MAINSTREAM package trips to Spain inevitably seem to take you to the most built-up, rammed-full beaches, so infrequent visitors could be forgiven for believing the country's coasts are synonymous with mass tourism,...
Ten things Spain does better than any other country
SPAIN may have had little success in the Eurovision Song Contest – poor Miki said last night that he and his team 'sang and danced their hearts out' and deserved a top 10 place, something the country has not achieved since Pastora Soler squeezed into it in 2010 – but it doesn't hurt for Spain to step aside and let another nation do something better. After all, there's plenty our country achieves that beats the rest of the world, or not far off.
We can list you 10 of these off the top of our heads, but there are almost certainly more we could add.
Holidaymakers have always been among the biggest contributors to Spain's economy, but in the last few years its popularity has continued to soar. The number of foreign tourists who visit the country every year double that of the resident population – and not just those from the north seeking sunshine, beaches, cheap alcohol and outdoor swimming pools. Indeed, many other countries close by offer all this at a lower price – like Turkey, Tunisia and Egypt – and beach weather is only, at a push, five months of the year. Spain attracts tourists for many, many other reasons: highly-affordable skiing breaks, with many resorts suitable for beginners, novices or the nervous; beautiful countryside ranging from desert to water meadows, pine forest and mountains to rolling, emerald hills, huge, modern cities to crumbling, remote villages that still use working donkeys and plough by hand and where running water did not arrive until the 1970s, and some of the most stunning and unusual monuments on earth. For this reason, Spain is the second-most popular destination for tourism in the world – ahead of the USA, and only beaten by France.
It's official: however frustrated you may be stuck on a waiting list for a consultation, this is probably only an issue in your own area health department, and Spanish law states that you are free to choose another if you require in any case. With ongoing advances in technology and techniques, some of the most talented medical scientists in the world and an attitude that 'if you need it, you'll get it' – no excuses dished out because a certain treatment is 'too expensive', and nobody 'shamed' for going to A&E or booking an appointment because they 'should have known it was nothing' or 'it's not serious enough to warrant taking up health service time', it's unsurprising expats find being treated under the Spanish healthcare system a refreshing change. Spain's medical services are focusing more and more these days on prevention rather than cure, and whatever your age, you'll normally be expected to go to your GP for a blood test and general check-up at least once a year, even if you've never had so much as the common cold. Mammograms are provided automatically to all women aged 45 to 65 and bowel cancer screening from age 50 to70, but can be requested without issue before or after these ages.
The Spanish Constitution of 1978, which has never been altered, states that healthcare in Spain is free of charge and universal for everyone living in the country, and does not discriminate between nationalities; in fact, a 2012 law banning undocumented migrants from being treated was overturned last summer as a result of popular outcry, so nobody who has made Spain their permanent home ever has to pay for treatment, and prescription charges are a percentage of the retail cost rather than a set fee, so some common medications cost as little as a euro or two.
According to Bloomberg, Spain's healthcare system is top in Europe and, worldwide, is only beaten by Hong Kong, at number one, and Singapore, at number two.
Even if the Mediterranean diet is not as widespread on the home dining table as people outside Spain believe, it still has a very strong presence, and fresh produce is the main focus of Spanish cuisine, with pre-packaged food and ready meals being relatively rare. In supermarkets, the fruit, vegetable and fish counters are generally enormous compared to in northern Europe, whilst the sweets, cakes, ice-cream and biscuit aisles are considerably smaller. Most fruit and vegetables sold are seasonal and local or national, and luckily, Spain's climate means there is little that cannot be grown.
For eating outside the home, Spain is still one of the most affordable countries on earth; restaurant meals of good quality are within most residents' budgets, especially if you opt for the menú del día, or midday menu, which is typically three courses with a bottle of wine or water and coffee or dessert. 'Cheap' very rarely, if ever, means poor quality, although Spain is replete with Michelin-starred restaurants, many of which are within the price range of mere mortals; they average at around €80 a head but there are plenty around for under €50 or even under €35.
Spanish cuisine is difficult to define, because of massive regional variations: fish, seafood and salad on the coasts, meat dishes inland, bean stew in the north, and traditional dishes so local that a person in the next province may not have heard of them, but one aspect they all have in common is that this is one of the few countries in the world where the national food tastes better at home than its imitations do abroad.
This ties in with healthcare, but doesn't always follow: Spain has never yet failed to be number one in the world for organ donations, more than doubling the European average. This does not mean more people die, because donation levels are calculated per million inhabitants, and also, live donors make up a large percentage.
At present, Spain has 46.9 organ donors per million residents, which vastly exceeds the 21.5 per million average in Europe.
Actually, make that 'everything-friendly': immigrants, refugees, transsexuals, and just about any minority will say they never have to feel 'different' or 'discriminated against'; for the forthcoming local elections, Spain has four candidates with Down Syndrome running for office.
But for same-sex couples or singles alike, Spain is almost certainly number one in the world: it was only the fourth country on earth, pipped at the post by Canada and just behind The Netherlands and Belgium, to legalise marriage and adoption for single-gender couples, as long ago as 2005. And crucially, Spain was willing to call it 'marriage' from day one, rather than creating a 'different' type of union and calling it a 'civil partnership' or similar: exactly 14 years ago, two men or two women were allowed to tie the knot and call themselves husbands and wives of each other.
Anyone in Spain who is gay, lesbian or bisexual, expat, tourist or Spanish, can tell anyone very openly about it, and nobody of any age will bat an eyelid.
A change in law has meant that all regional health services have to offer free insemination or
other fertility treatment to lesbians, in couples or not, and single heterosexual women, meaning they do not have to save up thousands to realise their dream of becoming mothers.
Men and women in Spain seem to excel in sport – for the former, look no further than tennis ace Rafael Nadal, F1 legend Fernando Alonso, the Gasol brothers Pau and Marc in NBA basketball, and the national football teams two UEFA Euro wins on the trot with a FIFA World Cup in between. In fact, Spain briefly had both a world number one male and female tennis player, Nadal and Wimbledon winner Garbiñe Muguruza Three Spanish women have won Wimbledon, along with Garbiñe – Arantxa Sánchez-Vicario, and Garbiñe's own trainer Conchita Martínez.
Women in sport in Spain are some of the world's most successful: world champion and Olympic gold medal-winning badminton star Carolina Marín, still only 26 and already practising again just weeks after a serious injury; record-breaking swimmer Mireia Belmonte, who has netted a bronze, two silvers and a gold in the last two Olympics; Supersport 300 world champion motorcycle racer Ana Carrasco; strongwoman Lydia Valentín, who holds a bronze, gold and silver from the last three Olympics and whose top weight lifted to date is 268 kilos; plus the growing premier league female football teams show that sports is something both sexes in Spain probably do better than most other countries.
It's often said that you need to send out a search party to find a railway link in Spain. But if you're lucky enough to live somewhere that's served by train, you'll be unlikely to find fault with it, ever – services are punctual to the minute, and on the rare occasions a train hasn't pulled into the platform within five minutes of its scheduled time, passengers start to complain loudly. They are clean and comfortable – no litter, graffiti or dirt, and soft chairs, normally enough of them to accommodate everyone during the rush hour, even if strap-hanging is unavoidable on the metro; they are cheap – the outer suburban, or Cercanías lines can get you to a station an hour away from home for under €5, whilst the long-distance fast trains can cost under €50 for a trip that takes an hour and a half by rail but would take you a minimum of four hours by car. All we need, really, is more of them – but that is partly down to funding, and we look forward to concerted efforts to get the country connected over the next few years.
Meanwhile, the AVE, which – among other routes - covers the 400 kilometres from Valencia to Madrid in 90 minutes, is only beaten in its speed and efficiency by rail services in China and Turkey, and covers 5,000 kilometres of track nationwide.
It's so effcient that the AVE system has been exported to wealthy countries worldwide, including Saudi Arabia.
And let's not forget the buses: these services are usually operated by coaches, meaning they are comfortable, modern, air-conditioned and efficient, and even cheaper than the trains.
So far, this super-fast connection has entered and rolled out in Spain far quicker than anywhere else in Europe, and currently, 33.9% of homes, or 17.5 million nationwide, are on fibreoptic – a far higher percentage than any other country on the continent.
Spain is also pushing hard to develop full internet and phone coverage in isolated rural areas – of the type where you need to drive for over an hour to reach a town whose headcount reaches five figures and where you can be on the road for 30 minutes or more without reaching your next village – in a serious bid to stop the exodus from the countryside and improve business opportunities. Unfortunately, Spain's phone and internet services are still among the most expensive in Europe, but with the ongoing fibreoptic roll-out and the rural connection plan, it is hoped economies of scale will eventually reduce the price.
Almost every bar or restaurant, all airports, and even some hospitals have free WiFi, as well as every hotel in the country, meaning there are few places where you can't get connected.
At present, Spain is fourth-highest in the world and second-highest in Europe – after Switzerland – in life expectancy, with an average for men and women of just under 83 years, or 81 for men and 85 for women. Still, Japan and Singapore beat Spain, but studies show that by the year 2040, life expectancy in Spain is set to become the highest on earth, at just under 86 for both genders, or around 84 for men and 88 for women.
Recently, Spain was home to the world's oldest woman and man at the same time – Ana Vela, 116 and Francisco Núñez Olivera, 113 – and the country's percentage of centenarians and super-centenarians (residents aged 110 or over) is among the highest on the globe.
Heritage and culture
This fits in neatly with tourism, and Spain's popularity as a holiday destination is to be expected as it is home to more UNESCO heritage sites than anywhere on earth except Italy and China. You'll have heard of the Alhambra Palace, in Granada and the splendid optical illusion that is the Great Mosque of Córdoba, plus the massive Roman aqueduct in Segovia, and may have heard of the giant amphitheatre in Mérida, Extremadura. Barcelona's Sagrada Família cathedral, one of the most quirky and ultra-modern you'll ever see, and its multi-coloured Parc Güell are sites you must visit at least once in a lifetime.
Burgos' iconic cathedral will ruin you for every other cathedral on the planet, although Sevilla's is the biggest in Spain and the Pilgrim's temple in Santiago de Compostela, Galicia is among the most ornate on the globe. Practically every city has a spectacular cathedral and very attractive churches and palaces, and you'll find lots of Mediaeval castles on hilltops – in fact, there are so many of these that the history of many remains relatively unknown, because having a castle in your town or village is not actually that exciting.
Entire towns are monuments in themselves: Salamanca, home to Spain's oldest university; the ancient cities of Ávila and Toledo, and the centre of Valencia with its cathedral, bell-tower, giant fountain and basilica, contrasting sharply with its futuristic City of Arts and Sciences, often compared favourably to the Sydney Opera House.
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