Spain has long been, and continues to be, one of the world’s most popular expatriate destinations. Latest figures from the Spanish government’s National Statistics Institute show that as of January 1, 2009 there were 5.22 million foreign nationals living in the country, out of a total of 46 million inhabitants. That equates to 11.3 percent of the population.
And they are on the rise too. Over the course of 2008 there was an increase of approximately 160,000 Spanish nationals (a 0.4 percent growth), compared to more than 700,000 registered foreign nationals – a 15.5 percent surge.
Approximately 40 percent of the foreign nationals in Spain are from other parts of the European Union, notably Rumania (a recent development on the back of that country’s accession to the EU), followed by the United Kingdom and Germany. But there are sizable communities from elsewhere around the globe as well.
So what is it about Spain that is luring all these other nationalities to its shores?
For some – those from Rumania and Morocco, for example – it is clearly a question of work opportunities, and the improvement in living standards they can hope to achieve. But that hardly explains the many hundreds of thousands of citizens from more economically developed nations, such as the UK and Germany that have opted to call Spain home. Rather for them there are a host of other quality of life incentives to explore.
Reasons to go
A big part of Spain’s attraction can be summed up in one word: sunshine.
According to Spain’s official Agencia Estatal de Meteorología (AEMET) figures, from 1971-2000 the southern city of Malaga averaged 5.5 hours of sunshine per day in January, with an average maximum daily temperature over that period of 16.6°C (61.9°F). In July that soared to 11 hours sunshine per day and an average daily max of 29.9°C (85.8°F). There were no days of frost or snow, only 12 stormy days and 12 foggy days in the entire year, and an average annual rainfall of just 524 millimeters. No wonder the area is called the Costa del Sol.
Meanwhile Barcelona, at the other end of the country, averaged almost five hours of sun each day through January and 10 hours in July over that 1971-2000 period. Snow, frost and fog were practically non-existent, total average rainfall was only 640 mm, and maximum temperatures varied between 13.4°C (56.1°F) in January and 28°C (82.4°F) in August.
And with so much sunshine and reasonable year-round temperatures come opportunities for an outdoors, and prospectively more healthy, lifestyle.
For one, getting sufficient exposure to sunlight – and its daily dose of vitamin D – is crucial in maintaining physical and mental health, since deficiencies are associated with various problems including bone disease, immune system dysfunction and depression.
But it is not just a question of your body’s chemistry. Let’s face it, stepping out of the house tends to be a more appealing prospect when the sun is shining and the air is warm, compared to when there are sheets of rain or the mercury is plummeting. And once outside, the beauty and variety that Spain boasts cannot be overstated.
Yes, five decades of mass tourism and unbridled development have taken their toll on its coastline. Over that time resorts such as Torremolinos and Benidorm have been transformed from pretty villages to concrete wastelands. And if your only experience of the country is a holiday in one of the many such eyesores that have ravaged the coast then you’ll be forgiven for wondering what all the fuss is about.
But despite the horrors, large tracts of the Spanish costas retain their beauty and charm. Even on the Costa Brava – the stretch running from Barcelona north to the French border, the first area to be developed for tourism – there are still many untouched coves and unspoilt towns to be found.
Move inland though, even just a few miles, and the ‘real’ Spain comes bursting through: villages of tightly packed whitewashed houses cascading down a hillside, fields of green-leafed vines, or acres of sunflowers, their heads turned to the sky.
For this is a land of great diversity. Images of Don Quixote’s wide, bare La Mancha plains, or the hard peasant life of Gerald Brenan’s South From Granada may inform our vision of Spain. And they are true. There is a ruggedness, a dusty barrenness to swathes of the country, the result of too much heat and too little rain. But there is more, much more.
Visit any of the Northern provinces – Galicia, Asturias, Cantabria or the Basque country – and it’s hard to believe you’re in the same country. Galicia, with its forested hills and craggy Atlantic coast, is often compared to Ireland. Meanwhile, the section of coast that stretches between Cantabria and Asturias is known as the Costa Verde (Green Coast) on account of its lushness, a far cry from its southern opposite, the Costa del Sol.
There are important wetlands too. The Coto de Doñana, close to the southern border with Portugal, is the most notable, a birding haven that forms the largest wildlife sanctuary in Europe. Catalunya’s Parc Natural de Delta de l’Ebre is another birdwatchers’ delight.
And while Spain may be famous for its coasts, it is also a mountainous country. Its highest range is in the south, the Sierra Nevada, while the north boasts the Pyrenees, and – outside Spain – the less known but equally dramatic Picos de Europa.
And from this geographic and climatic diversity come abundant leisure opportunities. In the winter the mountains offer decent snowboarding and downhill and cross-country skiing. It may not be Vail or Val-d’Isère, but the extent and range of piste in the resorts of the Pyrenees and, to a lesser extent, the Sierra Nevada, are ample for most intermediates. And the rest of the year the mountains and their foothills are spectacular hiking and climbing destinations.
Watersports are in abundance too. Tarifa, on the most southerly tip of Spain, is a world-renowned windsurfing spot. Les Illes Medes, a series of tiny offshore islands and reefs on the northern Costa Brava that form the most important marine reserve in the western Mediterranean, is a magnet for scuba divers. With its turquoise waters and hidden coves, much of the rest of the Costa Brava also boasts some wonderful snorkeling, as do the Balearic Islands. Sailing enthusiasts should find no shortage of ideal wind and water conditions either.
Meanwhile, thanks to its clear skies and moderate year-round conditions, Empuriabrava, on the Mediterranean coast a mere hop from the French border, is home to Europe’s premier skydiving center. As for its golf courses … well, what more needs to be said?
And Spain is not just about sports. If an urban environment is more your thing then what can be better than watching the world go by as you sip a coffee or something stronger at a table in one of the majestic plazas that adorn almost every Spanish city? Or listening to authentic flamenco in a back alley Sevilla bar?
But I’ll come to that …
2. Cultural Riches
While merely a bit player on the world stage throughout the twentieth century – the result of economic depression, the Rivera military dictatorship, civil war, and international isolation under General Franco – Spain has a long and glorious past that has seen it be both a valuable colony of other rulers and a world dominating empire in its own right. And while such glory days may be a distant memory, the country has been left with a wealth of history and culture.
The Phoenicians came to the area around present day Cádiz and established the port there in approximately 1100 BC. The Greeks followed, building colonies along what is now the Costa Brava. In the third century BC the Carthaginians arrived, and subsequently took control of much of Andalucía and the eastern seaboard. But of the ancients it was the Romans, after crushing the Carthaginians during the Second Punic War, who controlled the greatest area and had the most long lasting impact.
During its heyday, Spain was to be the most important territory in the Roman Empire, save for Italy itself. And well-preserved evidence of the Roman colonization can still be seen today. Most notable is the Estremaduran city of Mérida, close to the border with Portugal, which has more Roman remains than any other site in Spain. But other spectacular ruins are dotted around the country, with some of the best in Tarragona, Empúries on the northern Costa Brava, and the aqueduct at Segovia.
It is the Moors though, the last of the great colonists, that have left the most profound footprint. They first arrived across the Straits of Gibraltar in 711 AD, quickly conquering all but pockets of Asturias in the far north of the country. As a result their legacy can be found all over the country, but it is at its most glorious in Andalucía.
The Moors’ capital was in Córdoba, and it is here that they built their great mosque, the Mezquita, which was to become the third most sacred place in the Islamic world. But with the Cordovan caliphate’s disintegration in the eleventh century, the centre of Moorish power and influence shifted to Sevilla, and eventually to Granada, where arguably the most beautiful Moorish building of them all is found: the Alhambra.
The reconquering Christians were to add their share of beautiful buildings too, particularly in the cathedrals of Santiago de Compostela, Burgos, León, Toledo, Sevilla and Barcelona. As for Salamanca, it deserves a mention not just for its cathedral, but for the beauty of the town as a whole, and in particular its wondrous Plaza Mayor, widely regarded as the finest in Spain.
Architecturally, Barcelona is hard to beat though. From its labyrinthine medieval heart, the Barri Gòtic, it has spread out across the plain and into the hills that surround the city in a grid of elegant boulevards. But in particular it is the wealth of Modernisme constructions, most notably those of Lluís Domènech i Montaner and the more famous Antoni Gaudí, that set the city apart.
For art enthusiasts, Barcelona also boasts the enormous Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya, as well as museums dedicated to Spain’s most famous son, Pablo Picasso, who lived in the city as a youngster, and local boy Joan Miró. And for anyone with a taste for his work, the Dalí triangle of Figueres, Port Lligat and Púbol a bit further north is a treat not to be missed.
Spain’s best art exhibitions though are to be found in Madrid. The most famous – and deservedly so – is the Prado. Home to a massive trove of 7,000 paintings, it is one of the most fabulous collections to be found anywhere in the world. Small by comparison, but still housing a wealth of paintings by some of the world’s greatest artists from the Renaissance to the modern era, the Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza is another delight.
But Spain’s rich culture is not just about high art or buildings, spectacular as they may be. It is a living, breathing phenomenon that can be found on the streets, and in the bars and churches in every corner of the country. For this is a nation that remains rooted in tradition, clinging on to the age-old customs of monarchy, aristocracy and the Roman Catholic church, and yet a young and vibrant modern society at the same time. Perhaps that is why it is such an intoxicating place in which to live.
3. Way of Life
We’ve all heard about the health benefits of the Mediterranean diet, with its emphasis on fresh fruit and vegetables, fish, olive oil, and that particular favorite, red wine. And if the Spanish government gets its way, it will even be added to UNESCO’s World Heritage List as an exemplar to be promoted throughout the world. Certainly the number of sprightly grey-haired people to be found strolling around any Spanish town or city suggests there is something in it (although that also may be due to the high quality of healthcare services to be found). And with the cost of food and wine comparing favorably to many other developed nations, any new arrival will no doubt find the diet easy to observe.
But there is more to the quality of life to be found in Spain than what is served on the dining room table. Another, much lauded attribute of the Spanish modus vivendi is the siesta, and the slower pace of living that has enabled a four-hour rest period in the middle of the day to survive. It may be disappearing by degrees as the 24-hour global economy takes its toll on Spain’s workday rhythms, yet it remains the norm.
Community and family are other bastions of the Spanish way of life. Lunch is, by and large, still the main meal of the day. With the window of time allowed by the siesta it is usually taken at home, to be shared with the various generations of the family. Indeed, households are often multi-generational, with elderly parents cared for by their children. And the cross-generational love is much in evidence. Grandchildren respect their elders, while children are given cherished status at the heart of family life. For them it is a far cry from the old axiom of ‘to be seen and not heard.’
For a populace that has endured the relatively recent horrors of the Civil War and its subsequent repression, and that has – and across large areas of the country still does – suffer the burden of widespread poverty, there is a remarkable lust for life to be found there too. It is apparent among the knots of old men and women that gather in the shade of every town square, in the laughter of the children in the school playgrounds and the friends as they greet each other during their evening paseo, and among the thousands of aficionados that gather in the stadiums each week across the country to watch their favorite soccer teams.
But nowhere is it more in evidence than at the hundreds of fiestas that litter the Spanish calendar.
Some, like Sevilla’s Semana Santa and Feria de Abril, are finely orchestrated extravaganzas. Others, such as Carnaval in Sitges or Pamplona’s San Fermín, are raucous, alcohol-fuelled parties. If you can get to one of these internationally-renowned events it’s a memory that will stay with you forever.
Perhaps even better though are the roster of local fiestas and feast days that are celebrated in every village, town and city across the country. Some mark the grape harvest, others the sea, a particular saint’s day or whatever else has significance in the people’s daily lives. Most involve processions, dancing and revelry in some form or another.
Observe, participate if you can. For they are the color in a country of kaleidoscopic variety. Through these you will see and start to understand the real Spain.
Reasons not to go
1. Property Woes
The term overdevelopment could have been coined for Spain, particularly on its much maligned coasts.
Each property boom sees its wave of speculative construction, and a mass of hotels, villas, housing communities and apartment blocks spring up on every scrap of spare land. Then the bottom falls out of the market and the carcasses of abandoned projects are left to fester until the next upturn comes along.
The worst excesses of this concretization are to be found on the Costa del Sol. The stretch from Malaga to Marbella in particular is unremitting construction destruction, with the high rises of Torremolinos and Fuengirola notable low points.
Large tracts of the rest of Spain’s Mediterranean coastline have gone – or are going – the same way too. Back in the 1950s Benidorm, on the Costa Blanca, was said to be a picturesque village. Today it is likened to Kuala Lumpur or Manhattan on account of its skyscraper skyline, with a summer population – engorged by tourists – to compare. Some love it. Others think it a nightmare. Further north, the Costa Brava resort of Lloret de Mar has suffered a similar, albeit more small-scale, fate.
Excluded from the early waves of development and package tourism that hit Spain in the 1960s and 1970s, the land south from the Murcia town of Torrevieja (christened the Costa Cálida) and into Almería has, in recent years, been playing catch up. Hotels, apartments and villa-encrusted golf resorts have sprung up in many spots, transforming the landscape and putting enormous strain on the water resources of one of the driest parts of Europe. And while the developers may have gone for a more low-rise and high-quality approach, the current housing market collapse means the area is now swamped with a surfeit of properties.
Indeed, a report published in April by Standard & Poor’s (European Economic Forecast: Major Corrections On The Cards As Housing Markets Turn Down) found that in the 12 months to January completed house sales were down 27% on the previous year. As a result, across Spain there are now said to be close to a million homes on the market, half of them newly built. Meanwhile, property prices are said to have fallen by 30 percent as a result of this oversupply and falling demand on the back of the credit crunch.
And Spain’s housing woes are not limited to tumbling values. Planning permission – or the lack of it – has also been a source of distress, especially for unwitting foreign buyers, who in some cases have had their dream homes demolished by the authorities. To add insult to injury, the homeowners are liable to pay for the demolition too if they earn more than a certain income. The regional branch of the opposition Partido Popular in Andalucía reportedly has proposed a planning amnesty for 50,000 illegal properties in Malaga province, but whether the regional government will support such a move remains to be seen.
Then there are more prosaic problems to contend with, such as the actual quality of the houses and apartments. Sufficiently widespread reports abound of sub-optimal building and interior finish standards, many the result of too tight completion deadlines, to suggest this problem is more than just urban myth or a patronizing attitude to Spanish builders.
Another widespread phenomenon, though there have been attempts to stamp it out, is the black market element to many property purchases, in which the values are under-declared on the official contracts so as to reduce the resulting tax liability. The difference between the declared value and the actual price is then paid in cash under the table. It is so rife that notaries – who are the legal superintendents to any transaction – will leave the room at this point so they can legitimately say they witnessed no illicit dealings.
However, as a seller you are liable to pay capital gains tax on any appreciation in the value of your property. So if you bought a place with a low declared value and then sell it at the true market price you may find yourself with a massive capital gain, and a hefty tax bill. Unless, that is, you can find a buyer similarly willing to under declare the purchase price and continue the deception.
And tax dodges aside, buying a property in Spain is an expensive undertaking. As a rule of thumb, on top of the purchase price expect to spend an extra 10% to cover all the various fees and charges that will be due.
While in Cádiz several years back a tourist information official warned me that only two things happen when they say they’re going to in Spain: the first is the kick-off at soccer matches, and the second the start of the bullfights.
In fairness, there are a couple of others. One is the trains, which are Swiss-like in their promptitude. The other is when the shops shut for siesta. One o’clock and bang, down go the shutters.
For everything else though time is a vague and flexible concept subject to personal whim. If someone tells you they’ll be five minutes it’s more likely to be twenty. If the builder says he’s coming Tuesday he’ll probably show on Thursday. And if it’s Thursday in the same week consider yourself lucky.
Even the TV schedules are an inexact science, with programs starting anywhere from five minutes to half an hour after the listings have said they will.
Of course, this ambivalence to the clock’s demands can be charming. It encapsulates a more relaxed approach to life, a rare exception to the incessant immediacy that has engulfed the rest of the modern world, where everything should have been done five minutes ago. Indeed, this attitude is, no doubt, part of the reason why people are attracted to the country in the first place.
Yet when you desperately need that starter motor for your car, or it’s the depths of winter and no one comes to fix your hot water boiler for five days, the mañana attitude can wear the patience pretty thin.
So if you’re used to a more North American/Northern European sense of time and how to keep it expect to be frustrated.
Unfortunately, there appears to be only one remedy for this as well, and that is to shout long and hard. If you need repairs doing on your house, or some form of restitution made, then patient waiting will mark you down as a non-urgent case, and you’ll end up slipping further and further down the list of priorities. Constant haranguing and/or an explosion of temper seem to be far more effective as a call to action.
3. Cavalier Attitudes
For a country with such a manifest love of family, and especially children, and one of the world’s highest life expectancy rates, one would expect the Spanish to have a somewhat cautious approach to danger and health risks. Certainly when it comes to issues such as gun crime and murders per capita it is indeed a comparatively safe place. Yet in other areas there seems to be a willful disregard among the Spanish for their own wellbeing.
Spanish driving is a case in point. While the country may be streets ahead of the United States in terms of the numbers of road fatalities and accidents that occur each year, according to The International Road Traffic and Accident Database it still has one of the highest rates among the OECD member countries. You only have to get behind the wheel a couple of times and witness some of the crazy maneuvers that go on to understand why.
It remains a complete mystery though as to why so many car passengers still insist on carrying babies and young children on their laps, instead of strapping them into a proper car seat.
About the author: Paul Allen is a freelance journalist and writer who has lived in northern Spain since 2003. He is the author of “Should I Stay Or Should I Go? The Truth About Moving Abroad And Whether It’s Right For You,” a comprehensive e-book guide for people seeking advice on whether or not to move abroad. For more details about the book, and free information and advice on moving and living overseas, visit his website at http://www.expatliving101.com/