Fun Facts about Spain

September 1, 2023

Paul Kay

Is Spain on your list of vacation destinations? Did you know that Spain is the world's largest producer of olive oil? It accounts for approximately half of the world's total production. Olive oil is an essential component of Spanish cuisine. Did you know that Spain boasts the world's oldest restaurant? Restaurante Sobrino de Botin, located in Madrid, holds the title of the oldest continuously operating restaurant in the world. It has been serving customers since 1725. We ate there and we will tell you about it in another post. 

We visited Spain recently. Up until that point, we had never been to Spain or Portugal. When I looked at the map, I thought it was odd that a section of the Iberian Peninsula was Portugal. Somehow, I thought it wasn’t as connected to Spain as it clearly is. I’ll cover a brief history of Portugal’s relationship to Spain in another post. You can also visit my Portugal history post later.

Santillana del Mar, Cantabria / Spain - 29 October 2020: view of an exhibit in the museum at the Caves of Altamira

Hominids are thought to have populated the Iberian Peninsula over 1.2 million years ago. Not much is known about them, but some artifacts have been dated that are at least 800,000 years old. In Northern Spain, paintings were found in the Altamira caves which date between 15,000 to 8500 B.C.. 

The Iberian people came northern Africa, crossing the Mediterranean Sea into Spain around 3000 B.C. About 2,000 years later, the Celts came to Spain from Europe, but their entry point was likely France. You’ll see the Celts in my France history post. 

Phoenicians from the eastern Mediterranean came to Spain around 1000 B.C. and settled along the east coast. The Phoenicians occupied a narrow tract of land along the coast of what today is Syria, Lebanon, and northern Israel. They were famed for their commercial and maritime prowess and established trading posts and settlements throughout the Mediterranean basin.

Olive forest in the province of Jaen, Andalusia, Spain.

Centuries later, Greeks arrived and settled in the northeastern portion of the Iberian Peninsula. Both the Phoenician and Greek settlers would take food, fish, salt, minerals, and pottery back to people in their homelands. They brought many foods to Spain, such as grapes and olives, which are still grown in Spain today.

The Romans came in 218 B.C.. Unlike the Greeks, Rome was not interested in trade. They wanted control of the Western Mediterranean. Carthage was the center of a sprawling network of colonies and client states. It controlled more territory than Rome at the time. Carthage, and became one of the largest and most prosperous cities in the Mediterranean, with a quarter of a million inhabitants. Carthage, which is largely modern-day Tunisia, was only about 360 miles away from Italy by sea.

Hannibal Barca

The Roman invasion and eventual conquest of the peninsula was not easy or fast. From 218 B.C. it took until 19 B.C. to seize and protect the Iberian Peninsula. Between 264 B.C. and 146 B.C. there were three Punic wars fought between Carthage and Rome. You may have heard of Hannibal. No, not Hannibal Lecter. Hannibal was a Carthaginian general who was regarded as one of the greatest military commanders in history. He led the Carthaginian army and a team of elephants across southern Europe and the Alps Mountains against Rome in the Second Punic War. The Second Punic War saw Hannibal and his troops–including as many as 90,000 infantry, 12,000 cavalry and a number of elephants–march from Spain across the Alps and into Italy to fight against Rome. Although Hannibal had success against the Romans, the conflicts took their toll and leadership changed when the wars lasted over 100 years.

Sculpture of Ataulf King at Plaza de Oriente Madrid. He was king of the Visigoths from 411 to 415

The Roman presence in Spain, called Hispania then, lasted seven hundred years. The Romans implemented common laws and a single language, Latin, on most of the land. During Roman leadership, waves of Romans came to live in Spain, where they built cities, temples, outdoor theaters, roads, and aqueducts. Under Roman rule, the boundaries of the peninsula in relation to other European countries were established. At the beginning of the 5th century A.D. the things changed when the Visigoths, from Germany, in 409 A.D. The Visigoths took control of the northern part of Hispania. The next 300 years were a dark period in Spain´s history, marked by battles in different regions and a lack of law and order. Cities began to fall apart. Spain was weak and vulnerable to invasion. In this case, it was the Moors who were coming. The Moors came from northern Africa, and they were Muslims. The amassed a group of Arabic and Berber troops including Syrians. They landed in Gibraltar, in the south of Spain, in 711, It took them less than seven years to conquer all of Spain. The Moors ruled Spain for the next 800 years. They settled mainly in the southern part of the country, in a region known as Andalusia.

The Moors had an immense influence on life in Spain. Crops flourished when the Moors introduced sophisticated methods of irrigation. The Moors built beautiful palaces, public baths, schools, and gardens. They introduced the religion of Islam, practiced by Muslims, to Spain. Many Spanish people became Muslims during the Moors´ rule, although the Moors allowed Christians and Jews to follow their own religious beliefs. The Moors were also very knowledgeable about mathematics and science. Under the Moors, Spain became a center of learning and culture.

Wars that were fought on behalf of religion were the norm in those days. You can look at the wars in France and England that were primarily about Protestants and Catholics. The Crusades were a series of religious wars between Christians and Muslims started that occurred between 1096 and 1291. Both sides wanted to secure control of holy sites. In all, eight major Crusade expeditions — varying in size, strength and degree of success took place. Religious fighting had no winners – only losers.

Queen Isabella I of Castile

Christian kingdoms in the north began a long fight to win Spain back from the Moors. The whole campaign had the character of a Crusade against non-Christians. This period, from 718 to 1491, is known as the Reconquest. The two most powerful kingdoms in northern Spain were Castile and Aragon. When Queen Isabella of Castile and King Ferdinand of Aragon married in 1469, they united their forces. Isabella and Ferdinand finally drove the Moors out of Spain when they captured the kingdom of Granada, the Moors´ last stronghold, in 1492.

The war with the Moors lasted for 11 years, and in 1492 Isabella and Ferdinand conquered Granada. With the conquest of Granada, almost the entire Iberian Peninsula was united in the hands of Spanish kings The complete reunification of Spain ended with the addition of Navarre, a former northern province, in 1512.

Statues of the Catholic Monarchs (Ferdinand and Isabella) and Christopher Columbus in the gardens of the Alcazar

You might have heard about Queen Isabella before. In 1492, Queen Isabella paid for an Italian explorer, Christopher Columbus, to search for a new route to India by water. She wanted easier access to India´s spices and other riches. Columbus’s ship landed in the Bahamas, instead of India. 

After Columbus´s return, Queen Isabella gave money to other Spanish explorers, so they could bring the riches of the Americas back to Spain.

Francisco Pizarro statue

Vasco Nunez de Balboa statue Jerez de los Caballeros Spain.

You might have heard of Juan Ponce de Leon, Amerigo Vespucci, Francisco Pizarro, Herman Cortes, Francisco Vazquez de Coronado and Vasco Nunez de Balboa. Spain had both excellent seamanship and explorers. Spain’s conquistadores gradually conquered Mexico, Central America, parts of the United States, and parts of South America. They accumulated wealth wherever they could find it. England was largely doing the same thing at the time. Spain was always looking for gold. They would conquer territory and ship gold, jewels, and precious metals, as well as cocoa, corn, and potatoes, to Spain, making it one of the wealthiest nations in the world. You can read my posts on California, Arizona, and Mexico to learn more about the conquistadores.

Famous traditional Spanish Galleon 16-18th. Century historical armada ship Alicante Costa Blanca Spain

It was only a matter of time when Spain and England would engage in war. Spain’s explorers and conquistadores were legendary. So were their ships. King Phillip II of Spain created the Spanish Armada as one part of his planned invasion of England. The Armada had over 150 ships and 18,000 men. It was the largest fleet ever seen in Europe. The Spanish saw England as their single largest competitor in both trade and colonization. England’s naval presence was quite small at the time. However, English pirates annoyed Spanish ships in order to plunder what Spain had already plundered elsewhere. England new that conflict was inevitable.

1581, Queen Elizabeth weapon knight the famous Francis Drake

The Queen of England, Elizabeth I, knew Spain wanted to invade and conquer England. She had her spies as did Phillip II. The Queen instructed Drake to inspect the maritime preparations of the Spanish, interfere with their supplies and launch an attack on their ships and ports. Sir Francis Drake was able to burn over 20 Spanish ships in Cadiz in 1587.

Mary I Queen of Scotland (1542-1587)

The final straw, for Spain, was when Mary Queen of Scots was executed. She was Elizabeth’s cousin and she was Spain’s Catholic ally in the English court. Phillip II told his armada to set sail for England and to take it for Spain. The Armada set sail on July 12, 1588.

On July 27, 1588, after the Armada anchored off Calais, but the English had a trick up their sleeve. They decided to send in eight 'fireships'. These were vessels packed with flammable material, deliberately set alight and left to drift towards enemy ships. At midnight, the fireships approached the Spanish Armada. The Spanish cut their anchor cables ready for flight, but in the darkness many ships collided with each other. While none of the Spanish ships were set on fire, the Armada was left damaged scattered and disorganized.

On July 29, 1588, the British and Spanish fleets met in battle. The Spanish outnumbered the British by a very large number. However, the Spanish ships were built for trade and booty. They were quite large. The British had the advantage in artillery and maneuverability. The Spanish lost the first battle. Their plan was to continue to sail up the English Channel, but the British fleet blocked it.

That's when English weather stepped in. A series of storms scattered the Spanish ships and brought heavy losses. Many ships were wrecked off the rocky coasts of Scotland and Ireland. Of the 150 ships that set out, only 65 returned to Lisbon. Spain lost three-quarters of its men. Thus, the Spanish Armada fell, and England remained Protestant.

Queen Elizabeth’s decisive defeat of the Invincible Armada made England a world-class power and introduced effective long-range weapons into naval warfare for the first time, ending the era of boarding and close-quarter fighting. Spain was weakened and so was its control of the seas. This enabled countries like England and France to establish colonies in the Americas. It was the beginning of a slow decline in Spain´s power. One by one, Spain´s overseas territories regained their independence.

One of my favorite movies about the invasion of England by Spain is The Sea Hawk, starring Errol Flynn. I must have seen it a dozen times growing up. Errol is his swashbuckling self and his interactions with the Queen are terrific. It is in black and white, filmed in 1940 but it’s still a great film. If you want something a little more recent (2008) you might like Elizabeth - The Golden Age. The movie has both Mary, Queen of Scots and the King Ferdinand in starring roles.

Plaza Mayor of Madrid with the King Phillip III statue on a horse

Seventeenth-century Spain was the age of the "lesser Habsburgs" – Philip III (1598–1621), Philip IV, and Charles II (1665–1700) – who were considered ineffective rulers as compared with Ferdinand and Isabella, Charles V and Philip II.   The Hapsburg era saw the Italian Wars, the Dutch Revolt, and the Morisco Revolt, along with clashes with the Ottomans and wars with France.

Towards the end of the 17th century, too many conflicts eroded Spain. In the early part of the 18th century, a controversy over succession to the throne led to the War of Spanish Succession, costing Spain its European possessions and its title as one of the world’s powers.  It would eventually recover some of its international standing by aiding the British in the American War of Independence.  Spain needed an alliance and they found one in France.

Napoleon Bonaparte (1769-1821)

In 1807, the Spanish King Charles IV entered into the secret Treaty of Fontainebleau with the French ruler Napoleon Bonaparte—a treaty in which it was agreed that Portugal and all Portuguese dominions were to be divided between the two signatories.  Napoleon wanted to secure and ensure a blockade he had imposed on Britain in 1806 by capturing the Portuguese ports. 

Napoleon was acutely aware of Spain’s morbid economy. After his troops conquered Portugal, he moved them to Spain. Napoleon had over 100,000 troops in Spain by this time, and Charles IV hoped that the French ruler would assist him in regaining the throne.  Instead, Napoleon installed his oldest brother, Joseph, as King. French troops were finally ousted in 1814 and King Ferdinand VII was installed as the new king. 

In, 1898, Spain lost its last colonies in Cuba and the Philippines. In the early part of the 20 century, heavy losses, resulting from Spain’s attempt to colonize parts of Africa, began to undermine the country’s authority.  In 1923 Primo de Rivera established a dictatorship which ended up with the declaration of the second republic. The first Spanish Republic only lasted two years from 1873 to 1874. After the military insurrection of 1936 against the republic, a civil war started which would end in 1939 with a military dictatorship under the rule of Francisco Franco who ruled for 36 years.

Francisco Franco

Under Franco, during WWII, Spain declared itself to be neutral, but it sided with both Germany and Italy. The Franco regime sent the Blue Division, made up of nearly 50,000 soldiers who aided the German army, to the Russian front. After the war, the Franco dictatorship was subjected to a hard international isolation by the victorious countries. As a result, Spain did not benefit from the Marshall Plan set up by the Unites States to finance the reconstruction of Europe. It also was left out of the United Nations, which was created in 1945.

In 1955, with Spain was admitted to the United Nations as a full member. Eisenhower visited Franco in Spain.  Franco continued to rule but Spain’s economy and influence continued to suffer. Franco was a dictator, a leader who ruled with both authority and force. He abolished parliament, leaving only one political party, his own. Franco believed that the government has the right to restrict people´s rights and freedoms. One of the ways Franco did this was by allowing people in Spain to speak only Castilian, the language spoken in central Spain. People living in different parts of the country were not allowed to speak their own languages or practice their own customs.

President Gerald Ford and King Juan Carlos I of Spain

On the 20th of November 1975, General Franco died, thus opening up a new era in the history of Spain. The Democratic Transition started, which would result in the Spanish Constitution, endorsed by referendum in 1978, and the establishment of a parliamentary monarchy led by King Juan Carlos I

Since 1978, Spain has changed remarkably. The country made significant changes rapidly. The economy, the euro zone’s fourth largest, has been fully integrated into the global economy.

From a tourist’s point of view, Spain has quite a lot to offer. There are 47 UNESCO World Heritage Sites spread throughout Spain, from entire historic city centers all the way to bridges, buildings, and pre-historic rock art. You can see cave paintings, Moorish architecture, Roman ruins and so much more. As countries go, Spain is in the top five on the list of most UNESCO sites by country. China and Italy always seem to be the top countries with France and Germany close behind.

Diego Velazquez painter statue. National Archeological Museum of Spain, Madrid

Spain has produced some very acclaimed artists and some of their works only are shown in Spain. Artists including El Greco, Velázquez, and Goya, were revolutionary at their time.

Pablo Picasso

In the modern age there are Pablo Picasso and Salvador Dali and many others. 

We enjoyed our visit to Spain. You can check out our posts about Barcelona, Madrid, Seville, and other cities in Spain. We’re also going to Gibraltar which Spain thinks should be returned to them but the UK claims sovereignty at this time. Check our other posts and get ready to visit Spain.

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