Spain hangs on the south western end of Europe like an inverted flag. It is the 3rd largest country in Europe, and shares the Iberian Peninsula with Portugal, Andorra and Gibraltar. Its own national territory extends also to the Balearic Islands in the Mediterranean, the Canary Islands in the Atlantic, and three enclaves –Ceuta and Melilla on the north coast of Morocco, and Llivia on the French side of the Pyrenees. France is its northern neighbor; across the Straits of Gibraltar in the south, the coast of Morocco –only 13 kilometers away-- is easily visible, making Spain a bridge between two continents.
Spain is, after Switzerland, the most mountainous country in Europe. Before air travel, travelers to Spain entered either by sea or by crossing the borders from France or Portugal. Whichever way they took, they were quickly confronted by mountains. Travelers entering via France had to cross the Pyrenees. By sea from the north, they were confronted by the Cantabrian Mountains, in the south they ran into the Sierra Nevada and its related ranges, and from the east they soon encountered the western tips of various mountain chains or the steep slopes of the Meseta.
The Meseta is another feature of the Spanish landscape. This massive, high plateau covering some 40% of Spain’s land mass, left an indelible impression on travelers, especially those on foot. Even modern transportation can’t erase the sense of endless distance, the clarity of the air, the treeless landscape, the burning heat of summer or the cutting winds of winter.
The five main rivers of Spain follow the direction of the mountain ranges, generally in an east west path towards the Atlantic, with only one emptying into the Mediterranean. There are also numerous smaller rivers and tributaries. The rivers are vital for irrigation and as sources for hydroelectric power and for drinking water for the major urban areas. Even so, Spain is generally a dry country, and the south and south east make especially heavy demands on water resources. Desertification is a real possibility, and discussions on the transfer of water from the north have produced heated exchanges between various autonomous regions.
In the 1960s, Spain was suddenly “discovered” by northern Europeans whose growing economies allowed ordinary people to take their holidays in a country that was cheap. Whether traveling by car or airplane, they headed for the coastal areas especially the Mediterranean “costa” (coast) which provided an abundance of sun, sand and sangría. The effects of this modern “invasion” were profound, changing the face of the coast in predictable ways: sleepy, picturesque fishing villages quickly morphed into garish holiday spots, complete with “fish and chips” and other alien signs. Not everyone will agree that the changes were for the better.
The south Atlantic coast ("La costa de la luz")is still relatively unspoiled but is under increasing pressure from developers. The north Atlantic coast remains the least touched by modern tourism, simply because it is cool with no guarantee of prolonged sunshine. It is unlikely to get overdeveloped, although increasingly there are more tourists looking for something different from the packaged entertainment of the Mediterranean coast.
www.iberianature.com is an excellent website on a wide variety of topics related to Spanish geography and nature. Interested in country bicycling/ walking ? Check www.viasverdes.com a site dedicated to more than 1,700 kilometres of disused railway lines now converted for recreational use. Click top right for English version. www.typicallyspanish.com is a useful on-line site in English dealing with daily events in Spain.