The familiar images of Spain – flamenco dancing, bullfighting, tapas bars and solemn Easter processions – do no more than hint at the diversity of this vast country. Spain boasts four official languages, two major cities of equal importance and a greater range of landscapes – from sandy beaches to mountain peaks – than any other European country. These remark able elements contribute to making Spain an endlessly fascinating country to visit.
Separated from the rest of Europe by the Pyrenees, Spain reaches south to the coast of North Africa. It has both Atlantic and Mediterranean coastlines, and includes two archipelagos – the Balearics and the Canary Islands.
The climate and landscape vary from snowcapped peaks in the Pyrenees, through the green meadows of Galicia and the orange groves of Valencia, to the desert of Almería. Madrid is Europe’s highest capital, and Spain is its most mountainous country after Switzerland and Austria. The innumerable sierras have always hindered communications. Until railways were built, it was easier to move goods from Barcelona to South America than to Madrid.
In early times, Spain was a coveted prize for foreign conquerors, including the Phoenicians and the Romans. During the Middle Ages, much of it was ruled by the Moors, who arrived from North Africa in the 8th century. Reconquered by Christian forces, the country was unified at the end of the 15th century. A succession of rulers tried to impose a common culture, but Spain remains as culturally diverse as ever.
Several regions have maintained a strong sense of their own independent identities. Many Basques and Catalans, in particular, do not consider themselves to be Spanish. Madrid may be the nominal capital, but it is closely rivalled in commerce, the arts and sport by Barcelona, the capital city of Catalonia.
This ten-day tour of Portugal and Spain includes Madrid, Salamanca, Porto, and a riverboat cruise deep into the Douro River Valley for an authentic taste of life in a seldom-visited region steeped in a wine-making culture thousands of years old.