Spain has always been a favourite holiday area for Brits. And despite the common perception that most of us know Spain inside out, many places across the country are waiting to be discovered – from little towns to country trails and coastlines which have escaped urbanisation.
A warm summer evening and everyone slowly makes for the Plaza Mayor – one of Spain's most impressive city squares. Once a venue for bullfighting, this 18th-century architectural jewel has arcades and columns topped by medallions featuring Spanish royalty, including the present King and Queen.
Salamanca, just north of Madrid, is one of Spain's most glamorous cities and held the title of City of Culture in 2002. It is a large university centre on a par with Oxford or Cambridge, with many bars and restaurants and a lively nightlife. The old town lies on the north bank of the Tormes River and is perfectly laid out for exploring by foot.
Visit the cathedral, which took an astonishing 200 years to complete and contains 52 panels depicting incidents from the lives of Christ and the Virgin Mary.
The visitor information office is housed in the Casa de Las Conchas (literally 'the House of Shells'), one of the most recognisable buildings in the city, with 400 scallop shells carved across its exterior walls. The shells were a symbol for pilgrims on their way to Santiago de Compostela.
This lovely Andalusian town is the original home of sherry (the drink it gave its name to) and has grown rich on its fame. It is also home to the pure-bred Andalusian horses; visitors can see them in their stables each morning or attend a formal show on Thursdays.
Bodegas (wine lodges) are always open to visitors. One of the largest, Gonzalez Byass, hosts tours throughout the day and is arguably one of the most entertaining – as among the thousands of barrels there is a family of semi-domesticated mice which are known to be partial to a sip of sherry. A tour costs £5 and will include a tasting (with or without the mice).
Stop by the Alcazar, the Moorish palace that dates back in part to the 12th century. It features different styles of architecture and contains a well-preserved mosque and bath house. The grounds are filled with orange trees and soothing water gardens.
Over in the Santiago district of Jerez you will find a distinct style of flamenco dancing in tapas bars. It is all very casual, and impromptu dancing will begin with the clack of a castanet at any point during the evening.
This bustling provincial capital is Andalusia's second largest city, and generally overlooked by tourists hurrying to the Costa del Sol resorts from its busy airport. Government investment is about to pour into Malaga as it launches itself as Spain's newest city break. The waterfront will be extended and a new harbour terminal will allow more cruise liners to dock in this historic Mediterranean port.
Its historic old town has narrow streets, squares, churches and lively bars. The cathedral dates from the 16th century and is known as La Manquita ('one-armed old woman') because of its solitary tower.
Pablo Picasso, Spain's most famous artist, was born in Malaga and the Museo Picasso Malaga has 186 works from his private collection. Not to be missed are the ancient castles of Alcazaba and Gibralfaro, among the finest examples of Moorish palace fortresses in the country.
The resort towns of Calella de Palafrugell and Llafranc are situated on the loveliest coastline in Spain. Both have escaped the ravages of more popular tourist meccas and are still unspoilt.
Calella de Palafrugell, with its sparkling white houses, is a small and very Spanish resort that drops down to two sandy beaches. Walk to the next headland and you will find Cap Roig botanic garden, created in the Twenties by a tsarist Russian colonel and his English wife. A series of flower-strewn terraces lead down to the sea. A summer arts festival runs annually from mid-July to mid-August.
A picturesque 15-minute walk along the headland will bring you to Llafranc, another stunning seaside village. It has a wonderful sandy beach backed by a pine-shaded boulevard with bars, restaurants and cafes.
Costa de la Luz
Turn right out of Malaga airport and you are on the Costa de la Luz (Coast of Light). This coastline, which runs from Cadiz to Tarifa, boasts more than 50 miles of fine white sand backed by dunes and pine forests, with an enviable sunshine record throughout the year. Despite its reputation for windy days and its popularity with windsurfers, in July and August the wind dies, leaving hours to enjoy the beach and calm seas.
Throughout the year whales and dolphins swim along this coast to the Med or the Atlantic and companies in Tarifa run whale-watching trips; there is a very good chance of seeing these magnificent mammals. Alternatively, head for the Donana National Park, home to a rare big cat, the Iberian lynx. Tours depart daily from the El Acebuche Visitor Centre on the Placa Acebuchal in El Rocio.
Rioja wine trail
This route is a great way to see a little-known region, with its rolling vineyards and lively towns. The journey can be done in around six hours, or over a few days with pleasant stopovers.
Begin in Alfaro, with several bodegas selling the region's distinctive barrelled wine. Then head towards Logrono, which lies on the banks of Rio Ebro and is the capital of Rioja. It is a lively city with many attractions, including a 15th-century cathedral. Fuenmayor, the next stop, is surrounded by vineyards and has wine stores along its main street. Cenicero, Briones and Haro are all on the trail and provide good breaks for meals, tastings and overnight stops. Even when grapes are not being harvested there is plenty to see.
Fiestas are a part of Spanish life and are held throughout the year. They can be loud, colourful and riotous. Here are three show-stopping events:
Near the city of Huelva in southern Spain, El Rocio is a tiny village of white cottages and a single church where, perhaps, the most famous pilgrimage fair of the south takes place annually at Pentecost.
It is an extraordinary spectacle, with entire village communities and 'brotherhoods' from Huelva, Seville and even Malaga meeting in lavishly decorated ox-carts or on horseback. Throughout the procession, which takes place over two days, finishing on Saturday evening, there is dancing and partying. Women and men ride on horseback in full flamenco dress while stopping frequently to sip sherry and wine with anyone who will fill their glasses. The spectacle is magical and visitors join in.
The fiestas here are some of the most riotous but the best is Las Fallas in March. Visitors come from all over the world to see the magnificent parades and papier-mache statues. Each neighbourhood builds a massive monument which can depict satirical scenes, mainly involving politicians or anyone in the public eye. They appear in squares and on street corners and are then judged and awarded prizes.
The paper statues are set alight at midnight. They light up the entire city, as some are as tall as the buildings. Fireworks are placed in the statues for further effect. Throughout the week there are parades, paella contests, parties and, of course, fireworks. The entire city is in party mode, so business grinds to a halt, with bars and cafes open 24 hours.
The Andalusian capital hosts two of the largest festivals. The first, Semana Santa (Holy Week at Easter), is spectacular. The second, the Feria de Abril, is unique to the city and less well-known. A week-long party of drink, food and flamenco, it is staged a fortnight after Semana Santa.
The Feria de Abril is staged on the far bank of the river in the barrio of Los Remedios and is covered with pavilions and tents. Celebrations begin at 9pm and continue until 6 or 7am the following morning. Everyone wears traditional costume, with women in flouncy gypsy dresses.
Earlier in the day there are parades on horseback throughout the city. This is a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
Keep the costs down
- Check if the restaurant you are visiting at lunchtime has a fixed-priced menu – menu del dia. These three-course, bargain-priced meals usually cost around £10.
- Many museums can be visited free at certain times of the week. Check ahead using a good guide book and time your visit accordingly.
- On a day trip? Head for the nearest market and pick up delicious local food for a picnic. So much more authentic than an expensive lunchtime restaurant stop if your destination is 'touristy'.
Useful info: The Spanish National Tourist Office, 020 7486 8077 website: www.spain.info
To purchase the AA Road Atlas of Spain & Portugal at a special price of £11.99 (20% off rrp) see the Saga Bookshop