Life in Spain has changed dramatically over the last few decades, particularly since the boom in package holidays and the country's admission to the European Community in the 1980s. Strict religious customs have given way to modern thinking, and the cult of 'machismo' has become much less dominant and equality is much more apparent than it once was.
However some traditions remain strong, and hospitality, chivalry and courtesy still thrive. It is common to greet and acknowledge people you meet, for example in shops and restaurants, with “Buenos dias” (Good morning), “Buenos tardes” (Good afternoon) or “Hola” (Hello.)
The main seaside resorts are cosmopolitan with a capital 'C', but old habits die hard in more rural parts of the country where it's probably a good idea to confine revealing swimming costumes to the beach or poolside. Shoulders and legs should be covered when visiting a church.
The time-honoured custom of the siesta is also still observed in many places, with shops and banks often closing from 2-5pm. This gives the Spanish the energy to extend their evenings, often into the early hours, and people rarely dine out before 10pm.
Service charges are usually included in restaurants so a tip is discretionary. In cafés and bars 5% - 10% is acceptable, and 10% - 15% in taxis.
A new law was passed in Spain in 2006 severely restricting smoking in public places. Some bars and restaurants do not allow smoking and some have separate smoking areas. Look for a sign in the window telling you if smoking is allowed (“Está permitido fumar”) or is not allowed (“No Está permitido fumar”) or if there is a smoking area (“Zona para fumadores”.)
The religion of the majority of the population in Spain is Catholicism however less than a quarter are now thought to be regular churchgoers. Because the government of Spain is now a secular one, it can no longer be said that it is the official religion but the Catholic church still receives special treatment. Spain is still a Catholic environment, its landscape filled with shrines and churches, and has an artistic heritage rich in religious reference, language and customs. It is worth noting that almost every Catholic church in Spain is a museum in itself with many well worth visiting.
Islam is the second largest religion accounting for about 3% of the population and there is a small population of Jews and various Protestant denominations.
It was around 200 BC when the foundations of Spain's Latin culture were laid. Having trounced the Carthaginians, the Romans took over the country, ruling it until the 5th century AD, when the Vandals and Visigoths turned it into something of a lawless state.
AD 711 saw the beginning of eight centuries of rule by Berber Arabs, leaving a rich legacy of Moorish culture and architecture in many of Spain's major cities.
However, Asturias remained under Christian control, and became the launching pad for the 'Reconquista', in which the Christians gradually ousted the Moors and returned the country to Catholic rule. By 1492 the kingdoms of Aragon, Castile and Leon had joined, and Columbus had discovered the West Indies, beginning Spain's transformation into a rich and powerful empire on which the 'sun did not set'.
Unfortunately, religious conflict blighted Spain's prosperity under King Philip IV and his successor Phillip V, but the 18th century saw a long and slow recovery in the country's fortunes. Later however, Charles IV went to war with France and was defeated, resulting in Napoléon installing his brother Joseph Bonaparte on the throne in 1808.
In 1876, Spain became a constitutional monarchy. But political instability led to military dictatorship and a republic in the 1930s, which was destroyed by the Spanish Civil War. General Franco ruled with an iron fist until his death in 1975, and since then Spain has been a democratic state.
With a population of just over 44 million, Spain has relatively few people per square mile compared to other European countries. The population doubled during the 20th century, but the pattern of growth was skewed by large-scale internal migration from rural areas to industrial cities. There has also been a fairly dramatic fall in the birth rate, and the country now has one of the lowest rates in the world, perhaps a direct result of liberalisation and availability of contraception.
Many of Spain's regions are culturally diverse and some, such as the Basque country and Catalonia, have strong 'separatist' tendencies.
Spain's national language is Spanish, or Castilian Spanish, a Romance language derived from the Latin brought to Iberia following the conquest of Rome at the end of the 3rd century BC. However, there are several other unique languages spoken in Spain besides the predominant Castilian. These include Catalan, which is spoken in the regions of Catalonia, the Balearic Islands and Valencia, where both Castilian and a dialect called Valencian are spoken. Gallego (or Galician) is popular in northwest Spain. Each of these languages has different pronunciations and spellings. Additionally, the native language of the Basque region is called Euskera. It is not a form of Spanish and its origins are unknown. English is widely understood and spoken in the big cities and coastal resorts, but less so in rural areas.