Spain has a rich history and some things that you may not know about. Come find out what Spain’s cultural and historical significance has to offer the world.

When most people think of continental European countries, they think of one of four places: Germany, Italy, France, or Spain. Everyone has stereotypical images that come to mind when they think of these places, some of which are rooted in reality. Spain, for example, is thought by Hollywood to be a country where people listen to flamenco music and go to bullfights.

The reality, of course, is far more complex. Spain has a multicultural background and a history dating back to the Roman Empire, if not before. For several centuries, Spain rivaled England as the dominant power in Europe. Spain has historical influences from the Roman Empire, the Muslim caliphates of North Africa, and its blend that arose over time.

When you ask the question “What is Spain known for?” we’re here to provide some of the answers. It isn’t just about flamencos and bullfights, but we’ll cover those.

Exploration

Old design Ship

During the Age of Exploration (the 1500s - 1600s), Spain was one of the leading countries in terms of how much of the known world its sailors charted. While the Greek astronomer Eratosthenes had already figured out that the world was round over a thousand years ago, it wasn’t until the 1500s that Spain and Portugal began sending sailors to look for alternate routes to the Orient.

It should be noted, however, that while Spain through Christopher Columbus is often credited with discovering the Americas, this is incorrect. A Viking expedition led by Leif Ericson first landed in Newfoundland sometime in the 900s.

Black and white photo of Ferdinand Magellan

Image Source: www.biography.com

The most famous naval expedition was the one headed by Ferdinand Magellan. Although he was Portuguese, the expedition was financed and organized by Spain. The fleet ended up circumnavigating the world for the first time.

An unfortunate mark on Spain’s history comes from the actions of some of the explorers known as conquistadores. Hernando Cortes, Francisco Pizzaro, Francisco Coronado, Ponce de Leon, and others took the lives of almost all the indigenous peoples of the New World in the name of spreading Spanish influence, particularly the Catholic Church.

During this time, Spain practically controlled the entire New World until the French made headway in Canada and England gained its 13 colonies in the present-day United States. Spanish culture is a huge influence on present-day Mexico, as well as many countries in South America.

During the reign of King Philip I, Spain held an expanse of territory that covered the entire known world in the same fashion that the British Empire, which later would be regarded as the empire where the sun never set.


The Spanish Inquisition

This is another unfortunate aspect of Spanish history. The Catholic Church, wanting to solidify its influence, demanded absolute purity of faith. Any difference of belief was met with interrogation, expulsion from the country, excommunication, outright torture, or even execution. We won’t go into detail about some of the horrific acts carried out by the Spanish Inquisition.

The Spanish community at the time, during the 1500s, was comprised of Catholics, Jews, and Muslims. Anyone who had a public disagreement and wanted revenge could go to the local authorities and report the other party on suspicion of heresy. The person would be captured and taken away for interrogation, never to be seen again.

Although the Spanish Inquisition to many has been reduced to a joke in a Monty Python sketch, it’s important to remember that the real Inquisition took thousands of lives and served as one of the worst examples of religious persecution.


black and white photo of pablo picasso

Image Source: en.wikipedia.org

Spanish Artists

On a lighter note, Spain has produced some of the most well-known artists. Surrealism, such as that found in Salvador Dali’s paintings, has produces some famous pieces of art like the melting clock. Meanwhile, Pablo Picasso exemplified cubism in his works, which were influenced by Muslim and North African traditional art.


Classical Guitar

The guitar, in its modern form, was invented in Spain sometime in the Middle Ages. It was based on a hybrid design of the lute and a Moorish stringed instrument called the oud. While lutes had four or five strings, the modern form of the guitar added a sixth string. The classical guitar, as we know it today, has strings made out of nylon, which offers a mellower sound than steel strings.

guitar

Playing classical guitar involves a vast amount of finger dexterity; unlike other forms of the instrument, you typically don’t play classical guitar with a pick. Instead, you use the individual fingers of your right hand on each string to play intricate, fast melodies that rival even some of the most intense 80s rock guitar solos.

Some classical guitarists grow out the fingernails on their right hand to make it easier to pluck the strings.

Classical guitar is a component of flamenco music, a form of dance that’s popular mostly in the southern part of Spain. If you travel to Andalusia, you can expect to encounter a flamenco festival. Flamenco is characterized by the guitar, accompanying song, and dance. Participants wear colorful clothing to catch the breeze when they dance.


Paella

This could be considered the national dish of Spain in a way but is more specific to the Valencia region. Like many of the best dishes, it is comprised of simple ingredients that complement one another to make a satisfying whole. The base of the paella is rice, usually round-grain white rice.

paella dish

Other ingredients can include:

  • Green beans
  • Peas
  • Butterbeans
  • Rosemary
  • Saffron

Although there are vegetarian varieties of paella, especially in modern times, most often the dish includes some form of meat or seafood. In traditional preparation, these are never mixed, but you can now get paella with both meat and seafood. For best results, you’ll want to prepare it with olive oil to prevent the rice from sticking too much and therefore overcooking.


Jamon Iberico

Although paella is the dish of Valencia, jamon is one of the most exquisite dishes for southern Spain. Jamon Iberico is a special type of ham made from pigs that are bred in this region. The pigs are fed with either acorns or grains. This has a notable effect on the flavor of the meat.

The ham itself is cured for up to three years before being packaged and sent off to sell. Only in 2007 did it become available internationally.


Bullfighting

This is seen as Spain’s national sport, though with the rise of awareness of animal cruelty, it’s starting to decline. The basic idea is that an athlete known as a matador wears a colorful suit and has a red cape and a sword.

bull fighting

It should be noted that it isn’t the color that provokes the bull - bulls are colorblind - rather, it’s the motion that provokes the bull into attacking. If you were to stand perfectly still, you might be safe.

By waving the cape, the matador provokes the bull into charging him. He steps aside at the last second, allows the bull to tire itself out, and kills it with the sword. This tradition is seen as a test of the matador’s skill and courage, but as we said, many people are beginning to speak out against the custom because it is a form of animal cruelty.

Valencia banned bullfighting in 2015, but it has yet to be seen whether the other regions of Spain will follow suit.

The Running of the Bulls, which occurs in Madrid and New Orleans, is a tamer version of the bullfight. No bulls are harmed, and in the New Orleans version, they don’t even use actual bulls. It’s a symbolic tradition more than anything.


Spanish Culture

Spanish culture, as a whole, is known for being more relaxed and laid-back than American or English culture. For example, the typical midday siesta is an opportunity for everyone to take a brief nap and get out of the heat of the day. This custom stems from the extremely hot climate in the southern part of Spain, and it stuck, despite having central air conditioning in most places.

Another thing to think about when discussing “What is Spain known for?” is the relatively closeness that people assume. In other words, there isn’t as much sense of personal space. This can be off-putting to American or British tourists, who aren’t used to the proximity or physical contact Spaniards engage in during conversation.

A touch on the arm or similar contact is seen as a matter of familiarity in Spain and is common among friends. Because Spanish culture is friendly and relaxed, it is expected, often, that tourists act the same way. Being too distant can be seen as rude or off-putting.


Final Thoughts

Spain is one of the most culturally significant countries in the world and has one of the richest histories. The society of Spain focuses on enjoying life and all it has to offer, and the rich nightlife, festivals, cultural exhibits, and food all reflect this.

There are some aspects of Spanish history and culture that are problematic to modern sensibilities, but it still captures the imagination.

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