By Dr. Navin C. Shah
Spain boasts a rich and diverse history shaped by various cultures and rulers. It began as a fragmented territory under the Roman Empire from 200 BC to 300 AD and had previous Greek rulers for centuries. The Muslim rule, led by Arabs, Moors, and other rulers from the Islamic world, dominated the region for nearly 800 years. After 1100 AD, European monarchs and Christian Kings assumed control.
In 1491, Queen Isabel of Spain demonstrated her wisdom, foresight, and courage by funding Christopher Columbus’s expedition to search for India. Columbus, originally Italian, had faced multiple rejections from European monarchs before finally discovering America in 1492. This event marked the dawn of Spain’s future empire and profoundly impacted world history. Columbus embarked on three journeys to America and passed away in 1506 as a financially troubled man at the age of 55.
By 1600, the Spanish Empire, which spanned continents such as Asia, Africa, Europe, and America, amassed vast quantities of gold and silver from the New World. During and after 1600, Spain witnessed the flourishing of art, literature, and Christianity, specifically Catholicism, which reached its Golden Age by 1800. However, in 1700, the empire experienced a political and economic decline, eventually falling under French rule in 1800. This was followed by three civil wars, leading to the monarchy’s reduced power. General Franco held dictatorial control over Spain from 1939 to 1975. In 1978, Spain established a constitutional monarchy and democracy, which continues to flourish today. Spain stands out as a unique European nation, blending both Eastern and Western values.
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In August 2023, I embarked on a nine-day journey to Spain with my two daughters, Shefali and Sonali, and my granddaughter, Sahana. It proved to be an educational, entertaining, indulgent, and remarkable experience as we explored Madrid, Seville, and Malaga, spending three days in each city. With a population of 50 million, Spain’s locals were not only friendly but also helpful, healthy, and fashion-forward.
Our journey began in Madrid, Spain’s capital, founded by Muslim rulers in the 9th century and designated as the capital by King Philip in 1561. In Madrid, I had the privilege of meeting Prof. Rodrigo Fernandez Steinko, who provided a two-hour history lesson on Spain, greatly enhancing my understanding of this remarkable nation.
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During our time in Madrid, we embarked on two walking tours, exploring historical sites and taking in the grandeur of the city. We marveled at La Plaza Mayor, a vast square with a capacity of 50,000 people, and enjoyed the 19th-century La Puerta, where numerous tourists and locals savored food and drinks at roadside cafes. The Royal Palace left us awe-struck with its 3,418 rooms adorned with exquisite paintings and sculptures, particularly the magnificent dining room with a ceiling adorned with paintings, capable of hosting 140 guests, and the regal throne room, emanating monarchy’s grandeur.
Our journey continued as we boarded a high-speed train to Seville, offering breathtaking views of small towns, expansive plains, valleys, and mountains. Spain’s fertile land was evident with fruit trees and vegetation covering even the lower slopes of the mountains. Spain’s agricultural products, including fruits, olives, nuts, cheeses, and more, are exported worldwide. In Seville, we embarked on walking and tuk-tuk tours, discovering its well-preserved Arabic heritage and monuments.
From its days as “His Palis” during Roman rule to its conquest by Arabs in 712, Seville played a crucial role in American trade following Columbus’s expedition. The Alcazar of Seville, a residence for both Moorish and Spanish monarchs, delighted us with its outer walls, gardens, and the rich architectural influence of the Arab world. Our visit to the colossal cathedral, the world’s second-largest, was solemn and peaceful. Climbing to the top for a panoramic view of the city was a memorable experience. Inside the cathedral, we encountered numerous sculpted and colorful statues of Christ and Christian saints and a statue of Columbus’s remains carried by four soldiers, a highlight of our trip.
Our journey continued with a taxi ride to Malaga, offering picturesque views of lush greenery across plains and mountains. In Malaga, our exploration followed the pattern of walking tours, revealing Roman and Moorish monuments, overlaid with Christian and Spanish modifications and additions. We encountered a Roman theater on the ground level, Moorish palaces on the second level, and the construction of protective walls by Christian kings on the upper level—a remarkable span of nearly 2,000 years at a single site.
We also explored the Jewish quarters, where we learned about the expulsion and persecution of Jews by Christian kings. Our visit to Malaga’s Mediterranean port was enhanced by discovering an Indian vegetarian restaurant, a delightful surprise. Malaga also holds the distinction of being the birthplace of the renowned painter and sculptor, Picasso. At the Picasso Museum, we had the privilege of viewing modern art and statues created by the master. A car ride to Nerja was arranged, where Sonali and Sahana enjoyed snorkeling while Shefali and I watched them from the safety of the boat.
Throughout our journey, we found all the cities to be clean and safe for exploration, even at night. We were charmed by the diverse array of colorful flowers and a variety of trees, especially the tall pine trees. Spain proved to be a gastronomic paradise, offering a wide array of locally grown and made delicacies, including different nuts, fruits, cheeses, breads, ice creams, and a mouthwatering vegetarian paella, a delectable dish of rice and saffron-infused vegetables.
The accommodations in our hotels were top-notch, with staff proficient in English and displaying courtesy. Local guides shared that Spain’s tourism industry generates substantial revenue, with the majority of tourists hailing from the United States. I suggest the availability of a concise, official book in English detailing local sites’ literature along with a brief history of Spain at all hotels, accessible at a reasonable price. Such a resource would enhance the experience for English-speaking tourists and foster a deeper appreciation for their visits.
In each city we visited, we were treated to captivating Flamenco performances, a delightful experience that traces its origins to India. While India showcases rhythmic barefoot footwork in sync with drummers’ rhythms, Flamenco features footwork with shoes, synchronized with the singer’s and guitarist’s beats.
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Unfortunately, we were unable to witness a bullfight as it was not in season during our visit. Nevertheless, I look forward to returning to Spain to explore the remaining historical sites and continue to immerse myself in its rich culture and history.
(Dr. Navin Shah is a urologist based in the Washington, D.C., area. His memoir, “Karma and Destiny of an Indian American Surgeon” (published by AB Books), was released last year. Dr. Shah is also a numismatist with a collection of thousands of ancient Indian coins. He has a passion for travel.)