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Sights, Sounds, and Flavors of The Iberian Penninsula
The Iberian Peninsula includes Spain and Portugal, two of the most dynamic countries in Europe. There, centuries of conquests, migrations, and trade have created a cultural diversity like few other places on the continent.
From foggy, rain-swept, and bagpipe-playing Galicia in Northern Spain to steamy Andalucia in the South (where the traces of centuries of Arab domination are still present in the culture and cuisine), it’s hard to imagine you’re in the same country. On the other hand, the culture of Portugal has always been shaped and influenced by its illustrious neighbor to the west– the Atlantic Ocean.
Spain and Portugal were thought to be the Western border of the world for centuries and became the departure point of seafaring voyages for hundreds of years thereafter.
As a result, there’s no better way to discover the region’s natural, historic and cultural diversity than an expedition cruise of the Iberian Peninsula. Zegrahm’s 16-day small ship cruise makes its way around Mediterranean Spain, reaches the Atlantic through the “Pillars of Hercules,” and continues exploring the Atlantic coast of Portugal and Northern Spain.
Here’s a taste of the sights, sounds, and flavors you’ll get to experience along the way:
A BRIEF HISTORY OF THE IBERIAN PENINSULA
Spain and Portugal are two of the oldest countries in Europe, having been continuously settled since prehistoric times. In fact, the El Castillo cave– one of the most beautiful painted caves in Europe– is located in Cantabria, in northern Spain. The cave offers archaeological evidence that the Iberian Peninsula has been settled for over 40,000 years.
Over the centuries, local tribes mixed with Celts, Phoenicians, Greeks, and Carthaginians before the entire Iberian Peninsula was conquered by the Romans, becoming the Roman provinces of Iberia and Lusitania. After the fall of the Roman Empire, the area was invaded by the Swabians and Vandals, Germanic tribes that established kingdoms in the North and South of the peninsula, respectively.
These regions were later reunited under the rule of another Germanic population, the Visigoths. The Visigoths ruled over the peninsula for over 200 years, until a great force came sweeping up from the south. The Moorish armies ultimately conquered almost the entire peninsula, with the exception of the northwestern corner.
Spain and Portugal remained under Islamic rule for several centuries. The majority of the peninsula was slowly conquered again by Christian rulers in the 13th century, with the exception of the territory around the city of Cordoba, which didn’t surrender to Christian rule until 1492. The period of Islamic rule is also known as the Reconquista, in reference to the continuous attempts by Christian kings to bring the Peninsula back under Christian rule.
The Islamic period in Spain saw the development of arts, philosophy, and culture, especially in the southern part of the country, where the Islamic rule survived the longest. At the time, the Iberian peninsula was known in Arabic as “Al-Andalus,” which was the root for the name of Andalusia, the region on the southern coast of Spain.
After the end of Islamic rule, Spain and Portugal gradually became two separate entities. The first king of Portugal was Afonso I, who conquered the country, took it from the Muslims and secured its independence from Spain in the 12th century. Spain became united three centuries later with the marriage of Isabella of Castille and Fernando of Aragon, the two main Christian kingdoms in the country.
Another time that greatly shaped the history of Spain and Portugal is the Age of Discoveries when ships sailed from ports in the two countries bound for the Americas and ended up establishing vast colonial empires. Exploitation of indigenous people and resources filled the coffers of the Spanish and Portuguese courts for centuries until eventually, the colonies declared independence one after the other throughout the 19th century, and the empires came to an end.
During the 20th century, both countries became republics and were ruled by right-wing dictators for decades – Salazar in Portugal, and Franco in Spain. Dictatorship in Portugal came to an end in 1974 with the Carnation Revolution, while Spain had to wait for Franco’s death in 1980 for democracy to be restored.
PLACES TO VISIT IN THE IBERIAN PENINSULA
Spain and Portugal are chock full of interesting places to see, both in terms of nature and culture. Sailing along the Atlantic coast is a journey in discovering the past and present of these two countries, and the forces that shaped them into what they are today.
The expedition will start in Barcelona, the capital of Catalunya, a semi-autonomous region with its own language and culture, which is located in the northeast of Spain. The city enjoys warm, sunny weather almost all year round, and it’s a wonderful place to explore on foot. Start by walking down La Rambla, the pedestrian tree-lined streets connecting the city with the beaches.
The heart of the city is the Medieval Barri Gòtic, with its narrow streets and intricately-decorated Gothic buildings, like the wonderful Catedral and church of Santa Maria del Mar. Another tourist attraction of Barcelona is its Modernist architecture, which is best exemplified by the great architect Antoni Gaudi. Casa Battlò and Casa Milà, both of which lie along Passeig the Gracia, are two of Barcelona’s main must-sees, and the Torre Bellesguard in the north of the city is a great example of Gaudi’s early style.
Gaudì’s greatest masterpiece– the Sagrada Familia church, a stunning modern interpretation of Gothic architecture– remains unfinished. The church is slowly being built after construction was halted by the master’s premature death. The Sagrada Familia will hopefully be completed by 2026, but it’s already possible to visit it, with revenue from ticket sales funding the ongoing construction.
The port city of Valencia is located on the southeastern coast of Spain, approximately 350 km south of Barcelona, where the Turia River meets the Mediterranean Sea. Valencia is also located in a Catalan-speaking region. However, Spanish is still widely spoken there, as it is in Barcelona.
One of the most spectacular places in Valencia is the Ciutat de les Arts i les Ciències (City of Arts and Sciences), a modern neighborhood designed by architect Santiago Calatrava, which includes futuristic structures including a planetarium, an aquarium and an interactive museum.
The historic center of Valencia is also worth a visit. Among its most notable buildings, we can’t fail to mention the Cathedral (which is believed to contain the Holy Grail), its tower (locally known as Micalet), and the Quart and Serranos Towers (remains of the ancient city walls).
Valencia is also the birthplace of paella, Spain’s most famous dish, which is served all over the city with a variety of accompaniments. We recommend opting for the traditional version, including both meat (usually chicken and sausage) and seafood.
After reaching the coast of Andalusia, we’ll head towards Granada, which is located inland at the foot of the Sierra Nevada mountains.
Granada is most famous for its exquisite examples of medieval architecture, which date back to the period of Islamic domination. The best-known of them all is the Alhambra, a fortified complex built on top of a hill, with royal palaces, peaceful inner patios with water features, and beautiful carvings and tile work all over.
Other locations worth visiting in Granada include the Generalife, the summer palace of the Islamic rulers, with patios and decoration on a smaller scale compared to the Alhambra. And don’t miss the Sacromonte, the center of Granada’s Roma community and a great place to catch a flamenco show.
Located near Granada, Cordoba at first glance looks like a modern Spanish city. Cordoba was the last Spanish city to fall to the Christian conquerors. Diving deep into its historic center rewards visitors with sights dating back to the city’s Islamic past.
First and foremost is the Mezquita, a Byzantine mosque constructed in the 8th century AD and turned into a church after the Reconquista. The Juderia, the town’s former Jewish neighborhood, is also a pleasant place to amble through.
Another great historic site is the Alcázar de los Reyes Cristianos, a palace/fortress built in Mudejar style (an architectural style typical of the post-Islamic period) with wonderful mosaics inside.
Moving further south, we’ll find Seville, the capital of the region of Andalusia. Seville is probably the best place in Spain to see a flamenco show, with several flamenco houses located all over town (especially in the Triana district).
The historic center of Seville is home to three UNESCO-listed sites. There’s the extraordinary complex of the Alcázar, a castle famous for being one of the best examples of Mudejar architecture in Spain; the Archivo de las Indias, an archive with thousands of documents about Spain’s colonial empire; and the Cathedral, the fourth-largest religious building in Europe, which houses the tomb of Christopher Columbus.
Right next to the Cathedral stands the Giralda, which was originally a minaret and later transformed into a bell tower. If you get a chance, visit the beautiful Plaza de España. It was built for the 1928 Expo and is still in excellent condition, with tiles illustrating images from all over Spain and an artificial river running through it.
After crossing the Strait of Gibraltar, the voyage will continue up the Atlantic coast of Portugal. An unmissable port of call for food, wine, and architecture lovers alike, Porto is located in northwest Portugal, on the estuary of the Douro River.
The city is known for its large bridges, hillside houses, and the stunning Livraria Lello, which is regularly named as one of the best bookshops in the world. But the main reason to visit Porto is its namesake fortified wine, which is still produced in Vila Nova da Gaia, a neighborhood right across the Douro River.
Spending a day walking around and tasting port from big-name port lodges such as Taylor’s or Graham’s is a great way to learn about wine in the region. It’s also possible to take a boat trip along the Douro, to see where the grapes are grown and visit more wineries.
Other locations worth visiting in Porto are the church of São Francisco (which is renowned for its rich golden engravings), the 19th-century Palácio de Bolsa, and Mercado do Bolhao. At lunchtime there, it’s possible to try local dishes like bacalhao (salted cod), grilled sardines, and francesinha, a behemoth sandwich containing different types of meat and cheese, all drowned in sauce.
Santiago de Compostela
Perhaps more than any other place, Galicia reveals how varied the Iberian Peninsula is in terms of landscapes and culture. Rolling fog-covered hills replace the stark semi-desert scenery of Andalusia, and bagpipes are far more common than guitars.
The main city in the region is Santiago de Compostela, which is famous for being the final destination of the Camino de Santiago, the world’s most famous pilgrimage trail. The heart of Santiago is the Plaça do Obradoiro, which is dominated by the imposing Baroque Cathedral, where the bones of the apostle Saint James are believed to be kept.
The Obradoiro is busy day and night, with pilgrims celebrating their arrival after weeks (or months) on the hiking trail. Attending mass at the Cathedral is also a great experience, especially if you’re lucky enough to see the botafumeiro– the world’s largest thurible (incense dispenser)– in action. It’s still used during special occasions.
The town of San Sebastián (also known as Donostia in the Basque language) is located on the coast, in the heart of Basque country.
It’s located in a stunning position between the mountains and the coast: Monte Igueldo, located just outside of town, is a great place to enjoy the views, and it’s easy to access by funicular railway. San Sebastián is famous for having two of the best urban beaches in Europe– Playa de la Concha and Playa de Ondarreta– which are bordered by a picturesque seafront promenade.
San Sebastián is also one of the best locations in Spain for food lovers. In the evening, every bar in town offers pintxos, the Basque country’s answer to tapas. This is a great way to taste Basque flavors for only a few euros.
The city is the place in Europe with the highest density of Michelin-starred chefs. If you can afford it, don’t leave San Sebastián without visiting one of the big-name restaurants, such as Arzak or Mugaritz.
WHAT TO EAT IN THE IBERIAN PENINSULA
If you’re a food and wine lover, the Iberian Peninsula is definitely the place for you. The cultural diversity found in Spain and Portugal translates into a vibrant regional culinary scene, with opportunities to taste excellent food and wine for all budgets.
Food in Spain
In a country as vast and varied as Spain, there’s no such thing as “Spanish cuisine.” Each region has very different flavors and cooking techniques, which are a distinct product of the territory and its cultural exchanges throughout history.
In some cases, regional cuisines extend beyond a country’s borders. One example of this is Catalan cuisine, which is found not only in the northern Spanish region of Catalunya but also in Andorra and the Roussillon, a Catalan-speaking region in southern France. Catalan cuisine relies both on Mediterranean ingredients such as seafood and fresh vegetables and on products typical of the Pyrenees, like cured pork and legumes. Some of the most popular Catalan dishes are escalivada (smoky grilled vegetables), embotits (cured pork products) like fuet or longanitsa, grilled fish, and meat stews.
Basque cuisine is also influenced by both sea and mountains. In coastal areas like San Sebastian you’ll find lots of seafood and fish products, whereas meat is more popular in inland areas: The only type of fish you’ll find there is salted cod. Pintxos are everywhere in the Basque Country, with slices of bread topped by ham, anchovies, prawns, foie gras… you name it. The topping is held in place by a toothpick– pintxo means “spike” in Basque.
Seafood lovers will be overjoyed when reaching Galicia, since the cold Atlantic waters surrounding the region are rich in fish, and most cuisine is seafood-based. Pulpo a la gallega (chopped octopus with olive oil and paprika) is probably the best-known dish. But we also recommend trying other iconic Galician specialties, like navajas (razor clams), vieiras (scallops served in the shell), and percebes (weird-looking but delicious seafood shaped like dragon’s fingers).
Further south in Andalusia, the cuisine is influenced by centuries of conquests and cultural exchanges. The most popular snack is pescaito frito, which is said to have inspired English fish & chips when the Jews were expelled from the region after the Reconquista. Other dishes with a Middle Eastern counterpart are migas, which are uncannily similar to couscous, and huevos a la flamenca, a Spanish-flavored version of shakshuka. Finally, you can’t leave Andalucia without trying gazpacho or salmorejo, which is similar to gazpacho but topped with chopped Iberico ham and hard boiled egg.
Food in Portugal
As you’d expect from a country that overlooks the Atlantic, seafood features heavily in Portuguese cuisine. From grilled sardines to fish stew, you’ll find seafood dishes everywhere in Portugal. But the true king of Portuguese cuisine is undoubtedly cod, which is known locally as bacalhau.
Cod has been the main trade product in Portugal ever since the 15th century, which explains why it’s so popular today. There are hundreds of Portuguese bacalhau recipes made with fresh or salted fish. The latter became popular during the time when Portugal was a great seafaring nation, and sailors needed to find a way to preserve their fish for long sea voyages. Popular bacalhau-based recipes include bacalhau a bras with eggs and potatoes, bolinhos de bacalhau (codfish fritters with a verity of flavors), and bacalhau com nata (codfish cooked with cream), which is probably Portugal’s favorite comfort food.
Not a seafood fan? Fear not. There are many meat and vegetable-based recipes in Portuguese cuisine, like grilled frango (chicken) and several kind of linguiça (sausage). Portuguese cuisine has also influenced gastronomy all over the world. Two well-known examples are vindalho, a pork stew that became the base for Indian vindaloo, and pasteis de nata, which is found in Portugal and Macau (formerly a Portuguese colony).
Wine in Spain and Portugal
Winemaking in the Iberian Peninsula is strongly influenced by the weather and the terroir– the composition of the soil where grapes are grown– which is instrumental in lending unique flavors.
In both Spain and Portugal, there’s evidence that wine was consumed as early as the 7th century BC, when it was probably brought by the Phoenicians or Carthaginians. Winemaking grew and developed during the Roman period, before declining during the Middle Ages. We probably need to thank the Catholic Church for the fact that production never halted completely, since wine was always needed for Mass.
The Mediterranean coast of Catalunya is well known for its cava, a sparkling wine that has no reason to envy the better-known (and much more expensive) French champagne. The largest and most famous wine region in Spain is La Rioja, a region in north-central Spain along the Ebro River. La Rioja is well known for its reds, which boast a blend of ripe fruit and earthy flavors, with Tempranillo as a base for most blends and Viura used as a base for Riojan red wines.
Portugal is best known for its vinho verde and port wine. The first is made in the Minho region in the far north of the country. Its name translates as “green wine,” which refers to the fact that the grapes used in its production are young and slightly underripe. The result is a light, fresh, and slightly sparkling wine, which provides the perfect accompaniment to Portuguese seafood specialties.
Port wine’s grapes are grown in the Douro Region, which has a unique microclimate and schist-rich soil. It’s a fortified wine, obtained by adding grape spirit to stop fermentation while boosting alcohol content, leaving residual sugar that lends this wine its signature sweet flavor. Following this process, the wine is stored for further aging, and kept in wineries known as port lodges or houses.
There are several types of port wine. The best known are ruby (which is aged in stainless steel tanks) and tawny (which is aged in barrels), with nutty flavors and a golden-brown color. –Margherita Ragg
BIO: Margherita Ragg is a freelance writer from Milan, Italy. She is passionate about wildlife, ecotourism, and outdoor adventure activities. She runs the popular nature and adventure travel blog The Crowded Planet with her husband Nick Burns, an Australian travel and wildlife photographer.