Introduction to Geography of Spain

Spain, officially Kingdom of Spain, a country in southwestern Europe. It occupies about four-fifths of the Iberian Peninsula and borders on Portugal, France, Andorra, and Gibraltar. Across the Strait of Gibraltar lies Morocco on the north coast of Africa. The Atlantic Ocean, including the Bay of Biscay and the Gulf of Cdiz, adjoins Spain on the north and southwest; the Mediterranean Sea washes the southern and eastern coasts. Spain includes the Canary Islands, in the Atlantic, and the Balearic Islands, in the Mediterranean Sea.

In many ways Spain is distinctive among European nations, mainly because of its unique cultural and regional differences. It is a nation of highly individualistic and diverse people, such as the Basques, Catalonians, and Galicians, many of whom retain to a considerable degree their separate ways. The terrain, too, is unusually varied. It includes snowcapped alpine mountains, barren plains, and sunny coasts.

Sharp contrasts also exist between the old Spain and the new. Old Spain, dating back to antiquity, is still evidenced by Roman aqueducts and ruins, Moorish palaces, and splendid medieval cathedrals. More numerous, and equally impressive, are the many buildings of the 16th- and 17th-century colonial period, when Spain had great wealth and a large empire in the New World. Spain's modern side is seen in sprawling new industrial areas in many parts of the country and in such cosmopolitan cities as Barcelona and the capital, Madrid.

Spain in brief
General information
Capital: Madrid.
Official language: Castilian Spanish; Catalan, Galician, and Basque are official languages in provinces where they are widely spoken. About 17 percent of population speaks Catalan, 8 percent Galician, and 2 percent Basque; most people also speak Spanish.
National anthem: "Marcha Real" ("The Royal March").
Flag and coat of arms: Spain's state flag, adopted in 1981, has three horizontal stripes of red, yellow, and red. The coat of arms is to the left of the flag. The civil flag, used by the people, has no coat of arms. The coat of arms, adopted in 1981, is a shield with the symbols that represent Aragon, Castile, and other historic kingdoms of Spain.
Largest cities: (2001 census) Madrid (2,938,723); Barcelona (1,503,884); Valencia (738,441); Seville (684,633); Saragossa (614,905); Malaga (524,414).
Land and climate
Land: Spain occupies five-sixths of the Iberian Peninsula in far southwestern Europe. The other one-sixth is occupied by Portugal. Spain also includes the Balearic Islands in the Mediterranean Sea and the Canary Islands in the Atlantic Ocean. The country borders France, Portugal, the Atlantic Ocean, and the Mediterranean Sea. A plateau called the Meseta is the largest land region of Spain. Hills and mountains rise throughout the plateau. North of the plateau, mountains extend across the country. The Pyrenees Mountains in the northeast form Spain's border with France. Spain's chief rivers include the Ebro, Guadalquivir, and Tagus.
Area: 195,365 mi2 (505,992 km2), including Balearic and Canary Islands. Greatest distances—east-west, 646 mi (1,040 km); north-south, 547 mi (880 km). Coastline—2,345 mi (3,774 km).
Elevation: Highest—Pico de Teide, 12,198 ft (3,718 m) above sea level, in Canary Islands. Lowest—sea level along the coast.
Climate: Most of Spain has hot, sunny summers and cold winters. In the interior, average temperatures rise above 80 degrees F (27 degrees C) in July and fall below 30 degrees F (–1 degree C) in January. The northern mountains have somewhat cooler summers and warmer winters. The Mediterranean coast, Balearic Islands, and Canary Islands have warmer weather than the rest of the country.
Form of government: Parliamentary monarchy.
Head of state: King.
Head of government: Prime minister.
Legislature: Parliament of two houses--the Chamber of Deputies (350 members) and the Senate (about 260 members). The Chamber of Deputies is more powerful than the Senate.
Executive: Prime minister; Cabinet selected by the prime minister.
Political subdivisions: 50 provinces in 17 regions.
Population: Current estimate—44,687,000. 2001 census—40,847,371.
Population density: 229 per mi2 (88 per km2).
Distribution: 77 percent urban, 23 percent rural.
Major ethnic/national groups: About 95 percent Spanish (including Catalans, Basques, and others who have long lived in Spain). Some citizens of other European countries, Moroccans, and Latin Americans.
Major religion: About 95 percent Roman Catholic.
Chief products: Agriculture—barley, hogs, milk, olives, oranges, potatoes, sheep, sugar beets, tomatoes, wheat, wine. Fishing—mussels, sardines, squid. Manufacturing—automobiles, chemicals, iron and steel, machinery, ships, shoes, textiles..
Money: Basic unit—euro. One hundred cents equal one euro. The peseta was taken out of circulation in 2002.
International trade: Major exports—automobiles, fruit, iron and steel, petroleum products, textiles. Major imports—automobiles, chemicals, corn, electrical equipment, machinery, petroleum, primary metals, soybeans. Major trading partners—China, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Mexico, Netherlands, Portugal, United Kingdom, United States.

Physical Geography

SpainSpain is a country in southwestern Europe.

The dominant feature of Spain is a great interior plateau known as the Meseta. It occupies roughly two-fifths of the country and lies generally about 1,500 to 4,000 feet (460 to 1,220 m) above sea level, dipping downward from east to west. Much of this vast tableland consists of dry, relatively flat terrain, though there are extensive areas of rough, eroded land. Deep valleys, canyons, and sharply rising mountains are also characteristic of the Meseta.

One of the principal mountain chains on the Meseta is formed by a series of ranges sometimes called the Cordillera Central. Its loftiest part, rising roughly 7,000 to 8,000 feet (2,130 to 2,440 m) above sea level, consists of the Sierra de Guadarrama, near Madrid, and the Sierra de Gredos, which crests at more than 8,500 feet (2,590 m). North of this central chain lies a basin containing the historic regions of Old Castile and Len; to the south are Extremadura and New Castile.

Virtually all sides of the plateau are bounded by mountains. Most prominent are the Cantabrian Mountains in the north, the Iberian Mountains in the northeast, and the steep Sierra Morena in the south. In the Cantabrian Mountains many peaks rise 5,000 to 8,000 feet (1,520 to 2,440 m) only a short distance from the ocean.

Beyond the Iberian Mountains, in the northeast, lies the wedge-shaped lowland basin of the Ebro River. It is cut off from the sea by a range of low coastal mountains and is flanked along the French border by the towering Pyrenees, which are geologically part of the rugged Alps system. The Pyrenees constitute Spain's most formidable range. Many of the craggy Pyrenees peaks rise to elevations of more than 10,000 feet (3,050 m). Pico de Aneto, the highest, reaches 11,168 feet (3,404 m) above sea level.

In the south of Spain lies another wedgeshaped basin—the lowland of Andalusia. Its broad base is along the Gulf of Cdiz; its sides are marked by mountains, mainly the Sierra Morena on the north and the Cordillera Penibtica on the south. The Penibtica chain runs along the Mediterranean coast and consists generally of low mountains. However, its chief range, the lofty Sierra Nevada, has the highest peak in mainland Spain—11,411-foot (3,478-m) Mulhacn. The highest peak in all of Spain is Pico de Teide in the Canary Islands, which reaches 12,172 feet (3,710 m).


Five major rivers drain Spain: the Duero, Tagus, Guadiana, Guadalquivir, and Ebro. None is exceptionally large, mainly because of the scant and erratic rainfall that occurs throughout most of Spain. Three of the rivers—the Duero, Tagus, and Guadiana—drain the Meseta. Each begins in the eastern part of the plateau and flows westward through Portugal to the Atlantic Ocean. In places their courses are marked by deep valleys, gorges, and canyons.

The Guadalquivir is the chief river of southern Spain. It meanders sluggishly through the Andalusian lowland, past Crdoba and Seville, and enters the Gulf of Cdiz after passing through a large marshy area known as Las Marismas. The Ebro River drains most of northeastern Spain. It begins in the Cantabrian Mountains, flows southeastward past Zaragoza, and enters the Mediterranean Sea by way of a narrow gap in the coastal mountains.

There are no large lakes in Spain. Many rivers and streams have been dammed, creating sizable but narrow reservoirs for irrigational and hydroelectric use.


The southern and eastern coasts of Spain lie within the region of Mediterranean climate, which is noted for bright sunny weather throughout most of the year. Summers are hot and dry; daily temperatures average 75 F. (24 C.). Winters are cool, with temperatures averaging about 45 F. (7 C.), and moderately rainy. The total precipitation, however, is relatively low, usually 15 to 25 inches (380 to 640 mm). Summers are especially hot in the Andalusian basin. Daytime temperatures there often reach 100 F. (38 C.).

Except in the mountains, summers on the Meseta are about as hot as those on the Mediterranean coast, but winters are considerably colder. In most areas temperatures dip to freezing or slightly below, and light snow falls occasionally. Rainfall is scant, usually less than 20 inches (510 mm) a year; most of it comes in spring and autumn.

Northern Spain lies in the path of westerly winds from the Atlantic, causing a rather cool, moderate climate the year round. There are no great temperature extremes as in the rest of Spain. Winter temperatures average 50 F. (10 C.); summer temperatures average 65 F. (18 C.). Rainfall is much more abundant.


Until well after World War II, Spain was one of the least developed countries in Europe—one heavily dependent on farming. Lack of progress was due partly to difficulties in recovering from the disastrous Civil War of the late 1930's. Much of it, however, stemmed from the adherence to an economic system bound to the traditional ways of the past.

In 1959, with the nation facing an economic crisis, a government program of reform was begun. For example, it devalued Spanish money (the peseta), removed many of the old restrictions on imports and foreign investments, and gave special inducements for establishing new industries. Recovery was rapid and soon led to a remarkable economic boom. Much of the growth has been in manufacturing, where foreign investments have been particularly heavy.

Private enterprise predominates in Spain, though the government is involved, directly and indirectly, in many sectors of the economy. The government-owned National Institute of Industry, for example, is a major manufacturer of aluminum, fertilizers, petroleum products, automobiles, trucks, and ships.

Although the nation has undergone rapid economic growth since 1959 and the per capita income has risen substantially, Spaniards still have a standard of living below that of many other West Europeans. Many people, particularly in rural areas, live in much the same manner as their ancestors. The worldwide recession of the late 1970's and 1980's slowed Spain's economic growth, but by the late-1990's, the Spanish economy was one of the fastest growing in Europe. Unemployment remained high.

Economic production in Spain
Economic activities% of GDP producedNumber of workers% of all workers
Community, government, & personal services 203,968,80024
Finance, insurance, real estate, & business services 201,693,80010
Trade, restaurants, & hotels 193,571,20022
Manufacturing 162,999,10012
Transportation & communication 9993,7006
Agriculture, forestry, & fishing 3961,3006
Utilities 391,5001
Mining 63,200
Total 10016,255,800100

For many years Spain used high tariffs and other means to vigorously protect its manufacturing industries from outside competition and relied almost entirely on its own technology and domestic production. Many industries were small, used obsolete equipment, and were relatively inefficient. As a result, production was inadequate. A reversal of the protective policy in 1959 brought a significant increase in manufacturing, especially by foreign companies attracted to Spain. By the late 1960's manufacturing was Spain's leading industry, both in value of production and in size of employment.

Much of the growth occurred in previously established manufacturing regions, especially the three leading centers—Barcelona, Bilbao and Madrid. Growth also occurred in other localities, largely because of various incentives offered by the national government. Such cities as La Corua, Seville, Valladolid, Vigo, Zaragoza, Velencia, Burgos, and Huelva have benefited from this program.

Spain's heavy industry, such as the making of iron and steel, is concentrated largely in the north. Bilbao is the chief center, though other cities, such as Avils, are also important. Catalonia, with Barcelona as its hub, has long been the leading center for such industries as food processing and the making of textiles. There are also large automobile, machinery, and chemical plants. Madrid, the third major manufacturing area, has many industries similar to the type found in Barcelona.


Though of decreasing relative importance because of the industrial boom, agriculture is still important. It provides livelihoods for about 10 per cent of the Spanish people and supplies a slightly larger percentage of the nation's exports.

Farming is difficult throughout most of Spain. In general, it is hampered by the dry climate, poor soils, and severe erosion. Improvement of agriculture has been limited, partly because of the slow adoption of modern farming methods and machinery. In irrigation, however, the nation has made significant gains.

Probably the greatest obstacle to the improvement of agriculture is the landholding system, whereby a significant part of the farmland is held in large estates by absentee owners. Such estates, which are most common in central and southern Spain, are worked by tenants and hired laborers in much the same manner as they have been for centuries. The remaining land, outside of the large estates, is held primarily in farms so small that they can barely support the families that work them. As a result, many people from rural areas have moved to cities in search of work.

Wheat, barley, and other cereals are the chief crops, particularly in north-central and central Spain. Sugar beets, a major industrial crop, are grown mainly in the Ebro Valley. Also produced in large amounts are olives, grapes, citrus fruits, tomatoes and other vegetables, corn, rice, and cotton. Spain is a world leader in the production and export of wine and olive oil. It is also one of the great exporters of citrus fruits, mainly oranges from Valencia.

Sheep, raised largely for wool, are the most numerous farm animals. Also numerous are goats. Both are grazed on land too dry or otherwise unsuited for crops. Hogs and poultry are major sources of Spain's meat. Dairying and cattle raising are becoming increasingly important, replacing other agricultural activities in some areas. Burros, mules, and horses are also raised, primarily as draft and pack animals. In some parts, such as Salamanca province and Andalusia, the raising of fighting bulls is a specialty.

Fishing, Forestry, and Mining

Spain has long been one of Europe's leading fishing nations. The catch consists chiefly of hake, cod, tuna, sardines, mussels, and squid and octopus. Most of the catch is marketed fresh; the rest is largely frozen, cured, or canned, partly for export. The fishing fleet is made up of oceangoing and coastal vessels, most of which operate out of north coast (Atlantic Ocean) ports, especially La Corua and Vigo.

The forests of Spain, after centuries of wasteful cutting, are now largely depleted, making widespread reforestation necessary. Only slightly more than 5 per cent of the land is in forests of commercial quality, and most of that lies in the northern mountains. Lumber, cork, resin, and turpentine are the chief products. In cork production Spain is a world leader.

Spain is a leading producer of mercury, slate, feldspar, fluorspar, and potash. Normally it provides a significant share of the world's annual supply of mercury. Coal and iron ore are mined in substantial amounts, but production does not meet domestic requirements. Also produced are copper, lead, zinc, uranium, and small amounts of petroleum and natural gas.

Transportation and Communication

Most of Spain's main railways and roads radiate from Madrid, which is centrally located. The highway system carries the bulk of the freight and passenger traffic. Despite its heavy use, the road network is generally inadequate. There are, for example relatively few divided highways or modern expressways, and a large number of roads are unpaved.

Railways link most large cities and connect ports with the interior. Several lines are noted for their ultramodern passenger trains. Virtually all the railways are part of a nationalized system.

Barcelona and Bilbao are the leading ports. Among others of significance are Las Palmas in the Canary Islands, Gijn and Avils, in the north; and Huelva, Valencia, and Mlaga in the south. Rivers are insignificant as transportation routes.

Two national airlines serve Spain. The government-owned Iberia Air Lines flies international and domestic routes; Aviaco, an affiliate of Iberia, provides domestic flights. Numerous international carriers also serve Spain through more than 20 international airports, the largest of which are at Madrid-Barajas and Barcelona.

Most forms of communication—television, radio, telephone and telegraph systems, and the postal service—are owned or controlled by the government.


The multibillion-dollar tourist industry is extremely important to the economy as it greatly offsets the deficit in Spain's foreign trade. Among the chief attractions are the seaside resorts of the Costa Brava and the Costa del Sol on the Mediterranean coast. Also popular are the historic old cities of Spain, such as Seville, Crdoba, and Toledo, and the modern metropolises of Madrid and Barcelona.


The Spanish people can be divided into five major groups, based on cultural characteristics and geographic location. They are the Castilians of central Spain, the Catalans of the northeast, the Galicians of the northwest, the Andalusians of the south, and the Basques in the region of the Pyrenees. The main ancestors of the Spaniards were Iberians, the early inhabitants, and Celts, who came later and intermingled with them. The Visigoths and the Moors are among other ancestral groups.

Language and Religion

Castilian Spanish is the official language of Spain. Three regional languages—Catalan, Galician, and Basque—are also spoken. Most of the people are Roman Catholics, and the church influences nearly all phases of life. Freedom of religion is established by law, and there are small minorities of Protestants, Jews, and Muslims.


Elementary schooling is free and compulsory for eight years, beginning at age six. Secondary education lasts three years, from age 14 through age 16. Students who do not go on to secondary school are required to take two years of vocational training. Advanced vocational training, a two-year course followed by a three-year course, is optional.

University education is preceded by a one-year orientation course. Institutions of higher education include universities, advanced technical schools, and specialized schools. The oldest universities are at Salamanca (founded in 1218), Valladolid (1346), and Barcelona (1450). The largest is the University of Madrid (1508).


Spain's long history of artistic achievements shows a variety of cultural influences. In the south, Spanish culture reflects the long period of Moorish occupation. Of the surviving Moorish buildings, one of the most famous is the Alhambra palace. Many churches were built in styles combining Moorish and Christian elements.

Spanish painters have produced numerous outstanding works, many of which deal with religious subjects. In the 16th century, the religious mysticism of Spain was represented in the works of El Greco, a Greek painter who worked in Spain. Well-known painters of the 17th and 18th centuries include Diego Velzquez and Francisco de Goya y Lucientes. In the 20th century, Pablo Picasso, an originator of Cubism, was outstanding.

The Prado in Madrid is one of the world's great art museums. Other well-known museums are in Barcelona and Toledo. Cave paintings of Cro-Magnon man, which are among the oldest art in the world, are at Altamira in northern Spain.

Music and dance vary from one region to another, with flamenco being the most widely known. Other notable Spanish dances are the bolero and the fandango. The castanets and guitar are popular instruments. Andrs Segovia won international fame as a classical guitarist, Pablo Casals as a cellist.

Sports and Recreation

Bullfighting is Spain's national sport, and bullrings may be found even in small communities. During the San Fermin festival, the men of Pamplona drive bulls through the streets to the ring. Soccer is also a favorite spectator sport. Jai alai is also popular, especially among the Basques.

Spain has many fairs and festivals, most of them centering around religious events. A number of towns honor patron saints, and various holy days are celebrated according to local traditions. Easter Week celebrations are famous for elaborate processions.


The constitution of 1978 defines Spain as a parliamentary monarchy. The head of state is the king, who is also supreme commander of the armed forces. The monarchy is hereditary. The king names the prime minister (head of government), who is the head of the ruling party in the Cortes (parliament). The prime minister is assisted by a cabinet of ministers appointed by the king on recommendation of the prime minister.

The Cortes is a two-house parliament. The Congress of Deputies, the lower house, has 350 members; the Senate, the upper house, 257 members. Members of each are elected to four-year terms. Deputies are elected in numbers in proportion to the population of each of Spain's 50 provinces. Four senators are elected from each province on the Iberian Peninsula, regardless of population, and a lesser number from outlying areas, such as the Canary Islands. Both houses can initiate legislation.

The judiciary is headed by the Supreme Tribunal, which supervises military, ecclesiastical, and civil courts.

Spain's provinces are grouped into 19 autonomous communities, which have limited powers of self-government. Each regional government has legislative, executive, and judicial branches.

The monarchs of Spain
In 1469, Prince Ferdinand of Aragon married Princess Isabella of Castile. The princess became Queen Isabella I of Castile in 1474. Ferdinand became King Ferdinand II of Aragon in 1479. Most of what is now Spain thus came under the rule of the two monarchs. Isabella died in 1504. By the time Ferdinand died in 1516, he had brought all of what is now Spain under his control as Ferdinand V.
Charles I (Holy Roman Emperor Charles V 1516-1556
Philip II 1556-1598
Philip III 1598-1621
Philip IV 1621-1665
Charles II 1665-1700
Philip V 1700-1724
Louis I 1724
Philip V 1724-1746
Ferdinand VI 1746-1759
Charles III 1759-1788
Charles IV 1788-1808
Ferdinand VII 1808
Joseph Bonaparte 1808-1813
Ferdinand VII 1814-1833
Isabella II 1833-1868
Amadeo (1870-1873)
Alfonso XII (1875-1885)
Alfonso XIII 1886-1931
Juan Carlos I 1975-...