Area 194,897 square mi (504,782 square km)
Population 46.40 million 2014
Highest Point 12,191 ft (3,718 m)
Lowest Point 0 m
GDP $1.381 trillion 2014
Primary Natural Resources minerals, coal, lignite, iron ore, uranium.
SPAIN IS A COUNTRY located in southwestern Europe, occupying with PORTUGAL the Iberian Peninsula. Spain also borders FRANCE and ANDORRA, and is bounded by the ATLANTIC OCEAN and by the MEDITERRANEAN SEA. As a parliamentary monarchy since 1978, the state is headed by the king, but most executive powers fall to an elected president of the government who designates the council of ministers and directs the country. The parliament includes two houses, the Chamber of Deputies and the Senate, whose members are elected by the people. Spain is the fourth-largest country in Europe after RUSSIA, UKRAINE, and FRANCE. MADRID is the capital and largest city.
Spain is a highly decentralized state. The country is divided in 50 provinces, which are a part of 17 larger autonomous communities, including the Balearic Islands in the Mediterranean Sea and the CANARY ISLANDS in the Atlantic. Ceuta and Melilla, two coastal exclaves within MOROCCO, have enjoyed special status as autonomous cities since 1994. The communities have their own regional parliament and government, granting them some independence from the central government in Madrid.
Spain also holds a few small uninhabited possessions off the coast of Africa, the Penon de Velez, the Alhucemas, and the Chafarinas Islands. The UNITED KINGDOM retains a 300-year rule over the colony of GIBRALTAR, a rocky promontory holding high strategic value as the gateway between the Mediterranean and the Atlantic.
Despite strong unifying traits, in Spain an eventful historical process blended with the natural conditions to produce a country made of many cultural layers and displaying striking geographical diversity. The territory of present-day Spain has been inhabited for more than 100,000 years, during the course of which the area was settled or visited by many groups, including the Phoenicians, Celts, Greeks, and Carthaginians. Around 200 B.C.E., the Romans extended their empire to the region, extracting minerals and leaving infrastructures such as roads, aqueducts, and amphitheaters. The name Espana comes from the designation of the area as Hispania while a province of Rome.
Moors, north African Muslims, invaded in 711 C.E. and quickly conquered most of the peninsula, with the exception of a narrow area along the mountainous north, the Asturias. Christians began pushing the Moors southward almost immediately, and the process of Reconquista (reconquest) would last for 800 years. The marriage of Ferdinand of Aragon to Queen Isabella of Castile started the unification of the Iberian kingdoms to form Spain, which was concluded in 1512 with the conquest of Navarra, to the northeast.
The year 1492 marked the beginning of a great age for Spain, with the seizure of Granada, the last Islamic kingdom on the peninsula, and Columbus’s maiden voyage to America under Spanish sponsorship. With the exploration and conquest of the New World, Spain built a mighty and profitable world empire in the 16th and 17th centuries and dominated Europe. In the 16th century, Seville was the largest Spanish city, serving as a base for expeditions to the colonies overseas.
However, the difficulty in controlling such a vast empire, economic hardships, and involvement in wars led to the decline of Spanish power in the 1700s, and especially in the 1800s, when most colonies declared their independence during Napoleon’s occupation of the peninsula. Despite the long period of influx of wealth from overseas possessions, until the mid-1900s most Spaniards were poor farmers and the country went largely undeveloped. During the late 1930s, a bloody civil war had a destructive effect and put Spain under General Francisco Franco’s dictatorship until 1975, when his death opened up a new opportunity for democracy. Franco’s heavily centralized power tried to suppress regionalism and all separatist tendencies were repressed.
Starting in the 1950s, rapid economic development changed Spain into an industrial nation. The country joined the EUROPEAN UNION in 1986 and adopted the European single currency in 2002, the euro.
LAND AND RESOURCES
Being a part of Europe but standing only 8 mi (13 km) north of Africa, the bulky mass of the Iberian Peninsula sits in a bioclimatic transition zone, functioning in many ways as a small continent. Therefore, Spain is a land of very diverse landscapes, having contrasting topography and significant climatic differences. The PYRENEES have isolated the peninsula from France and Central Europe for a long time, and the area concentrates a large share of the biodiversity found in the European continent. Biomes range from conifer forests to wetlands and desert areas, some protected under a network of 13 national parks.
The climate ranges from temperate Atlantic in the north to markedly Mediterranean in the south. Northern areas enjoy cool summers, mild winters, and abundant rainfall year-round, upward of 50 in (150 cm). The interior has hot, dry summers and cold winters, with snow blanketing the higher elevations. July temperatures are lower along southern and eastern coasts; winter is more moderate, with the area around Almeria receiving less than 10 in (25 cm) of rain a year.
Spain is a mountainous country, being second in Europe in average elevation (2,130 ft or 650 m). Central Spain can be described as a large, high platform, called Meseta, sloping gently to the west, surrounded by several mountain ranges that prevent ocean moisture to penetrate inland. Castile, the historical and geographical heart of Spain, spreads over most of this tableland. Much of the region is a semiarid expanse of open fields, punctuated by brown-colored towns overlooked by ancient castles sitting on top of hills.
The area suffers from a harsh climate and poor soils, used for growing cereals and as pastureland for farm animals, the dehesas. This eroded plateau is bisected by the Sierra de Gredos and Sierra the Guadarrama, which are part of the Central Range. The higher northern sub-meseta corresponds mostly to the mighty Duero river basin, while the southern extension is drained by the rivers Tagus and Guadiana and comprises the Extremadura. On this agricultural province, major irrigation projects have recently allowed for forestation and the introduction of more profitable crops.
To the north of the Meseta stands the Atlantic Spain, humid and green. The land rises rapidly from the indented Bay of Biscay to the limestone heights of the Cantabrian Range, which occupies most of Asturias. To the east stand the lower Basque mountains in the more industrialized Basque country. Galicia occupies the northwest corner along a rugged coast with fjordlike inlets called rias, used for seafood farming. The region remained isolated and undeveloped for a long time and was the origin of numerous immigrants to Spanish America. Grazing dairy cattle and growing corn are major agricultural activities, and fishing is important in coastal towns.
Rising to the northeast, the Pyrenees are special for their forests and magnificent views, descending to the vineyards of La Rioja and the Ebro river basin. This wide, terraced valley has maritime origin, being a former sea inlet now filled with sediments. Thanks to irrigation, it has been converted to intensive agriculture. Throughout the arid lower Aragon the settlements merge with the landscape, both displaying the same earth tones.
South of the Meseta and beyond the Sierra Morena spreads Andaluzia, a region of white villages where cultivation of olive trees is a major agricultural activity. The valley of the river Guadalquivir, filled with sediments from the tertiary and quaternary Eras, is one of the most fertile regions of Spain, with rice being cultivated on the eastern reaches. Vineyards dominate the landscape around Jerez, from which the famous sherry is produced. Mineral extraction has remote origin in the region and includes copper, iron, and lead. Towering over the Moorish palaces of Alhambra in Granada, the Sierra Nevada boasts the highest elevation of the peninsula (11,408 ft or 3,478 m) and Europe’s southernmost ski resort.
In Almeria, to the southeast, rows of greenhouses allow the semidesert region to be a major producer of fruits and vegetables. The Mediterranean region includes long and fertile coastal plains at times interrupted by hills that extend to the sea, forming rocky capes between sandy shores. Palm trees are abundant around Elche and rice is cultivated on some flat, wet areas. The population concentrates along the coast, and the economy relies heavily on the numerous tourist resorts of Costa del Sol and Costa Blanca, up to the rugged Costa Brava in Catalonia.
The Balearic Islands stretch a few hundred kilometers off Cabo de la Nao (Cape de la Nao). Because of its favorable climate, the limestone archipelago is an important holiday destination, especially the three main islands of Mallorca, Menorca, and Ibiza. In Mallorca, pine trees extend to the rocky coast, and the island produces citrus, olives, figs, and almonds.
Off the northwest coast of Africa, the Canary Islands have volcanic origin and are mostly dry and barren, with the exception of La Palma and some north-facing coasts. The main islands are Lanzarote, Fuerteventura, Gran Canaria, and Tenerife, the last dominated by the giant volcanic cone of the Teide peak, the highest elevation in Spain. Because of warm temperatures and almost absent of rain, the islands are popular among central European vacationers as winter beach resorts.
ECONOMY AND SOCIETY
Because of a late and rapid industrialization, Spain has experienced dramatic economic changes and development in recent times. Since the 1950s the country has gone from depending on agriculture and fishing to being an industrial nation, at the same time modernizing farming practices. About 65 percent of workers are now employed in the service sector.
The territory has limited energy sources and scarce raw materials for the industry. Nevertheless, there is still significant mining activity, especially in the north, where the importance of coal has declined, and the country has small production of oil and natural gas. The main manufactured products are cars, iron and steel, cement, clothing and shoes, and machinery. Spain’s major exports include motor vehicles, machinery, and foodstuffs. Bilbao is the principal center for production of iron and steel. Barcelona, the second largest city, is a major industrial area and main center of trade, thanks to its large harbor. Madrid leads in service industries.
Spain has an important fishing industry, supported by a large fleet. Vigo, in the northwest, is Europe’s largest fishing port.
Although arable land makes up about one-third of Spain’s surface, soils are mostly poor and rain is scarce. Permanent crops (olive trees, orchards, vineyards), which are adapted to Mediterranean conditions, occupy around 10 percent of the land and help overcome these limitations. Irrigated cropland has been increasing, supported by large projects that contemplate water diversion from northern rivers. Chief agricultural production includes wheat, corn, alfalfa, other vegetables, wine, fruits, olives and olive oil, pork, beef, and dairy products.
Tourism has boomed since the 1950s and become a mainstay of the economy; the country being one of the world’s leading tourist destinations. Every spring and summer huge numbers of tourists flock to large resort cities built along the Mediterranean coast, overwhelming the local population. Benidorm, in the Costa Blanca, increases its winter population by 20-fold to more than 1 million in the summer months.
The population of Spain has been increasing steadily, with most Spaniards living in urban centers. Main agglomerations developed around Madrid, Barcelona, and in the industrial belt of the Basque country, but Valencia, Seville, and Zaragoza are also large cities, well distributed around the territory. Major cities are connected through a modern network of expressways, and increasingly through a high-speed train system.
Roman Catholicism is the main religion and was instrumental in keeping Spaniards together. Castilian Spanish is the official language nationwide, but official regional languages include Catalan, Galician, and Basque. Spain has a significant immigrant population, especially in the south and east. Main communities include Latin Americans and Moroccans, some of whom challenge the waters of the Strait of Gibraltar in small boats and come to Spain seeking jobs as farmhands.
Spaniards enjoy spending much of their leisure time outdoors. To celebrate the country’s vitality 500 years after Columbus and the reconquest, in 1992 Spain organized the World Fair in Seville and the summer Olympic Games in Barcelona. Economic growth notwithstanding, a high unemployment rate has been a persistent problem in the last decade.