The Spanish Coast. A gateway to several cultures.

The Iberian Peninsula is almost entirely surrounded by water, with the Pyrenees providing the only land link with the rest of Europe. But the Pyrenees are a formidable barrier and passes are generally high. At the Catalan end, the Coll del Portus (290 metres) gives best access; on the Basque side a narrow coastal strip allows easier passage between Hendaye in France and Fuenterrabía (Basque Hondarribia). The relative isolation of the peninsula from the rest of Europe made it easy for the Spanish Tourist Board to make the most of the slogan “Spain is different” in the1960s, but they were not the first to make the point.  Travelers have long held such views, with the pithy French claim that “Africa begins at the Pyrenees” being the most colourful. 

Map of Spain.

The coastal regions are by definition more open, more likely to have contact with other cultures, either through native sailors bringing back news from elsewhere, or through the arrival of visitors from abroad. Cities and towns on the Mediterranean coast have always been open to the cultures of that sea in a give and take process. PhoeniciansGreeks, Carthaginians, Romans all plied their trade, with the Romans taking control of virtually the whole peninsula once they had demolished the Carthaginians in the 3rd century BC. In the 13th and 14th centuries, Catalan merchants rivaled those of Genoa and Venice, and the Catalan language was heard throughout the Mediterranean.  Even nowadays Catalonia looks out more to France and Italy, and Barcelona seems to have more in common with Marseille than with Madrid.

The Atlantic coast of the south also attracted the Mediterranean powers in the early days, with Cádiz –founded by the Phoenicians— claiming to be the oldest continuously inhabited city of Europe.  In the 16th century, these shores became the gateway to the Americas, and Cádiz and Seville the major hubs. The Mediterranean ports were excluded from trade with the Americas until the 18th century. 

The North Atlantic coast, from the Pyrenees to northern Portugal looked to northern Europe for its contacts.  During the later Middle Ages wool, wine and iron were exported from Cantabrian and Basque ports to England, Flanders and northern France.  The pilgrimage Road to Santiago was another link with the north.  Some pilgrims arrived by sea, but most followed the famous Camino (Road) that stretched from beyond the Pyrenees to Santiago. And Basque, Cantabrian and Galician sailors were much involved in whaling and deep sea fishing in the Atlantic in the Middle Ages.  The tradition of deep sea fishing continues to this day, and Spanish fishing boats have long been familiar sights in ports as far away as Newfoundland, Canada.

It is not by coincidence, then, that it is in the outward looking coastal regions that we find the greatest tendency towards separation. A trip around the shores of the peninsula reveals 5 different languages: Catalan, Castilian, Portuguese, Galician and Basque, all with the exception of Basque, offspring of Latin.  (Some might want to include Valencian, but it is generally considered a variant of Catalan.) Portugal, of course, has long been independent.  Many Catalans and Basques have aspirations of independence while Galicians, although not forceful in terms of separation, do have a deep attachment to their land and language. Anyone traveling in Catalonia, Galicia or the Basque lands will notice that road signs are bilingual: Castilian and the local language.  However, it is quite common to see the Castilian version defaced or deleted as a demonstration of national sentiment. 

Ley de Costas (Coastal Law)
Since the 1960s, the Mediterranean coastline from the Pyrenees to Gibraltar has been a major driver in the economic progress of Spain. However, there have been costs in terms of lax planning and over development. Already in 1969 the Franco government introduced a Ley de Costas –Coastal Law– recognizing the coast as public property, but the law did little to stop the roller coaster speed of development and privatization. A new Ley de Costas introduced in 1988 reaffirmed the public nature of all beaches  –effectively nationalizing all buildings within the beach line– and prohibited the construction of further residential zones within 100 metres of them.  Unfortunately, officials at the local level often ignored the laws or took bribes and issued thousands of permits, especially in the 1990s when a property boom was fuelled by massive demand from northern European buyers. The most notorious scandal took place in Marbella on the Costa del Sol, where the former mayor, and the former head of planning and 26 others were arrested for alleged corruption and fraud worth £1.7 billion.

As it now stands, no house built before 1988 can be sold, although owners have been given a grace period of 60 years to continue in their houses if these had legal construction permit… a big if in many cases.   The repercussions have been widespread.  Thousands of homeowners are now faced with the real prospect of having their houses bulldozed, and potential purchasers have been discouraged from buying property on the Mediterranean coast.

February 2, 2009. The Spanish Government has introduced an amendment to the Ley de Costas following complaints from British and German embassies. Buildings constructed legally before 1988 can now be bought and sold or passed on as inheritance.

Map from http//

Useful site for up-to-date news in English:

For Spanish readers, there is a very useful article in the newspaper, El País, regarding the depressing state of the coasts of Spain: