Seven Spanish superlatives

Where can you enjoy an awesome arc of beach, sleep (together) for pounds 11 a night, visit a manic museum and more? Simon Calder offers a guide

Concocting a tour of superlative Spain constitutes the height of arrogance. Spain is blessed with 100 great museums, 1,000 fine beaches and at least a million convivial bars. Even if you strip away the offshore islands (the all-time favourite destinations for British package tourists), you are left with an embarrassment of candidates for the best beach or greatest gallery.

The doors to this touristic toyshop were properly opened only 20 summers ago, when democracy was restored after the death of the Fascist Franco. I was the next plane out. Since then Spain has become an all-too-easy addiction - and, like any addict, I am possessed by insufferable certainties.

Handiest airport

Many of the people who are sniffy about Britain's best travel bargain - package holidays in Spain - have a woefully outdated image of the country's airports. Malaga, for example, is no longer a collection of scruffy huts around an airstrip. The architects of the new terminal embraced references from Andalusa's Moorish traditions and created a light, cool environment where much of the stress of air travel is borne away in the breeze.

Malaga has a handy rail link to the city it serves, and along the Costa del Sol. But for sheer, unadulterated touchdown to tapas ease, the winner must be Gibraltar. The British colony's airport is strung out between the Rock and an easy place, the sleepy frontier town of La Linea.

Remember that pre-fabricated school hut? Gibraltar airport is like that. With no great distances for you or your luggage to cover between plane and exit, you can be sipping cerveza and tasting seafood within 10 minutes of the squeal of tyres on Tarmac. Just remember to turn right (for Spain) rather than left (for Gibraltar), and hope that Hispano-Gibraltarian relations are cordial. Otherwise you could have a long, thirsty wait at the border.

GB Airways flies frequently from Heathrow and Gatwick to Gibraltar, and on Sundays from Manchester. Book through British Airways on 0345 222111.

Ultimate bar

To find the best bar, you face a long journey to the extreme north west of Spain. And on the partygoer's pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela, you could easily fall by the wayside, notably at the ultra-cool Nick Havanna in Barcelona (Philippe Starck touches and if-you-have-to-ask- prices); or the Palacio de Jamon, just west of the Puerta del Sol in Madrid, where ranks of whole hams hang like downcast members of a long bus queue, being cheerily devoured by nibbling drinkers.

Persevere, though, to the city of St James. Santiago de Compostela is the end of the beaten track, so far from the tourist trail that Suso's bar is not as crowded as it should be. So once you've traced it in the backstreets behind the cathedral, there will probably be a spare bar stool on which you can wedge yourself against the stainless steel counter, your eyes on a level with an encylopaedic array of snacks.

"Keep it simple, Suso", seems to be the house motto: gambas a la plancha (grilled prawns), chorizo (bloody, rich sausage), calamares (hoops of squid) and tortilla (slabs of inch-thick omelette). The theory is that these are the meagre raciones to accompany aperitifs, but in the congenial company it is all too easy to forgo the option of dinner. One danger you are unlikely to face is bankruptcy, since your host regards tourists with benevolence. And if your early evening stretches into last orders, then you can always avail yourself of a bed in the lodging house upstairs.

Suso's bar and hostal, Rua del Vilar 65, Santiago de Compostela (00 34 81 586611).

Cheapest dive

There is still a country in the European Union where you can find a decent double room for a shade over pounds 10 a night. Or, rather, there is now such a country. Sterling is performing spectacularly well against the peseta, which means that you get around 225 for your pounds 1 compared with fewer than 200 a year ago. So this is going to be a long, cheap summer for visitors to Spain, particularly if they dwell at the Hostal Galerias Malda in Barcelona.

Rogues abound in the Catalan capital, not least among some of its hoteliers. If the pickpockets in the Ramblas don't get you, their partners in crime who charge pounds 50 for grotty rooms may well. I discovered the happy habataciones in the heart of the city only after half-a-dozen visits to Barcelona, during which I paid too much for too little. One reason it took me so long to find the place is that the Galerias in the title is a shopping arcade, buried away in the Carrer del Pi. Unless a good friend led you to the hostal on the upper floor, you would never believe it existed.

It is run by quite the friendliest family in Spain, who are unobtrusive when you want to be alone in your elegantly dated room, but hostly when you need company. For all this, and a location that cannot be bettered (200 metres from the Ramblas and the cathedral), you pay a few pence short of pounds 11 for two.

Hostal Galerias Malda, Carrer del Pi, Barcelona (00 34 3 317 3002).

Classiest abode

Would you swap a week in the Hostal Galerias Malda for a night at the parador in Ronda? Probably, once you see this new addition to the Spanish government's repertoire of luxurious hotels in historic properties. This one has a miraculous location, perched on the gorge that rips through the hilltop town of Ronda, high above the rest of Andaluca. The ancient foundations of the old town hall have been amplified in honeyed rock, merging perfectly with the sandstone cliffs.

If the parador has a problem, it is of being a degree too perfect. The rooms are a fraction too well-appointed, the restaurant a tad too fancy. But you'd expect that response from someone who recoils from spending pounds 80 a night at any hotel.

Parador de Ronda, Plaza de Espana, Ronda (00 34 5 287 7500).

Best beach

Disdainers of the cheap package should move en masse to the Costa de la Luz, that splendid unspoilt strand that broadly connects Portugal with Gibraltar by way of Cape Trafalgar. This coast is bullied by the Atlantic, so they will certainly be chillier than the mass of us who make for the Mediterranean.

For my Spanish holiday this summer, I have bought a Skytours package in the resort with the best beach on the mainland: Benidorm. This awesome arc of clean and genuinely golden sand would be a magnificent specimen of beach anywhere in the world; its added appeal is that it is two hours from Gatwick, 10 minutes from grand Valencian scenery and 20 metres from some cracking bars. Carlsberg - probably the best lager in the world? Not with San Miguel and Estrella on sale at well under a pound a pint.

Skytours is a budget brand of Thomson (0990 502555 or through travel agents).

Tastiest restaurant

Fights have broken out over the best places to eat in Lloret de Mar, let alone the whole of Spain. In a country where it is difficult not to dine well for a fiver, you have to search hard for a place where an extra dimension is added to the virtues of wholesome food, prepared imaginatively and served with verve.

The answer lies in an obscure corner of Madrid. An eccentric Basque Surrealist named Abraham Garcia founded Restaurant Viridiana, specialising in exquisite nouvel Espanol cuisine delivered with theatrical panache. Performances begin with a pyrotechnic fruit salad, the melon decorated with a small incendiary device. It arrives with a fig leaf bearing a message of good wishes from the kitchen inscribed in piped cream. Then the evening ignites.

Book in advance on 00 34 1 356 9040. Viridiana is well away from the centre of the city at Fundadores 23, close to Manuel Becerra metro station.

Classiest collection

The toughest category of all. A single street in Madrid has three of the finest galleries in the universe: the grandiose Prado, the eclectic Thyssen-Bornemisza and the clinical Reina Sofia, venue for Picasso's Guernica. Pablo is also well represented across in Barcelona, with an entire museum devoted to him. His fellow Catalan, Joan Mir, gets a good showing here, too.

The greatest of all, though, is further up the Mediterranean coast in the otherwise unlovely town of Figueres. Clear winner of the "who's the craziest artist in Catalonia, then?" competition was Salvador Dali, whose vision of Surrealism has come to its illogical conclusion at the Teatro- Museo Dali. The "theatre" refers to the setting, the old town theatre. The "museum" conceals the vitality of the fun palace where Dali is buried. A black Cadillac holds court in the centre, sporadically getting drenched from an internal shower. Mae West is commemorated in a boudoir of her own, where the furniture comprises her features.

By the time you emerge from this madhouse, you are wondering quite who slipped what potion into those chocolate y churros you enjoyed for elevenses.

Teatro-Museo Dali, Rambla, Figueres (00 34 72 50 45 85).

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