The Iberians who gave the peninsula its name were originally a North African people who became the most prominent ethnologic element of the land around 1000 BC. They were joined by the Celts who migrated from France and their intermingling formed the so-called Celtiberians, living chiefly in the central region, the west, and along the northern coast.
The Phoenicians established a colony on the site of present-day Cadiz very early and a large part of the peninsula was conquered by the Carthaginian general Hamilcar Barca around 230 BC. The region became a battleground during the Punic wars in which Rome expulsed Carthage from the peninsula in 206 BC. Hispania was one of the most profitable areas of the Roman Empire, its farms provided grain and its mines, iron, copper, lead, gold, and silver.
In 409 AD, Teutonic invaders crossed the Pyrenees. Alans, Vandals, and Suevi swept over the peninsula but the Catholic Visigothic kingdom of Toulouse, a nominal vassal of Rome, took over and controlled the territory from the Strait of Gibraltar north to the Loire River in present-day France.
Three centuries later, fanatical Muslim Berbers from North Africa invaded the peninsula in 711 and continued north until stopped and repulsed by Charles Martel at Poitiers in 732. The Umayyad theocratic dynasty ruled Muslim Spain until it was defeated in 1086 by the Saharan Almoravid Muslim reformers who fell in turn 60 years later to yet another fanatical Berber sect, the Almohads from the Atlas mountains.
Meanwhile, some Christian Visigoth kingdoms survived and flourished in the north (Asturias, Leon, Navarra, Castilla, Aragon, Catalunia), and occupied almost a quarter of the peninsula. After much internecine strife they finally united under the leadership of Castille and, supported by an international crusade called by the Pope, undertook to reconquer the lost territories. By 1250, the Muslims had been expelled from all of the peninsula except for the Emirate of Grenada which fell two centuries later in 1492 before the alliance of the Catholic Monarchs, Isabel of Castille and Fernando of Aragon.
Christopher Columbus set off on his famous voyage in August of that year. This marked the beginning of Spain's expansion, first in Morocco, then overseas in America and the Pacific. As their power grew, Isabel and Fernando revived the inquisition (under the infamous Torquemada) and persecuted Jews and Muslims, conveniently seizing their property. In 1519 the crown passed to the Hapsburg Carlos later to become the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V ruling over Spain and its colonies, over Austria and the Netherlands as well as parts of France, of Germany and of Italy.
This huge power established a tradition of absolutism blessed by the church in Spain. Clearly, power came from above, from God, through the Pope, the Bishops and the Kings. Spanish armies of adventurers set out with the sword and the cross to conquer and convert the world in the name of God. They decimated the indigenous peoples of Central and South America and eradicated as much as they could of the heathen Aztec and Inca cultures. They could do no evil for they had the Absolute Truth.
In my opinion, the inflexible cultural attitudes established by the absolutist Catholic monarchies explain the violence of the struggle between Spanish liberals and conservatives. More importantly, the belief that power is God-given spread to Spain's colonies and explains the difficulty of establishing true democracies in most hispanophone countries today.
In the 18th century, Fernando VI and Carlos III abolished the Inquisition, expelled the retrograde Jesuits and attempted to modernize and industrialize the country but it was too late. The war with France following the French Revolution, the occupation by Napoleon and the Spanish War of Independence left Spain weakened and divided. Civil strife between extremist Conservatives who reinstated the Inquisition and anticlerical Liberals who seized church property went on violently throughout the 19th century. In 1873 the Cortes managed to proclaim a Federal Republic of Spain but eleven months later the church, the army and the landowners reinstated the monarchy and the struggle continued unabated.
During this time, Spain's American colonies soon took advantage of this to gain their independence and the Spanish American War of 1898 cost Spain the last of its possessions, Cuba, Puerto Rico, Guam and the Philippines.
Spain had missed the boat and it entered the 20th century as a constitutional monarchy condemned to instability by passionate supporters of Anarchism, of Marxism and of Socialism, compounded by Basque and Catalan separatism. There were 33 different governments during the reign of Alfonso XIII from 1902 to 1930 including that of General Primo de Riviera who established a military dictatorship in 1923.
When Riviera's regime failed to bring economic progress, Alfonso took the reins again but soon abdicated in favour of a second republic promulgated in 1931. In 1936 the leftist parties formed a Popular Front and came to power through free national elections. The conservatives and the army rebelled and civil war ensued. The rebels, called Nationalists were led by General Franco and were supported by Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy. The defenders of the republic (Loyalists), received aid from the Soviet Union and international volunteers. The war was incredibly fierce and lasted three years, leaving Spain ruined, divided and in the clutches of the dictator Franco.
In 1973 Franco began to slacken his absolute control and political dissent intensified. Upon Franco's death in 1975, Juan Carlos I, the first king in 44 years, became head of state of a constitutional monarchy nurturing a delicate democracy threatened by ultra conservatives and communists and by the separatist aspirations of the Basques and Catalans. Good governance and the granting of autonomy to the Basque and Catalan provinces strengthened the democracy and made it possible for Spain to join the European Community in 1986.
Today's Spain has come a long way from the underdeveloped country I knew in the 1960's. It now has modern infrastructures, (roads, railways, hospitals, schools) and it's economy is doing well.
The plaza called Puerta del Sol, in the center of Madrid, is considered to be the center of Spain. It is kilometer 0 from which the distance to all other Spanish cities is measured (actually the real geographical center of Spain is close to Aranjuez some 50 kms south of here). The equestrian statue in the center represents the Bourbon King Carlos III who modernized Spain in the late 18th century.
My flight from Montreal arrived at the Barajas airport at 9 a.m. I took the airport bus to plaza Colon and then the Metro to Puerta del Sol where I found a room looking onto the plaza at the Hostal Ruano for 18 $US a night.
In the center of Madrid, east of Plaza Sol, is a large park well named "Buen Retiro" where Madrilenos can get away from the noise and bustle and enjoy fountains such as this "Fuente de la Alcachofa" (artichoke fountain). One of Europe's most famous art galleries, the Museo del Prado (meadow museum), is a short distance to the west.
You can take this small, friendly "Calle de las Huertas" to get from the Prado Museum to Plaza Major without using the busy main thoroughfares.
At the eastern end of the Calle de las Huertas is the Plaza Santa Cruz and the Hostal Cruz Sol where I stayed for 15 $US a night near the Plaza Major.
Elegant Plaza Major built in 1619 by Felipe III was the scene for royal festivities and bullfights but also of autos de fe and public garrotings.
Further east, the nearby 17th century City Hall on the right of the Plaza de la Villa is another fine example of the style developed by Juan de Herrera and Juan Gómez de Mora.
Still further east you come upon the Teatro Real which faces the Royal Palace.
The huge Palacio Real was built in 1734 by Felipe V with the intent of matching its European counterparts (Shönbrunn, Versailles etc), with its 2800 rooms.
Madrid also has its modern parts with fast thoroughfares and high rise building as you can see in Plaza Colon where the airport bus stops.
Last but not least is the very important Plaza de Toros which no self respecting Spanish city of any size would be without!
The ancient Roman Toletum was a natural stronghold surrounded on three sides by the Tagus river. It was conquered by the Romans in 193 BC who made it the capital of Carpentia. It was there that the Visigoth king Roncared converted to Catholicism in 670 AD. It was the home of Arab speaking Catholics during the Moorish period and was reconquered by Afonso VI in 1085. It then became the seat of the Catholic church in Spain and one of the principal residences of the Castillian monarchs and court until Felipe II moved the capital to Madrid in 1561.
Here you can see the church of the Franciscan Monastery of San Juan de los Reyes overlooking the western walls (it took 139 years to build it, from 1477 to 1606)
Below on the left is a partial view of the front of the Cathedral (I could not get back enough to take the impressive belfry). On the right is the house where the famous painter El Greco (Domenikos Theotokopoulos), is said to have lived from 1577 to 1614.
Here is the Archbishop's Palace next to the Cathedral and the City Hall. The Archbishop wielded considerable influence and power from this place in Catholic Spain. It is said that Felipe II moved the capital from Toledo to Madrid largely to distance himself from that power.
This overview shows the Cathedral and the Alcazar which was the seat of the monarchy until the capital moved to Madrid in 1561.
This inside view of the Alcazar seems austere. It was built on the remains of a 10th century Muslim fortress, (Al Qasr), as a royal residence for Carlos but was left under used when the court moved to Madrid in 1561.
The Zocodover square just north of the Alcazar takes its name from the Arab souq ad-dawab (livestock market) that used to be held here. It is now a friendly square where Toledanos and tourists come to relax. A rubber wheeled tourist train leaves from here for a comfortable hour long tour of the sights of hilly Toledo
Finally, one more shot of Toledo's Walls as a visual reminder of the closed minds of the absolute monarchs who once ruled half of the world from here.