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!
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.
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.