It's hard to beat the experience of arriving in some small Spanish village, expecting no more than a bar and a bed for the night, only to discover the streets decked out with flags and streamers, a band playing in the plaza, and the entire population out celebrating the local fiesta. The tiniest fiestas can be wonderful but for aficionados the wildest, most lunatic event of the year has to be La Tomatina at Bunol, in Valencia province. At midday a series of lorries drive through town, stacked with several tons of ripe tomatoes. These are hurled at the crowds, hurled back, thrust beneath clothing, in ears, mouths, noses, in an intense hour- long fruit-throwing orgy. It is the most fun you can have in your life.
Las Alpujarras - the foothills of the Sierra Nevada, south of Granada - where the Moors last stronghold in Spain, and long one of the most isolated parts of the country. They're an entrancing region: seventy-odd villages strung out along high river valleys, watered by the year-long snows of the high sierras. If you're into walking, wild flowers and pretty basic living, you could do little better. The place I return to, year after year, is El Duque, 10km from the market town of Orgiva, reached on a road that's defiantly not for the fainthearted. El Duque is a traditional cottage, make of stone and crumbly mica. It is owned by an English couple, Chris and Anna Stewart, who run a small sheep farm on the other side of the river, and who can fill you in on just about any aspect of Alpujarran life, from pig-killings to the local Tibetan Buddhist monastery of El Atalaya. Chris, oddly enough, was the original drummer in Genesis.
The one place I've enjoyed staying as much as El Duque is a six-room guesthouse, Casa Blasquico in Hecho, in the foothills of the Aragonese Pyrenees. It's an unprepossessing and idiosyncratic place (none of the rooms have locks) presided over by Gaby Coarasa, a woman many reckon one of the most creative cooks in Spain. She serves a menu de la casa, including wine, for a bargain 1500 pesetas, and with advance notice will prepare a menu gastronomica of Babette's Feast proportions.
A single artwork
It's absurd, of course, to single out a single artwork in a country laden with Goya, Velazquez, El Greco and Picasso. But the work that moves me most is Alexander Calder's Mercury Fountain in the Miro Foundation in Barcelona. A wall of free-flowing mercury, in homage to mineworkers, it was constructed by the artist for the Republican pavilion at the Paris Universal Exhibition of 1936.
The great bar crawl
Okay, here's a perfect evening in Madrid. You make your way down from Sol (the centre of the city - indeed the official centre-point of Spain) to Plaza Santa Ana for a beer at the Cerveceria Alemana, a Hemingway haunt opposite the hotel where the bullfighters stay for big fiestas. Then you wander up the road to Calle Echegaray for fino (dry chilled sherry) and cured tuna at the ancient La Venencia bar, then more fino at Los Gabrieles, with its 1880s tiled tableaux of Goya drinking scenes, and on to La Trucha for pimientos de Padron - those tiny, sweet peppers that one time in 10 will explode in your mouth like chilli.
Spain has a dozen buildings you must see at some point in your lifetime. There's the Moorish trilogy in Andalucia: La Mezquita, the great mosque of Cordoba; La Giralda, Sevilla's original minaret; and Granada's Alhambra palace and equally sensuous Generalife gardens. In Barcelona Gaudi provides the fantasy backdrops, with the Parque Guell, the wave-like Casa Mila apartment block, and the unfinished church of La Sagrada Familia. Then there are the cathedrals of Toledo, Sevilla, Leon, Salamanca and perhaps best of all, the dripping granite baroque of Santiago de Compostela. A last nomination is the Romanesque church but perhaps one-time hunting lodge of Santa Maria del Naranco, in the northern province of Asturias, a building in total harmony with itself and its natural surroundings.
Researching the Rough Guide I travelled around with Richard Ford's Handbook for Travellers in Spain, a Murray's guide published in 1845. This is both the funniest and most encyclopedic guidebook ever to see light of day, crammed with amazing stories, splenetic outbursts (usually against the recently evicted French), and an enduring fascination with all things Spanish.
Mark Ellingham wrote 'The Rough Guide to Spain'. Keep up with the latest developments in travel by subscribing to the free newsletter 'Rough News', published three times yearly. Write to Rough Guides, IoS offer, 1 Mercer Street, London WC2H 9QJ. A free Rough Guide to the first three subscribers each week.
Barca tickets are available from the main ticket office at the ground (where Les Corts meets Avenida Aristides Maillol), open Mon-Fri 10am-1pm, 4pm-8pm and two hours before kickoff. Seats from 4,500 ptas.
La Tomatina takes place from noon to 1pm on 31 August in Bunol, Valencia.
El Duque can be booked through Chris and Anna Stewart, Aptdo 66, 18400 Orgiva, Granada, Spain; tel. 0034/58 347 061.
Casa Blaquico, Plaza de la Fuente 1, Hecho, Aragon. Tel: 974/375007. Closed Sept. Doubles around 4000ptas. Meals from 1500ptas.
Madrid bar crawl: Cerveceria Alemana, Plaza de Santa Ana; Le Venecia and Los Gabrieles, both Calle Echegaray; La Trucha, /Manuel Fernandez y Gonzalez 3.
Getting to Spain: STA (Tel: 0171 3616161) can fly under-26s to Madrid for pounds 99. Last minute seats from flight agencies (eg Flightseats: 0990 239904 or Airlink: 0171 7137770) can be as low as pounds 60 to Malaga, Gerona or Alicante.Reuse content