Spain is a diverse country sharing the Iberian Peninsula with Portugal at the western end of the Mediterranean Sea. It is the country with the second-largest number of UNESCO World Heritage Sites, after Italy, and the largest number of World Heritage Cities. Spain is considered an exotic country in Europe due to its friendly inhabitants, relaxed lifestyle, mostly warm weather (compared to other European regions), its cuisine, vibrant nightlife, and world-famous folklore and festivities. Among many places worth visiting are Spain's thriving capital Madrid, the vibrant coastal city of Barcelona, the famous "Running of the Bulls" at Pamplona, major Andalucian cities with Moorish architecture, like Seville, Granada and Córdoba, the Way of St. James and the idyllic Balearic and Canary Islands. With great beaches, fun nightlife, many cultural regions and historic cities, Spain makes a great destination for any kind of trip. A country of large geographic and cultural diversity, Spain is a surprise to those who only know its reputation for great beach holidays. There is everything from lush meadows and snowy mountains to huge marshes and deserts in the south east. Once the center of a global empire with territories in North, Central and South America, Africa i.e. Equatorial Guinea, and Asia i.e. the Philippines, contemporary Spain has overcome civil war and fascism in the 20th century to stand proud and centered in itself. Spain holds a historical attachment to its neighbors within the Iberian Peninsula, Andorra and Portugal, to its former colonies, to former citizens and their descendants, and to a special category of former citizens, namely Sephardic Jews. Individuals from these categories may acquire Spanish citizenship in an accelerated fashion which may or may not require that the individuals reside in Spain, and residency requirements are as short as one to three years depending on the category. Citizens of countries in the European Union may acquire citizenship after living in Spain for five years. Citizens of any other country may acquire citizenship after residing in Spain for ten years. The population of Spain is growing in large part due to migration from relatively poor or politically unstable areas of South America, such as Argentina, Colombia, Cuba, Ecuador, El Salvador or Peru, and Europe, mostly Eastern Europe, that have a historical or linguistic attachment to Spain. Spain is divided into autonomías or autonomous regions, plus two independent cities. Some of the autonomías - notably the ones which have other official languages alongside Spanish - are regions with their own unique historical tradition. These include the Basque Country or Euskadi (Basque), Galicia (Galician), Catalonia or Catalunya, the Valencian region or País Valencià, and the Balearic Islands or Illes Balears (Catalan), but also Andalucía. Travelers to these parts of the Iberian Peninsula should respect their history and language. The Canary Islands lie off the coast of Morocco and are geographically part of Africa, as are the two cities of Ceuta and Melilla. Some clichés hold true. Spain, stretching sun-drenched and untamed to the south of the wild and majestic Pyrenees, is a passionate nation littered with glittering beaches where beach lovers soak up pitchers of sangria over steaming paella (at its tasty best in Valencia). Flamenco bailaors (dancers) stamp and swirl in flounces of colour, while toreros flaunt their bravado in the bullrings. Scratch this surface and a vast, unexpected panorama unfolds before you. It is extraordinary what splendours remain off the beaten track: the green hills and ocean coves of the north; proud, solitary castles and medieval towns, like Toledo, across the interior; the white villages of Andalucía; and mountain ranges such as the Gredos and Sierra Nevada (Europe's southernmost ski resort).
Few know that Spain has four official languages. Its regions differ vastly from one another but are held together by a national passion for drama, contrast and a noisy, live-for-today hedonism. If there is one thing all Spaniards love, it is to eat, drink and be merry, whether enjoying tapas over fine wine in Madrid, Seville or Barcelona, or the elaborate Basque Country equivalent, pintxos, over cider in the north. A day hardly goes by without one town or another celebrating a fiesta. The country combines its superb artistic and natural heritage with an infectious, go-ahead dynamism. In its kitchens, stores and building sites, Spain's avant-garde chefs, designers and architects have unleashed a formidable wave of uninhibited innovation. So pack your bags and head out to see it all for yourself.
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