Austria, thus giving rise to the War of the Spanish Succession. When it ended, Spain had lost Flanders, its Italian possessions, and Gibraltar (still held by the British today).

During the 18th century, Spain's direction changed with each sovereign. Charles III (1759-88) developed the country economically and culturally. Charles IV became embroiled in wars with France, and the weakness of the Spanish monarchy allowed Napoleon to place his brother Joseph Bonaparte on the throne in 1808.

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The 19th & 20th Centuries -- Although Britain and France had joined forces to restore the Spanish monarchy, the European conflicts encouraged Spanish colonists to rebel. Ultimately, this led the United States to free the Philippines, Puerto Rico, and Cuba from Spain in 1898.

In 1876, Spain became a constitutional monarchy. But labor unrest, disputes with the Catholic Church, and war in Morocco combined to create political chaos. Conditions eventually became so bad that the Cortés, or parliament, was dissolved in 1923, and Gen. Miguel Primo de Rivera formed a military directorate. Early in 1930, Primo de Rivera resigned, but unrest continued.

On April 14, 1931, a revolution occurred, a republic was proclaimed, and King Alfonso XIII and his family were forced to flee. Initially, the liberal constitutionalists ruled, but soon they were pushed aside by the socialists and anarchists, who adopted a constitution separating church and state, secularizing education, and containing several other radical provisions (for example, agrarian reform and the expulsion of the Jesuits).

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The extreme nature of these reforms fostered the growth of the conservative Falange party (Falange española, or Spanish Phalanx), modeled after Italy's and Germany's fascist parties. By the 1936 elections, the country was divided equally between left and right, and political violence was common. On July 18, 1936, the army, supported by Mussolini and Hitler, tried to seize power, igniting the Spanish Civil War. Gen. Francisco Franco, coming from Morocco to Spain, led the Nationalist (rightist) forces in fighting that ravaged the country.

The popular front opposing Franco was forced to rely mainly on untrained volunteers, including a few heroic Americans called the "Lincoln brigade." (For those who want an insight into the era, Ernest Hemingway's For Whom the Bell Tolls is a good read.) It took time to turn untrained militias into an army fit to battle Franco's forces, and time was something the popular front didn't have.

It was a war that would attract the attention of the world. By the summer of 1936, the Soviet Union was sending rubles to aid the revolution by the republicans. Even Mexico sent war materiel to the popular front. Most -- but not all -- of the volunteers were communists. Italy and Germany contributed war materiel to Franco's forces.

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Madrid, controlled by the popular front, held out through a brutal siege that lasted for 28 months. Eventually, the government of the popular front moved to Valencia for greater safety in 1936.

But in the winter of 1936-37, Franco's forces slowly began to establish power, capturing the Basque capital of Bilbao and eventually Santander. The war shocked the world with its ruthlessness. (World War II hadn't happened yet.) Churches were burned and mass executions occurred, especially memorable in the Basque town of Guernica, which became the subject of one of Picasso's most fabled paintings.

By October 1, 1936, Franco was clearly in charge of the leadership of nationalist Spain, abolishing popular suffrage and regional autonomy -- in effect, launching totalitarian rule of Spain.

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The republicans were split by internal differences, and spy trials were commonplace. At the end of the first year of war, Franco held 35 of Spain's provincial capitals. In 1937, the republican forces were cut in two, and Madrid was left to fend for itself.

The last great offensive of the war began on December 28, 1938, with an attack by Franco's forces on Barcelona, which fell on January 26 after a campaign of 34 days. Republican forces fled toward France, as a succession of presidents occurred. On March 28 some 200,000 nationalist troops marched into Madrid, meeting no resistance. The war was over the next day when the rest of republican Spain surrendered. Lasting 2 years and 254 days, the war claimed some one million lives.

For memories and a sense of the Spanish Civil War, visitors can travel to El Valle de los Caídos (the Valley of the Fallen), outside El Escorial.

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Although Franco adopted a neutral position during World War II, his sympathies obviously lay with Germany and Italy. Spain, although a nonbelligerent, assisted the Axis powers. This action intensified the diplomatic isolation into which the country was forced after the war's end -- in fact, it was excluded from the United Nations until 1955.

Before his death, Franco selected as his successor Juan Carlos de Borbón y Borbón, son of the pretender to the Spanish throne. After the 1977 elections, a new constitution was approved by the electorate and the king; it guaranteed human and civil rights, as well as free enterprise, and canceled the status of the Roman Catholic Church as the church of Spain. It also granted limited autonomy to several regions, including Catalonia and the Basque provinces, both of which, however, are still clamoring for more full-fledged autonomy.

In 1981 a group of right-wing military officers seized the Cortés and called upon Juan Carlos to establish a Francoist state. The king, however, refused, and the conspirators were arrested. The fledgling democracy overcame its first test. Its second major accomplishment -- under the Socialist administration of Prime Minister Felipe González, the country's first leftist government since 1939 -- was to gain Spain's entry into the European Community (now European Union) in 1986.

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Early 21st Century -- The shocking news for 2000 was not political but social. Spain came under increasing pressure to conform to short lunch breaks like those in the other E.U. countries. What? No 3-hour siesta? It was heresy. In spite of opposition, large companies began to cut lunch to 2 hours. Pro-siesta forces in Spain cited the American custom of "power naps" as reason to retain their beloved afternoon break.

So the siesta appears to be under serious attack, perhaps as a consequence of the Spanish economy's upswing, which created more new jobs than in any other country in the E.U. More and more families are moving to the suburbs, and more women are joining the workforce. A survey has revealed that only 25% of Spaniards still take the siesta.

On other fronts, Spain moved ahead as an economic force in Latin America, where only 20 years ago Spain was a minor economic presence. Today, it is second only to the United States. The long-held monopoly of the U.S. in the region is being challenged for the first time since the Spanish-American War of 1898. In the last tally, Spaniards in 1 year poured $20 billion of investment value into Latin America.

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Although there were some rough transitional periods, and a lot of older citizens were bewildered, Spain officially abandoned its time-honored peseta and went under the euro umbrella in March 2002. During the transition period, as Spaniards struggled to adjust to the new currency, counterfeiters had a field day.

Throughout 2003, Basque terrorists, part of a separatist group (ETA), continued their campaign of terror against the government. Bombs and death tolls in 2003, including attacks in Madrid, brought the total of deaths up to 800 in this 3-decade-old campaign aimed at creating an independent Basque homeland in northern Spain and southwest France. Bombings are usually at vacation resorts, as ETA's announced aim is to disrupt Spain's main industry -- tourism.

On March 11, 2004, terrorists linked to Al Qaeda exploded 10 bombs on four trains going into Madrid from the suburbs, killing 191 passengers and injuring 1,800. This was one of the deadliest terrorist attacks ever to hit Spain.

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Since taking office in April 2004, Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero vowed to institute deep changes in social issues after 8 years of conservative rule. On the day he was confirmed as prime minister, he endorsed gay marriage. In approving the resolution in April 2005, the Spanish Parliament became the third European country to recognize gay marriage after the Netherlands and Belgium.

Rodríguez Zapatero has also made peace overtures to ETA, but after the 2006 ETA bombing at the Madrid airport, negotiations with the separatist group were stalled. Spanish Interior Minister Alfredo Pérez Rubalcaba told the press that he could not see how the peace process could resume. Indeed, in June 2007, ETA formally called an end to the cease-fire it had declared a year earlier.

Like the rest of the world, Spain's economic growth slowed sharply by early 2009, as many of its companies faced financial turmoil. Spain's 2008 growth rate was a sluggish 1.8%, as opposed to more than 3% yearly growth in the previous decade. In the aftermath of the U.S. subprime mortgage meltdown, Spain took a big hit from more difficult financing conditions. The New York Times reported that unemployment in Spain hit 17 percent in the first quart of 2009, one of the most devastating rates in years. Car sales fell by 28%.

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The peopling of the Iberian Peninsula began around 35,000 B.C., with the arrival of Cro-Magnon refugees from the glaciation of Europe. Traces of the first settlers are scattered and are found mainly in the sophisticated wall paintings in Altamira and other caves along the Cantabrian and Basque coasts. The Basque Archaeological Museum in Bilbao offers a good overview of what science knows about these first Spaniards.

Two Bronze Age cultures—Iberian and Celtic—had emerged in Spain by the time other Mediterranean cultures made contact. The Iberians are perhaps best known today through a few examples of sophisticated funerary figures, La Dama de Baeza and La Dama d’Elx, both on display in the National Archaeology Museum in Madrid. Celtic culture flourished around the Atlantic rim of the peninsula; Tartessos, at the mouth of the Río Guadalquivír, became famous throughout the ancient world for its jewelry and for its dance and music. (Tartessans invented castanets.) Examples of exquisite Celtic gold work are in the National Archaeology Museum in Madrid and in the Archaeological and Historical Museum in A Coruña.
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Phoenician settlement began in Iberia around 1100 B.C., most notably in Málaga and in the peninsular city of Cádiz, where extraordinary Phoenician sarcophagi and some Phoenician jewelry are displayed in the Museo de Cádiz. Within 200 years, Greek traders began to give the Phoenicians competition, founding the trading post at Empuriès on the Costa Brava and pushing into the Balearics and coastal Andalucía.

In 218 B.C., the Romans landed and changed everything. Establishing a beachhead to battle the Carthaginians in the Second Punic War, they proceeded to lay roads across Iberia and either conquer or co-opt everyone they met along the way. The Phoenicians and Greeks had already brought wine grapes and olive trees; the Romans brought wheat, law and order, a hunger for Iberian fish paste, and an insatiable need for soldiers to fight in the Roman legions. By the time of Julius Caesar, Hispania was under Roman law and began a long period of peace and prosperity. Tarragona, a short trip south from Barcelona, became the administrative center for eastern Hispania while Mérida in Extremadura became the western capital. Both retain many Roman structures to this day. The Romans were superb architects and engineers; throughout the country, Roman roads still form the base for many highways. Segovia, a short trip out of Madrid, boasts one of the greatest of the Roman aqueducts.
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Iberia was thoroughly Romanized during this period, although the Basques negotiated a fragile peace with Rome that allowed them to maintain their right of self-governance. Succeeding rulers granted the Basques the same autonomy until the late 19th century. The Pax Romana prevailed throughout the peninsula, and Latin became the Iberian language.

When the Roman Empire crumbled in the A.D. 5th century, Iberia was first overrun by the Vandals (northern Germans who ultimately kept going south into the mountains of North Africa) and then by the Visigoths from Eastern Europe. Rome had invited them to drive out the Vandals, but local powers decided to keep Iberia for themselves. (The Visigoths’ 200-year rule plays out in a few country churches in northern Spain and some of the most sophisticated medieval gold jewelry ever crafted, including the royal jewels and crowns now housed in the National Archaeological Museum in Madrid.
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Centuries of Holy Wars

In A.D. 711, the game changed again. Led by the great Berber general Tariq ibn Ziyad, Moorish warriors crossed the Straits of Gibraltar from Morocco and set about conquering Iberia. Within 3 years, the Moors controlled all but the far northern fringe of the peninsula, where the Basques and the Asturian Visigoths held out in their mountain lairs.

 

The Iberian population had collapsed under the chaotic rule of the Visigoths, and the Moors began to repopulate their conquered land, which they called al-Andalus. While northern Europe was foundering in the Dark Ages, the Andalucían capital of Córdoba was a model of enlightenment. Religious tolerance was an official policy under the Umayyad Caliphate (A.D. 929–1031). Córdoba’s Great Mosque (La Mezquita) was erected in this period, and European, North African, Near Eastern, and Jewish scholars flocked to the city. Notable advances were made in agriculture, industry, literature, philosophy, medicine, and mathematics.

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By the late 11th century, powerful local kingdoms had arisen in northern Spain with the single-minded goal of restoring Christian rule to Muslim Iberia. When civil war broke out in al-Andalus, the northern Christian warriors pounced. Alfonso VI of Castilla seized Toledo, Madrid, and much of central Spain in 1085; the great warlord and national hero El Cid won back Valencia and Catalunya (including Barcelona) in 1094. By 1214, only three major powers remained in Iberia: Castilla in the north, west, and center of Spain; Aragón in northeastern Spain; and the Moorish kingdom of Granada, which would flower a century later with the supreme example of Moorish architecture and decorative arts, the Alhambra.

The Castilian and Aragónese bloodlines would finally meet in Spain’s first power couple, Isabel I of Castilla y León and Fernando II of Aragón. They married in 1469, bringing Toledo (and nearby Madrid) and Barcelona under the same joint rule. Isabel launched the Spanish Inquisition to ferret out heretics, and the Catholic kings (as the Spanish-born pope would dub them) made war on Granada and drove out its last ruler in 1492. Declaring the reconquest complete, Isabel and Fernando decreed that all Muslims and Jews must either convert to Christianity or leave the country.

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Later that same year, they dispatched Christopher Columbus to find a westward passage to the Spice Islands of Asia, an event memorialized in statuary in the garden of Córdoba’s Alcázar. He sailed from the mouth of the Rio Guadalquivír in Andalucía, and, in October 1492, made landfall instead in the West Indies. His voyages of discovery laid the foundations for a far-flung empire that would bring wealth and power to Spain throughout the 16th and 17th centuries.

Imperial Spain

The grandson of Isabel and Fernando, the Habsburg king Carlos I, became the most powerful ruler in Europe when he was crowned Holy Roman Emperor in 1519 and took the title Carlos V. He ruled Spain and Naples and the Holy Roman Empire and was lord of Germany, duke of Burgundy and the Netherlands, and ruler of the New World territories. His son, Felipe II, inherited the throne in 1556 and 5 years later moved the capital from the closed hilltop medieval city of Toledo to Madrid, where the Habsburg kings had a hunting palace.

 

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Madrid grew quickly from dusty outpost to royal city, setting Spain on its Golden Age of arts and letters, and Madrid on its domination of the national scene. Miguel de Cervantes (1547–1616), a career petty bureaucrat, penned the adventures of Don Quijote and set the standard for Spanish prose. The rascal priest Lope de Vega (1562–1635) wrote poems and plays incessantly, redefining the Spanish theater in the company of Calderón de la Barca (1600–81) and Tirso de Molina (1579–1648).
The great painter El Greco (1541–1614) came to Toledo from Italy and brought the Italian Renaissance with him, although he could not curry favor at court and remained outside royal circles. Diego Velázquez (1599–1660) rose to become court painter to Felipe IV, and the two men were bound like brothers over several decades as Velázquez chronicled the royal family. His paintings, rarely seen in his own day, became public only when the royal art collection was installed in the Museo del Prado in the 19th century.

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When the crown passed from the Habsburgs to the Bourbon line in 1700, Felipe V revoked the autonomy of Catalunya to quash his political foes and turned to re-making Madrid as a proper capital. His first task was to begin construction of the Palacio Real. His son Carlos III transformed the face of Madrid with the aid of Spain’s principal neoclassical architect, Ventura Rodríguez (1717–85), who laid out the grand boulevard of the Paseo del Prado and worked with Juan de Villanueva (1739–1811) on one of Spain’s best neoclassical buildings, the Museo del Prado.

Spain in Chaos

Napoleon Bonaparte’s 1808 invasion of Spain set off 167 years of instability and political oppression. Noting that Catalunya existed as a buffer between the French and the Moors, Napoleon annexed the region (and the riches of Barcelona). The rest of Spain literally took to the hills to fight the French emperor in the War of Independence, finally driving his armies out in 1813. Francisco de Goya famously delineated the horrors of French occupation in a series of paintings now in the Prado.

 

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The Catalan territory was restored to Spain, along with the Bourbon monarchy, but something in Spanish governance was irreparably broken. Fernando VII regained the throne but proved to be no friend of the freedom fighters and spent two decades putting down revolts. His arrogance and inflexibility led to the loss of Spain’s most lucrative colonies in the Americas—and subsequent financial hardship for the country.
On the death of Fernando in 1833, civil war broke out between supporters of his daughter (Isabel II) and so-called Carlists who favored a more distant—but male—heir to the throne. Two more Carlist wars were fought, mostly in Navarra and the Basque Country, over the next 50 years, and Carlist sympathies festered into the 20th century, fueling both Franco’s Falangist movement and Basque separatist sympathies. During this period, Spain was coming apart at the seams, and separatist fervor ran high, especially in Catalunya.

Scholars began to reestablish Catalan as a language of serious letters, and the avant-garde design style known as Art Nouveau in France and Jugendstil in Austria found native expression in Barcelona in the radical architecture of Modernisme. Its most extreme practitioner was Antoni Gaudí (1852–1926), who seemed as much to grow his buildings as construct them. His masterpiece La Sagrada Familia integrates the impossibly soaring arches of High Gothic with a decorative style akin to melted candle wax. Other famous practitioners of Modernisme include Lluís Domènech i Montaner (1850–1923), known for the Palau de la Música Catalana in Barcelona, and Josep Puig i Cadafalch (1867–1956), who designed the Codorniù bodega in Sant Sadurní de Anoia.

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Isabel II ultimately was driven into exile in Paris, but the shaky monarchy was restored in 1874 when her son Alfonso XII became king. His sudden death in 1886 left his unborn son as monarch. The child was crowned Alfonso XIII at birth; his mother, Queen María Cristina, served as regent until 1902, and her advisors botched both the Spanish economy and Spain’s international relations. Although he enjoyed immense personal popularity—he was the first Spanish celebrity king—Alfonso XIII exercised little real power. His chief legacy was to adopt the Real Madrid football club and to create the parador hotel system. In 1923, he allowed prime minister Primo de Rivera to take over the country as dictator for the next 7 years.

Civil War & the Franco Years

After Primo de Rivera was overthrown, in 1931 Spain declared the Second Republic. Initially progressive and left-wing in its politics, the new government broke into ever-smaller factions. Conservative, fascist-minded parties gained ground in the elections. When a group of right-wing generals declared a coup in 1936, the Civil War began. The world took sides, with Hitler and Mussolini backing Francisco Franco and the Nationalist generals. Most of the rest of Europe nominally backed the Republicans, also known as Loyalists or the Popular Front. Germany and Italy sent weapons and military assistance to the right, while the rest of the world sent a few volunteer brigades, including the American contingent called the “Lincoln Brigade.” (For those who want insight into the era, Ernest Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls is a good read.) It took time to turn untrained militias into an army fit to battle Franco’s forces, and time was something the Popular Front did not have.

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In the winter of 1936–37, Franco’s forces slowly began to establish power, capturing the Basque country and demonstrating his ruthlessness by calling in the German Luftwaffe to destroy the Basque town of Gernika (Guernica in Castilian Spanish). The horror of the scene, which became the subject of one of Picasso’s most famous paintings, Guernica, repulsed the world.

At the end of the first year of war, Franco held 35 of Spain’s provincial capitals, except for Madrid and Barcelona. In 1937, the Republican forces were cut in two, and Madrid was left to fend for itself. The last great offensive of the war began on December 23, 1938, with an attack by Franco’s forces on Barcelona, which fell on January 26, 1939, after a campaign of 34 days. Republican forces fled to France. On March 28, some 200,000 of Franco’s troops marched into Madrid, meeting no resistance. The war was over the next day, when the rest of Republican Spain surrendered. Lasting 2 years and 254 days, the war claimed 1 million lives. Spain lay in ruins, with Franco atop the smoking pile.

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Steering Spain clear of alliances, Franco continued to rule until his death in 1975. He brought order, if not freedom, but he also isolated Spain from the rest of Europe.

Democratic Spain

According to advance provisions made by Franco, Juan Carlos de Bórbon, the grandson of Alfonso XIII, became king when the dictator died in 1975. Under the terms of a 1978 constitution, Spain became a constitutional democracy with a monarch whose power is limited to moral suasion. The constitution also devolved much of the government’s centralized powers to autonomous regions, addressing long-standing calls for self-government in Catalunya and the Basque Country.

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Franco’s death was as momentous an event for society as it was for politics. The initial giddiness of Spaniards—dubbed “La Movida”—signified an explosion of freedom that brought to the fore such iconoclasts as filmmaker Pedro Almodóvar, who broke into the art-house circuit with his 1988 Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, a wild comedy about Spanish women and their man problems. He promptly became the flag bearer of contemporary Spanish cinema, with a body of work that in many ways defines modern Spanish sensibilities.

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Flamenco had been suppressed under Franco but began to rise in popularity in the early 1970s as the dictator’s health declined. Young talents, such as guitarist Paco de Lucía and singer Camerón de la Isla (both now deceased), helped lead a popular revival of the art form. Their emergence as full-fledged international stars in the early 1980s encouraged other artists to come out of the peñas (private clubs for flamenco aficionados) where they had labored—some for decades—to play the bars and clubs of Madrid and the cities of Andalucía. Today, Madrid is the epicenter of flamenco, but Sevilla, Jerez, Cádiz, and Málaga remain traditional strongholds.

In a similar vein, Spanish gastronomy underwent a sea change in the mid-1970s when Basque chefs Pedro Subijana and Juan Mari Arzak applied the principles of French nouvelle cuisine to Spanish food. They in turn inspired a young Catalan cook fresh out of military service named Ferran Adrià. In his quest for continuous reinvention of food at his restaurant elBulli, Adrià launched a worldwide gastronomic revolution that includes but is hardly limited to the chemistry-set pyrotechnics of molecular gastronomy. Adrià has since closed elBulli, leaving the frontiers of gastronomy to others, but it is nonetheless a great time to eat in Spain. Chefs have never been held in higher regard, finally achieving the fame and status of rock stars and star footballers. (Three-Michelin-star Madrid chef David Muñoz was, in fact, a footballer.) Yet not all the great dining in Spain costs 150€ and up (not including wine). The trickle-down of culinary aspiration reaches all the way to Spain’s bars, where complex and inventive tapas, or tapas creativas, are all the rage.
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In a way, Spain’s coming-out parties to the world were Expo [’]92 in Sevilla and the 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona. The latter spurred the transformation of its host city, completely overhauling the waterfront and heralding Barcelona’s reemergence on the world stage. Spain quickly placed its cultural treasures on display as well, constructing new major museums across the country, from the Guggenheim in Bilbao and the City of Arts and Sciences in Valencia to Madrid’s Museum Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía and Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza. Paris’s Centre Pompidou even opened its first satellite museum in Málaga.

Spain finished its first high speed rail line in time for the Seville Expo in 1992, cutting travel time from Madrid to a mere 2 hours. Recently expanded lines now reach from the central hub of Madrid east to Valencia, north to the edge of the Basque Country, and northwest to A Coruña. Travel times are a fraction of what they once were, and relatively inaccessible parts of Spain are now a short drive or train ride away.

 

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Spain’s 2002 decision to join the European Union spurred huge social changes. Pressure to abandon the afternoon siesta finally trimmed the lunch break to 2 hours or less, and many stores, especially in big cities, began to stay open without interruption. (Many museums have been reluctant to give up their midday break, however; check hours before visiting. Places that are chronically understaffed tend to close for lunch.) Perhaps the most radical sign that Spain had embraced European social norms came in 2011, when, bowing to E.U. health policies, the country banned smoking in all bars and restaurants throughout the country. Many Spaniards still smoke, but they do it outdoors.

In April 2005, Spain became the third European country to recognize gay marriage. Contemporary Spain is an especially attractive destination for LGBT travelers, and some resort towns, such as Sitges on the coast south of Barcelona, have equal numbers of gay and straight visitors during the height of tourist season. Other popular resort areas for gay travelers are Torremolinos on the Costa del Sol and the island of Ibiza.

Perhaps no change of customs has been more dramatic than the decline in Spaniards’ traditional modesty. A generation ago, you could be arrested for going topless on the beach. Now the constitution guarantees that you can wear whatever you want—or not—as long as you don’t create a stir. As a result, most coastal regions in Spain now have naturist beaches where clothed sunbathers are the odd ones out. It’s made Spain a major destination for naturist tourism.

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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.