History comes alive in
countless Spanish cities, founded by Greeks, Romans or Phoenicians, enriched by
Moorish, Jewish, and Christian cultures, and repositories of artistic treasures
and architectural jewels. In every Spanish city the old and new effortlessly
UNESCO strives to protect the invaluable and irreplaceable heritage of its member states, and Spain is honored to have eight cities declared Heritage of Mankind Cities: Santiago de Compostela, Salamanca, Ávila, Segovia, Cáceres, Cuenca, Toledo and Córdoba.
Santiago de Compostela
became famous as a medieval place of pilgrimage to worship at the shrine of the
apostle Saint James, and it retains a medieval air in its porticoed streets,
noble homes, and historic buildings of exceptional architectural beauty.
Ever since the thirteenth century Salamanca was Spain's most prestigious center of learning, and home of a world-acclaimed university. It is also celebrated for its dazzling examples of sixteenth century Plateresque architecture.
The most distinguishing
feature of Ávila, a city filled with centuries-old churches, palaces, and noble
houses, is its splendidly preserved walls, punctuated by gateways and fortified
towers, which completely encircle the old city. Ávila still evokes the spirit of
two of its celebrated saints, sixteenth century Santa Teresa de Jesús and San
Juan de la Cruz.
In Segovia, a city shaped like a ship, the great Roman Aqueduct stands guard at the entrance to the city. The cathedral forms the ship's "masts" and the narrow wedge where the fairy tale Alcázar castle dramatically rises is shaped like the prow. Within these confines is a tawny-colored city of distinctive Romanesque churches, old mansions, humble houses and centuries-old inns.
The city of Cáceres, enclosed by ancient walls and distinguished by its assemblage of honey-colored Gothic and Renaissance stone mansions and palaces on quiet cobbled streets is without equal in Spain. It is a living museum of the fifteenth, sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.
The highlight of Cuenca is its awesome setting at the edge of a rocky spur, ringed by cliffs and flanked by two rivers. Cuenca's glory is its Hanging Houses, impossibly poised at cliff's edge. The city's somewhat surreal setting makes it the ideal location for the Spanish Museum of Abstract Art.
Built defensively on a rocky height overlooking the plains of Castile and encircled by the Tagus River, Toledo, immortalized by El Greco, is indeed spectacular. Today historic Toledo in its entirety is a National Monument, and the many churches, monasteries, palaces and noble homes, besides two synagogues, a mosque, and a splendid cathedral, recall the diverse cultures that left their mark on the city.
In Córdoba whitewashed houses, maze-like streets, and flower-filled patios replace the sober stone of central Spain. It was once the grandest city of the Western world, where three cultures fused. Today its most impressive monuments draw from each of those cultures: the synagogue, the Great Mosque, and the cathedral, incongruously set within the confines of the mosque.
As far back as Roman times Jewish communities existed throughout the Iberian Peninsula. They comprised a sizable percentage of the population and played decisive roles over the centuries in the development of Spanish culture. Attaining extraordinary power and influence, Jews reached their Golden Age in the tenth century in Moorish Spain and the twelfth century in Christian Spain, where they became administrators, diplomats, financiers, and creditors to the royal courts, as well as doctors, interpreters, and scholars. They helped preserve and transmit the accumulated knowledge of three distinct and highly developed civilizations at a time when the rest of Europe was engulfed in the Dark Ages.
Córdoba was a famous seat of Jewish scholarship and counted Maimonides among its native sons. The Jewish community in Toledo numbered more than 12,000, synagogues were everywhere, and Toledo's renowned School of Translators included many prominant Jewish scholars. All this, however, came to an abrupt end in 1492, when Jews were required to convert to Christianity or leave Spain. Sephardic Jews, as Jews of Spanish ancestry are called, spread out across Europe. To this day some of them still treasure the large heavy keys of their ancestral homes in Spain and speak Ladino, a language which resembles medieval Spanish.
Travelers who wish to experience Spain's Jewish past or search for their own Jewish roots will find many opportunities to do so. Toledo, a city untouched by time has two synagogues -and one of them incorporates a fine museum of Sephardic culture. In Córdoba there is yet another synagogue, and in a small courtyard a statue commemorates Moses Maimonides -one of the greatest literary figure of Jewish history.
Old Jewish quarters have
survived in any number of Spanish cities and towns. The Barrio de Santa Cruz in
Sevilla is perhaps the best preserved and most evocative. Often a street or
place name can bring to mind Spain's Jewish past, like Samuel Levi Street in
Toledo, Street of the Jews in Córdoba, and Street of the Call (from the Jewish
word kahal meaning Jewish community) in Barcelona. Also in Barcelona the name
Montjuic -mountain of the Jews- recalls the Jewish neighborhood that was once
You will also find wonderful reminders of Jewish life in lesser known cities and towns: the steep narrow streets of Ribadavia in Galicia and Hervás in Extremadura; the quaint golden stone village of Besalú in Catalunya with its well preserved Mikvah (ritual Jewish baths); and the intact Jewish Quarter of Girona with its Isaac El Cec center of Jewish studies.
Jewish communities are growing once more in Spain, particularly in Madrid, Barcelona, Málaga, Marbella, Sevilla, and Valencia, where synagogues and schools attend to the needs of each city's Jewish population.
Generations of travelers to Spain have been enchanted by the country's multitude of castles that seem to sit upon almost every rise in the land. In the Middle Ages there may have been close to 10,000 castles in Spain; 2,500 still stand today and date as far back as the ninth century. Some are bare skeletons, others magnificently preserved, and still more converted into private homes or government run paradors. They stand as reminders of Spain's rich historic past.
To seek "castles in Spain" means to daydream, but the castles of our imagination really do exist; they seem to match our fantasies so closely that many Spanish castles have become prototypes for whimsical cartoon films and have been used as dramatic settings for epic movies. Spain's castles span the centuries, from fortresses originally constructed by the Romans (only their foundations remain, upon which later castles arose) to those that have witnessed battles between the Moors and Christians, and those built later in Renaissance grandeur as symbols of wealth and power. Their common link is fortification: solid construction, usually in stone, thick walls, moats, and locations on heights overlooking the countryside.
Border wars between Christians and Moors in the vast central region of Spain went on for several centuries, and castles proliferated, giving rise to the region's name, Castile, or Land of Castles. Castles were routinely built on rocky heights from the very same stone, and the land and its castle often blend imperceptibly.
Even when warfare subsided,
a war mentality lingered into the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, and
defensive structures continued to be the style, even if used only for domestic
purposes. Castles could be complex structures or simple watchtowers, like those
that guarded against pirate attacks by sea and still dot hilltops along Spain's
As the centuries progressed, castles became palatial residences for kings, sites of royal intrigue, home to marquises and nobles and to military-religious knightly orders. In southern Spain Moorish castles called alcazares were sometimes glorious works of art, enclosing caliphs and their retinues in lavish style.
Among the fine castles that still stand, it is hard to match the grandeur of Coca castle, built in Moorish style on the plains of Segovia; the dreamy splendor of Segovia's Alcázar; the majesty of Loarre in the foothills of the Pyrenees; the magic of the Alhambra that dominates the city of Granada, the Peñafiel castle in the Duero Valley that stretches out like a battleship on a rise over the Castilian landscape; and the sophistication of Navarra's Olite castle.
Spain is so extraordinarily rich in art and architecture today because of the many distinct cultures that populated the country and influenced its cultural development. The visitor will find many of the works of these different civilizations in their natural settings and fully represented as well in Spain's many outstanding museums. Prehistoric cave dwellers with highly sophisticated artistic skills left us paintings of such grace and beauty that they revolutionized scientific thought on the origin and development of man. The ancient pre-Roman Iberians contributed their elaborately carved sculptural works and the Greeks their cities, mosaics and sculptures. The Roman conquest brought Spain stupendous architectural works and great cities, especially Mérida and Tarragona.
Moorish invasions of Spain led to a period of cultural splendor, witnessed today particularly in the Alhambra of Granada, the Great Mosque of Córdoba, and the palace of Medina Azahara outside Córdoba. From centuries-old Jewish communities Spain still has the original Jewish quarters, ritual baths, and several synagogues. With the reemergence of Christianity came Romanesque art and architecture -simple, purely designed churches, often decorated with frescoes and polychrome statues and enriched by the influence of pilgrims from other lands traveling to the holy city of Santiago de Compostela. The great age of Gothic-style churches and cathedrals followed, given a uniquely Spanish decorative flair by the addition of opulent Isabelline detail.
Spain also contributed its own characteristic Plateresque style to Renaissance buildings with stone carving so intricate that it resembled the work of a silversmith.
The sixteenth and
seventeenth centuries was Spain's Golden Age of art with such giants of painting
as El Greco, Velázquez, Zurbarán and Murillo. The baroque period that followed
gave us another singular Spanish architectural style called Churrigueresque
-baroque ornamentation taken to the extreme under the influence of earlier
Moorish and Plateresque styles. A return to classic Greek and Roman elegance
produced the eighteenth century neoclassic style -among its finest examples, the
Royal Palace in Madrid, and the royal palaces of Aranjuez and La Granja. This
was also the era of another artistic genius, Francisco de Goya -a forerunner of
twentieth century comtemporary art.
Modernism at the turn of our century brought Barcelona and its native son Antonio Gaudí to the forefront of a new style characterized by buildings of free flowing lava-like concrete and stone, tortuous wrought iron grills, grates, and gates, and one-of-a-kind ceramic tilework. Barcelona was a popular haunt for artists who would become icons of the modern age: Picasso, Dalí, and Miró.
Spain's new architecture now claims the world's attention. In the past twelve years the country's museums, airports, bridges and train stations became projects for internationally famous architects. From the elegant Museum of Roman Art in Mérida, created by Spanish architect, Rafael Moneo, to the breathtaking Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, designed by American architect, Frank Gehry, a visitor can see visually thrilling modern buildings in virtually every region. To see more Moneo designs for example visit the big, swooping Seville airport, Madrid's Atocha railroad station, the beautiful Miró Foundation in Mallorca, and the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum in Madrid, which he converted from the 19th-century Palacio de Villahermosa.
In a feat unprecedented in Seville's history, eight new bridges went up over the Guadalquivir River in 1991 in anticipation of the 1992 World's Fair. Among the architects involved in this immense undertaking was the renowned Santiago Calatrava, who designed the Alamillo Bridge. Girding the river, it appears austere and elegant like a giant steel necklace.
In the maritime Galician city of A Coruña, the first interactive museum dedicated to the study of mankind opened in 1995. Called the Casa del Hombre, or Domus, it is the work of renowned Japanese architect, Arata Isozaki, who also designed Tokyo's new city hall and the Palau d'Esports Sant Jordi in Barcelona. In form and sensuousness, the museums's architecture echoes the horn shape, a symbol of fecundity.