Ask a Spaniard where they vacation, and you may get a touch of the Matador effect in response. The chest lifts, the head is tilted up with the bottom lip pushed out accompanied by the reply: 'España! My country.' For like the Greeks, when you have so many domestic splendours to choose from, why would you go anywhere else?
It’s estimated that about two out of three vacationing Spaniards remain in country for the holidays. But where do the Spanish go? It’s a bit of a mystery—perhaps intentionally so. With swarms of Brits inundating their land, you can’t blame the Spanish for wanting to safeguard a few vacation refuges.
Recently I’ve been encountering Spaniards on the move for their holidays. In the picturesque village of Requejo toward the north of Spain, I passed a car parked with its bonnet popped open, all doors ajar and its three passengers sitting on the pavement sipping drinks to cool down. Mid-afternoon, the temperature was peaking at around 35 degrees. They told me there were heading to the city of Pontevedra amid the cooler climes of Galicia, Spain’s most north-western region. Located on the edge of an estuary at the mouth of the Lérez river by the sea, Pontevedra contains a charming old town full of exquisite architecture (though arguably that isn’t much of a boast in Spain: most cities match that).
Galicia remains a Spanish secret, unless you have done the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage that ends in its regional capital, Santiago de Compostela. But the region is an enigmatic treat, with a starkly unique and independent character from the rest of Spain. Its lush verdant landscape is often compared to Ireland’s. You often encounter Celtic crosses at the intersections of rural tracks. You might even hear the bagpipes being played. In addition to kinder summer temperatures, Galicia’s coastline bequeaths a regional cuisine strongly based on fish and seafood. The region is famed for its fried pulpo—octopus—and Albariño, a white wine with strong floral and citrous undertones.
As I discovered during an extended Camino during the pandemic, from Galicia eastward stretches a rugged and beguiling coastline known as 'Green Spain', where forests and rocky hillsides meet glittering beaches. While largely unknown to foreigners who tend to pour southward, Spain’s northern coastal regions of Asturias and Cantabria are especially popular with Spaniards going camping or looking for surf. Asturias is also known for its fine cider— sidra —and for its bar staff who pour the cider from a bottle held above one’s head into a glass held around one’s knees (this helps oxidise the cider and release its flavours) while consciously looking in the wrong direction.
The coastline of the southern region of Andalusia is also a big draw for Spaniards come summertime. Even the exquisite delights of Seville, the Andalusian regional capital, are not enough to ameliorate the infernal summer heat. Come August, there’s a mass exodus of locals, leaving Seville’s British expat community—especially its impoverished teachers of English as a second language—sweating it out. They at least make the most of being able to get into fancier restaurants more easily and cheaply.
You may be noticing a theme here. Once the interior of Spain and its cities gets unbearably hot, everyone heads outward to the beach. And if that means having to share a beach and bar with Brits and their sangrias, then so be it. Anything but that torpid heat sitting on top of you! Hence coastal areas favoured by Brits, such as the Costa Brava in north-eastern Spain’s Catalonia region and Valencia further down in the middle of Spain’s eastern coastline abutting the Mediterranean Sea, are popular destinations for Spaniards.
At the same time, most Spanish cities have their local getaways that remain under the radar of tourists. A good example is Sitges, an idyllic beach town 25 miles south down the road from Barcelona. Its ornate architecture came from young Spanish men who in the 19th century went to Cuba to seek their fortunes and returned successful. Cadiz on the western coastline of Andalusia, despite having declined since its heyday—as described in a recent Spectator review — retains a laid-back atmosphere amid the 'cool gloaming in these deep, narrow, crevasse-like streets' that continues to attract Spanish locals, especially those from Seville who can get there easily by car or train.
By way of a handy backup, the Balearic Islands of Ibiza, Mallorca, Formentera and Menorca and then the otherworldly beauty of the Canary Islands are part of Spain. While they take more effort to get to, arguably they offer the best of both worlds for Spaniards: getting away from it all while remaining in a familiar orbit of reliable tapas, affordable good wine and the Spanish lingo and customs.
The Spanish are not entirely immune to the allure of foreign climes. For those venturing aboard, Italy is the most popular destination, followed by France and then Spain’s neighbour Portugal. About five per cent of holidaying Spaniards brave the UK, with London the main draw. But the most popular holiday strategy for the Spanish seems to be not to roam too far from home, and who can blame them?