IF YOU’RE planning to head abroad when you collect your pension and unsure where to set up home, we’d recommend you come to Spain – naturally. But you don’t need to listen to us; magazine’s 2019 ‘Best Places...
There's more to Spain than sun, sea, sangría and flamenco – but those are great, too
YOU can't please everybody – as an advert for a research prize ceremony in Valencia has proven. In trying to show the public that Spain should be famous for its scientific discoveries, the Rei Jaume I Awards Foundation has managed to upset chefs and performing artists.
How? By posting billboards in bus shelters with the words 'flamenco' and 'paella' crossed out and announcing, “It's time to change the stereotypes about Spain.”
As if flamenco and paella were something to be ashamed about, say furious protesters.
Of course, they're not; many of Spain's colourful clichés are very real and often fabulous, but they're only a tiny part of what you find when you visit the country, and it all depends upon where you go. Polka-dot dresses are not likely to be found during Madrid rush hour, and the majority of the country doesn't have beaches or palm trees; and, in fact, for nearly three-quarters of the year, you won't get a tan when you visit, either.
If it's stereotypes you want, here's how to find them – but check out the alternatives, too, to see a bit of what Spain is really like.
Naturally, one of Spain's biggest clichés, that it's full of fiestas, is true, we're happy to say, and any trip here in summer will practically guarantee you a chance to soak up the street-party atmosphere.
Flamenco: Purists claim flamenco is in the blood, it's a form of expression through music, song and dance not designed for the stage; this, they say, is a commercialised version for tourists. But there's plenty of it about and, to the untrained eye and ear, it's easy to believe what you see at the fiestas and live shows is the real thing. Themed restaurants and one-off extravaganzas in theatres can be found in almost any town or city if you plan far enough in advance, or for some spontaneous stuff you can tap your feet to, look no further than Sevilla's massive Feria de Abril, or April Fair: the entire city becomes an open-air party with street-dancing, market stalls and all the fun, fabulous and cheesy stereotypes everyone thinks Spain is about.
Why not try: Visiting anywhere in the province of Valencia or the northern half of that of Alicante during the Fallas festival between March 16 and 19, where you'll see traditional song, dance and costume bearing little resemblance to flamenco but every bit as spectacular – or head to Aragón during any patron saint fiesta, watch dancers in Nordic-style costume performing the region's typical Jotas (second picture) to Celtic music. Or pop to Dénia (Alicante province) during its summer folk festival and catch dance moves from all over Spain and the rest of Europe.
Don't miss: Spain's most clichéd musical style, but as you've never heard it before – MTV Awards winner Rosalía, the artist who's trending nationwide right now, is hogging the charts with her unique fusion of flamenco and hip hop. Tune into the top 40 radio station, Los 40 Principales, or pop onto YouTube to hear her latest smash hit, the singularly misnamed Malamente ('Badly'), and you'll find yourself chair-dancing at the traffic lights.
Paella: Arguably the most exportable of what Valencians refer to as 'rice dishes' – and which tourists all call 'paella' anyway – there are reputedly over 300 recipes in existence, involving fish and seafood, meat, vegetables or all three. If you're near Gandia, about an hour south of Valencia, make sure you try its local speciality, the fideuà – basically a seafood paella made with macaroni or chopped spaghetti instead of rice.
Why not try: Any other local or regional dish in Spain – you'll be amazed at how far removed from paella some of these are. Chickpea casserole in Madrid, or cocida madrileña, bean stew or fabada in Asturias, quesadillas, corbatas and sobaos in Cantabria, being egg-custard, iced pastries and spongecakes respectively, Basque-style cod in peas, Serrano ham (especially from Teruel), soft white cheese from Burgos, Galician-style paprika-spiced octopus, white tuna or bonito from the north coast, or a vast array of grilled fish, seafood and fish casseroles along the coasts.
Spain has plenty of Michelin-starred restaurants at much lower prices than you'd expect, and also family-run humble corner cafés serving set lunchtime menus for as little as €8 including a glass of wine.
Also, Italy may be famous for its pizza and ice-cream, but the general consensus is that Spain does the best pizza on earth and that its ice-cream, normally hand-made by family-run firms, is delectable with flavour combinations you'd never even imagined existed.
Castañets and gypsy guitars: The former is usually found wherever there's a flamenco show, and although the greatest-ever master of the latter, Paco de Lucía, is no longer with us, his music will outlive us all. Find it on YouTube, download his tracks or buy his CDs and you'll discover why the legendary rocker Mark Knopfler said of the late artist: “When I first heard Paco de Lucía, I realised I didn't know how to play the guitar.”
Why not try: Live pop and rock gigs at any fiesta or in bars and restaurants across the country, especially in summer or, if you're into the traditional sound of Spain, Celtic notes are the backing track in the north and the dolçaina, or reed recorder, is never absent from any marching band in the Comunidad Valenciana. Spain's classical music artists rarely get enough publicity, but greats such as Isaac Albéniz and Manuel de Falla will take your breath away. If you enjoy classical pieces with a large dose of life and soul, tune into the latter's Danza del Fuego ('Dance of Fire') or Rodríguez's Concierto de Aranjuez.
Polka-dot dresses: You can find these on market stalls in Andalucía and in several coastal tourist hotspots, and of course, worn by any flamenco performer, especially at the most popular fiestas in the south.
Why not try: Checking out traditional dress at Valencia's Fallas festival, with its heavy silk, brocade and braid in pastel colours, elaborate gold hair ornaments and coiled 'coffee-coaster' up-dos. Or visit the eastern provinces during their Moors and Christians festivals: the Christian re-conquerors in helmets and horns with spiked axes, the soon-to-be-expelled Moors in feathers, animal prints, glitter and gold, with explosions of colour, crazy face-paint and exuberant accessories that defy the imagination.
If it's something to wear you're looking for, Spanish towns and cities are a shopaholic's paradise: the country has no shortage of élite designers whose wares are surprisingly affordable, as well as an abundance of high-street brands from budget to chic (don't forget Zara is Spain's biggest clothing export). And not only are Spain's excellent-quality, up-market brands of shoes made in the province of Alicante and in the Balearic Islands, but so are most others in the world. That's right: next time you pick up some designer footwear anywhere on the planet, flip it over and see where it's made. Yep, we told you so.
Siesta: Spain may be famous for The Big Sleep after an eight-course, five-hour lunch with several bottles of wine, but it's completely misunderstood. A siesta is basically a post-meal nap, and should never last longer than 20-30 minutes; the idea is merely to digest your food and give into that wave of stupor that hits you once you've cleared your plate, then get up off the sofa and get on with your life. Beyond half an hour, a middle-of-the-day kip can thrust your circadian rhythm out of synch and give you insomnia at proper bedtime; and plenty of people in plenty of countries doze off for a few minutes after a cooked lunch, so it's not exclusively a Spanish phenomenon. Actually, other than at weekends, few Spaniards bother with a siesta nowadays, except the elderly; most have to wash up and get back to the office.
Whilst Spanish shops and workplaces are famous for 'shutting for siesta', in practice, those which do are often small traders who pack up and go home so they can have their main meal at a time of day when dieticians most recommend it.
Why not try: Shopping in larger towns or cities, or in shopping centres, where retailers stay open all day from around 09.00 or 10.00 to between 20.00 and 22.00, if your preferred spending time is mid-afternoon when smaller premises are shut. Or time your supermarket shopping for the gap between 14.00 and 17.30, when you'll have the entire store to yourself.
If you live or work in a vibrant tourism area, expat belt or large city, you'll probably find shops and offices only close for a couple of hours, typically between 14.00 and 16.00, and staff nip to local eateries for a meal or even bring their own to heat up in the office microwave.
Sun, sea and sand: In the south and east, sweltering summer weather is almost guaranteed from June to September; in the Canary Islands, from about April or May to nearly November, and even in the colder north, July and most of August. Spain has more blue-flag beaches than anywhere else in the world, meaning soft, white-gold sands, sky-blue or turquoise seas, palm-fringed shores, all with lifeguards, toilets and foot-showers in easy walking distance. Paradise.
And you don't even need to take your holidays on the coast to enjoy a delectable Mediterranean summer experience: hotels, holiday parks, apartments and villas inland, even four or five hours' drive from the nearest beach, have swimming pools and outside terraces. Plus, some inland towns and villages have a lido for their residents, which visitors can use too.
Why not try: Spain in autumn, winter or spring. The majority of Spain's year isn't summer weather, surprisingly, although winters in the southern half aren't excessively harsh. With more UNESCO heritage sites than anywhere in the world except Italy and China, you'd never get all your sightseeing done in a lifetime. We're not just talking about the Alhambra Palace, Great Mosque of Córdoba or Sagrada Família, or even the lesser-known but still-huge aqueduct in Segovia and Roman amphitheatre in Mérida; thousands of ordinary towns are built around dramatic castles, a sight so commonplace in Spain that nobody knows – or cares – much about their history. Ornate churches, stunning cathedrals (don't go to the one in Burgos; it'll ruin you for every other one in the world, because everything else will disappoint in comparison), fortresses, Roman ruins, Mediaeval Arab monuments, and the rest of the submerged historical iceberg, are best seen when it's not 40ºC in the shade.
And yes, it snows. Hands up who missed Spain off the list when thinking about the best ski resorts to hit this winter? Well, that was silly, because this 'sun, sea and sand resort' country has dozens of them. Less-experienced skiers will love the slopes in Teruel (Valdelinares and Javalambre), whilst those looking for greater challenges will find them in the Pyrénées in Lleida, La Rioja, or Huesca (Cerler and Formigal-Panticosa), or in the Sierra Nevada. Still more are floating around in Asturias, Navarra – and even Madrid.
Sangría: Red, fruity, refreshing...and not for the faint-hearted. With Sangría, you don't always know what you're getting: each bar has its own views on how to concoct it, and you could find a mish-mash of everything in the drinks cabinet going into the jug. Or you can get a similar, safer flavour with tinto de verano, sold bottled at the supermarket or pulled off the tap, which is basically red wine with fizzy lemonade. But it's not as common as you think, and if you want to guarantee you'll find it, the duty-free is the place.
Why not try: Forgetting about the poor press 'Spanish wine' (which is rarely labelled otherwise) gets in the UK and France, and trying some of the fruits of the country's top vineyards. It's cheap, because it's not imported, but not because quality or flavour is lacking. Indeed, you can spend anything from a euro to several hundred, if you want.
Take a tour of some of Spain's best wine regions – Ribera del Duero (Burgos province), Utiel-Requena (Valencia province), Valdepeñas (Catalunya), Yecla and Jumilla (Murcia) are just a tiny handful. Visit the vineyards, watch the wine being made, taste it, and even tread the grapes (for a truly authentic back-stage tour, pop to Maserof vineyard, farm museum and restaurant in the Sierra de Bèrnia, Alicante province). Cava is lighter, more refreshing and cheaper than champagne or prosecco, and Agua de Valencia, made with locally-grown oranges, is far more sophisticated than Buck's Fizz.
Straw donkeys: These seem to be on the wane, although you can probably find these 1960s' and 1970s' Benidorm icons in some touristy enclaves where cheesy souvenirs are ten a penny. After all, you haven't been on holiday unless you come home with a fridge magnet, sarong, or something that says, 'they went to [wherever] and all they bought me was this lousy T-shirt/tea-towel/ashtray', have you?
Why not try: Filling your boots (and suitcase) with local arts and crafts. Pottery, leather, handmade jewellery, household decorative items, scarves, handbags...local markets, especially the autumn and winter Mediaeval markets in the Comunidad Valenciana are superb places to find quality gifts with a unique, handcrafted finish; prices are usually very reasonable, too. Keep an eye out for anywhere holding a rastro (flea market) or any charity fête, as well.
Bull-fighting: If your vision of Spain has come from Hemingway, you'll be convinced that a Spaniard's idea of fun is stabbing sharp spears into a live animal and being cheered for gallantry when it bleeds to death. Luckily, bull-fighting is going right out of fashion in Spain, especially among the younger generations who recognise its cruelty. But if testosterone-filled, charging, angry farm animals is your 'thing', bull-runs take place at a few summer fiestas and, although they remain controversial as it's not clear whether the animals suffer exhaustion or stress, they at least don't get killed and are just set loose to gallop through the street whilst spectators stand behind a safety railing. Except in Pamplona, where the bulls are used for fighting after storming the streets during the Sanfermines festival.
Why not try: More humane and equally exciting live entertainment, such as open-air discos and pop and rock concerts, or one of Spain's huge, global music festivals such as Benicàssim FIB International, Primavera Sound, SanSan, Arenal Sound, or Medusa Sunbeach. If it's animal entertainment you want to see, Oliva Nova (Valencia province) hosts the Mediterranean Equestrian Tour, an international showjumping event, over spring and autumn.
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