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There are certain things that undeniably and quintessentially define a country, and Spain has more than its fair share. Hailing everything from across cultures, from its cooking through to its history, there’s a long list of iconic phenomena that are firmly embedded into the nation’s DNA. Here are 16 of the most famous.
Tapas is almost as much a cultural activity as a style of eating. They began as free bar snacks to tide customers over from siesta to the traditional late dinner, but have since evolved into a national — and now international — obsession. Every bar creates its own unique versions, though the classics are tortilla, tomato on bread, garlic prawns, fried potatoes with spicy sauce (patatas bravas), ham and cheese, and chorizo. You’ll find in some bars everyone throws their used toothpicks and napkins on the floor, which is actually considered a compliment — the more on the floor, the better the tapas.
The well-known nap of two to three hours in the heat of the afternoon sun is a long and popular tradition practised across Southern Europe and the Mediterranean; a chance for farm workers to sleep off their heavy lunch and avoid working in the hottest hours of the day. In modern Spain, though, the nap has largely been abandoned. In a poll from 2009, almost 60 percent confirmed they never take a siesta, versus 16 percent that did daily. Spaniards shouldn’t be so quick to toss the tradition — having a nap after lunch has recently been associated with a 37 percent decrease in coronary mortality.
While the style has its origins in the Romani gypsy music of Eastern Europe, the sound of flamenco is uniquely Spanish — and more specifically unique to Andalucia, Extremadura, and Murcia. Flamenco is made up of six parts: singing, guitar, dance, vocals, hand-clapping, and finger snapping. It is celebrated and practised all over the world; bizarrely there are even more flamenco academies in Japan than there are in Spain!
Barely a week goes by in Spain without some form of fiesta to celebrate one religious patron saint or another. Fiestas bring people out onto the street to celebrate with food, wine, and music. There are certainly more obscure festivals which have caught the eye of the international crowd. The Pamplona Bull Run in San Fermi and Tomatina (the tomato throwing festival in Valencia) being just two. Las Fallas — a giant puppet parade — is Valencia’s version of Guy Fawkes, where they burn the effigies after the parade, and Carnival in Tenerife is the second biggest in the world after Rio de Janeiro. So before you go, make sure you check the What’s On guide so you don’t miss one of the largest Spanish festivals while you were in your hotel scrolling through Netflix.
Originating in Valencia, paella is a rice dish prepared with meat or seafood and probably takes the crown in terms of being Spain’s most famous food. The word ‘paella’ is Valencian. It derives from the Old French word ‘paelle’ for pan, which comes from the Latin word ‘patella’. It is a popular dish to have at large family gatherings in Spain, and the original Valencian version is with meat and vegetables. In coastal areas they replaced meat with seafood. The mixta version of both meat and seafood is a hybrid version and a big no-no for traditionalists.
One of the world’s most influential artists of the 20th century, Picasso turned his hand to painting, sculpture, printmaking, ceramics, and set making. He co-founded the Cubist Movement and co-invented collage. His full name at birth was the rather clunky Pablo Diego José Francisco de Paula Juan Nepomuceno Crispín Crispiniano María de los Remedios de la Santísima Trinidad Ruiz Picasso — each chosen to honour saints or relatives. He was born in Málaga, moved with his family to A Coruña and Barcelona, and spent most of his adult life in France. Two of his greatest paintings are “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon” — the most famous example of his cubist style — and “Guernica”, which was a representation of the destruction caused by Italian and German forces on the northern town of Guernica in the Spanish Civil War.
Spain was a nation of naval explorers. While history books dictate Christopher Colombus as Italian, some claim he was actually of Ibizan origins. What is clear, however, is Francisco Pizarro, who conquered the Incan Empire and founded Peru’s capital, Lima, and Hernan Cortes, who overthrew the Aztecs in Mexico, both came from Spain and both played a monumental part in shaping the modern Hispanic world we know today.
At almost three million acres, it will come as a surprise to many that Spain has more vineyards by area than any other country. It is also the third-largest producer of wine, making some of the most iconic and recognisable varieties, from deep red Riojas to the light and sparkling Cava. The fortified wine sherry, or Jerez, is also unique to Spain, and is only produced around the southern city of the same name.
This is a specific ham found in the west of Spain in the regions of Salamanca, Extremadura, Andalucia, and into Portugal, which is why it is known as jamón ibérico and not jamón Español. The ‘jamón’ comes from the Iberian black pigs, which are known as pata negra due to their distinctive black hooves. They eat the sweet-tasting acorns that fall from the oak trees, which help to give the ham its flavour.
Born in Figueres near Barcelona in 1904, Dalí was a leader in the Surrealist movement of art in the 20th century. Dalí warped perceptions, depicted melting clocks and lobster telephone sculptures, as well as collaborating on Surrealist films with filmmakers like Luis Buñuel. He was eccentric in every sense. His image, including his trademark moustache, and his personalty often overshadowed his artwork and he became a cultural icon of the surreal and eccentric. He appeared on a number of America chat shows in the 60s and 70s, often acting strangely and speaking in his own made up language.
Aside from the huge amounts of wine produced by Spain, sangria is probably the country’s most famous drink. The name is considered to come from the word for blood, sangre, due to the deep red colour of the drink. There have been many variations on the original recipe, but you’ll find it is based on red wine, fruit juices, soda water, and fruit pieces. If you are in the south of Spain and see a drink called Zurra, it is sangria, only with peach or nectarine juice used instead of orange.
There’s a reason why tens of millions of tourists (both domestic and international) flock to the Spanish coast every year: to bask in the beauty and the variety of its beaches. With not only the Atlantic and Mediterranean coasts, but also the Canary and Balearic islands, Spain can boast a truly phenomenal range and quality of coastline that would take more than a single lifetime to explore all.
Undoubtedly Spain’s most famous architect, Gaudí’s very distinctive style gave birth to the Catalan Modernist movement. Most of his work is in Barcelona, including the still unfinished Sagrada Família cathedral. From 1883–1926 (up until his death) Gaudí worked on the cathedral, with his Catholic faith becoming increasingly fervent the longer he worked on the project. And with more religious representation appearing in his work, he earned the nickname “God’s architect”. Seven of his architectural projects have more recently been declared UNESCO World Heritage Sites for their importance to Spanish culture.
Not one of Spain’s finest periods (1936–39), but indeed has far-reaching repercussions through the rest of the 20th century with General Francisco Franco’s succession and fascist dictatorship only ending in 1975. The war attracted the attention of international communities, and various foreign artists, writers, and musicians travelled to Spain to support the Republicans, including Ernest Hemingway, George Orwell, and Orson Welles to name a few.
Spain is home to one of the best international teams in the world, and of course the Spanish La Liga football league with world-class clubs such as Real Madrid and Barcelona. The levels of feverish football fanaticism is off the scale in many cities, providing some of the most exciting matches on the stands as well as on the field. Even if you’re not much of a fan of the game, if you get a chance to go to a match, it’s an experience not to be missed.
Some form of bullfighting has been occurring in Spain since the Roman times, but more recently the sport has been going through an identity crisis. The nation is divided. Most feel while it is part of the nation’s cultural fabric, they are opposed to the animal cruelty it represents. The number of fights taking place in Spain has dramatically decreased, but when they do take place, the fight is met with a number of activists calling out for a ban on the sport. In Catalonia, the majority voted to ban bullfighting altogether, with the last fight taking place there in 2015.