There are few countries that rival the culture, heritage and lively vivaciousness of Spain. A destination where the holy trinity of food, friends and family form the foundations for happy living, no one is more dedicated to the joy and thrill of having a good time than the Spanish. That zest for life has a powerful effect on anyone who visits its shores. Amazed by the warm welcome extended to all and soon besotted with its endlessly sunny days, often it’s the lifestyle that people fall for first. But then the beauty and diversity of the country itself is revealed and so begins a lifelong love story.
Most of us have some pre-existing ideas about what it is that makes Spain so special. Incredible beaches frequently top that list, alongside bustling, beautiful cities, giant platefuls of paella, and a seemingly endless list of fiestas designed to celebrate life and local traditions. But beyond these factors, there’s so much more to this effervescent Mediterranean country than meets the eye. From phenomenally diverse nature and off-the-beaten track secret beaches, to incredible gastronomy and some of the most iconic hiking trails in the world, Spain has a limitless splash of it all.
Indeed, it’s impossible to get to know the real Spain until you’ve been totally immersed in its thrilling variety of countryside, spanning mountains that reach more than 3,000m skywards to wetlands that provide habitat for myriad endangered species. In fact, the Spanish mainland boasts no fewer than 11 national parks, each one with its own unique characteristics and ecosystems. There’s Picos de Europa in the north, home to brown bears, roe deer and the Iberian wolf; Sierra Nevada in the south, where Mount Mulhacén claims the title of tallest peak in western Europe outside of the Alps; and Doñana in the west, where marshland meets lagoon meets sand dune, and migrating birds descend in their droves.
Needless to say, one of the best ways to get up close and personal with all this natural beauty is on foot, and Spain is blessed with some of the most revered hiking trails in the world. There are more than 100 long distance footpaths or Grandes Recorridos as they’re known, a crisscross of trails creating a web of wonder across the country. The Camino de Santiago is the most famous of these. Considered a pilgrimage, thousands of people from all over the world hike this path each year. But there are plenty of other shorter, more accessible routes, which pack in an abundance of spectacular views. The Caminito del Rey near Màlaga is under 8km long for instance, but carves its way through a clifftops with the River Guadalhorce rushing below. While the Ruta del Cares chisels along the dramatic Cares Canyon and is considered one of the best short walks in Europe.
All this outdoor activity should naturally be punctuated by plentiful food and drinks stops, and with every region in Spain having its own traditional delicacies to sample, there are never any shortage of options. Many foodies make haste for San Sebastián in the Basque Country, which boasts some of the greatest dining experiences in the country. From a bounty of three-starred Michelin star restaurants to pintxos, bitesize portions of deliciousness available at bars, there’s no end of culinary exploration to be done. Elsewhere and Galicia is famous for its seafood, so Pulpo a Feira (octopus market style) should always be on the menu, and in Granada, it’s all about the acclaimed Jamón de Trevélez. Oenophiles won’t want to miss La Rioja, Spain’s most dazzling and accomplished wine region.
When it’s time to rest, it’s well worth getting off the beaten track to discover some of Spain’s plethora of secret charms. So while everyone else is fighting for sarong space at all the usual hotspots, you can kick back and relax. A good place to start is Playa de Castilla on the Costa de la Luz. Part of the previously mentioned Doñana National Park, this vast stretch of golden sand is backed by majestic cliffs and almost always completely empty, save a few surfers and naturists enjoying the seclusion. There’s also Cala Pedrosa on the Costa Brava, an area not usually known for its low-key vibe, but this pebbly beach is a little slice of calm paradise, a place to escape from the humdrum. Finally, there’s Barayo, a protected beach on the Asturias coast that’s dissected by a river running directly to the Atlantic. Totally off-grid and utterly beguiling, this is the side of Spain few people know about it. Once you’ve seen it you never forget.
To find out more visit www.spain.info/en