The many colours of Spain

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Shaped by a history that has seen Moorish invasions, civil war and a subsequent dictatorship, as well as modern day separatism, each region of Spain has a fierce culture all of its own. Tara Harrison helps you navigate between the cities and explains what attracts travellers to this fascinating land

 

Moorish marvels: Granada

Cultural magnet: Perched high in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, the crowning glory of this city is the jaw-dropping El Alhambra Palace. With intricate garden courtyards framing intimate rooms, it’s like something out of a Disney film – you half expect Aladdin to emerge on a flying carpet.
Not surprisingly then, this Moorish palace is one of Spain’s most frequented monuments. The 1000-year old building is also testament to the Moorish philosophy that there is no such thing as too much embellishment. Most of the interior arches have no practical purpose and exist only to be pretty.
But wait, there’s more: For a flavour of Arabian Nights in Europe, head to Granada’s Muslim Quarter, Albayzin. A relic of the city’s Islamic past, the narrow cobblestone streets are home to mansions with walled gardens that call to mind Moroccan riads. The quarter is dominated, ironically, by the Salvador Cathedral, a church that replaced a mosque in the 16th century. An increasing North African population has brought Arabic history into the present day with tea houses and souk-style markets.
Local haunt: Free tapas with drinks is a Granada tradition, so make your way to Los Diamantes at opening hour to guarantee a table as this buzzing bar fills up fast.

Gothic grandeur: Seville

Cultural magnet: Spanish stereotypes come to life in Seville, against a backdrop of the biggest Gothic cathedral in the world. The cobbled streets are the perfect stomping ground for the foot-clacking, frilled-hem whirl of the flamenco. Seville is the spiritual home of this iconic Spanish dance, described as a struggle between life and death.
The street philosophy continues with religious processions where men in pointed hoods (a tradition adapted by the Ku Klux Klan) march during Holy Week. April Fair is one of the largest festivals in Spain and locals ride on horseback in traditional costume before a feast of paella and sherry ensues.
But wait, there’s more: Star Wars fans may have a sense of deja vu when walking into Seville’s majestic Plaza de Espagna, the backdrop for Attack of the Clones. The cost of the decadent architecture and landscaping almost sent the city bankrupt in 1929. Horse and carriage can take you trotting past grounds that brim with fountains, bridges and manicured gardens.
Local haunt: The best place to get a taste of Seville is at Heladeria La Fiorentina where rosemary, orange blossom and sherry ice cream melts the scent of the city on your tongue.

Surreal sights: Barcelona


 

Cultural magnet: It is impossible to divorce Barcelona from surrealist architect Gaudi and his legacy lives on throughout this pulsating city. Start at the high tops of Parc Guell, where rainbow coloured mosaic lizards rest on tiled stairs. Here you can take in the finest vantage point over Barcelona and explore a place where Alice, of Wonderland fame, would seamlessly fit in.
Gaudi’s magnum opus, however, is the cathedral La Sagrada Familia, which still isn’t completed some 86 years after his death. La Pedrera houses a museum to his work and here you can learn how his structures mimic nature.
But wait, there’s more: Night is the most important time of day in Barcelona. At 3am in Australia, most bars and clubs have shut up shop. Not so in the city affectionately known as Barca.
It’s peak time when the clock strikes three, and on weekends the locals tend to party until 7am. Kick off the night at a century-old bolthole called Kiosco La Cazalla off the main tourist strip of La Ramblas. It offers a little known Andalucian tipple called Cazalla, a cherry firewater that comes with floating raisins.
Local haunt: El Bulli chefs have a tapas bar called Tickets and this fantastical food odyssey features exploding olives, cheese balloons, edible forests and a cotton candy tree.

Cultural collision: Madrid

Cultural magnet: Ernest Hemmingway said Madrid was “the most Spanish of all cities”, and the capital certainly is a crucible of Spanish culture. For starters, it is home to the largest bullring in Spain, with capacity for 25,000 people.
But if it’s a less confronting spectacle you seek, some of the best art galleries in Europe can be found in the city. The Prado Museum displays ground-breaking Spanish artists such as Velazquez and Goya, with the show stopping piece being Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights. For the best of Spain’s 20th century art, make your way to the the Reina Sofia museum to see works by Picasso and Dali and the masterpiece that is Picasso’s Guernica. Better yet, the big name museums are free on Sundays.
But wait, there’s more: Let your tastebuds be the guide to the city’s fusion of regional culture. Restaurants in the capital have taken inspiration from Catalan, Andalucian and Basque cuisine.
With more than 3000 restaurants, several of which are Michelin-starred, you are spoilt for choice. Traditional Madrid fare has Castilian roots and consists of meat-heavy dishes like roast pig and tripe casserole.
Local haunt: Food gets personal at Arce restaurant. You cannot eat or order until you have talked to the talented Basque chef, who then concocts courses tailored to your appetite and palate.

Aromatic ambience: Valencia

Cultural magnet: This is the city that gave us the one-pan wonder that is paella. Situated on Spain’s Mediterranean coast, the city has several beaches and seaside resorts that are popular fly and flop stops.
But to really get to grips with the culture of the city, visit during March for Las Fallas. This is a party everyone can participate in, with sangria downed and fireworks upped each night. Locals set alight huge effigies and on the final night they are filled with fireworks and blown up in the bonfire to end all them all.
But wait, there’s more: Photos of revellers wearing goggles and dripping with tomato pulp are among the most renowned images of Spain and it all happens annually just outside Valencia.
La Tomatina is the sloppiest festival around and it occurs every August in a town called Bunol. Around one hundred tons of tomatoes are hurled and mashed into the crowd. To take part in the festival the tomatoes must be squished before they are thrown to avoid hurting people with a veritable tomato tornado. At the end of the mayhem, the crowd is hosed down by the local fire brigade.
Local haunt: Fancy a sip of tiger nuts (don’t worry, they are a type of almond), with sugar and ice? This Valencian speciality is served at Horchateria Santa Catalina. And while you’re there, try to keep a straight face when ordering another speciality – a farton.