Spain's New Golden Age

Much like Italy in the 15th century, Spain is experiencing a cultural renaissance, one that's transforming the country--city by city, block by block, building by building.

About 600 miles southeast, in the Mediterranean port of Valencia, the City of Arts and Sciences is just finishing up construction. Also designed by Santiago Calatrava, the massive bone-white structures form a kind of museum compound--the buildings arc across several shallow fountains, each the size of a football field. Inside are displays and interactive exhibits on everything from dolphins to global warming. Last spring, the 20-acre aquarium opened, to be followed in 2005 by the Palace of the Arts, a glass and metal helmet-like dome with venues for opera, theater, and dance, including a 1,600-person auditorium. Total cost: $3 billion.

On Tenerife, the largest of the Canary Islands, Calatrava built a stunning, $70 million opera house that opened in 2003. It rises above the city of Santa Cruz in the shape of a cresting wave. Architects Herzog & de Meuron designed an esplanade to complement the project. Judging from the attention Tenerife has gotten in the media, tourists may one day skip the nightlife and beaches of the island in favor of a performance of La Traviata.

Where's the money coming from? The national economy is growing at a rate of 3.2 percent a year (among the fastest in the current EU), increasing tax revenues for projects. Furthermore, for the past few years Spain has been awarded the lion's share of infrastructure subsidies from EU headquarters in Brussels. When Spain first joined the EU, it was one of the poorest nations in the union and needed investment to get up to economic speed. Despite notable improvement in its fiscal situation, the country still received $8 billion in infrastructure subsidies last year. As Poland and smaller eastern European countries become active members, Spain will likely have to forfeit much of its funding.

Nevertheless, national hopes remain high. Even Madrid is getting in on the action, if on a smaller scale. By the end of 2005, the city's three world-renowned museums will be renovated and connected by the  Paseo del Arte (Art Walk), which takes 10 minutes to cover on foot and resembles the Mall in Washington, D.C. Each museum is also making significant additions. At the Prado, a new building is planned, along with a reconstruction of a Romanesque cloister. As of last June, the Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza completed the addition of 16 new galleries. The Reina Sofía, home to Picasso's Guernica, plans to open three new buildings (designed by French architect Jean Nouvel) to house works by modern masters such as Joan Miró and Salvador Dalí, as well as a library and a restaurant.

The Madrid projects are stately, functional, and sure to appeal to international visitors. But compared with what's going on in the rest of Spain, they're definitely less risky--quiet assimilation versus loud reinvention. Perhaps these cautionary tendencies are a result of the capital's stately character. Or perhaps they're a legacy of Spain's previous president, José María Aznar, a conservative. Aznar 's power struggles with the regional governments, along with his support of the Iraq war, led to his defeat last year. His more liberal successor, José Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, has loosened the grip of the central government, withdrawn troops from Iraq, and promised more social changes, including support for stem cell research, increased wages and pensions, the creation of affordable housing, and the legalization of same-sex marriage--all in a predominantly Roman Catholic country. The social landscape of Spain, it appears, may be changing as quickly as the physical one. Because any serious renaissance is about more than just buildings.

How to do the new Spain

Our rip-and-go guide--including affordable hotels that don't skimp on style.

Bilbao

Beyond the Guggenheim (011-34/94-435-9080, guggenheim-bilbao.es, $13), the city is exploding with contemporary art galleries. One local favorite, Sala Rekalde, is just a five-minute walk from the museum (30 Alameda Recalde, 011-34/94-406-8755, closed Mondays). Naturally, the mod Gran Hotel Domine Bilbao also has a small art gallery; order a Domine cocktail--champagne, vodka, orange juice, and grenadine--at the lounge overlooking Jeff Koons' Puppy, a giant, flower-covered dog sculpture at the Guggenheim entrance (Alameda de Mazarredo 61, 011-34/94-425-3300, granhoteldominebilbao.com, champagne cocktail $18, weekend rate $208, summer specials $121).

Tenerife

Treat yourself to classical music and avant-garde architecture at the Tenerife Opera House. Mozart, Hayden, and Mahler are all on the bill for this spring. Click on programación at auditoriodetenerife.com for schedules (in Spanish, but clear enough). To buy tickets, check out generaltickets.com/cajacanarias, $16 to $35 for most performances.

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Note:This story was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.
 

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