Thursday, October 8, 2015

My Guide to the 17 Regions of Spain

One of the most striking ideas that I came across during my college-level Hispanic Culture & Civilization course was this notion of España y las EspañasSpain and the Spains. It forced me to reconsider my preconceptions of Spain as a land of Don Quixote, paella, and sunshine and instead come face to face with the rich history and endless variety of this country that refuses to live up to its stereotypes.

During the three years I lived in Spain I was fortunate enough to visit 14 of the country’s 17 autonomous communities, or regions that the central government has granted varying degrees of home rule to. Many of these regions are considered nationalities within the larger Spanish nation-state, either because they speak a language other than Castilian Spanish or because they hold culture and history in common.

Getting beyond the standard Madrid-Barcelona-Sevilla itinerary gave me a more nuanced view of the country, told me the deeper truth of the country’s past, and (most importantly) introduced me to all the different leaves that make up the Spanish dinner table. And I think that’s what makes Spain such an interesting place: hardly homogenous, this country revels in its inherent diversity.

If you’re going to be spending any amount of time in Spain, I highly encourage you to detour from the “road more traveled” and check out the 17 regions that compose the Kingdom of Spain. Hopefully the breakdown on today’s blog post will point you in the right direction!

Andalucía

Location of Andalucía in Spain
(Source: Wikipedia)
Flag of Andalucía, Spain
(Source: Wikipedia)
Pronunciation: “an-dah-loo-THEE-ah” [an.da.luˈθi.a]

Population: 8,440,300

Size: 87,268 km² (33,694 sq mi), about the same as Maine or Serbia

Demonym: andaluz (m), andaluza (f), andaluces (pl)

Languages: Andalusian Spanish (andaluz): almost a language in its own right, this accent is spoken extremely fast and consonants like D, L, R, and S are dropped off at the ends of words

Major cities: Sevilla (capital), MálagaCórdoba, Granada, Jerez de la Frontera, Almería, Huelva, Cádiz, and Jaén

My take: Historically separated from the rest of the peninsula by the Sierra Morena mountains, Andalucía was dominated by the Moors longer than any other part of Spain, and it’s here that their legacy is most visible in monuments like Granada’s Alhambra palace or the Great Mosque of Córdoba. This isolation and other-ness contributed to the region’s inscrutable, fast-paced accent, but I’m sure the intense summer heat encouraged “lazy” speech patterns, too. Said sunshine paved the way for mass tourism to invade Andalucía’s Mediterranean beaches and today the south is one of the most heavily-visited regions in the country.

Córdoba, Spain
Córdoba, de fiesta
But Andalucía is also home to Spain’s liveliest culture: warm, loud, and extroverted. Throughout the spring and summer even the tiniest villages worth their salt will host weeklong town fairs dedicated to their patron saint, with Sevilla’s Feria de Abril being the most famous (and exclusive). Córdoba goes all out with their patio-decorating competition, and Granada finds itself festooned with crosses of flowers for the Cruces de Mayo festival. Unlike much of the north, bullfighting is still a big part of the culture. Tapas, or small plates of food that accompany your drink, are a universe all their own here, and come free with your drink order in the eastern half of the region.

How to get there: Málaga’s airport is Spain’s fourth-busiest, and Sevilla’s isn’t too far behind. Outside of flying here, your best bet is to ride the AVE high-speed train, which links Madrid with Córdoba, Sevilla, Málaga…and eventually Granada, too. The region is also extensively served by the bus company ALSA.

Aragón

Location of Aragón in Spain
(Source: Wikipedia)
Flag of Aragón, Spain
(Source: Wikipedia)
Pronunciation: “ah-rah-GON” [a.ɾaˈɣon]

Population: 1,347,150

Size: 47,719 km² (18,424 sq mi), about the same as the Dominican Republic

Demonym: aragonés (m), aragonesa (f)

Languages: Castilian Spanish (castellano) and Aragonese (aragonés), but the latter is only spoken by about 10,000 people in northern Huesca province

Major cities: Zaragoza (capital), Huesca, and Teruel

My take: This wedge-shaped swath of inland Spain was once a key component of the Crown of Aragón, a vast confederacy that stretched from eastern Spain across to southern Italy and even Greece. Trade made Barcelona and Valencia fabulously wealthy, but these riches also sailed up the Ebro River to the political center of this dynastic union, Zaragoza.

The Moors lived and prospered in this part of Spain even after the Christian kings had conquered it. This convivencia or “living-together-ness” led to the flowering of Mudéjar, a style of architecture found only in Spain that combined Gothic forms with Islamic decorations and building materials.

Teruel, Spain
Church of San Martín, Teruel
Today more than half the population of Aragón lives in Zaragoza, the capital, meaning much of this region is quiet and empty. Undiscovered villages hide out in the south, while the towering Pyrenees stand sentry along the French border, where hikers and skiers alike will find some of Spain’s best scenery. Aragonese cuisine is probably the heartiest in Spain: meat-and-potatoes dishes, wild game, river catches, and cured ham all find their way onto the dinner table here.

How to get there: All roads lead to Zaragoza, which sits about halfway between Madrid and Barcelona along the AVE high-speed train line. High-speed rail continues north to Huesca, and slower diesel trains terminate in Jaca and Canfranc on the French border. Teruel to the south, despite its “Teruel Exists!” campaign a few years back, is still only served by the Zaragoza-Valencia train line.

Asturias

Location of Asturias in Spain
(Source: Wikimedia Commons)
Flag of Asturias, Spain
(Source: Wikipedia)
Pronunciation: “as-TOO-ree-as” [asˈtu.ɾjas]

Population: 1,058,976

Size: 10,604 km² (4,094 sq mi), about the same as Lebanon

Demonym: asturiano (m), asturiana (f)

Languages: Castilian Spanish (castellano) and Asturian (asturianu), widely spoken but not co-official

Major cities: Gijón, Oviedo (capital), and Avilés

My take: Officially the Principality of Asturias (Principado de Asturias), this region occupies perhaps the most gorgeous sweep of Spain’s green northern coast. It would take a lifetime to get to know all the unblemished beaches and colorful fishing villages that dot the Asturian seashores, although you’d certainly get your fill of delicious fish and crustaceans along the way. The stunning Picos de Europa mountain range rises up within sight of the ocean, and it’s here that steep, dramatic valleys harbor cozy villages and where traditional ways of raising animals and cheesemaking live on: Asturias is a treasure almost completely unknown to outsiders.

Picos de Europa, Spain
Cares River Gorge
Locals joke that “Asturias is Spain, and all the rest is conquered land,” since it was the only part of the peninsula the Moors never conquered when they invaded in the 700s. The deposed Visigothic nobility made their redoubt in this rainy, rugged province, where they regrouped and, over the centuries, began to “re-conquer” Spain. Asturias rapidly industrialized in the late 19th and 20th centuries as mines delved into rich coal deposits and railroads criss-crossed the once-secluded region. Nevertheless, asturianos hold on to their longtime traditions, and there’s nothing more authentic than an earthenware bowl of fabada—white bean + sausage stew—paired with a glass of crisp, bubbly cider.

How to get there: Standard rail services link Gijón and Oviedo with towns along the rail corridors to Madrid and Barcelona, while slower narrow-gauge trains on the Feve network go west to Galicia and east to Bilbao. Asturias’ airport mainly offers domestic destinations.

Balearic Islands

Location of the Balearic Islands in Spain
(Source: Wikimedia Commons)
Flag of the Balearic Islands, Spain
(Source: Wikipedia)
Pronunciation: “EES-las bah-lay-AH-rays” [ˈis.las ba.leˈa.ɾes] (Spanish) or “EE-lyuhs bul-luh-AS” [ˈi.ʎəs bə.ɫəˈas] (Catalan)

Population: 1,113,114

Size: 4,992 km² (1,927 sq mi), about the same as Trinidad and Tobago

Demonym: balear

Languages: Castilian Spanish (castellano) and Catalan, which is variously called mallorquí, menorquí, or eivissenc on each island

Main islands: Mallorca, Menorca, Ibiza, and Formentera; Palma de Mallorca is the capital

My take: Called Islas Baleares in Spanish and Illes Balears in Catalan, this four-island archipelago shares strong cultural bonds with Catalunya and Valencia on the mainland, as all three communities speak dialects of the same language. In the minds of many Europeans, the island of Ibiza is famous for its wild party scene, while Mallorca has effectively been colonized by the holiday-going Germans. These strategic Mediterranean islands have been popular throughout history, though; they’ve passed from the Carthaginians to the Romans, the Vandals, the Byzantines, the Moors, and the Aragonese. Just two centuries ago, they were hotly contested by Spain and Great Britain.

Palma de Mallorca, Spain
(Source: Paul Balchin)
Despite its party reputation, much of the island of Ibiza has been declared a World Heritage Site for its biodiversity. Mayonnaise was invented in the city of Maó on Menorca. A stunning Gothic cathedral sails through Palma de Mallorca’s old town, where old-fashioned trains depart for Sóller in the Tramuntana mountain range…where snow even falls in the winter.

How to get there: Given the island setting, it’s not surprising that Palma de Mallorca has Spain’s 3rd-busiest airport. Menorca and Ibiza have airports of their own, too. Ferries are another option to consider, be they long-haul routes from Barcelona or Valencia or short island-hopping ones.

Basque Country

Location of the Basque Country in Spain
(Source: Wikimedia Commons)
Flag of the Basque Country, Spain
(Source: Wikipedia)
Pronunciation: “pah-EES BAHS-koe” [paˈis ˈbas.ko] (Spanish) or “ay-oos-kah-dee” [eus̺kadi] (Basque)

Population: 2,191,682

Size: 7,234 km² (2,793 sq mi), about the same as Delaware

Demonym: vasco/a (Spanish) or euskaldun (Basque)

Languages: Castilian Spanish (castellano) and Basque (euskara)

Major cities: Bilbao, San Sebastián, and Vitoria-Gasteiz (capital)

My take: Called País Vasco in Spanish and Euskadi in the native Basque language, if there’s any part of Spain that could make it as an independent nation, the Basque Country is it. Although the Basque-speaking provinces include neighboring Navarra and parts of southwestern France, this autonomous community proudly embraces its Basque identity like no other part of western Europe. Basque, after all, is a language isolate, meaning it’s unrelated to any other living language on the planet.

The Basque Country became one of Spain’s major economic powerhouses after it embraced the Industrial Revolution; iron deposits naturally led to factories churning out steel, while mariners improved on their centuries-old shipbuilding techniques. The Basques held on to their old traditions as they entered the industrialized world, however; songs, ball games, seafood dishes, and typical house constructions endure to this day.

Bilbao, Spain
Bilbao
Cries for home rule were stamped out after the Civil War, and the independence movement was hurt by attacks the terrorist group ETA carried out. But nowadays the Basque government enjoys major autonomy, directing everything from tax policy to Basque-language education to interurban railways. The Basques’ biggest contribution to Spanish food hasn’t been a single dish but rather a way of eating: the pintxo, a creative tapa held in place on top of a baguette slice with a toothpick.

How to get there: Your best bet is to fly into Bilbao, or alternatively you could take a scenic train ride from Galicia, Madrid, or Barcelona and transfer to one of many regional trains that connect this highly-developed region. You can also walk across a bridge between Hendaye, France, and Irún, Spain.

Canary Islands

Location of the Canary Islands in Spain
(Source: Wikipedia)
Flag of the Canary Islands, Spain
(Source: Wikipedia)
Pronunciation: “EES-las kah-NAH-ree-as” [ˈis.las kaˈna.ɾjas]

Population: 2,218,344

Size: 7,447 km² (2,893 sq mi), about the same as Delaware

Demonym: canario (m), canaria (f)

Languages: Canarian Spanish (closely related to Cuban Spanish) and Gomeran whistle

Main islands: El Hierro, Fuerteventura, Gran Canaria, La Gomera, Lanzarote, La Palma, and Tenerife; Las Palmas de Gran Canaria and Santa Cruz de Tenerife are co-capitals

My take: Called Islas Canarias in Spanish, this archipelago of seven islands can be thought of as Spain’s Hawaii. Blessed with year-round sunshine and warmth, the Canaries draw millions of tourists every year both from mainland Spain and cold, cloudy Britain. Lush, tropical vegetation grows on the rich volcanic soil here—the volcano El Teide is the tallest mountain in Spain.

Papas arrugadas - potatoes with mojo sauce
(Source: Jaume Escofet)
Sun and surf stereotypes can only go so far, however, for the Canaries tell a deeper story. Originally inhabited by the Guanche people, in the 15th century the islands were conquered by Castilian armies, who intermarried with the local population and imposed Spanish culture. Little remains from the Guanches except their ingenious whistled language, “spoken” across the steep valleys of the island of Gomera. Canarios love their sauces, and tend to drizzle peppery red mojo picón or parsley-based mojo verde over everything from baked cheese to wrinkled potatoes.

How to get there: There are airports on all seven islands; Gran Canaria and Tenerife South are the 5th- and 7th-busiest airports in Spain. It’s fairly easy to hop from one island to the other by ferry or connecting flights.

Cantabria

Location of Cantabria in Spain
(Source: Wikimedia Commons)
Flag of Cantabria, Spain
(Source: Wikipedia)
Pronunciation: “kan-TAH-vree-ah” [kanˈta.βɾja]

Population: 591,888

Size: 5,321 km² (2,054 sq mi), about the same as Brunei and a little bigger than Rhode Island

Demonym: cántabro (m), cántabra (f),

Languages: Castilian Spanish (castellano) and Cantabrian (montañés), a little-spoken transition dialect between Spanish and Asturian

Major cities: Santander (capital), Torrelavega, and Castro-Urdiales

My take: Although historically bound up with the kingdom of Castilla, mountainous Cantabria has always retained a separate identity from her counterparts in the meseta (central plateau) to the south. Like her sister Asturias to the west, Cantabria is a province of beautiful, bountiful coastlines and foreboding mountains further inland, both of which are perpetually green given the northern coast’s high rainfall. This tiny region has been inhabited since time immemorial, and prehistoric people made cave art drawings like those in Altamira—which are closed off—and El Castillo—which are open to the public. The tribe of the Cantabrii were the last holdouts against Roman rule in the peninsula and fought bitterly against a ten-year campaign that Caesar Augustus himself personally led.

Cantabria, Spain
Cantabrian countryside
Like Asturias and the Basque Country, Cantabria has its fair share of factories and railways that form the backbone of the populous central core’s economy. But come summertime, its pleasant beach resorts fill with Spanish vacationers looking for an escape from the crowds on the Mediterranean or the foreigners on the islands. A turn-of-the-century king turned Santander into a royal getaway, and the city still retains its classy vibes today.

How to get there: Santander’s airport is a Ryanair destination. Renfe operates trains that head south to Valladolid and Madrid, as well as Feve narrow-gauge trains between Oviedo and Bilbao.

Castilla-La Mancha

Location of Castilla-La Mancha in Spain
(Source: Wikipedia)
Flag of Castilla-La Mancha, Spain
(Source: Wikipedia)
Pronunciation: “kas-TEE-yah lah MAHN-chah” [kasˈti.ʝa la ˈman.tʃa]

Population: 2,100,998

Size: 79,463 km² (30,681 sq mi), about the same as South Carolina or the Czech Republic

Demonym: castellanomanchego/a or just manchego (m), manchega (f)

Languages: Castilian Spanish (castellano), but a little more relaxed than the “standard” variant spoken to the north

Major cities: Albacete, Talavera de la Reina, Guadalajara, Toledo (capital), Ciudad Real, and Cuenca

My take: The southern half of the historical region of Castilla, this community also encompasses a sub-region called La Mancha in the southwest, famous for being the setting of Don Quixote. Dozens of La Mancha’s iconic black-and-white windmills survived the transformations of the 20th century, and today, modern Manchegan wind turbines lead Spain in producing wind power. There’s a lot more to La Mancha than just tilting at windmills, though.

Campo de Criptana, Spain
Windmills in Campo de Criptana
The ghosts of long-gone Jews and Muslims haunt the tortuous alleyways and magnificent sanctuaries of Toledo, which is understandably mobbed by daytime visitors from Madrid. Houses built in the traditional style of Cuenca, the colorful casas colgadas, hang perilously over river gorges. And the most emblematic of all Spanish cheeses is made here, a wheel of firm, aged sheep’s milk sealed in dark gray wax: Manchego.

How to get there: AVE high-speed rail links every provincial capital in the region with Madrid and various destinations that radiate out toward the Mediterranean coast: Sevilla, Murcia, Alicante, Valencia, and Barcelona.

Castilla y León

Location of Castilla y León in Spain
(Source: Wikipedia)
Flag of Castilla y León, Spain
(Source: Wikipedia)
Pronunciation: “kas-TEE-lyah ee lay-OWN” [kasˈti.ʎa i leˈon]

Population: 2,519,875

Size: 94,222 km² (36,379 sq mi), about the same as Indiana or Portugal

Demonym: castellanoleonés/a or just castellano/a or leonés/a depending on which half of the region you’re in

Languages: Castilian Spanish (castellano)—Spanish was born here!—and Leonese (llionés) in the far northwest; Galician (galego) is also spoken in the county of Bierzo

Major cities: Valladolid (capital), Burgos, SalamancaLeón, Palencia, Ponferrada, ZamoraÁvila, Segovia, and Soria

My take: Castilla y León combines the northern half of the historical Castilian lands with those of León (to the consternation of some Leonese folk, who would prefer to be independent from Castilla). Whatever you might think “Old Spain” could be, you’ll probably find it somewhere in this huge north-central region. Balconied houses painted in earth tones crumble in many Spaniards’ ancestral villages; parish churches and silos dot endless fields of grain; robust red wine glugs out from bottles of Ribera del Duero or Toro; the aroma of sautéed garlic fills the streets right before lunchtime; and loud conversations in clear, classic Castilian echo out of open windows.

Segovia, Spain
Segovia
The Camino de Santiago is the thread that sews the quilt of Castilla y León together. The bulk of all pilgrims on their way to Santiago de Compostela trace a northern route through Burgos and León, but quite a few take the Via de la Plata and come from the south via Salamanca and Zamora. Regardless of the Camino they take, any pilgrim will encounter an embarrassment of riches, as some of the finest Gothic cathedrals and old walled towns in the country lie along this pilgrimage. And this region isn’t called Castilla for nothing, as literally hundreds of fairy-tale castles and mighty fortresses pepper this sprawling land.

How to get there: To get from Madrid to any of the major cities along the northern coast, you have to pass through Castilla y León first, so fortunately the region is extremely well-connected with cross-country trains and buses.

Catalunya

Location of Catalunya in Spain
(Source: Wikipedia)
Flag of Catalunya, Spain
(Source: Wikipedia)
Pronunciation: “kah-tah-LOO-nyah” [ka.taˈlu.ɲa] (Spanish) or “kuh-tul-LOO-nyuh” [kə.təˈɫu.ɲə] (Catalan)

Population: 7,570,908

Size: 32,114 km² (12,399 sq mi), about the same as Maryland or Moldova

Demonym: català (m), catalana (f)

Languages: Castilian Spanish (castellano), Catalan (català), and Aranese (aranés), a variety of the Gascon dialect of the Occitan language spoken only in the Pyrenees’ Aran Valley

Major cities: Barcelona (capital), Lleida, Tarragona, and Girona

My take: Forever in Spanish headlines for its defiant independence movement, Catalunya could very well be a European nation of its own. Often it seems like the most European part of Spain: Catalans are known for being punctual and hardworking, landscapes full of vineyards and olive groves seem like they’re taken straight out of Tuscany or southern France, and they speak a language more closely related to French and Italian than to Castilian Spanish.

Girona, Spain
Girona
While much of the Spanish countryside languished in poor conditions in the modern era, Catalunya embraced the Industrial Revolution and wealth-generating textile mills soon popped up across the region. Even today, Catalunya accounts for a quarter of Spain’s GDP. Catalans are proud of their distinct cultural heritage, from their octagonal Gothic churches and Gaudí’s playful reinterpretation of architecture to the sardana dance and castellers or human towers. Barcelona and the Costa Brava have nearly been overrun by mass tourism, but the rest of the community offers medieval villages, comfort food, and the reminder that Spain will continually make you rethink your preconceptions of it.

How to get there: If you don’t fly into Spain via Madrid, then you’ll most likely land at Barcelona’s El Prat, the second-busiest airport in the country. Ryanair operates a budget hub to the north in Girona, and all four provincial capitals are on the AVE high-speed train network. Barcelona even has high-speed connections to Marseille, Toulouse, Lyons, and Paris.

Extremadura

Location of Extremadura in Spain
(Source: Wikipedia)
Flag of Extremadura, Spain
(Source: Wikipedia)
Pronunciation: “es-tray-mah-DOO-rah” [es.tɾe.maˈðu.ɾa]

Population: 1,104,004

Size: 41,634 km² (16,075 sq mi), about the same as Switzerland

Demonym: extremeño (m), extremeña (f)

Languages: Castilian Spanish (castellano), similar to the Andalusian accent; Extremaduran (estremeñu), spoken in the north but not co-official; and Fala, spoken in a single valley

Major cities: Badajoz, Cáceres, and Mérida (capital)

My take: Extremadura is probably Spain’s most over-looked region, which is a crying shame because its historical heritage is second to none. Mérida remains the clearest reminder of Rome’s presence in Spain, with a temple, arch, or theater at every turn, while Cáceres has one of the country’s best-preserved monumental walled cities. Extremadura’s most infamous local sons include Hernán Cortés and Francisco Pizarro, who led the conquest of the Aztecs and the Incas, respectively. Its towns would go on to have second lives in the Americas, giving their names to Albuquerque, N.M., Medellín (Colombia), and Our Lady of Guadalupe. King Carlos I, exhausted from waging endless religious wars in Renaissance Europe, spent his last years here in peace at the Monastery of Yuste.

Mérida, Spain
Mérida
The region’s dry, Wild West-style environment is the perfect setting for curing jamón, those legs of ham you’ll see hanging from any Spanish bar worth its salt. The county of La Vera is famous for its sweet and spicy varieties of pimentón (smoked paprika), while the next-door Jerte Valley produces the juiciest cherries you’ll ever have in your life, only available at the end of springtime.

How to get there: Long, slow trains plod along the S-shaped corridor from Badajoz to Cáceres on their way to Madrid, while others head out east to La Mancha or south to Sevilla. Unfortunately, trains to Portugal no longer pass through here, so you’ll have to rely on buses for international journeys.

Galicia

Location of Galicia in Spain
(Source: Wikipedia)
Flag of Galicia, Spain
(Source: Wikipedia)
Pronunciation: “gah-LEE-thee-ah” [gaˈli.θja]

Population: 2,765,940

Size: 29,574.4 km² (11,418.7 sq mi), about the same as Belgium or central Indiana

Demonym: gallego/a (Spanish) or galego/a (Galician)

Languages: Castilian Spanish (castellano) and Galician (galego)

Major cities: VigoA Coruña, Ourense, Lugo, Santiago de Compostela (capital), Pontevedra, and Ferrol

My take: Much of Spain is dry, hot, and sunny, but green, rainy Galicia offers a welcome change of scenery. Because of the region’s rugged and unforgiving terrain, Galicia has been historically isolated from the rest of the country, a factor that not only kept many Galicians in poverty until the 20th century but also protected the language—a close cousin with Portuguese—from disappearing. Development funds from the central government and the EU have modernized the region, improved the lives of millions, and helped stem the tide of emigrants. Still, many Galicians’ fortunes continue to be bound up with the land—dairy or potato farmers—and the sea—fishermen or tinning factory workers—as they have for centuries.

Natural wonders abound here, from the Ribeira Sacra’s canyon walls where grapevines grow to the pristine beaches of the Cíes Islands. Manmade wonders include the complete Roman walls that encircle Lugo’s old town, the Tower of Hercules—a lighthouse that has functioned for two millennia—in Coruña, and the monumental old town of Santiago.

Camino de Santiago
On the final stage of the Camino de Santiago
But it’s the local culture that makes Galicia so special. Grandmas and first-graders hold lively conversations in their musical language. Bagpipe notes hop out of upper-story windows to dance the muiñeira with you. The weather is a legitimate topic of conversation. Bartenders pour up short glasses of licor café, a sweet, coffee-infused liqueur. There seems to be a food festival for every dish imaginable, from octopus to pig ears. And the Camino de Santiago, a medieval pilgrimage route that ends in Santiago de Compostela, draws both Spanish and international pilgrims alike to the purported remains of the James the Apostle.

How to get there: A Coruña, Santiago, and Vigo all have airports of their own, but Santiago receives the most international flights and is the Galician Ryanair hub. Porto in northern Portugal is also another option to consider, as it’s pretty easy to move back and forth between Porto and Vigo on the international Celta train, and buses run all the way from Lisbon to Coruña. Cross-country trains connect Galicia with Barcelona and Madrid both day and night, but it won’t be for another several years until the high-speed train tracks from Madrid are complete.

La Rioja

Location of La Rioja in Spain
(Source: Wikimedia Commons)
Flag of La Rioja, Spain
(Source: Wikipedia)
Pronunciation: “lah ree-O-khah” [la ˈrjo.xa]

Population: 323,609

Size: 5,045 km² (1,948 sq mi)

Demonym: riojano (m), riojana (f)

Languages: Castilian Spanish (castellano)

Major cities: Logroño (capital)

My take: Like Cantabria on the northern coast, La Rioja was once a mere province of Old Castilla until it broke off when the Spanish state decentralized in the 1980s. As the center of production for the prestigious Rioja wine variety, the region is blanketed by vineyards and wineries that stretch from the banks of the Ebro River right up to the mountains.

Logroño, Spain
Grapevine sidewalks, Logroño
La Rioja is a key stopping point along the Camino de Santiago, and villages like Nájera and Santo Domingo de la Calzada owe much of their existence to pilgrims passing through in the Middle Ages. The region also claims to be home to the earliest documents written in Castilian Spanish, housed in the twin monasteries of San Millán de la Cogolla.

How to get there: Bilbao is the closest major airport, but there are also several trains from Madrid and Barcelona that stop off at Logroño’s new, modern train station.

Madrid

Location of Madrid in Spain
(Source: Wikimedia Commons)
Flag of Madrid, Spain
(Source: Wikipedia)
Pronunciation: “mah-DREETH” [maˈðɾiθ]

Population: 6,414,709

Size: 8,030.1 km² (3,100.4 sq mi), a little smaller than Puerto Rico

Demonym: madrileño (m), madrileña (f)

Languages: Castilian Spanish (castellano)

Major cities: Madrid (capital) and Alcalá de Henares

My take: The Community of Madrid encompasses not just Spain’s cosmopolitan capital but also all the villages in the province of the same name. Home to Europe’s third-largest metropolitan area, this region also has several quaint villages, historical towns, and mountain ranges where you can get away from the hustle and bustle of the big city. Once a backwater like much of south-central Spain, Madrid quickly modernized when it became the country’s permanent capital 500 years ago.

Madrid, Spain
Red rooftops, Madrid
You can find three World Heritage Sites here, all accessible by speedy Cercanías commuter trains from downtown Madrid: Alcalá de Henares, the birthplace of Cervantes and a historic university town; Aranjuez, a former springtime residence for the royals; and El Escorial, an imposing Renaissance monastery-palace.

How to get there: Madrid is the hub of the nation, from railways to highways to airports, so if you’re coming to Spain, it’s hard not to pass through here. The Chamartín and Atocha train stations serve the north and the south sides of the city, respectively, while the Barajas airport has extensive connections with the rest of the country, Europe, and the world.

Murcia

Location of Murcia in Spain
(Source: Wikimedia Commons)
Flag of Murcia, Spain
(Source: Wikipedia)
Pronunciation: “MOOR-thee-ah” [ˈmuɾ.θja]

Population: 1,472,049

Size: 11,313 km² (4,368 sq mi), about the same as The Gambia

Demonym: murciano (m), murciana (f)

Languages: Castilian Spanish (castellano), similar to the Andalusian accent

Major cities: Murcia (capital) and Cartagena

My take: Murcia was the only region on mainland Spain I never got around to visiting, probably because I knew very little about this tiny coastal province sandwiched between two heavyweights, Andalucía and Valencia. Come to find out, Murcia grows so much produce that it’s been nicknamed “The Orchard of Europe,” and its warm climate has also given rise to the award-winning Jumilla wine variety. Coastal Cartagena began its life 2,200 years ago as the Phoenician harbor of “New” Carthage, and continues its maritime tradition today as the Spanish Navy’s primary base. Nearby, the pleasant Mar Menor attracts beachgoers with its unique lagoon setting.

La Manga del Mar Menor, Spain
(Source: María García Huertas)
How to get there: There’s an airport outside the capital city, but you might want to consider flying into Alicante and riding the Cercanías commuter rail into town. Otherwise, sit back and enjoy the train rides from Madrid or Barcelona.

Navarra

Location of Navarra in Spain
(Source: Wikimedia Commons)
Flag of Navarra, Spain
(Source: Wikipedia)
Pronunciation: “nah-VAHR-rah” [naˈβa.ra] (Spanish) or “nah-fahr-ro-ah” [nafaroa] (Basque)

Population: 644,477

Size: 10,391 km² (4,012 sq mi), about half the size of New Jersey

Demonym: navarro (m), navarra (f)

Languages: Castilian Spanish (castellano) and Basque (euskara) in the northern half

Major cities: Pamplona (capital)

My take: Officially the Chartered Community of Navarra (Comunidad Foral de Navarra), this is a region with a proud history of independence dating back to medieval times, when this tiny kingdom once spanned both sides of the Pyrenees. As a Castilian province, it retained its historic privileges and rights (called fueros), many of which endure to this day, like control over tax policy. Pamplona was a favorite haunt of Ernest Hemingway, who probably single-handedly popularized the daredevil Running of the Bulls in the American imagination. But there’s more to the region than just the fleeting San Fermín fiestas.

Pamplona, Spain
Pamplona
Some of Spain’s most alluring castles stand sentry in the Navarrese countryside, silent guardians of pilgrims on the Camino de Santiago who first step into Spanish territory in Navarra. Jesuit founders Ignatius of Loyola and St. Francis Xavier both had connections to the community. While the southern half is 100% Spanish, Basque speakers dominate the closer you get to the Basque Country.

How to get there: Like La Rioja to the southwest, Navarra is serviced by trains from both Madrid and Barcelona, but also enjoys train service along the Basque Country-Zaragoza axis. Fly into Bilbao. Walk the Camino de Santiago to get across the mountains from France.

Valencia

Location of Valencia in Spain
(Source: Wikipedia)
Flag of Valencia, Spain
(Source: Wikipedia)
Pronunciation: “bah-LAYN-thee-ah” [baˈlen.θja] (Spanish) or “vah-LAYN-see-ah” [vaˈlen.si.a] (Catalan)

Population: 5,129,266

Size: 23,255 km² (8,979 sq mi), about the same as New Hampshire or Djibouti

Demonym: valenciano/a (Spanish) or valencià (m), valenciana (f) (Catalan)

Languages: Castilian Spanish (castellano) and Catalan, which is called valencià here

Major cities: Valencia (capital), Alicante, and Castelló de la Plana

My take: What now makes up the Valencian Community reached its golden age in the 1400s, when the city of Valencia was a major Mediterranean center of trade, especially in silk. The region began its slow decline once a sea route to East Asia was opened up, and it was economically devastated when the Moors—who made up a large part of the population—were banished; tax coffers dried up and abandoned fields grew weeds.

Valencia, Spain
City of Arts & Sciences, Valencia
The Comunitat Valencià has made a huge comeback, though; Valencia is Spain’s third-largest city, beach tourism keeps the economy afloat (Exhibit A: the high-rises of Benidorm), and citrus orchards quench Spaniards’ insatiable thirst for fresh-squeezed orange juice. Short-grain rice that the Arabs first cultivated here finds its way into countless savory dishes, not least the world-famous paella. And no Spanish Christmas would be complete without bars of turrón, almond nougat produced in and around Alicante.

Like their cousins to the northeast, Valencians also speak Catalan; however, due to political differences and distinct regional identity, they refer to their dialect as “valencià” instead.

How to get there: AVE trains zip from Madrid to Valencia and Alicante, leaving the coastal corridor to Euromed trains. Valencia and Alicante have major airports, but Castelló’s airport has become the Spanish equivalent of that Alaskan “Bridge to Nowhere.”

What’s your favorite Spanish region? How many have you checked off of your list? Tell me below in the discussion thread!
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