Geography - People - Economy - Politics - History


Spain's geography is very diverse and includes some of Europe's highest mountains, almost 5000 kilometers of coast, a very wet northwestern region, vast semiarid tablelands and a desert, and two major island groups.

In addition to the mainland part, Spain also includes the Balearic Islands in the Mediterranean, the Canary Islands in the Atlantic off near Africa, and two enclaves (Ceuta and Melilla) on the northern coast of Morocco. The tiny peninsula of Gibraltar, near the strategic strait of the same name, is a British territory but claimed by Spain.

Much of the Iberian Peninsula is occupied by the Meseta Central, a huge, generally dry plateau. Around its edges are a number of elongated mountain ranges: the Cantabrian Mountains (north), the Iberian Cordillera (east), and the Sierra Morena (south). The Meseta Central is divided in half by the Sistema Central, a series of mountain ranges that rise near Madrid.

The Pyrenees, whose peaks exceed 3000 meters in places, form a natural border with France (and Andorra) and constitute Spain's only overland access to the rest of Europe. The Sierra Nevada mountains, part of the Baetic Cordillera in the south, rise even higher: Mulhacén is 3482 meters tall. Spain's highest mountain, however, is the Pico del Teide (3718 m) on Tenerife in the Canary Islands.

The Tagus, which drains the southern part of the Meseta Central, is the longest river in Spain. Other important rivers include the Guadiana and the Duero (Douro; in the northern half of the Meseta), the Ebro (whose basin drains the Spanish Pyrenees), and the Guadalquivir (in the south).

With the important exceptions of Madrid, Saragossa, and a few other, smaller urban centers, most major cities are located within 100 km of the coast. While the urban areas of both Barcelona and Madrid each have nearly 5 million inhabitants, the city of Barcelona is quite a bit smaller than the Spanish capital in terms of population.

Spain has a predominantly sunny, warm (and often hot) climate in the summer, except in the northwest and north, where Atlantic currents bring wetter, more temperate weather and greener landscapes. In the winter, temperatures get quite cold in the interior, but remain mild in the south.


Spain's population is nearly 40 million. Its birth rate has dropped dramatically over the past few decades and now is near zero, similar to that of most industrialized countries. Several million Spaniards live outside of Spain, primarily in Latin America and Western Europe.

Spanish is spoken by the entire population, but in some parts of the country, regional languages are widely spoken. About 17% of Spaniards speak Catalan, a Romance language widely used in Catalonia, Valencia, and the Balearic Islands. Galician, which is related to both Spanish and Portuguese, is the language of Galicia (northwestern Spain). Basque is an ancient of unknown origin spoken in the north, near the border with France.

Virtually all of the Spanish population is Roman Catholic. The Jewish community flourished under Muslim rule in the Middle Ages, but was expelled in the 15th century and remains small today. Immigration has caused an increase in the Muslim population, which now represents about 1% of the total.


Spain's economy has grown consistently since joining the European Union in 1986 and is currently one of the fastest growing in Europe. Spain's GDP grew at over 5% per year in the later 1980s, slowed considerably during the recent global recession, and now is expanding at an annual rate of over 3%. In terms of GDP per capita, Spain lags well behind the EU average, but it is closing this gap quite rapidly. Spain suffers from very high unemployment. Although the jobless rate has been coming down over recent months, at over 17% it is still far higher than anywhere in Western Europe. Spain is making the transition to the European single currency, the euro, which will replace the peseta in all transactions in the year 2002.

Agriculture remains a very important sector of the Spanish economy, though its relative importance has declined sharply with increased industrialization. Among Spain's chief products are grapes and wine, oranges and other fruits, olives and olive oil, tomatoes and other vegetables, cereal grains (especially wheat and barley), sugarbeets, potatoes, and cork. Irrigation is necessary in many parts of the country. The most important livestock raised are sheep, pigs, goats and, to a lesser extent, cattle and horses. Spain's fishing industry is one of the world's largest. 

The manufacturing sector in Spain has undergone dramatic growth over the past four decades. Its primary goods are automobiles, textiles, clothing, and footwear, food and beverages, metals and metal products, cement, chemicals, refined petroleum, shipbuilding, electrical appliances, and machine tools. Coal and iron are mined in the far north though both industries are in decline. Spain also has large reserves of zinc, mercury, lead, and other minerals. Virtually every major river is tapped for hydroelectric power and dams are numerous. Nuclear power also accounts for a large portion of Spain's energy production.

As Spain is the third most visited country in the world, tourism is a major, growing industry, especially along the Mediterranean coast and in the major cities.

In 1996, about two-thirds of Spain's trade took place within the European Union. France and Germany are Spain's leading trading partners. Spain tends to import more than it exports. Its principal exports are cars and trucks, semifinished manufactured goods, foodstuffs, and machinery. Spain imports machinery, transport equipment, petroleum and other fuels, semifinished goods, foodstuffs, consumer goods, and chemicals.


Spain is a democratic, parliamentary monarchy. Under the 1978 constitution, the king (currently Juan Carlos I, a Bourbon) is the head of state and commander in chief of the armed forces. In practice, his powers are very limited. 

The legislature, or Cortes Generales, has two chambers. The Senate is comprised of 256 members, of which most are elected by popular vote and some are appointed by regional governments. The 350 members of the Congress of Deputies are elected by popular vote and proportional representation. All members of parliament serve four-year terms, though the prime minister can dissolve the Cortes and call elections before that time. The next legislative elections are to take place by March 2000.

The head of government, the prime minister, is chosen by the parliamentary majority. He can be dismissed by an absolute majority vote in the Congress of Deputies.

Spain is divided into 17 "autonomous communities" based on historical, cultural, and economic criteria, and are themselves divided into provinces. While all Comunidades autónomas have their own legislature and government, their powers vary somewhat. The Basque Country and Catalonia, where "nationalist" sentiment is strongest, have the most extended powers. Basque, Catalan, and Galician are official languages in their respective autonomous communities.

Spanish politics is dominated by three nationwide forces and a number of regional parties. On the right is the Popular Party, led by the current prime minister, José María Aznar. It disputes the political center with the Socialist Party, which was in power from 1982 to 1996. The United Left is a coalition led by the Communist Party. The most important regional parties are Convergence and Union in Catalonia and the Basque Nationalist Party in the Basque Country. The Basque regional parliament includes representatives from Herri Batasuna, the political wing of the ETA separatist organization.


Nearly eight centuries of Muslim (Moorish) rule left a profound cultural, artistic, and even linguistic impact on the country, especially in the southern region of Andalusia. Córdoba, the capital of Moorish Spain, flourished as a center of science, learning, and art, becoming one of the greatest cities of its time. For the most part, Muslims, Christians, and Jews coexisted peaceably.

The Christian kingdoms in the north exploited internal divisions between the various Moorish territories and in the 11th century began the Reconquista, the reconquest of the  Iberian Peninsula from the Muslims. By the middle of the thirteenth century, Castile and its allies had captured all but Granada.

Under the "Catholic Kings", religious fanaticism culminated in the famous Spanish Inquisition and the expulsion of the Jews. In that same year, 1492, Granada was taken, the last Muslims were ousted, and Christopher Columbus discovered America for Spain.

By about 1550, Spain's colonial empire stretched from much of Latin America to the Philippines and brought with it a great amount of wealth, power, and prestige. But conflicting colonial claims, religious wars in Europe, and the Napoleonic Wars accelerated Spain's decline and in the early nineteenth century, most of its colonies gained independence. The country was deeply divided, endured several civil conflicts (Carlist wars) and continued to decline throughout the nineteenth century.

Spain remained neutral in the First World War. In 1923, General Primo de Rivera carried out a coup d'état and established a dictatorship. By the end of the decade, it had become very unpopular and the Second Republic was proclaimed. Increased political and social unrest culminated in 1936 in the Spanish Civil War, which pitted General Francisco Franco's Nationalists against the Republicans. The Nationalists received assistance from Nazi Germany and Italy, while their opponents were aided by the USSR and the "International Brigades", made up of opponents of fascism from around the world. After two and a half years of bitter fighting and an estimated 500,000 or more dead, Franco emerged victorious, established a fascist dictatorship and severely repressed opponents to his régime. In the Second World War, Spain remained neutral and resisted pressure to join the Axis side.

Especially at the beginning of Franco's rule, Spain was largely isolated from the rest of Europe politically and economically. But in the context of the Cold War, Franco's strong anti-communism placed Spain squarely in the Western bloc, though its relationship with the U.S. and Western Europe was uncomfortable. After economic self-sufficiency policies failed, a degree of liberalization and other factors brought rapid industrialization and development from the 1960s onward. 

The Basque separatist organization ETA was founded in 1959 and began terrorist activity several years later. In 1973, it assassinated the prime minister Franco had just chosen. After Franco's death in 1975, the Basque Country and other regions of Spain were granted wide autonomy. Nevertheless, terrorism increased dramatically and by 1998, the Basque separatists were responsible for over 800 deaths. ETA proclaimed a unilateral cease-fire in September of that year, giving its political wing a boost in regional elections. That cease-fire remains in effect today.

King Juan Carlos I was chosen as Franco's successor and he initiated the transition to democracy. A foiled coup attempt in 1981 demonstrated that the country was resolutely opposed to a return to Franco's methods. Spain joined NATO a year later and the European Union in 1986. After fourteen years as prime minister, Felipe González and the Socialists lost the 1996 elections in the wake of several scandals. The most serious was based on allegations that the Spanish government was involved in a "dirty war", hunting down and assassinating Basque separatists. José María Aznar formed a new government and is still in office.

- May 30, 1999 Copyright 1999 World Sites Atlas ( All rights reserved.