Overview of Spain

Understand the basics of Spain at a glance...

Spain is a country situated in the south west of Europe. Along with neighbours Portugal, Andorra, Gibraltar and an area of France, it forms the part of Europe known as the Iberian Peninsula.

Spanish is the official language of the country. Many regions have their own co-official language such as Catalan/Valencian in Catalunya, the Balearic Islands and the Valencian Community, Galego in Galicia and Euskara in the Basque country. There are other unofficial regional languages: Aranese, Asturian, Aragonese, Leonese, Extremaduran and Fala.

Apart from the area surrounding Madrid, the most populated areas lie in the coastal regions of the country. Spain's population officially reached 46 million in 2008.

Geography

Spain is the world's 51st largest country with a landmass of 504,782 square kilometres.

As well as the Spanish mainland, the country also consists of the Balearic Islands in the Mediterranean and the Canary Islands off the west coast of Africa. Spain also controls the enclaves of Cueta, Melilla and Peñón de Vélez de la Gomera in Morocco.

Spain is bordered to the north by France, Andorra and the Bay of Biscay (Mar Cantábrico); to the east by the Mediterranean; to the south by the Mediterranean and Gibraltar and to the west, Portugal and the Atlantic ocean. It also has land borders with Morocco via Melilla, Cueta and Peñón de Vélez de la Gomera.

History

Spain has a long rich history with earliest signs of inhabitants going back to 800,000 BC. Remains have been discovered in the Jativa and Granada areas dating to 30,000 BC.

By 1200 BC North African and Celtic tribes settled on the peninsula creating a Celt-Iberian race. In turn, areas of Spain were colonised and fought over by the Phoenicians, Greeks, Carthaginians, Romans and the Goths.

Moorish armies from North Africa invaded the peninsula in the 8th century AD and defeated the last Visigoth King and created Europe's only Muslim territory. They conquered large parts of the country finding strong resistance only in small Christian kingdoms in the north. The Moors prospered in Iberia, bringing with them scientific knowledge and new agricultural techniques.

In 1469 Isabella of Castilia and Ferdinand of Aragon married. With that, they united two Christian kingdoms. This signalled the beginning of the final act of the Reconquista that finally saw the Moorish empire leave the peninsula in 1492.

The Spanish inquisition was born of the desire to "re-Christianise" the newly unified Spain, where thousand of Jews and Moors were killed or expelled for refusing to convert to Christianity.

Following the discovery of America by a Spain-sponsored Christopher Columbus, Spain became a leading world power. It was a leader in the age of discovery and its imperial empire spread across the globe. By the 17th Century the Spanish empire included most of South America, parts of Northern Europe, islands in the Pacific and parts of Northern Africa.

Religious wars at the time dragged the country into conflicts across Europe. Following the French Revolution, Spain unsuccessfully fought against the French Republic in 1793 and ultimately became a French client state until Napoleon's defeat to Wellington in the Peninsula War.

In the 1930s the Nationalist forces of General Francisco Franco, backed by the Fascist regimes in Germany and Italy, emerged victorious against the Popular Front government forces, which included many overseas soldiers. Over 500,000 people lost their lives in the conflict and many fled to South America for refuge.

The only legal political party under Franco's reign was formed in 1937. The Falange Espanola Tradicionalista y de las JONS emphasised nationalism, Catholicism and anti-communism until the leader's death. In 1975 Juan Carlos assumed position of head of state as per Franco's decree.

Politics and Government

Created in 1978, the Spanish Constitution was introduced as an integral part of the "transition to democracy".

Spain runs a decentralised form of government made up of 17 self-governing autonomous communities and two autonomous cities. These communities are responsible for local education, health, culture and social services and account for 38 percent of public spending compared to just 18 percent of central government.

Central government is a parliamentary representative democratic constitutional monarchy under the Head of State King Juan Carlos I. The main political parties are the centre-left PSOE (Partido Socialista Obrero Español) and the centre-right PP (Partido Popular).

The Autonomous communities also have their own elected governments.

Economy

Spain has the ninth largest economy in the world and the fifth largest in Europe. Industries include tourism, metal, automotives, shipbuilding, food and textiles. It has a labour force of 23 million that is primarily employed in the services sector.

Climate

With over 3,000 hours of sunshine a year Spain has a predominantly warm climate. As such, it is one of the warmest countries in Europe.

Spain has very diverse regional climates owing to the differing landscapes and geography. As a result it experiences varied, and often extreme, rainfall and temperatures. The climates across Spain consist of a Mediterranean climate around the east and south coasts, semi-arid in the south eastern Valencian and Murcia areas, Oceanic along the north coast and around Galicia, mountainous in various areas including the Pyrenees and a Continental climate across most of the mainland.

Temperatures can reach mid-forty degrees centigrade during the height of summer in some areas of Andalusia, and elsewhere, can average as low as two or three degrees centigrade during the winter months.

The Canary Islands experience an average all-year-round climate in the twenties on the coasts due to their location just off the African coast.

Security

The crime rate in Spain is significantly lower than many of its European counterparts. In 2009 the country recorded its lowest crime figures for a decade with 47 crimes per 1,000 inhabitants while the European average is 70.4. Crime rates tend to be higher in tourist areas such as Barcelona, the Costas and Madrid.

There are political organisations such as ETA and elements of al-Qaida also present in Spain. Travellers should be aware of arising hostilities in ongoing tensions.

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Immigration

Spain is a popular destination for emigration. Official statistics for 2010 saw 5.7 million foreign residents residing in Spain. Between 2002 and 2007, Spain absorbed the most migrants in Europe, effectively doubling its migrant population.

Spain sees many immigrants from the European Union attracted by the sun, the beaches and the easy-going way of life. It is a particularly popular destination for British, Germans and Romanians.

From outside of the EU, citizens of Morocco, Ecuador, Colombia and Bolivia make up the majority of immigration into Spain.

Tourism

Spain's tourist industry has grown to become the world's second largest. Its beaches, a rich artistic heritage, the variety in gastronomy and a party atmosphere attract millions of visitors to Spain every year. In 2008, 57.3 million visitors travelled to Spain and 59.2 the year before.