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The Spanish, wrote V. S. Pritchett, "have preserved personality." It's a heady claim, but once you're here, it's hard not to feel that Spain knows something you don't about enjoying life, expressing moods, keeping everything in perspective. You can see it in the regional cultures, each with its own language, cuisine, and distinct ways of dancing in the streets on Saturday night. You can see it in the landscapes and architecture, which change so completely as you move across the country that the land seems to speak for itself. Most of all, you can see it in the people, whose sophisticated knack for leisure ensures you a rich and rousing experience.
Madrid's bright skies and boundless energy make every sight and sound seem larger than life. Though you expect royal palaces to be grand, for instance, Madrid's Palacio Real has 2,800 rooms. The Prado, Reina Sofía, and Thyssen-Bornemisza museums pack 9,000 Spanish and other European masterworks into an art-saturated half-mile. Sunday's flea market in El Rastro is as thick with overpriced oddities as with human activity. The landmark Fuente de la Cibeles -- with the goddess Cybele on her chariot -- seems to symbolize the vigor and joy with which Madrileños embrace everyday pleasures. Both tapa-tasting and dining, the foremost among these, are fired by animated conversation. The cafés in the Plaza Mayor, one of Europe's grandest squares, are perpetually abuzz, and nightlife stretches into the wee hours near Plaza Santa Ana. Indeed, late-night social diversions are the heartbeat of Madrid, distracting locals from sleep even as the rest of the Western world prepares for another day at the grindstone. Short of dancing 'til dawn, the best way to catch the spirit of the place is to walk through its compact center, where modern life swirls around Mudéjar and medieval remnants on streets like Calle Mayor. Or pay a visit to Parque del Retiro, another venue for the local brand of socializing and, true to its name, a retreat from urban stress.
Old and New Castile
Despite what you may have heard about the rain in Spain falling mainly on the plain, the country's largest such expanse is an arid reach of windy skies and wide vistas. Cut with rocky gorges and fringed with gaunt mountains, this vast plateau is severe, melancholic, and mysterious -- and has inspired more than its share of colorful thoughts. It was here that Don Quixote tilted at windmills, and somber Ávila, ringed by its original 11th-century wall, gave rise to the mystical ecstasies of St. Teresa, who spent 30 years in the Convento de la Encarnación. Medieval towns rise from the landscape like mirages. Austere Toledo, sitting calmly on a battlement-topped granite cliff, inspired El Greco's moody canvases; golden Segovia, following the crest of a rocky ridge, forms postcard views in every direction. The first sight of Cuenca startles: how do 500-year-old houses cling to the sides of a precipice?
Salamanca overwhelms with Renaissance architecture, including one of Spain's largest and most graceful public squares. Valladolid's National Museum of Sculpture, housed in a 15th-century friars' college, has the largest and finest collection of polychrome wood pieces in the world. Medieval Burgos has long been a center of both religious and military activity -- symbolized, perhaps, in the person of native son El Cid, the Christian Reconquest's legendary hero. Prosperous León hums with student activity but is best known for its cathedral, with a whopping 125 stained-glass windows. Perhaps most enticing are the smallest Castilian towns: in a place like Sigüenza, it's entirely possible to feel that you are the first traveler ever to explore these mellow stone streets.
Barcelona and Northern Catalonia
The poet Federico García Lorca called Barcelona's Rambla the only street in the world he wished would never end. A vivid mass of strollers, marketgoers, artists, and vendors, it gets you in the mood for Barcelona's motley and sometimes mesmerizing landmarks. The expansive Boqueria market breathes new life into the notion of grocery shopping. Antoni Gaudí's sinuous Casa Milà and emphatically unique Sagrada Família church exemplify the early 20th century's Moderniste movement, and the exuberant, Art Nouveau Palau de la Música takes aesthetic whimsy that much farther. The Gothic Quarter hides the exquisite 14th-century church of Santa Maria del Mar, the small but striking Plaça del Rei, and the cathedral. Linger in the Plaça de la Seu or Plaça Sant Jaume and you may catch a celebration of Catalan culture, like sardana dancing or castellers (human castles). Outside Barcelona are less-explored Catalan towns like medieval Girona, with its Christian-Moorish-Jewish heritage, and the whitewashed village of Cadaqués on the Costa Brava, a rocky shore shaded with pines and lapped by a lustrous sea.
Granada, Córdoba, and Eastern Andalusia
The Moors made an important mark on this corner of their caliphate. Granada's Alhambra is a marvel of patios, arches, and intricate carvings, with the lush Generalife palace gardens next door. Across a gorge is the Moors' old neighborhood, the Albaicín, an array of ancient white houses tumbling down a hillside. Córdoba's sublime Mezquita -- a mosque with a cathedral in the middle -- is awesome, its 850 columns topped with red-and-white-striped arches. Near the mosque, the thick-walled homes in Córdoba's medieval Jewish quarter, the Judería, all but hide their spectacularly tiled interior courtyards. Around the two cities, Andalusia's olive groves seem to stretch forever in provinces like Jaén, interrupted by gems like Úbeda, with perfectly preserved Renaissance mansions and churches. The historic mining town of Guadix makes a good base for trips to Andalusia's many caves, scooped out of the sandstone mountains and often still inhabited. South of Granada, on the slopes of the Sierra Nevada, lie the villages of the Alpujarras, where descendants of transplanted Galicians craft rugs, blankets, baskets, and pottery.
Fodor's Spain 2000 contains other sections not included in this excerpt.