Spain is enjoying a moment of glory. Last night's triumphal homecoming of Euro 2008's conquering heroes revealed everything that is good about Spaniards today, their spontaneity, their gregarious sociability, their unbridled – sometimes excessive – lust for partying.
The celebrations have shown something else: that Spain is enjoying a new confidence, a relaxed sense of national pride, a self-esteem it has rarely if ever experienced before, divested of old complexes. One of the commonest comments made by those celebrating Sunday's victory was "I'm proud to be Spanish" and "I've never felt more Spanish". And they said it without the defiance you used to hear, but naturally, with joy in their faces. They were not trying to convince you of their superiority. They were having fun.
And the reason for their new-found ease was that the old braggadocio that compensated for feeling small, dark, isolated from Europe, hopeless at languages, a failure at the game they loved, was replaced by the serene confidence they absorbed from their youthful footballers. No fake heroics, no swaggering, no assumed "Latin" passion, just the pride of a nation of small, dark blokes of humble origins who ran rings around the blond, cultured man-mountains of Europe's mightiest footballing nation.
The squad overthrew an inferiority complex to become the beautiful killing machine that entranced the world. "We tried to be German, we tried to be Italian and it was all fake. We triumphed when we became true to ourselves, a bunch of small blokes running around making art out of the game we loved," said one veteran yesterday. Can Rafael Nadal ride the wave of national exuberance, and triumph at Wimbledon this week, to make it a Spanish grand slam?
An unexpected symbol of this rejuvenated sense of nationhood is a joyous identification with the flag. It has long been seen by many as an arrogant statement of Madrid's supremacy over the regions, particularly the Basques and the Catalans. Despite 30 years of democracy, and replacement of the imperial eagle with a democratic coat of arms, that ripple of scarlet and gold silk still carried a whiff of authoritarianism, of divisiveness, of the days when Franco exploited footballers to flaunt his dictatorship.
Sports fans have offloaded all this political baggage by plonking a huge black bull in the middle of the flag, obscuring the insignia that defines Spain as a democracy. The affront didn't stop an ecstatic King Juan Carlos embracing one of Spain's players in Vienna, draped in a flag made ridiculous with a black beast with huge testicles, horns, legs and tail à gogo.
Some years back, during the conservative government of Jose Maria Aznar, a gung-ho supporter of President Bush's Iraq adventure, it was decided to hoist a huge Spanish flag in Madrid's central Columbus Square, and to swear allegiance to it in a monthly military ceremony. The aim was to stiffen Spain's profile in the world, and sound a warning to pesky Basques and Catalans clamouring for more autonomy. The loyalty ceremony was soon dropped, but the huge flag flapped ridiculously over the square, evoking a central American banana republic.
Last Sunday, that symbolism was dramatically subverted: Plaza Colon was seized by tens of thousands of youngsters celebrating their national team, and the flag in the square became a symbol of that historic event.
Spain's political climate has transformed since Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero's socialist government was elected in 2004, and again last March. He brought home the troops from Iraq, legalised homosexual marriage and introduced laws to enshrine sexual equality and protect women from sexual abuse (see Society). Spaniards realised that not only had they caught up with the rest of Europe, they were in the vanguard of progressive governments, and admired for it. Not everyone was convinced, but opponents kept a low profile.
The new tolerance and openness is much more akin to Spaniards' own natural instincts than was the haughtiness of the Aznar years. Women feel more at ease in today's Spain. Even conservatives have embraced women's rights. And Catalan and Basque intransigence wavers in face of Zapatero's insistence on the need for dialogue. Unity in diversity – as exemplified by Spain's football champions, whose members hail from every corner of Spain – seems a sensible objective for a regional struggle that long pushed you into taking a position for or against Madrid.
In another signal of changing times, "Los Rojos" (The Reds) no longer constitutes an insult flung at communists – or non-conservatives – in a cruel and outmoded legacy of the civil war; it is a national team around which everyone can unite.
Eta remains active. And Spain is teetering on the brink of recession. But Zapatero remains optimistic. "I've always been lucky," he said on Sunday. "Now for the World Cup!"
When the Catalan chef Ferran Adria topped Restaurant magazine's list of the world's 50 best restaurants this summer, the outpouring of emotion was somewhat more muted than that in Vienna on Sunday night. But Adria has earned the right to raise a glass of the most expensive cava he can lay his hands on, for the 48-year-old is on a winning streak that his nation's football team can yet dream of having – his restaurant, El Bulli, near Barcelona, scooped the highly coveted number-one spot in 2007 and 2006, too.
Adria was blazing the trail for "molecular gastronomy" long before Heston Blumenthal. Precisely engineered by a squad of 42 cooks for 70 diners each day, El Bulli's 32-course supper includes such imaginative mouthfuls as an imitation Oreo cookie made of black olives and cream, snow made from Parmesan and a dessert based on Fisherman's Friend lozenges.
And Spain has more than one culinary genius beating international rivals: the country boasts six other restaurants in the Restaurant top 50. This was equalled only by the US and surpassed only by France. Among critics, the consensus is that that Spanish cooking is the most innovative in the world.
In San Sebastian alone, three restaurants made the top 50. Martin Berasategui serves roast red mullet with crystals of soft scales at his restaurant. Andoni Luis Aduriz, of Mugaritz, draws diners from around the world with his slow-cooked beef cheeks with roast vegetable "tears". Juan Mari Arzak once cooked for our Queen, though it seems unlikely that he served the "hake and white clay" which appears on his menu.
Spain's wealth of ingredients is unparalleled – from the world's biggest olive plantations, to the saffron carpets of La Mancha. Pata negra, the finest cured ham, comes from black pigs root under Sevillian oaks. The ports of Vigo and Sanxenxo enjoy prodigious fish catches, augmented by spider crabs, lobsters and even British cockles. In Seville's tapas bars, I have eaten some of the best food of my life. The food market of La Boqueria in Barcelona is perhaps the most tempting I have ever seen.
And the vintages that will accompany food to die for are the most under-regarded in the world. Ask any wine expert which country produces the best "serious wine" bargains and the reply will almost certainly be Spain.
The Spanish director Pedro Almodovar was a pioneering transgressor in modern Spanish society, with his flamboyant films chronicling those on the periphery in a Catholic patriarchal state just escaping the clutches of Franco. His protagonists – homosexuals, transsexuals, immigrants and powerful women – are now being embraced by mainstream society, as part of a set of inclusive and radical new policies introduced by the Socialist Prime Minister, Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, since his election in 2004.
One of Zapatero's first moves was to tackle domestic violence: in Spain one woman a week dies at the hands of her partner. He has set up new courts to deal with the problem, largely ignored by previous governments.
His next initiative was to legalise same-sex marriage, in the face of stern opposition from the Catholic Church. Around 4,500 homosexual couples took this opportunity in its first year and these couples are spouses, not civil partners as they in the UK and other western countries. Same-sex couples are also able to adopt.
Family cohesion in Spanish society is far stronger than in most of Europe, and there is little evidence of the familial dislocation often blamed youth violence in Britain. Although the divorce rate has increased since Zapatero relaxed separation laws – a godsend to women trapped in violent marriages – two-parent families are still the norm. With a birth rate lower than the EU average, the 1.4 children born to each family are assured a pampered upbringing, most likely with mum or granny on hand to pick them up from school and help with homework. Support from grandparents is repaid, as the elderly commonly live in their children's homes, rather than nursing homes, as is the UK.
For those who do lack this family support network, Zapatero has upgraded Spain's welfare state considerably. He has also raised the minimum wage.
The Spanish approach to high levels of immigration is similarly progressive, and amnesties give residency rights to illegal workers. In 2005, 700,000 illegal immigrants benefited from the new measure, a move billed as a social project, not just an exercise designed to raise tax revenue.
Spanish women have long had a presence on the political stage, but Zapatero current cabinet shows how far things have come – women outnumber men by nine to eight, and Spain's first female defence secretary, Carme Chacon, was heavily pregnant when she was appointed.
If you want an index of the affection in which the Spanish royals are held by their people, look at the pictures from Vienna on Sunday: King Juan Carlos and Iker Casillas, the Spanish captain, enveloped in a bear hug; Queen Sofia bestowing a royal kiss on Casillas's cheek. Their social ease is a lesson to other royals: Steven Gerrard and Wayne Rooney needn't hold their breath waiting for a kiss from HM the Queen, no matter what they do.
Is there a cooler royal than King John Charles Alphonse Victor Maria of Bourbon? He's descended from Queen Victoria and Louis XIV of France and the Habsburg emperor Charles V. He holds the impressive title of King of Jerusalem. He became king when Franco died in 1975, and steered his battered nation to parliamentary democracy under a non-ruling monarch. A 2005 poll in El Mundo showed he had a 77.5 per cent approval rating. There's a good historical reason for this: in 1981, members of the Guardia Civil, led by Lieutenant-Colonel Tejero Molina, tried to stage a coup; the King made a TV appearance calling for support of the democratic government, and order was restored.
But Juan Carlos is a rather macho figure in other ways. He hunts bears. He rides a motorbike incognito on lonely roads. He competed in yachting at the 1972 Olympics. And when President Hugo Chavez interrupted the Spanish Prime Minister at a summit in Santiago, to abuse his predecessor as "a fascist", the King interrupted him with: "Por que no te callas?" ("Why don't you shut up?") It may not have been very regal wording – but many people were glad to see the mouthy Venezuelan receive a smack across the chops.
Juan Carlos and Sofia have two princesses, Elena and Cristina, a son, Crown Prince Felipe, and nine grandchildren. The family's unblemished record was rocked by the news that Elena is separating from her husband, who suffers from depression, and taking their two children with her. But compared to the gruesome soap-opera behaviour of our own Royal Family since the Seventies, the Spanish royals are paragons of virtue and restraint. The newspapers mostly show them respect, even admiration – they have little to gain by such an attitude, but it may be that they are simply mirroring the simple affection of the Spanish people for a monarchy that has the knack of displaying the common touch when the occasion demands.
In 2004, after bombs tore apart four rush-hour trains in Madrid and killed 190 people, King Juan Carlos and Queen Sofia decreed there should be a state funeral – an unprecedented step for dead non-royals. At the funeral, the royal family worked the cathedral, row by row, to console the bereaved. It was intensely emotional. Can you imagine our Queen and Duke working their way through Westminster Abbey to dry the tears of the afflicted?
A brilliant new wave of Spanish innovators have topped architecture's international premier league since the late 1990s. One glance at a building like the Contemporary Arts Museum in Leon (left), and you know that architecture is not so much a game of two halves, but a kaleidoscope of brilliant Spanish moves.
The museum was designed by Mansilla and Tunon, and its startling virtuosity in terms of colour and form has burst free from restraint and clichéd taste just as Frank Gehry shattered the mould with his Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao. Mansilla and Tunon's proposed design for the Atlantic Park building at Santander will be even more startling: imagine a Pingu snowscape crossed with an origami baked Alaska. It's cool.
The Spanish new wave is being generated by fortysomethings breaking away from masters such as Raphael Moneo and Santiago Calatrava. But there is a genetic link between Moneo's discombobulated Murcia Town Hall and Mansilla and Tunon's auditorium at Leon, whose facade suggests a collage of bass woofer cabinets.
Even the way younger Spanish architects talk about architecture is radical, and would be considered beyond the pale at most British schools of architecture. Abalos and Herreros deplore the fact that "the word beauty is proscribed from professional argument". Their aim? To "create a new notion of beauty, away from the tricks".
Cruz and Ortiz's Maria Coronel apartment block in Seville has a swerve on it like a Fernando Torres' free kick. Even more exuberant is their Madrid athletic stadium, a giant ferroconcrete waffle. Their Novo Sancti Petri housing in Seville resembles a cut-out stage set – or perhaps a graphic representation of how to bypass German midfielders. This is sheer architectural virtuosity, but solidly grounded in site and place.
The best British operators are now turning to Spain for fresh inspiration. It's more than a century since Barcelona's Antoni Gaudi turned the architectural rulebook on its head, but his nation's heirs are once again setting the pace for the rest of the world.
Culturally, Spain has always flaunted its great legacy of Goya and Velazquez, Cervantes and Lope de Vega, but it has found a new pride in competing head-to-head with today's global stars of stage, screen, art and literature.
This ascendancy began as young Turks of the post-Franco Seventies and Eighties achieved international fame: actors Javier Bardem and Penelope Cruz, film-makers Pedro Almodovar (pictured, right) and Alejandro Amenabar fought the stifling forces of dictatorship and conservatism before becoming Hollywood's darlings.
Now, a new generation is biting at their heels. Daniel Sanchez Arevalo, 28, directed Azul Oscuro Casi Negro (2006) (Dark Blue Almost Black), about a man's inability to rebel against his destiny. His ensemble comedy Gordos (Fat People) comes out shortly. Jaime Rosales, 28, won acclaim at Cannes last year for La Soledad, about two women whose lives intertwine and clash. And those looking for the next Bardem might consider Oscar Jaenada, 23, who is about to portray an Eta terrorist in Todos Estamos Invitados (We're all invited).
Animated features have long been a favourite among young Spanish film-makers and the genre has produced an interesting spin-off from cyber movies and computer games. Take Gonzo Suarez, son of a film director, whose computer-games company Arvirago sells titles worldwide. His latest game, Lord of the Creatures, has become an international bestseller.
In pop, Amparanoia and Ojos de Brujo have earned a global fanbase not only for their high-energy punk-rock-Gypsy-flamenco music but also their anti-establishment views and solidarity with immigrants, squatters and those on the social margins, a path pioneered by Manu Chao.
Then there's Spanish literature. After a reputation for being heavy-going, it is suddenly producing popular hits, starting with Javier Cercas's Soldiers of Salamis (2002), the first time any Spanish writer treated both sides in the civil war with equal sympathy. Then came Carlos Ruiz Zafon, whose Shadow of the Wind (2004) became an international smash, translated into scores of languages (and only then a bestseller at home). Zafon's latest novel, El Juego del Angel (The Angel's Game, being translated into English), published this spring, sold an unprecedented one million copies in two months, revealing an untapped demand for literature among ordinary Spaniards, who have historically read fewer books than any other nation in Europe. The Basque author Bernardo Atxaga (The Lone Man) and the Gallego Manuel Rivas (Butterfly's Tongue and Carpenter's Pencil) write politically charged novels in their own regional languages, which translate into national and international successes. Catching up fast is Laura Gallego Garcia, 27, author of more than 20 Lord of the Rings-style children's fantasies, which sell like Harry Potters.
A family holiday in the early Nineties left me with the lingering impression that, while you could buy well-made leather products in Spain, the designs weren't exactly cutting edge and were no match for homegrown products.
How things have changed. Over the past decade, Spanish chains Zara and Mango, with Massimo Dutti following close behind, have made "fast fashion" on the high street as Spanish as tapas.
The best-known of fashion's middle-market conquistadors, Zara, opened in the UK in 1998. The secret of its incredible success here, and elsewhere is twofold. First, the clothes. They are influenced by the catwalk, but not slavishly so; they are well made for the price; they are slick enough to wear to work, and they suit women of all ages, not only teenagers. Then, there's the business model the brand pioneered: by controlling every step of the supply chain, and keeping almost all production in Spain, it can ensure a two-week turnaround and respond to new trends in a flash. Zara is owned by fashion group Inditex, which last year profited to the tune of of €1.2bn (£940m) last year; the group's decade of success has made Zara's owner, the secretive Amancio Ortega, who launched it 30 years ago from his sister-in-law's kitchen table, a fortune estimated at $20.2bn (£10bn), and the country's richest citizen.
Mango, too, has found a place in the affections of shoppers. The Barcelona brand has collaborated with Penelope Cruz, Milla Jovovich and designers such as Osman Yousefzada to attract attention, and used high-profile ad campaigns (a recent one starring Claudia Schiffer) to terrific effect. By pumping money into attention-grabbing ad campaigns and PR coups, the Spanish fashion chains have succeeded by carefully crafting brand images and focusing on trends, rather than basics.
For lovers of designer labels, the nation doesn't seriously compete with Paris, New York, Milan or London. And, even the fact that Spain produced Cristobal Balenciaga tends to be overlooked since he found fame as a couturier in Paris.
But it only takes a short walk down almost any European shopping route to witness how Spain has grown to achieve a global fashion presence. Where there isn't a Zara or Mango, there's a Bershka (another Inditex brand) or Camper shoe shop. And in Britain, while the high street might not have relished the sartorial armada sailing away with customers, it was when the Spanish chains started arriving that it raised its game.
Package holidays to Spain's Costa Brava kicked off the continental travel revolution in the 1950s – the stereotypical British tourist who took advantage of such cheap "sun, sex 'n' sangria" deals was even used in Francoist propaganda, to warn against the easy morals of northern Europe.
As the range of aeroplanes increased, the favourite Spanish destinations of British holidaymakers trickled down the Mediterranean coast, from the Costa Brava's Lloret de Mar to Torremolinos and Benidorm on the Costa Blanca and Marbella on the Costa del Sol. High-rise apartment blocks and hotels soon became ubiquitous, the country's reputation suffered as the number of tourists increased, and as recently as five years ago, its image made it a hard sell for many major tour operators.
Yet business is booming again. Travellers have wised up to the fact that Spain is a large nation, with strong regional identities and enviable diversity. A trip spent sipping Basque cider is very different from a week passed sampling sherries in Jerez, and low-cost flights to previously hard-to-reach cities such as Almeria make Spain an easy country to explore from the UK. A new high-speed rail link races from Barcelona to Madrid, and from there to Malaga.
Some parts of Spain have long been well-kept secrets. The real Costa Brava boasts chic beachside villages to rival the south of France. Barcelona, too, rises to the challenge of the discerning 21st-century traveller. Following the regeneration of the city for the 1992 Olympics, last year alone it saw almost 60 million visitors, attracted to its blend of beaches, culture and great nightlife.
The "in" destination this summer is Zaragoza, host of Expo 2008. The music festival Benicassim takes place in Valencia later this month. Technoheads can try Sonar in Barcelona, and the Brazilian festival Rock in Rio will be held in Madrid this year.
The Spanish capital is seen as the most up-for-it city in Europe, as well as being an art-lover's dream, but Spain's real star quality is its chameleon-like ability to move with the times. Mallorca and Ibiza are now upmarket destinations packed with boutique hotels and luxury villas, rather than being tacky party resorts for the 18 to 30 crowd. And stuff Marbella – Tarifa (pictured), on the Costa de la Luz, faces Morocco, and is Europe's hippest surf hangout. Gehry's Guggenheim transformed Bilbao as a tourist destination, and his hotel in Rioja should perform the same magic.
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