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Spain's powerful world empire of the 16th and 17th centuries ultimately yielded command of the seas to England. Subsequent failure to embrace the mercantile and industrial revolutions caused the country to fall behind Britain, France, and Germany in economic and political power. Spain remained neutral in World Wars I and II, but suffered through a devastating Civil War (1936-39). In the second half of the 20th century, it has played a catch-up role in the western international community. Continuing concerns are large-scale unemployment and the Basque separatist movement.
Spain's mixed capitalist economy supports a GDP that on a per capita basis is three-fourths that of the four leading West European economies. Its center-right government successfully worked to gain admission to the first group of countries launching the European single currency on 1 January 1999. The AZNAR administration has continued to advocate liberalization, privatization, and deregulation of the economy and has introduced some tax reforms to that end.
The exuberance of the Spaniards and the glorious predictability of the summer weather have been attracting refugees from northern Europe's damp and clammy lands for decades, but Spain is much more than the Costa del Sol and warm English beer. It is drenched in the historical pageantry of empire and conquistadors, the artistic legacy of Goya, Velázquez, Picasso and Dalí, and the romance of Don Quijote, Papa Hemingway and the International Brigades.
Spain has an extraordinary artistic heritage. The dominant figures of the golden age were the Toledo-based artists El Greco and Diego Velázquez. Francisco Goya emerged in the 18th century as Spain's most prolific painter and he produced some wonderfully unflattering portraits of royalty. The art world in the early 20th century was influenced by a remarkable group of Spanish artists: Pablo Picasso, Juan Gris, Joan Miró and Salvador Dalí. Spain's architecture ranges from prehistoric monuments in Menorca in the Balearic Islands, through to the Roman ruins of Merida and Tarragona, the decorative Islamic Alhambra in Granada, Mudejar buildings, Gothic cathedrals, castles and palaces, fantastic modernist monuments and Gaudí's intricate fabulist sculptures.
Spaniards are sports crazy, and football (soccer) is huge; try to see a match, because the atmosphere is electric. Bullfighting is also very popular, despite continued pressure from international animal-rights activists.
Spanish food has a deservedly fantastic reputation, and tapas are probably one of the most civilised inventions since cold beer. Paella, gazpacho and chorizo may be familiar to most Western diners, but Spanish cuisine goes well beyond these, with a smorgasbord of rich stews, soups, beans, seafood and meats, all of which have been influential in Latin American cooking.