Discover Spanish History

When I first moved to Spain as a naive 24 year old I had no concept of Spanish history. To me Spain was little more than a place people went on their summer holidays. One day near the village of Pollensa in Mallorca I stumbled upon a little Roman bridge which really opened my eyes to the fascinating world of Spanish history that was about to unfold. In the city of Palma de Mallorca the cathedral was most impressive but it wasn’t until years later that I learned that this cathedral had been constructed on the site of the city’s mosque. Such a pattern I found to be common especially in Andalucia where Roman sites were used by the Moors to construct their mosques which were later converted into cathedrals after the Christian reconquest.

Spanish History is All Around You

Moving to Madrid was a real eye opener as the city has so many fascinating attractions in the very centre but for me the highlights were just short drives away from the capital.

Segovia was always my favourite day out and I never ceased to be amazed at the 2000 year old Roman aqueduct which was constructed without the use of mortar and still survives to this day as one of the treasures of Roman Spain. Some of Europe’s greatest Roman ruins outside Rome itself can be seen in Spain. My other favourites apart from Segovia are the fish salting factory at Bolonia on the Cadiz coast and the city of Merida in Extremadura which is recognised as the most important Roman destination in Spain.

On the way back to Madrid we’d often stop off at El Escorial where most of Spain’s monarchs were buried and we’d stop briefly at Valle de los Caidos. This is the enormous monument dedicated to those who died in the Spanish Civil War and is the final resting place of General Franco.

The main day excursion from Madrid is to Toledo which is like a living museum. The historical centre of the city is so packed with Muslim, Jewish and Christian monuments that I end up getting lost every time I’m there. Few synagogues remain in Spain as a result of the Spanish Inquisition yet two of Toledo’s original eleven remain as reminders of the wonders of Jewish Spain.

When a national holiday falls on a Tuesday in Spain the whole country takes the Monday off and calls it a “puente” (a bridge). The first time this happened as a new arrival in Madrid we headed down to Cordoba for a long weekend and my love affair with Andalucia began. I couldn’t believe the beauty of this former capital of Moorish Spain and to this day I try to go there several times a year. With time I would discover Seville and Granada which added to my fascination with Andalucia and in recent times I’ve found myself increasingly intrigued by the much underrated city of Malaga. Incidentally, when two national holidays fall in the same week, on a Tuesday and a Thursday, some workers call it an “acqueducto” and take the whole week off!

Prehistoric History

The historical references I’ve made so far can only be considered as relatively modern history when considered alongside the evidence of life in prehistoric Iberia … strictly speaking we shouldn’t refer to the concept of “Spain” before 1469 when the marriage of Fernando and Isabella united the two most powerful states of Aragon and Castile. The oldest human bone fragments in Europe were discovered at Atapuerca near Burgos and are said to be 780,000 years old (this isn’t far away from the town of Vivar where the notorious El Cid Campeador was born in 1040).

There are many cave paintings around the country which are well worth a visit if you’re nearby. The most famous are the Caves of Altamira in Santillana del Mar (Cantabria) which date back to 12,000 BC. Nowadays, to see these cave paintings you need to make a formal request a year in advance as too many visitors were starting to destroy the paintings. If you’re in the south you should pay a visit to the Nerja Caves which are Spain’s 3rd most visited tourist attraction after the Prado Museum and Alhambra Palace. For something far less touristy try to get to the Cueva de la Pileta which is a relatively unknown cave structure just a few kilometres from Ronda where you can see 25,000 year old cave paintings in the company of a local guide who will show you around using a gas lantern. This is one of my favourite finds in recent years.

Historical Trivia

No matter where you go in Spain you are never far away from the country’s fascinating history. Even if you’re in one of the popular package holiday destinations you might be surprised just how close you are to memories of the past. As you drive along the Costa del Sol look out for the ancient watchtowers which were set up by the Moors in the 10th century to help defend the coastline from invading Turkish and North African pirates. Tenerife has the fascinating Pyramids of Guimar whilst Menorca has a fully functioning gin factory in Mahon, an industry that dates back to English occupation of the island during the War of Spanish Succession (1701-14).

Did you know that the famous Battle of Trafalgar (1805) was fought off the coast of southern Spain near Cadiz? English sailors who died during this period were buried upright on Malaga’s shores as there was no place to bury protestants. As a result an Anglican cemetery called St George’s was built in Malaga in 1856 and is today a popular tourist attraction simply referred to as the ‘English Cemetery’.

On all my trips around Spain it seems that something new crops up of historical interest and I could continue listing these observations for many pages but I’m sure you’d soon be bored with my ramblings. Instead I’ve set up a Spanish History section of the website which goes through a chronological history of Spain with historical accounts of the period. It is far from complete and far from a definitive guide, however, I hope it’s enough to give you at least a glimpse of the history of this fascinating country.

14 thoughts on “Discover Spanish History”

  1. Well done Gerry for very informative snippets of historical information on the various regions of Spain. I am studying Castellano Spanish and have only stayed in Spain for a month over the last four years. How I would love to have six months out to travel around the various regions which you have told us about.

    Palma de Mallorca is so beautiful and Pollensa is really worth a visit as is my favourite city Madrid. It amazes me the amount of festivals which are unique to the individual regions and the co-operation of the locals to make them a success.

    Muchisimas gracias por los correos electronicos y tengo ganas de recibir el siguiente.

    Un saludo de Dublin Irlanda,

    Yvonne ‘eva la exploradora’

  2. Hi Gerry … I enjoyed your ramblings and will have a look at this section of your website. Political Spain might be interesting. We just spent a week in Bilbao despite so many people saying that you could ‘do it in a day’ – a bit disrespectful to any city. There were 3 demos in our first 4 days, some about the economic situation and others where I need to research the slogans on the pics I took! Liz

  3. So true! Most tourists miss out on an awful lot. My wife and I take driving holidays in Spain and I have stayed in Valencia, Zaragoza, Vigo and San Esteban de Gormaz. All historic places in their own right. We have visited other historic places such as Cuenca, Teruel, Burgo de Osma and the Fortaleza Califal de Gormaz. said to be the largest Arab fortress in Europe. We just can’t stay away and have lot’s more places on our hit list, including the sites of Wellington’s victories in the Napoleonic wars and of course Andalucia.

  4. Spain is a fascinating country with great history lots of unique buildings
    And above all the food is just out of the world particularly the sea food.
    The suckling piglet is better prepared than in Asia.
    I miss it and yearn to go back again.

  5. Hi
    I found this item on the history of Spain very interesting. One suggestion you could mention Sir John Moore and his burial in La Coruna. There was a famous poem written about it which is known by many Brits. Also I wonder about Maria Pita from the same city.
    Rosemary Dorado

  6. Enjoyed your “mini history” of Spain and will look at greater detail later in the week. Did you know ( I expect you do) that after the Battle of Trafalgar, many of the British sailors who died were taken to Gibraltar, and buried there just outside the City wall, where each October, a parade and service are held by the Garrison to commemorate the famous victory of Lord Nelson. A moving occasion for all Brit ex-pats living on the Costa del Sol and the Campo area.

    Keep up the good work in promoting Spanish history.

  7. Hi Gerry
    Great summary of the places to visit to get a feel for Spanish History. We did a few more from your list this year and hope to be back in two years time to do places in the North.
    For those of you who want to get a good insight into the history of Spain there is a fantastic book called “The Story of Spain” by Mark R Williams. We bought it from Amazon after our first trip in 2010. It makes visiting the historical places so much more interesting.
    Down Under

    • Hi Fritz

      Thanks for this recommendation … I agree it is possibly the most readable account of the history of Spain for the non-historian.

      All the Best


  8. I have walked the Camino de Santiago several times and have marvelled at the great cathedrals along the way, Pamplona, Burgos, Astoria, Leon and of course Santiago. However, many of the smaller churches are of great interest e.g Fromista. The one to which I refer now is at Eunate, near the town of Puente la Reina in of Navarra It is very similar in construction to that in Torres dal Rio.

    If this is of interest I will post further similar descriptions

    The beautiful 12th century Romanesque Iglesia de Santa Maria, at Eunate is one of the most beautiful along the Camino. Set in open countryside It is surrounded by a series of arches forming a type of external cloister, not unlike the porticoes of the Temple Platform in Jerusalem. Built in imitation of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem it is one of a few octagonal churches to be found in Spain and was thought to be associated with the Knights Templars. However, this particular building, although clearly influenced by Templar architecture, is not thought to be a Templar church. Graves containing scallop shells have been found within the church walls suggesting that it was burial place for pilgrims connected to a hospital belonging to the Order of St. John of Jerusalem. The exterior of the church is adorned by a series of, worn, grotesque gargoyles and carved heads.

    • Thanks Terence … naturally the famous cathedrals along the way grab most attention. But as you say, there are so many other fascinating churches along the Camino (and in Spain generally).

  9. Hi – l have been reading your items lately as l am going to Spain for the third time. I am from Spanish parents (Andalucía). My father was a caretaker at the Alhambra Gardens when he was young. Never knew much about the country from where my parents came from as they left that behind when they came to Australia. Now that my family has grown up am l am able to travel more l have a big interest in finding out about my history. In Australia we do not learn much at school about the history of Europeans.

    I find it so interesting it brings me to tears at time. Heading there in April 2015 for more information overload.

  10. I have been lucky enough to have been to most of the places that you list as I have been to Spain over many years and my partner is Spanish as well. I do really feel that you should include and cover the period of the Napoleonic Wars, and especially The Peninsular War – which was one of the key events in Spanish history!! Without this Spain could have been ruled by France for a long time! Even the Spanish don’t often understand how important this was in Spanish and European history!!

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