Spain is a land of intriguing culture, delicious food and extreme diversity due to it´s numerous autonomous regions and Mediterranean hospitality. In 2007 Spain was the second most visited country in the world after France and Spanish cuisine deserves a separate article with it´s traditional tapas, paellas and Mediterranean ingredients.
Due to so many autonomous regions, traditions vary a lot throughout the country, from laid back, less religious Catalonia to more traditional customs in the secluded and separatist Basque country in North.
Spaniards are very relaxed, laid back, very extrovert, friendly and sociable. Expect to get two kisses after a greeting and invitation to a family dinner after getting to know a Spaniard, they are spontaneous, emotional and sometimes unpredictable.They will treat you as “one of them” without really thinking about it after a while.
Siesta is another tradition, which mean that most of the shops and public sites are closed between 2-5 PM since most of the Spaniards prefer to take a nap after their midday meal.
Spain is a fantastic country to explore and there is no better way to do it than by train. The railway system in Spain has been neglected for decades but has developed tremendously during the past years. Many resources have been invested to provide travelling opportunities throughout the country from south to north and from west to east. One can choose a high speed train or a regular “slow” night train which will take you through the beautiful Spanish landscape to your next destination.
Most of the journeys usually start in Barcelona, which is also the capital of the autonomous community of Catalonia and the second largest city in Spain. With it´s 1,6 million inhabitants Barcelona is a cultural, educational, media, arts, commerce and trade centre. It is also one of the main tourist destinations in Southern Europe since the city offers pretty much everything: great shopping, beautiful urban beaches, modern and traditional Spanish cuisine, high-level entertainment and profound history. Stroll the La Rambla street and indulge in the atmosphere of Gaudi´s architecture, small restaurants serving traditional Spanish tapas or relax on the beach. You should definitely visit the Spanish old city which also called the “Gothic Quarter”, many buildings are dated from medieval time and classified as world heritage. Another UNESCO heritage site which is a must see is the church of La Sagrada Familia, the architecture is unique and majestic.
When tired of sightseeing you can choose just strolling at La Ramblas street with thousands of stalls where anything can be sold and purchased, from traditional souvenirs to caged birds and pets. Historically, many festivals, markets and events took place on La Ramblas and today the tradition continues. Three to four days should definitely be allocated for visiting Barcelona, you can find a list of the best hotels on Tripadvisor in this city here.
After you have had enough of the crowds in Barcelona with it´s Gothic architecture, head to the central train station and head south to Tarragona which is home to numerous ancient Roman ruins and attractions. The trip from Barcelona takes only one hour. One of the main attractions is large Cyclopean walls which pre-date Roman times and is said to be the remnants of the Palace of Augustus. The amphitheatre and capitol are just a few among many historical sites which are listed as UNESCO heritage sites.
In case you long to experience buzzing, urban and coastal Mediterranean city, head to Valencia. The trip between Valencia and Terragona takes 2-3 hours and the entire train journey goes along the Spanish east coast, the trip will give you unforgettable views of the Mediterranean sea and small Spanish coastal towns.
Spain offers a wide array of beaches, located in both large urban cities aimed for tourists and small coastal villages where only Spaniards go on vacation. You can choose to stop in Alicante (4-7 hours train ride depending on which kind of train you choose) or Marbella (Fast train from Barcelona takes 7 hours). Alicante will welcome you with it´s boulevards and business districts, jetset lifestyle and high end shopping. Marbella will greet you with it´s picturesque old town, small pavement streets for a stroll and beautiful beaches. Marbella is a calm coastal town with a beautiful Marina in Puerto Banus where you can enjoy a delicious Spanish paella while sitting in an outdoor restaurant, see people stroll on the streets and yachts coming into the port when the sun goes down.
The peak season for tourism is July-September so keep in mind that beaches at that time might be rather crowded and restaurants and hotels slightly increase their prices.
After a couple of days relaxing on a beach, enjoying the sun and easy-going Southern Spanish lifestyle, it is time to head to North, to Seville which is the capital of Andalucian region, the most populated and second largest autonomous region in Spain. It´s history and architecture is influenced by Arabs and Romans and many Spanish traditions today are coming from Andalucia such as flamenco and bullfighting. Sevilla is the capital of Andalucia and fourth largest city in Spain, it has an architecture which is influenced by all historical periods and rules: Arabic, Moorish, Roman and Renaissance. Alcazar and the Cathedral are the sites you cannot miss.
While in Andalucia you can head further to the city of Cordoba which is just 1 hour train ride from Seville. Cordoba was the capital of the Islamic Emirate during the Islamic invasion of the Iberian peninsula and has preserved major Islamic influences in architecture. Cordoba also has the warmest high summer temperature in Spain and entire Europe with an average of 37 degrees. The main site is the Mosque-Cathedral of Cordoba with unique architecture and choice of materials (white and red marble). Cordoba is definitely worth a stop to learn about history of Spain and it´s dramatic periods.
The next stop of the journey is the capital of Spain, Madrid. With a population over 3,2 million Madrid is the third largest city in European Union. Madrid is considered a major financial and tourism centre in Southern Europe since it has a modern infrastructure and houses many European and international regulators. Historical neighbourhoods and buildings are well preserved which attracts thousands of tourists each year. The Royal Palace of Madrid, numerous museums and parks are open for recreation. The charm of Madrid lies in it´s mixture of urban buzz of large city and tranquil atmosphere of a non-hectic way of life. Even if it is a metropolitan city, you can still have a picnic in a central park without being disturbed by traffic noise and pollution.
High-speed trains can take you from Madrid to Bilbao by only 4-7 hours which mean crossing half of the Iberian peninsula. Bilbao, which is the capital of the autonomous community of the Basque Country. Basque country in the North of Spain was granted the status of nationality within Spain and has a different traditional and cultural background as well as the language compared to the rest of the country. Bilbao got noticed as a tourist destination after 1997 when the Guggenheim Museum, which also is the main attraction, was built. The architecture is ranging from gothic to contemporary and there are plenty of churches, basilicas and parks to see. The Guggenheim Museum of contemporary art is one of the most famous sites to visit and has one of the most admired modern contemporary architectural designs.
Basque cuisine is different compared to the rest of the country as well. Predominantly charcoal grilled dishes are served together with Basque tapas and Basque cider or sparkling wine. The region of Galicia seem to be the best place to round up your travelling in Spain. A night train can take you from Bilbao to Santiago de Compostela which is the capital of Galician municipality. The city´s cathedral was once a destination of The Way of St.James, a well-known catholic pilgrimage route. The route is still travelled by both religious and non-religious enthusiasts.
Santiago de Compostela was raided by the Arabs, and captured and sacked by the French throughout the history, with this said, the culture, traditions and architecture in Santiago have been influenced by those historical periods.
It is definitely worth to explore more in the Galician region. A mixture between warm oceanic climate with warm summer Mediterranean gives a mild climate in the region throughout the year.
Spain is a vast and diverse country, it´s history, culture and mentality cannot be understood without exploring the entire country and all regions. The Spanish national railway network offer an opportunity to explore the country by avoiding the tourist path, finding hidden gems and actually getting to know local people and their mentality and traditions. Travelling through Spain by train will give you unforgettable memories of one of the most unique countries in Europe.