The most distinctive geographical features of Spain are its mountains. They are so widespread that Richard Ford, the famous 19th-century English traveler called Spain’s topography “almost one mountain.”
After Switzerland, Spain is the most mountainous country in Europe. Numerous mountain chains cross the landscape like protruding ribs, mostly in an east west direction.
In the north, the Pyrenees form a natural border with France, with several peaks rising over 3.000 metres (9.842 feet). To the west of the Pyrenees, and running parallel with the north coast, the Cordillera Cantábrica is home to some of Spain’s most endangered wildlife. Two mountain ranges, the Sierra de Guadarrama and the Sierra de Gredos, cut across the centre of the peninsula, just north of Madrid.
Towards the south, the Sierra Morena forms a natural barrier between Castilla-La Mancha and Andalusia. Finally, along the south coast, the Sierra Nevada (which provides some of the best skiing in Spain) includes the highest mountain in the peninsula (Mulhacen 3.479 metres: 11.414 feet). The highest mountain in Spain is actually Teide in the Canary Islands, 3718 metres: 12.198 feet.
There are countless smaller ranges often linked to each other in systems. For example, the Sistema Ibérico follows the River Ebro south of Zaragoza from the Cordillera Cantábrica almost to the Mediterranean. It includes the Sierras de Moncayo, de la Virgen, de Algairén, de Cucalón and others. In the south, the Sistema Penibético contains the Serranía de Ronda, the Sierra Nevada, the Sierras de Segura, de Alcaraz and several more.
The mountains are one reason why there are probably more “wild” places in Spain than in any other country of Europe. Mountains restrict surface communication and urban development, and in the case of Spain easy passage through the ranges is very limited. Isolated valleys and steep gorges make for a rugged landscape which protects flora and fauna. The northern ranges –the Cantabrian and Pyrenees— are particularly rich in large mammals, including wolves, foxes, wild boars and the Iberian brown bear as well as eagles, vultures and the rare capercaillie (a kind of large grouse). Also rare is the lammergeyer (bearded vulture) whose Spanish name, quebrantahuesos (literally “bonebreaker”), alludes to its habit of dropping bones from a height onto rocks in order to extract the marrow. Thanks to a captive breeding programme in the Sierras de Cazorla and Segura, the lammergeyer is making a slow recovery. Ibex, deer and lynx can also be found in these sierras, and a few wolf families remain in the Sierra Morena .
The mountains of the north, especially the Cordillera Cantábrica, historically had a special function in defining Spanish society. The traditional title of the heir to the Spanish throne, the Prince of Asturias, is a reminder of the role played by that region. In the 16th century in particular it became a point of pride for a man to proclaim “I am from the mountains” (soy de las montañas).
The reason goes back centuries. When the Moors invaded the peninsula in 711 many Christians fled to the mountainous northern fringe of the country, which became their centre of resistance. Therefore, the understanding was that the inhabitants of the mountains were Christians with pure, uncontaminated blood. The 16th century was obsessed with pure blood because it was a distinguishing feature between “old” Christians and “new” Christians, that is, Muslim and especially Jewish converts to Christianity. To claim to be “from the mountains” was understood to be noble and racially pure.