April 2014: Looking for Spanish Sunshine

Spring may be on the way but heavy rain and biting wind make me long for sunnier climes and my mind flits to Spain. After having wrestled with South African politics and Particle Physics I feel that attempting to learn Spanish in a month might be, shall we say, … challenging (not to mention that it would make quite possibly the least interesting blogpost in history). Instead, I shall go for a quick spin through Spain’s autonomous communities (these are the basic regions within Spain).

AndalusiaAndalusia takes its name from the Arabic word al-Andalus which referred to the Iberian land that came under Muslim rule from 711 to 1492. Its population (which is about 8 million) is approximately the same as the United Arab Emirates and it is one of only two communities to share a land border with two foreign territories (Andalusia’s border with Gibraltar may be just over a kilometre long but it still counts). Andalusia is the site of some notable victories of the (British) Royal Navy over the Spanish as both Cape Trafalgar and Cadiz (the location for the attack in 1587 known as the singeing of the King of Spain’s beard) lie in this region. The Alhambra (in Granada – marked with a white dot) is a Unesco World Heritage Site known, amongst other things, for its mathematically interesting wall tilings (“Finding Moonshine” by Marcus du Sautoy contains an interesting discussion of these patterns).

AragonAragon has a history that goes back to the medieval kingdom of Aragon (1035-1715: Henry VIII’s first wife Catherine was a member of this royal family). It has a relatively low population density (28 people per km2 which is similar to that of Laos) and is completely landlocked. Spanish is spoken throughout the community and Aragonese survives as a second language in the Pyrenees in the north. Spain’s largest river (by volume), the Ebro, flows through Aragon and provides irrigation for a very productive agricultural sector. The carnival of Bielsa in Huesca (marked) would, I’m sure, be of particular interest to followers of Morris Dancing: it recalls the bear “Tonso” who, in Aragonese mythology, carried souls between the world of the living and the dead and has a supporting cast of men wearing skirts, cowbells and horns, and carrying long sticks.

AsturiasThe Kingdom of Asturias was founded by Pelayo, a Visigothic nobleman, and was the cradle of the Reconquista (the conquest of the Iberian peninsula from the Moors by Christian forces begun in 718 and completed in 1492, at which point the victorious Spanish fired Columbus off out of sheer exuberance). It has a total fertility rate (number of children born per woman) of 1.07 (this is the lowest of any region in the EU and can be compared with the global average of 2.36). Until the 1980s, Asturias had a thriving mining and steel-making industry but that has since declined. Asturias is bordered by the ocean to the north and by mountains (the Picos de Europa) to the south (in which one can find Covadonga, the site of Pelayo’s most famous victory: marked on the map) and has, therefore, some quite amazing scenery. 

Balearic Islands
Balearic IslandsAccording to Lycophron’s verses (and therefore not necessarily true), the Balearic Islands were known to the Ancient Greeks as Gymnasiae (meaning naked) because the inhabitants took advantage of the clement climate to neglect clothing. The islands are the smallest region of Spain by area and are approximately the same size as Trinidad and Tobago (Ceuta and Melilla are smaller but they are classed as autonomous cities). The islands were strategically significant – in part due to the natural harbour at Port Mahon in Minorca (marked). Notable people from the islands include Ramon Llull (from Majorca): a philosopher, logician, writer, theorist (he pioneered computation theory despite living from 1232 to 1315) and martyr. He has inspired a number of fictional stories including The Box of Delights by John Masefield in which it is conjectured that he is still alive and earns his living as a Punch and Judy man.

Basque Country
Basque CountyAbout 30% of the inhabitants of the autonomous community of the Basque Country (which you must be careful not to confuse with the identically named Basque Country which also covers part of Navarre and the southwest corner of France) speak the Basque language: a linguistic oddity that is unrelated to the Indo-European languages spoken in the rest of Europe. The Basque country has the shortest coastline of any of the non-landlocked communities (246km: about the same as Granada). The Basque economy is doing well: it has the highest per capita income of any community ($40,457 – similar to the Netherlands). This success was traditionally based on steel and shipbuilding but aeronautics and energy are now more important. Bilbao (marked) is visited by architecture-tourists in order to see its internationally important avant-garde buildings.

Canary Islands
Canary IslandsThe Canary Islands are named from the Latin for dog. It’s not entirely clear why this should be, whether the islands were once filled with dogs, or whether the inhabitants really liked dogs, or whether, in fact, there used to be a lot of seals on the islands and the Romans thought they looked a bit like dogs. It is, however, clear that the birds were named after the islands and not vice-versa (and that the colour is named after the bird). The islands lie off the coast of Africa (considerably further to the southwest than is shown) and have the longest coastline of any autonomous community (1583km, similar to that of Kenya). The economy is based around tourism but the Canary Islands have the second highest unemployment rate in Spain (32.3%, just behind Andalusia). La Palma (marked) is a particularly good place to perform astronomy due to its high mountains and distance from polluting cities (its collection of large telescopes helps, of course).

CantabriaThe etymology of the name Cantabria is unclear although it seems to be linked to the Celtic word for rock. The Cantabrian Mountains form the southern edge of the region and are indeed rocky and steep. Cantabria has the second smallest population (600 000, similar to that of Macau) and the second smallest economy (18 billion dollars, similar to Paraguay). In both cases only La Rioja is smaller. Cantabria has a large construction industry (as is common in Spain); ironworking, chemistry and tourism are also large employers. Cantabria is the richest region in the world for archaeological sites from the Upper Paleolithic period (ten to fifty thousand years ago). The cave of Altamira (marked) changed the perception of prehistoric human beings by showing that stone-age man had the intellectual capacity for artistic expression.

Castille and Leon
Castille and LeonCastille and Leon consists of a large portion of Spain’s Meseta Central: a dry plain with an average altitude of about 800m (in England this height would be the top of a significant hill such as Green Gable in the Lake District). It is the largest community by area (94 000 km2 is about the same size as Hungary) and is the third largest region in the EU (after Lapland in Finland and Norrbotten County in Sweden). The region contains six World Heritage Sites including the gothic cathedral in Burgos (marked) which contains an articulated statue (of a moustachioed courtier) which opens its mouth whenever the bells ring for the hour (it is quite entertainingly called the papamoscas – or flycatcher).

Castille – La Mancha
Castille - La ManchaThe name Castille comes from the same root as castle and La-Mancha is probably from an Arabic word meaning wilderness. Castille-La Mancha is the least densely populated community (26.42 people per km2 – similar to the Bahamas) and, when coloured red, makes the map of Spain look a bit like a badly drawn Canadian flag. Agriculture (mainly wheat, grapes and olives) forms the bedrock of the economy of Castille-La Mancha although tourism is increasing as people seek out the sites mentioned in the book Don Quixote by Cervantes. This remarkable book is considered the first modern European novel; it influenced more modern works such as The Three Musketeers (Alexandre Dumas) and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (Mark Twain) and appears in at least one list as the best literary work ever written. Its location is not clearly specified but a good starting point for Quixote-hunters would be Campo de Montiel (marked).

CataloniaThe name of Catalonia may come from a corruption of Gothalania (the land of the Goths). This is not universally accepted but the other suggestions are considered even less plausible. Catalonia has the largest economy of any of the autonomous communities ($262 billion: about the same as Nigeria) which is based on Barcelona: one of the largest urban areas in Europe. Tourists are drawn to the region for the beaches on the Costa Brava and to visit Barcelona (and particularly the amazing Basilica Sagrada Familia designed by Antoni Gaudi in 1882 and still not finished). The museum of surrealist art in Salvador Dali’s house in Figueres (marked) is also worth visiting – particularly by those intrigued by melting clocks and living rooms that, when viewed from a certain angle, look like Mae West.

Ceuta and Melilla
Ceuta and MelillaCeuta and Melilla are autonomous cities rather than communities (which is my excuse for dealing with them together and briefly). They are on the North African coast but are considered part of Spain by their inhabitants (and by the Spanish, but not by the Moroccans). They are too small to be clearly coloured on the map (Ceuta is 18.5km2 which is a little smaller than Hackney, Melilla is 12.3km2 which is a touch larger than Kensington and Chelsea) but are marked with red circles. Being cities they also have small populations, coastlines and economies but large population densities.

ExtremaduraUnder Roman rule Extremadura was part of the province of Lusitania (the rest of this Province is now in Portugal) and its capital, Merida (marked) was one of the most important cities of the Empire. It is a comparatively poor area with an income per capita of about $22 000 (about the same as Slovakia). Agriculture forms an important part of the Extremaduran economy: ham from Black Iberian Pigs is a particular delicacy (especially those fed on acorns: the more acorns a pig eats, the more expensive the ham). Hernan Cortés, the conquistador whose expedition caused the fall of the Aztec empire (militarily impressive, if ethically dubious) came originally from Extremadura.

GaliciaThe name Galicia comes from the Roman name for an ancient Celtic tribe that occupied the northwest of the Iberian peninsula (why the people were called Galicians is less clear but it might mean hill-people or forest-people). Galicia has the second longest coastline (after the Canary Islands): its 1500km is similar to that of Algeria although it is much smaller in area (about one eightieth of the size – more like Belgium). Galicia is considered a “nationality” within Spain and has its own language (Galician, similar to Portugese). The Way of St James was a well-used pilgrimage route of the middle-ages that brought pilgrims from all over Europe to Santiago de Compostela (marked). 

La Rioja
La RiojaLa Rioja (probably a contraction of the river name Rio Oja which flows through the province) is known for its production of wine although it is also an exporter of charcuterie, glass and footwear. It has the smallest population of any autonomous community with about 320 000 (approximately the same as Iceland) and the smallest economy ($10 billion – about the same as Brunei). Early visitors to the region included dinosaurs, whose footprints can be found in several places – including Enciso (marked) which has adopted the dinosaur as an emblem (although they don’t seem to have picked a particular species which seems like a significant omission) and which has a Palaeontology museum .

MadridThe province of Madrid has historically been part of New Castille (which became Castille - La Mancha) but it was considered in the nation’s interest for the capital to be separated and so, in 1983 the autonomous Community of Madrid was created. It has the third highest population (6.4 million – similar to El Salvador), the second largest economy ($252 billion – approximately the same as Finland) and the highest population density (805 people per km2 – a little less than that of Guernsey). The city of Madrid (marked) is the third largest in Europe and is home to the Museo del Prado, one of the world’s finest collections of European art including Goya’s “La maja desnuda” and “La maja vestida”: two paintings of the same subject that were originally hung one in front of each other (a pulley system allowed La maja vestida to be demurely lowered in front of the racier desnuda).

MurciaThe region of Murcia is named after the town of Murcia which was founded, as Mursiyah, by the emir of Cordoba in 825 AD. The community consists of a single province (most regions are broken down into smaller provinces for administrative purposes). Murcia is a mid-ranking community on most measures but has the highest birth rate in the country (13 per 1000 inhabitants: similar to that of Iceland). Murcia also holds the record for the highest recorded temperature of the 20th century in Spain (it’s a niche record but nonetheless remarkable): 46.1oC on July 4th 1994 and has the largest saltwater lake in Europe: the Mar Menor (marked) which is separated from the Mediterranean sea by a strip of sand 22km long.

NavarreThe Kingdom of Navarre was formed when a Basque leader called Inigo Arista led a revolt against the Frankish empire. The modern region is one of the smallest and wealthiest of the autonomous communities. It has an area similar to that of Jamaica (10 000km2) and a per capita income matching that of Ireland (about $39 000). The King of Navarre is a significant character in Shakespeare’s play “Love’s Labour’s Lost”. The capital of Navarre is Pamplona (marked) which is famous for the festival of San Fermin in which six bulls run through the city at 8am every day for a week. Every year around 200 people are injured as they run with the bulls along the 826m route. Participants must be over eighteen and not under the influence of alcohol.

ValenciaThe community of Valencia has borders very similar to the historical Kingdom of Valencia which was formed in 1238 following the defeat of the Moorish principality in the Reconquista. The size, economics and demographics of Valencia are unexceptional among the autonomous communities. It has an area approximately the same as Djibouti and a coastline of a similar length to that of The Gambia. The Valencian coastline is a popular tourist destination and Benidorm (marked) was, in the 1980s, almost synonymous with the worst excesses of the British holidaymaker. It is now a safe and popular resort, highly developed with many large hotels and a beach skyline unlike any other.

A map showing the highlights of a visit to Spain’s regions is here. If you have enjoyed comparing the statistics of Spanish regions with those of apparently arbitrarily chosen countries I can commend the Wikipedia page en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ranked_lists_of_Spanish_autonomous_communities. I am afraid that I have used Wikipedian information quite freely and so, whilst I believe it all to be correct, you should not rely on any of it for fear of finding yourself among the Mountains of Kong (the claim that La Rioja is an exporter of footwear, in particular, has the air of a fact that has just been made up). If, alternatively, you want to know more about any aspect of Spain then I recommend you use a respectable guidebook (I’ve always found the Lonely Planet reliable) and if you are merely interested in the idea of sunshine and warm weather then I recommend summer.