How did Spain get its Name?
Spain is known as the “Land of Rabbits.” It was named by the Carthaginians somewhere around 300 B.C. They called it Ispania (sphan, meaning “rabbit.”) Evidently, there was an abundance of rabbits that roamed the land back then.
The Romans, when they arrived, decided to keep the name, calling it Hispania. Eventually, the name was changed officially to Reino de España, in Spanish or the “Kingdom of Spain,” in English.
Spain did go by a few different names over time. Its earliest name was Iberia, named for by the Moorish inhabitants from North Africa. Iber was the Iberian word for “river.” The Greeks called the entire peninsula Hesperia, meaning “Land of the Setting Sun.” (Interestingly, I currently live in a town called Hesperia, California. Now I know the meaning of the name.)
Where is Spain Located?
Spain occupies most of the Iberian Peninsula in the southwest part of Europe. It shares land borders with Portugal to the west, France and Andorra in the north and northeast, and a small border with Gibraltar to the south. It also has water borders, such as: the Mediterranean Sea to the east, the Strait of Gibraltar to the south and the Bay of Biscay to the north.
Aside from the mainland, the territory also includes many islands on the Atlantic, the Balearic and Mediterranean Sea. If you were to combine all the Spanish beaches into one stretch it would be almost 5000 miles long. It is no surprise that the country and its islands are very popular beach destinations. Its capital city is Madrid and is located in the heart of the country.
A Brief History of Spain
There is very early evidence that most of the Iberian Peninsula has been inhabited since prehistoric times. Sometime around 4000 BCE much of Spain was settled by Iberians. Then the Celts, the Phoenicians, the Greeks and the Carthaginians all had settlements.
It was the Romans that had the largest influence on Spain’s culture, as they ruled for nearly six centuries, until the fall of the Roman Empire in the fifth century CE.
Sometime, around 500 CE, the Visigoths arrived and drove out the Romans. Then it was the Muslim Moors of North Africa, in 711 CE, that came across the Mediterranean Sea and conquered Spain, ruling for several hundred years.
Meanwhile, Christian kingdoms in the north were gaining power and the Reconquista, the Christian re-conquest of Christian territory, began to retake Spain from the Muslims.
Eventually, the Reconquista ended with the conquest of Grenada. The Alhambra Decree expelled all the Jews from Spain that did not convert to Christianity, in 1492 CE.
In 1469, Isabella I of Castile and Ferdinand II of Aragon were married. The Kingdom of Spain was formed and they were named the king and queen of Spain. In 1492, Queen Isabella sponsored the expedition of explorer Christopher Columbus who then discovered the “New World.”
In the 1500s, during the Age of Exploration, Spain became the most powerful country in Europe, if not the world. Spanish conquistadors, such as Herman Cortes, conquered the Aztec’s Empire in Mexico and Francisco Pizarro, conquered the Incan Empire in Peru, along with others who conquered much of the Americas and made them into Spanish colonies. This brought great wealth to the Kingdom of Spain, especially from gold, but from countless other treasures as well.
In 1588 in a battle of the world’s great navies, the British defeated the Spanish Armada, which began the decline of the Spanish Empire. In the 1800s, many of Spain’s colonies started to revolt and wanted to separate from Spain.
Spain continued to be in many wars but was losing most of them. In 1898, Spain lost the Spanish-American War and with it, many of their primary colonies.
Generally, Spain stayed neutral during both World Wars, but did side somewhat with Germany, which made things difficult after the Second World War. In 1936, there was a civil war in Spain. The nationalist forces won the war and General Francisco Franco became Spain’s ruler and dictator until his death in 1975. Since that time, the country has experienced rapid and remarkable, cultural, political and social changes.
A new constitution was adopted in 1978, which has served as a means to democracy. The country is now run as a constitutional monarchy in which executive decisions are made by the government. The Spanish monarch is currently represented by King Felipe VI.
Spanish culture is a true reflection of its crossroad’s location and influences from the different inhabitants over the centuries. The country comprises 17 autonomous regions. Each region of Spain has its own unique culture and even has some of their own official languages, such as: Catalan, Galician, Valencian and Basque. Spanish (Castilian) is the official language of the whole country. Spanish is a Romance language that is closely related to Latin. It is the second most widely spoken “first” language in the world, with more than 400 million speakers. (The most popular “first” language spoken is Mandarin.)
Spain has a population of about 47 million and is known for its relaxed way of life. La siesta (the afternoon nap) was born in Spain. Nothing happens in a hurry; life is slow and treasured. Spaniards have an uncanny ability to be in the present and not plan every minute of the day. Perhaps this is why Spaniards have one of the highest life expectancies in the world, at an impressive 83 years of age. One statistic from the OECD, reported that the average Spaniard devotes 16 of the 24 hours of every day to leisure; including eating, drinking and sleeping.
Spain is home to 47 UNESCO world heritage sites, listed for their cultural significance or natural beauty; some are even entire towns. These sites, along with hundreds of beaches, make Spain one of the most popular tourist destinations in the world.
Spain also has many popular festivals throughout the year; from the Running of the Bulls in Pamplona, to La Tomatina, where you participate in a giant tomato fight. Las Fallas in Valencia is where giant paper sculptures are turned into bonfires and Carnival, is their Mardi Gras festival, plus there are so many others.
I had the privilege of being in Spain for Semana Santa (Holy Week,) which was an experience I will forever treasure. About 70 percent of the population identify themselves as Roman Catholics (although only about 13 percent of the population goes to church each Sunday.) Despite that, religion has huge importance in Spanish culture.
Music and dance is at the heart of Spanish tradition. Spain is world famous for its flamboyant flamenco and Spanish guitar. Flamenco dance is often associated with the passionate dancing and the colorful dresses worn by the performers but it is important to note that flamenco can also be performed without dance. It does, however, always feature the cante jondo (deep song) of the gitanos (gypsies) of Andalusia. It is of no surprise that Spanish guitar is also at the heart of Spanish culture. It was actually invented in Andalusia in the 1790s when a sixth string was added to the Moorish lute. It gained its modern shape in the 1870s.
Spain has a remarkable artistic heritage dating back for centuries. However, it was in the early 20th century that the art world was influenced by a remarkable group of Spanish artists, such as: Pablo Picasso, Juan Gris, Joan Miro and Salvador Dali, to name just a few. The architecture throughout Spain, includes its massive Gothic cathedrals built in nearly every town square, as well as incredible castles and plazas. This includes the famous Alhambra palace and fortress and of course Gaudi’s, La Sagrada Familia, to name just a couple of the amazing sites in Spain.
Bullfighting is considered to be the national sport of Spain and is the most controversial of all Spanish traditions. Some places in Spain have banned its practice due to the cruelty to animals. However, there is a long history of the bullfighting sport. Matadors (those who fight the bull) are very highly respected. The largest bullring in Madrid called Las Ventas has a historical museum dedicated to the sport. Actually, some would argue that soccer is truly the national sport of the 21st century. Spain won the FIFA World Cup in 2010. Fútbol, as it is called there, is a beloved sport throughout the country.
Each and every region in Spain has its own history and cuisine. Generally speaking, the cuisine is considered to be Mediterranean. Spain is the world’s largest olive oil producer. You will find delicious green olives on every table in Spain.
They also have a very old viticulture. Archeologists believe that some grapes were cultivated between 4000 and 3000 BC, long before the Phoenicians showed up. Spain is the third largest wine producer in the world and has 2.9 million acres of vines planted. Just like their cuisine, the wine differs from location to location. Rioja and Ribera de Duero are known for their Tempranillo production. Whereas, Jerez de la Frontera is home of the fortified wine; sherry. Cava, a delicious sparkling wine, comes mostly from the Catalonia region.
There are many sumptuous foods for which Spain is famous but the one that stands out to me is what comes from the black-hoofed pig, known for its acorn diet. These Iberian pigs are raised in the southwest. Pork is loved in many forms and made into sausages, roasted, stewed etc. However, jamon iberico, is a cured ham that is simply unbelievable. You will see legs of pork hanging in nearly every market throughout Spain. One bite of this ham will simply melt in your mouth. It goes perfectly with Spain’s cheeses, from the castile-La Mancha region, called Manchego. Together, they are a perfect combination of flavor.
Interestingly, some of Spain’s most famous dishes would not have been possible without the discovery of the New World. Tomatoes, potatoes, maize, peppers of all kinds, paprika, vanilla and cocoa are some of what was brought back to Spain. Another famous dish is the tortilla Espanola or Spanish tortilla, which in Spain is a potato and egg casserole, not what you would likely think of as a tortilla. Some believe that this should be the national dish of Spain.
Often when we think of Spain, we think of paella being a representative dish. However it is quite regional, coming from Valencia. The original paella was made with chicken and rabbit, but seafood is now very common. It is of no surprise that seafood (mariscos) is also very important to Spanish cuisine. Fried fish is very common in the south and all around the coast. Octopus is on nearly every menu. I had the best seafood salad of my life at the La Boqueria market in Barcelona.
Literally, books can be written about the different regional offerings in Spain. One food that is popular throughout Spain and for what Spain is most famous, are tapas. Tapas actually means “cover” and originally it was a little plate of small bites to cover the top of a drink at a bar. In Spain tapas (little appetizers) are served everywhere and there are more bars in Spain per capita than just about anywhere else in the world. (They rank 2nd .) Often times, when you pay for the drink, you get the tapas for free.
Spain keeps some unusual hours and tapas are also used to tide one over as dinner is usually not eaten until around 9:00 or 10:00 pm. After work, one would go enjoy a drink and have some tapas. Today many people will make tapas their meal.
So let’s enjoy a Spanish meal:
On the table,
Olives and Bread
We set the scene with fresh, red carnations, their national flower. We placed ships, representing Spain’s exploration era, a fan, called a pericon and castanets, to represent flamenco, a pitcher of sangria, for their wine regions and added food as well, so it was part of the scene. We added, olives and pan (bread) typically called barra or pistolas, which is similar to the French baguette but a little shorter and wider. We decorated in the colors of the Spanish flag; red and yellow, and put on some classic Spanish guitar music to color the mood.
We began with a toast, Salud, which means “Cheers” in Spanish and we clinked our glasses of sparkling cava. Our first course was the famous jamon iberico and manchego cheese. If you ever get the chance to try this, I hope you do. It is simply heaven!
We then slowly went into the different tapas.
The first was a cold soup, called gazpacho. It is a made with raw, blended, vegetables such as: tomato, cucumbers and peppers. It is perfectly refreshing, especially on a hot summer day.
Next were the little garlic shrimps. This is such a quick and easy tapa to make. It is made in a terracotta dish called a cazuela, which goes from stove to table top while the shrimp are still sizzling. Equally as good as eating the little shrimps, is sopping up the garlic sauce with the bread.
Since we just had a nice dose of garlic we continued the theme with the garlic mushrooms. These have a different sauce, where Spanish sherry is the star. These mushrooms were just another wonderful, simple tapa that you will also choose to soak up every last drop of the sauce with the bread. (Mushroom foraging is a popular past time in Spain, especially in the wooded and mountainous regions).
Our next tapa was the octopus on potatoes. This dish comes from the Galicia region. I absolutely love octopus and this dish highlighted the octopus beautifully. Little pieces of tender octopus were placed on a slice of potato that was drizzled with Spanish olive oil. Perfect!
I simply had to include the Spanish tortilla. This egg and potato casserole is considered by some to be the national dish of Spain. It is a true comfort food and offers a very savory bite. (This would be wonderful served for breakfast as well.) When we finished the tapas, we took a siesta. We were perfectly satisfied.
Several hours later, when we were once again hungry, we continued with a glorious dish of paella. It is a true, one-pot meal. Many places in Spain have paella pits set up in parks and on beaches, so you can just bring your paella pan and cook it right there. Paella is a truly decadent dish, filled with seafood, meat and sausages. Hidden in the paella is saffron seasoned rice. Magnifico.
For dessert, we had citrusy flavored, creamy custard, often referred to as Crème Brulee’s cousin; Crema de Catalan. It was wonderful.
The Spaniards have a saying: Barriga Ilena, Corazon content, which translates to “A full belly and a happy heart”.
Until next time,
Estar segura, “Be safe.”