FlamencoElena Grigorova/Shutterstock.comBy Christine Potter

More things grow in the garden than the gardener sows, goes an old Spanish proverb. It’s an apt epithet for travellers to Spain, who invariably find more than we expect.

One of the best ways to see as much as possible in a relatively short time is to self-drive, and to stop wherever the fancy takes you – villages, towns, open plains, river valleys or mountain passes.

Accommodation costs less than in many European countries, and choices range from modest hostels to some of Europe’s best hotels.

Among the latter are state-run paradors – magnificent heritage buildings and modern, purpose-built hotels. They’re all over the country, and while it’s rare to find one in the heart of a city, if you’re prepared to drive a little distance you’ll be well rewarded. Rates are surprisingly reasonable, whether you stay in a 16th-century palace, a centuries-old monastery with a working community of monks, the 10th-century castle parador in Tortosa near the Catalunya coast, or a modern edifice like the one in Salamanca. Many have swimming pools and fitness centre, with golf, tennis, fishing and other sports nearby.

You’ll discover the much-used architectural terms “mudejar,” designs influenced by Muslims who were permitted to remain in Spain between the 11th and 15th century, and “Romanesque,” Christian-influenced design characterized by rounded arches and restrained use of mouldings.

Food varies from region to region, just like the dining customs. You might choose a culinary theme taking in the seafood along the Atlantic coast like sea bream (besugo), hake (merluza), and other cold-water fish, or regional meats (pork, and the famous pata negra smoked ham, for instance) and local vegetables and fruits. The savours of Spain can be an adventure.

Mainland Spain accounts for three-quarters of the Iberian Peninsula, and within its boundaries are numerous cultures and customs. Outsiders tend to think of Andalucia’s customs as typically Spanish: the breeding of the fiercest bulls, the training of the best matadors, the gypsy flamenco dancers, and so on. But they are uniquely Andalucian, even though found in other areas of Spain.

Along the Galician coast, legacies from eighth-century-BC Celtic settlers are found in customs such as bagpipe playing, traditional moonlight dances, and ancestor worship. Here, too, is the Costa de Morte, so named for the numerous shipwrecks off this coast. Further east, dinosaur tracks have been found in Asturias.

When it comes to activities, Spain has them all, on and below land and sea, and in the air: hot-air ballooning, paragliding, sailing, diving, cycling, hiking and spelunking to name a few. And let’s not forget the colourful festivals, ranging from running with the bulls in Pamplona to mock battles between Christians and Moors.

Top 10 Reasons To Visit Spain
Guggenheim BilbaoSpanish Tourist Office1. Flamenco. Originating in Andalucia, it communicates passion and pride. If you’re in Barcelona check out Tablao Flamenco Cordobes on Las Ramblas for some of the best. (www.tablaocordobes.com).

2. El Prado in Madrid, the world’s largest art gallery with the world’s greatest art. (www.museudelprado.es)

Gaudi NightSpanish Tourist Office3. Gaudi’s Barcelona. Spain’s most famous architect (gaudy Gaudi say some) is synonymous with the city. Tours are an easy way to take in his work.

4. A bullfight. Put your sensibilities on hold and experience the spectacle, typically running from April until September. There will be blood.

CoastlineBorodaev/Shutterstock.com5. The beaches. Spain’s 4,000 kilometres of sunny coastline draw thousands to its 520 Blue Flag beaches. (Blue Flag is a global ecological award.)

6:. The Alhambra Palace in Granada. A great legacy from the Moors, it was the childhood home of Queen Catherine, first wife of England’s Henry VIII. (Her parents Ferdinand and Isabella drove the Moors from Spain.)  

7. Tapas. Often eaten as the evening meal. Sometimes free.

8. The parties. You’re gonna have fun, fun, fun…especially in Ibiza, party capital of the world. It’s wild.

WindsurfingDmitry Tsvetkov/Shutterstock.com9. Sports. With all that coast, sailing is hot. Wind surfing, sky diving, and river rafting too. Marathons are big in Barcelona and Madrid. Did we mention golf?

10. Relaxation. Spain has some of Europe’s best spas and wellness centres.

A trip to Spain can be addictive. There’s so much to see, so much to experience, so much to feel, that once is simply not enough. You can learn more about it from www.spain.infoca.