This week we’ve arrived in the enthralling country of Spain. Located on the Iberian Peninsula, Spain was once the foremost European power and is responsible for the colonization of large swathes of the Americas.
- Capital (and Largest City): Madrid
- Population (2015): 46,439,864 (29th)
- Total Area: 505,990 km² (51st)
- Official Language: Spanish
- Currency: Euro (€) (EUR)
The early history of Spain contains a narrative that’s commonplace amongst most European countries – life under the Roman Empire. Prior to the long conquest of the country, various tribes called Spain home including Iberians, Basques, and Celts. The Roman conquest started in 210 BC with the Second Punic War against Carthage. Nearly two centuries of war followed before the Iberian Peninsula was fully under Roman control. The land was unified under a singular Roman culture while infrastructure was also upgraded – including roads.
As with much of the Western Empire, the Romans hold on the region began to weaken around the start of the 5th century AD. Barbarian tribes whittled away at Rome, and the Visigoths eventually laid claim to the peninsula as their own territory. Soon after, they converted to Christianity.
The early Middle Ages brought great changes to the Iberian Peninsula in the name of the Muslim Moors. The Moors (as part of the vast Umayyad Caliphate) conquered almost the entire peninsula and even made progress into France before they were driven back. Islam spread across the Peninsula; however the powerful caliphate managed to generally live peacefully with the existing Roman Catholic and Jewish people. The capital Córdoba grew into one of the most advanced cities in Europe while Moorish culture and architecture flourished.
The Christian armies however sought to regain control of Spain through a centuries long campaign known as the Reconquista (beginning in 722 and lasting all the way until 1492). Slowly, the Christian armies fought the Muslim forces for city after city, territory after territory. Division within the Islamic kingdoms helped the Christians in this regard. Eventually, Granada was the final Islamic outpost on the Peninsula, and the last to be claimed in the Reconquista. While Spain and Portugal were once again Christian, the influence of the Moors on all aspects of life is still seen and felt today.
The late 1400’s ushered in the global age of Imperial Spain. Isabella and Ferdinand (the Spanish monarchs) funded the journey of Christopher Columbus, and from the moment he arrived in the New World, Spain began to take advantage of the numerous opportunities this discovery afforded. As the Spanish crown grew more powerful at home (thanks to the Hapsburg dynasty), they also flexed their colonial muscles abroad – predominantly through military commanders known as conquistadors who claimed territory from existing native tribes in the Americas. Through conquest, alliances, trade, and more, the Spanish Empire grew into the world’s foremost power – a vast naval empire upon which the sun never set.
When someone rises to the top of the heap, there are always those who wish to knock them down. In the case of Spain, the empire had become so large that it was an increasingly difficult challenge to control. Pirates and buccaneers sought out Spanish treasure galleons (especially in the Americas), while plague and religious conflicts (brought on by the Reformation) back home diminished Spanish power in relation to nearby countries (including France and England). The Empire remained vast through the 1800’s, though much of the luster, power, and fear were lost.
Like much of Europe, the 18th and 19th centuries were a time of war and political disputes for Spain. The Napoleonic Wars were especially devastating for the country. In addition, nationalist movements began across Spain’s colonies – many of which resulted in independence from the Spanish throne.
Despite remaining neutral in WWI, the monarchy continued to dwindle in popularity. Eventually a tenuous republic was established, while a degree of independence was granted to culturally distinct and autonomous regions such as Basque Country and Catalonia. The more liberal, left-wing groups eventually came into conflict with more conservative powers – which kick started the Spanish Civil War in 1936.
The left-wing Republicans were supported by the Soviet Union while the right-wing Nationalists were supported by Nazi Germany and Italy. Led by General Francisco Franco, the nationalists eventually claimed victory (after much loss of life) in 1939. The country avoided devastation during the Second World War thanks to its neutrality, however the state sympathized with the Axis powers.
Franco continued to consolidate his power, ruling as a dictator. Though the country was ostracized from the international community for a time, the US eventually sought closer relations with Spain due to the strategic importance of the country vis-à-vis the Soviet Union. Franco’s regime was a ruthless and authoritarian one, which promoted a pan-Spanish identity as well as staunch Catholicism. On the other hand, the country did experience massive economic growth and industrialization.
When Franco died in 1975, his handpicked successor Juan Carlos succeeded to the throne to restore the monarchy (in accordance with Franco’s wishes). However, he also quickly oversaw a transition to democracy and a degree of autonomy for aforementioned distinct regions (which was not in accordance with Franco’s wishes). Spain continued to deal with resistance from these regions, especially from the Basque armed nationalist group known as ETA. Despite this, Spain moved forward, joining NATO and the European Economic Community in the 1980’s. The country also enjoyed widespread economic growth after adopting the euro in 2002.
Recently, the country has faced many trials and tribulations. Among these were a devastating terrorist attack in Madrid in 2004 and severe economic problems following the Global Financial Crisis. In addition, the status of autonomous regions continues to be an issue, with many in Catalonia especially still pursuing independence.
Spanish culture is predominantly based on Roman and Catholic values. While Spain is a very Western country, there remains a great deal of diversity especially amongst the country’s art, architecture, and cuisine due to foreign invasions (particularly the Moors). Islamic and Moorish architecture can still be seen side by side with Catholic cathedrals and churches. In addition, the warm weather and Mediterranean location have played a large role in the distinctive architecture along the coast.
Cuisine in Spain differs from region to region, though there are some constants. Coastal areas unsurprisingly feature a wide array of seafood. Paella (which originated in Valencia) is one of the most well known Spanish dishes, consisting of a rice base with a variety of toppings. Another well-known example of Spanish cuisine is tapas, which consists of a selection of different appetizers and is best enjoyed in a group.
Sports are very important in Spain, with soccer unsurprisingly leading the way. The Spanish domestic league is considered one of the best in the world with Real Madrid and FC Barcelona global behemoths. While the national team is widely considered to have underachieved for decades (winning only a European championship in 1964), they were (until recently) considered the world’s best – with a period of dominance that included European championship titles in 2008 and 2012 as well as the World Cup in 2010. Spain is also still associated with the traditional sport of bullfighting. While there is some opposition to the spectacle (it has been banned in Catalonia), it remains widespread throughout the country.
Spain is one of the larger countries in Europe, and occupies the majority of the Iberian Peninsula (which it shares with Portugal, as well as Gibraltar, Andorra, and a part of France). The country generally consists of a highland plateau known as the Meseta Central with various mountains cutting through the land. The coastal plains can be found on…wait for it…the coast while Spain also controls several islands.
Spain is divided into 17 different autonomous communities as well as two autonomous cities. The degree of independence from the central government varies between each region, with some such as Catalonia and Basque Country often considered separate nations by their inhabitants.
The largest city is the capital Madrid, which is located in the middle of the country. Barcelona (located on the east coast) is the second largest and is also one of Europe’s leading cities. Other major metropolises include Valencia, Sevilla, Bilbao, and Málaga.
Did you know?
- Spain comes from the world ‘Ispania’, meaning ‘the land of rabbits’
- Most of the cork in the world comes from Spain and Portugal
- The national anthem has no words
- Catalonia celebrates Christmas with a smiley faced log that poops out presents – only if you beat it first though
- The renowned artist Pablo Picasso hails from Spain
- Only Italy and China have more World Heritage Sites than Spain
- Public nudity is not illegal in the country
- The Eiffel Tower was supposed to be built in Barcelona but the plan was rejected
- The country has a tooth mouse instead of a tooth fairy
- Two of the most well known Spanish actors are Javier Bardem (Skyfall) and Penelope Cruz (that 4th Pirates of the Caribbean movie you forgot about) – they are also married
- Spanish is the second most widely spoken language in the world
- Some of the most well known Spanish soccer players include Xavi, Andrés Iniesta, Raúl, Iker Casillas, David de Gea, Sergio Ramos, Fernando Torres, Gerard Piqué, Juan Mata, and…we could go on
- Prostitutes are required to wear reflective vests to reduce traffic accidents
- The country was accidentally invaded by Britain in 2002 when marines made landfall in Spain instead of Gibraltar for about 5 minutes
There’s so much to learn about Spain’s long and diverse history that we’ve barely scratched the surface here. What you can be sure of is that our journey this week will be one of the most memorable one’s we’ve been on yet!
Stay tuned to the Current for our Country of the Week. We’ll explore the familiar and the foreign, plus uncover some hidden gems (see them all HERE). Be sure to check out our Currency Spotlight for more information on the euro.
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