Letters from Spain #9: The Spanish Landscape

Letters from Spain #9: The Spanish Landscape

Here is the next episode of my podcast about life in Spain:

https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/letters-from-spain-9-the-spanish-landscape/id1469809686?i=1000459409868

For the transcript, see below:


Hello.

We have had another long weekend here in Spain, and this one was for the Day of the Constitution. It commemorates the day in 1978 when the constitution was passed into law via a referendum. We also had Monday, December 9th, off. And this was basically just because the government guarantees a certain number of holidays per year, and organizes them to make as many long weekends as possible. I quite like this aspect of Spain.

Like so many people (judging from the traffic), I took the opportunity to leave Madrid and to go visit another part of Spain. And while I travelled, I was reminded, once again, of how amazingly diverse the Spanish landscape can be. So I thought I would take this opportunity to give you a kind of quick overview of Spain’s geography.

We can begin with Madrid and its surroundings. Now, I am sorry to say that I think this is one of the ugliest parts of Spain. Madrid is a kind of bureaucratic capital. The site of the city was chosen because it is in the middle of the country. There really isn’t any geographical reason a city should be here. The soil is dry and sandy and isn’t good for farming. There is no coast and no navigable river. (Madrid’s river, the Manzanares, is a kind of pathetic trickle most of the year.) Basically, if the city were to disappear completely, the thought of founding a city here would probably never even occur to anyone (well, unless you were a bureaucrat). 

I mostly like Madrid’s climate, if only because it rarely rains. The air is so dry that it hardly holds any heat. This is weird for a New Yorker, used to humidity. The temperature can vary quite a lot from morning to evening, and can even change drastically between sun and shade. All this is because Madrid is at a relatively high altitude—in fact, it is the highest altitude capital in Europe—and the air is sort of thin. Besides that, a whole mountain chain to the north shields the city from any weather making its way from the coast. As a result, it’s dry and pretty barren.

Here is what Ernest Hemingway had to say about Madrid:

“Madrid is a mountain city with a mountain climate. It has the high cloudless Spanish sky that makes the Italian sky seem sentimental and it has air that is actively pleasurable to breathe. The heat and the cold come and go quickly there.”

I can attest to the air being pleasurable to breathe. At the very least, I feel invigorated when I go running here.

If Madrid itself has an unremarkable landscape, it is fortunately close to some beautiful areas. Most notably there are the Guadarrama mountains to the north. For a New Yorker like me, seeing any mountains is an exciting experience. The highest point in all of New York state is Mount Marcy, which is 1,600 meters tall. And this is in the Adirondacks, pretty far from where I live. The tallest peak fairly close to my house is Mount Beacon, which is 491 meters tall. The whole city of Madrid is higher than that!

The highest peak in Madrid’s mountain range is called Peñalara, and it is about 2,400 meters above sea level. That’s just high enough so that you might experience altitude sickness, though the risk is very small. I’ve climbed to the top many times. It’s fantastic both in winter, when it’s covered in snow and skiers, and in summer, when the view is magnificent. This, by the way, is one of Spain’s 15 national parks. So far, I’ve only visited six of them.

Now that I am on the subject, though, let me tell you about two more national parks that I’ve visited recently. One is in the province of Extremadura. This province is now known as the poorest area of Spain. Ironically, however, it was one of the richest parts of the peninsula when the Romans were here, as we can see from the many Roman ruins. Nowadays, much of Extremadura is given over to raising the Iberian pigs which produce some of the country’s finest hams. The pigs are fed a diet of acorns from a little shrubby tree called the holm oak, which grows in abundance in Extremadura. 

Anyways, the national park is called Monfragüe. It occupies part of the Tagus river valley, where a huge rock formation called the Salto del Gitano created a strong updraft that birds really like. As a result, on any given day you can see dozens and dozens of the indigenous vultures hovering overhead. I highly recommend it.

Just this last weekend I saw another national park, the Picos de Europa (or the “peaks of Europe”). This is a mountain range in the north of Spain (it occupies the borders of three provinces), which gets its name for being the first bits of land that sailors from the New World could see on their return to Europe. Personally, I doubt this story is true, since the Picos de Europa aren’t especially close to the Atlantic, and they aren’t the tallest mountains on the peninsula. Regardless, they are absolutely gorgeous. You could easily imagine yourself in the Swiss alps.

I like these national parks partly because they are not the sorts of things people normally associate with Spain. The popular image of the country is of the beach, the hot sun, orange trees, palm trees, and olive trees. And of course you can find all that in Spain, too. Spain has great beaches, and great palm trees. But arguably Spain’s most important geographic characteristic is that it is so mountainous. In fact, Spain is the second most mountainous country in Europe, after Switzerland, with an average elevation of about 600 meters (or 2,000 feet). Mountain chains crisscross the country. Besides the two mountain chains I already mentioned, there are the Pyrenees on the border with France, and the Sierra Nevada in Andalucia, which is the tallest range in the peninsula (there are many mountains well over 3,000 meters, or 10,000 feet tall!).

These mountains have played an extremely important role in Spain’s history, both for their effect on transport and the climate. To state the obvious, mountains can get in the way of travel, and this has contributed to the political and cultural disunity of Spain. Historically, it wasn’t so easy to get around. Even more important, the many changes in elevation—mountains, plateaus, and river valleys—can create lots of little micro-climates, and this has an important effect on the culture. I’ll illustrate this with a comparison.

Andalusia, which is in the south of the country, is fairly flat and low-lying, with lots of sun and good soil. As a consequence, farmers can gather lots of land together under one owner, and then farm it with a team of professional planters and pickers for added efficiency. Historically, this led to a great deal of inequality, since the wealthy would buy up the land, and the poor would be forced to work as itinerant laborers. By contrast, consider Galicia. This is the area on the northwestern tip of Spain, right above Portugal. Much like New York, Galicia is hilly rather than mountainous, and it receives quite a lot of rain from the Atlantic, so it’s very green. The soil is workable but not very high quality, and in any case the dense forest and the many hills make it difficult to unite lots of land under one owner. So the Galicians became subsistence farmers, with each family owning their own little plot of land. As you can imagine, these differences in farming strategies have shaped the cultures of these two regions.

I am going on and on, and yet I am afraid I am not doing justice to the Spanish landscape. So here is the historian, J.H. Elliott, on the country’s geography:

“A dry, barren, impoverished land: 10 percent of its soil bare rock; 35 percent poor and unproductive; 45 percent moderately fertile; 10 percent rich. A peninsula separated from the continent of Europe by the mountain barrier of the Pyrenees—isolated and remote. A country divided within itself, broken by a high central tableland that stretches from the Pyrenees to the southern coast. No natural centre, no easy routes. Fragmented, disparate, a complex of different races, languages, and civilizations—this was, and is, Spain.”

Well, for style I doubt I’m going to beat that. I do think that Elliott exaggerates the harshness of the Spanish climate and the isolation of the country’s geography. But he does capture the strangely disunited quality of the landscape. Whenever I drive through the country I am surprised at the sharp contrasts from one region to another. Just yesterday I drove from the snowy, green mountains of Asturias into the incredibly flat and empty plains of León. I am sure that the United States, being so much bigger, contains more variety. But I doubt that any part of America can present such stark contrasts in such a small span of space. In a single day, driving from one end of the peninsula to the other, you can see sandy desserts, arid plains, ice-tipped mountains, verdant river valleys, and lush forests. 

When speaking of beautiful Spanish landscapes, we also cannot forget the country’s islands. There are the Baleares in the Mediteranean, which are lovely. But even more interesting are the Canary Islands. This is an archipelago located in the Atlantic, somewhere off the coast of Morocco. The islands are volcanic, which makes them especially fascinating to visit. The tallest mountain in Spain, el Teide, is located on the largest island of the archipelago: Tenerife. I’m sure I’ve never seen anything taller than Teide. The mountain (which is really the volcano that formed the island) stretched up to 3,700 meters. That’s 12,000 feet! And of course the whole height of the volcano is very apparent, since it’s right next to the ocean. I remember being on the plane as we took off from the island, passing through the clouds on the way up, and then seeing Teide above me.

Naturally, Teide is a national park. The island of Lanzarote, which is the third-largest in the archipelago, also has a national park, called Timanfaya. This is the part of Lanzarote that was most recently formed by a volcanic eruption. As a result, there’s basically no vegetation at all. And the rocks are twisted into all sorts of nightmarish shapes. It’s both beautiful and hellish.

Well, I can’t hope to do justice to every one of Spain’s beautiful landscapes in the podcast. But if you take away one thing, I hope it is that Spain has more than just beaches and sun. The geography is fascinatingly diverse, and you can’t hope to understand the variety of Spain’s many regions without knowing something about its many different climates. The national parks are especially wonderful and are just as worth visiting as Spain’s many cultural treasures. Spain is a fortunate country.

Thank you