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The diversity and contrast that go to mould the character of Spain are likewise in evidence in its cities. Celts, Iberians, Phoenicians and, at a later date, the Greco-Roman civilisation laid the first cornerstones of urban settlements which, to this day, bear the marks of their passage through time.
During the Middle Ages, Arabic, Jewish and Christian cultures, singly and through a process of mutual cross-influence, gave rise to the birth of cities which have come to house an historical-artistic heritage of incalculable proportions.
Tradition alone does not suffice. Modernity too is essential, and this was something certain Spanish monarchs -Charles III for one- managed to successfully apply during their reigns in order to beautify townscapes, like that of Madrid, with parks and landmark monuments, thereby instilling the city with a spirit of renewal. It was this element of urban renewal that became even more evident at a later date, in the form of townplans designed to extend and enlarge the leading cities, and the construction of graceful buildings which, in keeping with the shifts and changes in architectural tastes, have helped shape the identity of Spains cities over the last two hundred years.
This contrast is also to be seen in the individual heartbeat of Spains cities, where surroundings, climate and daily lifestyles harmonise to lend each its own typical character and atmosphere. Some reveal to us a testimony to a glorious past and a monumental heritage; others, an exuberance of light and colour; and others still, the mysteries of wreathing morning mists and a horizon mantled in eternal green. Whether cosmopolitan or provincial, locked in time or flourishing and go-ahead, they are fascinating in the wide spectrum of realities and possibilities that they hold out to all who visit them and enjoy their warm hospitality.
The countrys two largest cities, Madrid and Barcelona, are further evidence of this diversity. Madrid is open and endearing. Bustling, unpretentious, its old quarter is a winding maze of simple harmony, surrounded by elegant civic buildings, parks and boulevards, landmarks of the modern city. A byword in art thanks to its galleries and museums, it enjoys a well-earned reputation as being an open-hearted city where all newcomers can be sure of finding a niche and a warm welcome, a city where the most disparate trends and attitudes somehow manage to co-exist. Barcelona is the Mediterranean metropolis par excellence and yet at the same time open to all cultural influences flowing in from beyond the Pyrenees. Its harbour and commerce have served to foster the citys prosperity over hundreds of years, while its well-ordered and symmetrical town grid has given us quarters of unrivalled beauty, such as the Gothic Quarter, Las Ramblas and the modernist Paseo de Gracia. Site of the 1992 Olympics, Barcelona underwent a thorough facelift, with the result that it is today an elegant and harmonious city, waiting to be enjoyed to the maximum.
World heritage cities
Bonded by the universal recognition accorded by UNESCO in acknowledgement of their natural, scenic and monumental appeal, Spains Group of World Heritage Cities is the most important in any one country in the world and is composed of nine historic core units in so many cities. These cities have not only kept their natural settings intact but, along with an impressive heritage in the form of monumental buildings and sights, have at the same time managed to retain the richness of their local architecture and a way of life in which the past is all too palpably present.
From Galician mists and pilgrims' offerings to the Apostle James in Santiago de Compostela, the heritage list ranges across to Cordoba, the capital of the Omayyads and once the gem of the known world, which, in its mosque and old quarters (the judería and San Lorenzo areas), possesses an extraordinary monumental heritage, infused with the very essence of Andalusia in its alleys, lanes and gardens. From the learned Renaissance cloisters of Salamanca, one is then taken via walled and mystic Avila where the passer-by still seems to hear the wandering tread of St. Teresa de Jesús, and on to Segovia of Roman and 16th-century "Comunero" insurgency fame, its mansions proudly emblasoned with the coats-of-arms of the Castilian nobility.
In similar vein, Cuenca and its wonder of Nature await, defying orthodoxy, hanging bewitched, magically suspended above the twin ravines gashed by its two rivers, while Cáceres proves a revelation in each and every street of its Old Quarter, a Quarter as splendid as it is well-preserved, and Toledo, the medieval capital of Spain, rises from the banks of the Tagus like some rambling, old house in which the history and jewelled perfection of ten centuries lies waiting to be discovered.
World Heritage status was recently accorded to the city of Alcalá de Henares, seat of one of Spain's most glorious universities and birthplace of Miguel de Cervantes.
Innumerable routes lie open to the visitor, waiting to acquaint him/her with the major world movements in Art (Romanesque, Gothic, Renaissance, Baroque), waiting to reveal the living traces of History.
And there are still other cities, cities that look out to sea and are confronted by the mirror image of their own beauty. Shoreside cities, elegant and charming, like those of the north: Santander, set in a bay which frames it in one of Spains loveliest panoramas, with wide curving beaches and romantic seafront walks; Donostia-San Sebastián, alluring and aristocratic, which stretches along and towards the sea between its sheltering headlands and which, in its old Quarter, retains all the traditional festive fervour that makes it so unique; and Corunna, garden city of the Atlantic seaboard, with its white glassed-in frontages, elegant districts and bustling business sector.
Seafaring cities, which on the Mediterranean are pearls of irridescent light shimmering in a thousand colours and facets, where industrial and tourist industries thrive in fragrant and enchanting natural settings. Valencia is the prototype of the big Mediterranean city: fertile, productive, luminous and commercially astute. The monumental lives cheek by jowl with the traditional, and the citys prosperity is well epitomised in its explosive fiestas.
Alicante, capital of the Costa Blanca, one of the countrys most important seaside resort areas, is a picturesque city which retains the appeal of its relaxed, unhurried lifestyle, while Palma, capital of the Balearic Isles, combines an old quarter, rich in Moorish remains and Gothic art, with a modern yacht basin, marina and tourist trade, and Ibiza, originally founded by the Carthaginians, is today a world-famous tourist destination, with a stunning Old Quarter of winding alleys and streets huddled inside its walls.
In the south, Malaga too is the focal point of another key tourist area, the Costa del Sol. A city of light and gaiety, it retains its commercial drive and ability to benefit from the twin bonanza afforded by its climate and the beautiful sweep of bay on which it stands. Melilla and Ceuta, sentinels perched on the other side of the Strait of Gibraltar, conserve the melting pot of cultures and religions within their walled bastions, whilst Cadiz, festive and forever linked with Antillean discovery, looks out onto the Atlantic from its bay, with that eclectic mix of architecture and lifestyles which is so much part of it. Similarly Atlantic in feel are the Canary Island towns of Santa Cruz de Tenerife, Las Palmas de Gran Canaria and San Sebastián de La Gomera, towns that are quaint and modern by turn.
Situated on the banks of important rivers, Zaragoza on the Ebro and Seville on the Guadalquivir are two high-profile cities, as much for their geographical position and wealth as for their sights. Strategically located, Zaragoza is the capital of Aragon and, apart from the Basilica of Our Lady of the Pillar, possesses marvellous examples of the Mudejar School, whilst Seville, the Andalusian capital, is a colourful, elegant city with its landmark Giralda Tower and its world-renowned feasts, both religious (Holy Week) and profane (April Fair).
There are many more mainland cities with tales to tell of the countrys history and its different regions.
Going from north to south, mention must be made of: Bilbao, pivotal industrial centre and pioneer in urban reclamation and Art (the Guggenheim Museum); Pamplona, the capital of Navarre, which combines the redolence of its medieval quarters with the universal attraction of the annual running of the bulls during the fiestas of San Fermín; Oviedo, the capital of Asturias, which has rehabilitated and restored its Old Quarter to its former glory; Logroño, the capital of La Rioja, famed for its gourmet cuisine and wines; León, the erstwhile capital of the Kingdom of Castile & León, with its spectacular Gothic Cathedral and Romanesque and Renaissance churches; Valladolid, on the banks of the River Pisuerga, cultured and vigorous; Burgos, as steeped in the history of Castile as it is enobled by the beauty of its Cathedral and monasteries.
In Spains Levant region, surrounded by market gardens, Murcia greets the tourist with its 18th-century Baroque and Mediterranean prosperity, while Granada, at the foot of the Sierra Nevada range, surrounded by a prodigiously fertile plain, distils the very essence of Moorish culture in the sumptuous Alhambra Palace and Generalife Gardens.
The passage of time and the hand of Man have impregnated the cities of Spain with such beauty and character that it is necessary to walk them, exploring every nook and cranny to glimpse all the magic and charm which they possess in their infinite variety of skylines, silhouettes and contrasts.