The Geography of Spain

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Podcast Transcript

Spain, like most countries, has a unitary national government but also has a series of subnational jurisdictions. 

In most countries, these might be known as states or provinces; however, in Spain, they do things a little differently. 

The political divisions in Spain aren’t arbitrary lines on a map. The divisions are usually based on unique histories, as well as cultural, linguistic, and geographic differences. 

Learn more about the political and cultural geography of Spain and the various regions that comprise it on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.

This episode is sponsored by the Tourist Office of Spain.

If you’ve been listening to this podcast long enough, you probably know that Spain is one of my favorite countries in the world. I have been there many times and have spent months visiting Spain.

While Spain is indeed one of my favorite countries, I also must confess that Spain actually consists of many different regions, 17 in fact, all of which have their own unique cultures, food, and even languages. 

If you visit one part of Spain, you will have a completely different experience than you will in a different part of Spain. 

If you are interested in visiting any of Spain’s regions, can help you plan your journey. They can provide advice for visiting anywhere from the Canary Islands to Cuenca or from Santander to Salamanca. 

If you want to know about the best places to visit, the best dining experience, or the best festivals, visit Spain. Info. 

Once again,

I’ve done quite a few episodes on Spain, and many of the themes I’ll be touching on in this episode I’ve previously mentioned. However, I’ve never put everything together to provide a single coherent explanation as to how Spain is made up of its constituent parts. 

Pretty much every country, save for a few micro-states, has some sort of subnational division. These are also known as first-level administrative divisions, and they go by different names in different countries. 

In the United States and Australia, units in this layer are called states. In Canada, they are known as provinces. In France, they are simply known as regions. In the UK, they are called constituent countries. 

What powers these subnational units have can differ between countries, and their creation might be nothing more than arbitrary borders drawn by a bureaucrat, or they could reflect deep-seated historical regions. 

If you want to really understand Spain, you need to understand its subnational units. 

In Spain, they have the awkward name of autonomous communities. It’s awkward because you usually associate communities with smaller units of government like a city, not subnational units, and the term autonomous is usually given to special territories that are given special rights and privileges because of history or geography.

The term province is actually used in Spain, but it is for the level of government below that of an autonomous community.

So, with that, I want to briefly go over 17 autonomous communities and 2 autonomous cities that makeup Spain and what you should know about each of them. 

I should start with the two autonomous cities that don’t fit into the same mold as the autonomous communities. These are the cities of Ceuta and Melilla. 

I’ve previously done episodes on these two cities, and the reason why they are considered separate from the rest of Spain is because they aren’t in Europe; they are in Africa. They are located right across the Mediterranean and border Morocco. In the case of Ceuta, it is right across from Gibraltar. 

Both cities have ancient origins, and Spain’s claim to them dates back to the reconquest.

Of the 17 autonomous communities, 15 are on the Iberian Peninsula, and two are chains of islands. 

The two island autonomous communities are the Canary Islands, located off the northwest coast of Africa, and the Balearic Islands, which are located in the Mediterranean. 

I’ve previously done an episode on the Canary Islands and their unique history. The Balearic Islands consist of the main islands of Ibiza, Mallorca, Minorca, and Formentera.

Both of these autonomous communities get a large amount of tourism, especially from other EU countries. They also have very deep histories with cities like Ibiza dating back to the Phonecians. 

Now, moving to the mainland, there are 15 autonomous communities of various sizes and populations that make up Iberian Spain. 

We’ll start in the northwest corner of the country and work our way clockwise around the perimeter, spiraling our way to the center. 

In the extreme northwest corner, perched above Portugal and surrounded on two sides by the Atlantic Ocean, is Galicia. 

Galicia’s capital is Santiago de Compostela, which is the endpoint of the Camino de Santiago, a pilgrimage route that has starting points all over Europe. 

The ancient history of Galicia is actually Celtic, and the people there are related to Celts who inhabited Britain and Ireland. 

One of the two official languages is Galician, which is closely related to Portuguese. 

Just east of Galicia is the autonomous community of Asturias. Asturias runs mostly along the Atlantic coast and is known for its rugged coastline. Like Galicia, it has a Celtic past, but the native language there is Asturian. 

There are about 100,000 native Asturian speakers and another 450,000 who speak it as a second language. It isn’t actually an official language, but it has been given a special status. 

Asturias, like the other northern autonomous communities, was never ruled long-term by the Moors, which gives them a very different history. Asturias is also known for producing some of the world’s best ciders, and its capital is Oviedo.

To the east of Asturias is Cantabria. Cantabria is the third-smallest autonomous community by area and population. Its capital is Santander, and it is home to the Cantabrian Mountains, which run parallel to the sea. 

There is a Cantabrian language, but it is closely related to Asturian, and it is only spoken by a few people in rural areas. 

Cantabria is also home to the Cave of Altamira, which is one of the greatest examples of prehistoric cave art in the world. 

Going east again is the Basque Country, the last of the autonomous communities on the north coast of Spain and the first to border France and the Pyrenees Mountains. 

I’ve previously done an entire episode on the Basque People, but suffice it to say that the Basque Language is unlike any other language in the world. It isn’t a Romance language, and it isn’t a Germanic language. No one is really sure where it came from. 

Its capital is Vitoria, and its largest city is Bilbao, home to Bilbao Athletic, my favorite team in La Liga, as well as the Guggenheim Bilbao Museum.

The city of San Sebastian is right on the border with France and, in my humble opinion, is one of the best food cities in the world. 

Moving southeast along the Pyrenees, we have Navarre, the first of our landlocked autonomous communities. Navarre’s capital is Pamplona, which you are probably familiar with for its annual running of the Bulls Festival. 

While not Basque per se, Navarre is heavily influenced by Basque culture, and there are some limited areas where Basque is recognized as an official language.

Going southeast along the French border, we next find Aragon. Aragon gets its name from the Kingdom of Aragon, whose borders are mostly contiguous with the modern autonomous community. 

The capital is Zaragoza, which, believe it or not, is named after the Roman Emperor Augustus. It was originally called Caesaraugusta, which then got translated into Arabic and then back into various Romance languages. 

There is an Aragonese language, but it is only spoken by a small number of people in the mountains. 

The last autonomous community along the Pyrenees is also the first on this trip to border the Mediterranean Sea, Catalonia. 

Catalonia is the second largest autonomous community in Spain and probably has the most widely spoken native non-Spanish language. I’ve mentioned Catalonia in previous episodes, including the Catalan language and some of its very bizarre Christmas customs. 

I’ve spent far more time in Catalonia and have explored it more extensively than any of the other autonomous communities in Spain, and Catalonia most certainly deserves its own episode. 

The capital is Barcelona, the second largest city in Spain and one of the most visited. 

Given its location, Catalonia was largely spared from the Moorish conquests, but it also received the brunt of many French invasions. The city of Tarragona, just down the coast from Barcelona, was the former Roman capital of Hispania. 

Going down the Mediterranean Coast, the next autonomous community is Valencia.

Valencia, the autonomous community, shares the same name as its capital city. Its name comes from the Latin Valentia Edetanorum, which means strength of the Edetani, who were native people in the region. 

This is the first autonomous community on our clockwise tour, where we find significant evidence from the Islamic Al-Andalus period. 

As in the Balearic Islands and Catalonia, a dialect of Catalan is spoken in Valencia. However, it isn’t nearly as widely spoken as in Catalonia. 

Valencia is known for its beaches and is the home of Spain’s most popular dish, paella. If you remember back to previous episodes, the Valencia Cathedral is home to what is claimed to be the Holy Grail and the world’s oldest continuous democratic body, the Valencia Water Tribunal, which meets outside the cathedral every Thursday at noon.

Going further down the coast, we encounter Murcia. Murcia, as with Valencia, shares the same name as its capital city. 

Unlike the other autonomous communities I’ve mentioned so far that have a linguistic or historical basis, Murcia as a region was created in 1982, although there was a Kingdom of Murcia that was subject to the Kingdom of Castille. 

Murcia was completely dominated by various Islamic rulers until the 13th century when the Kingdom of Castile retook it. 

The southernmost autonomous community, and the one with the largest population, is Andalusia. Andalusia was the heart of Islamic Al-Andulus. As the southernmost point of Spain and at the mouth of the Mediterranean, it held a strategic location for the Spanish Empire. Most ships that set sail for the New World did so from ports in Andalusia, in particular, Cadiz. 

Andalusia was the home to many of the things we associate with Spain, including flamenco dancing and sangria. 

Major cities such as Grenada, Cordoba, and Seville are all located in Andalusia, and it is one of the most popular and historic destinations in the country. 

As we go north up the border of Portugal, the next autonomous community is Extremadura. 

Extremadura is one of the least densely populated autonomous communities, is landlocked, and has the lowest GDP per capita in Spain. Its capital, Merida, has some of the best Roman ruins in Europe. 

Many of the conquistadores who traveled to the New World to conquer lands on behalf of the Spanish Empire came from Extremadura. 

Extremadura is also one of the top producers of jamon iberico, which is widely considered to be the world’s best and most expensive pork. 

The monastery of Guadalupe was a favorite of Queen Isabella and was reportedly the first place in Europe to grow potatoes.

Going further north, we arrive at Castile and León, the largest autonomous community by area. We’ve now gone full circle, clockwise around the outer borders of Spain. Castile and León is immediately to the south of Galicia, Asturias, and Cantabria.

There is actually no official capital of Castile and Leon, but the main government center is in the city of Valladolid, which is considered the de facto capital. 

Castile and Leon was created in 1983 by merging the historic regions of Castile and Leon. 

Together, they have one of the richest cultural areas in the country and the world. There are 11 UNESCO World Heritage sites in Castile and Leon, which is the most of any subnational jurisdiction in the world. 

We aren’t quite done. There are few more autonomous communities to be found in the interior of Spain. 

To the east is the smallest autonomous community by population and the second smallest by area, La Rioja.

Rioja is one of the best wine-growing regions in Spain, and Rioja Alta was the favorite wine of Ernst Hemmingway.

Moving south once again, we arrived at Castilla–La Mancha. As with Castile and Leon, Castilla-La Mancha was created in 1982, and it is landlocked. 

La Mancha is famous for its windmills and was the setting for the book Don Quixote. 

The region is also home to the historic cities of Toledo, which is its capital, and Cuenca.

The dominant landscape feature of Castilla-La Mancha is the vast Meseta, a high, flat plateau that covers about 40% of Iberian Spain.

The final autonomous community is located in the very heart of the country and is the one with the nation’s capital, Madrid. Many countries have a special district for the nation’s capital, so that isn’t unusual, but the autonomous community of Madrid is quite a bit larger than the city of Madrid. 

The community is about 13x larger than the city itself, which includes most of the suburbs but also a fair amount of farmland. 

I don’t want to dwell too much on Madrid because I previously did an entire episode on it, but the big thing is to know that it is a community as well as a city.

I realize that this might be a lot to digest in one sitting, especially if you haven’t been to Spain before, but I wanted to give you an idea of just how Spain is structured. 

The important thing to take away is that each of the regions I’ve mentioned has unique histories and cultures that are unlike any of their neighbors.