Most British people associate holidays in Spain with the quest for guaranteed sunshine on the Mediterranean beaches. This common north European assumption is based on the package tour boom of the 1960s onwards, which turned tourism into Spain's leading foreign currency earner. But the Spanish tourism and holiday industries have a much longer pedigree than this.
One strand with firm mid-nineteenth century roots has been the 'cultural tourism' which took, and still takes, visitors to Castile or Andalucia in pursuit of art, architecture, bullfighting, flamenco, festivals and the 'soul of Spain'. Much less familiar is the Spanish tradition of spa and sea-bathing holidays, mingling the pursuit of health and pleasure, which has catered mainly for home-grown demand and which developed impressively from the second half of the nineteenth century. This has been concentrated into northern Spain, especially the Basque country and the coastal provinces to the west. It was here, rather than on the Costa Brava, that the Spanish seaside holiday industry originated; and the enduring results can be seen in the cities of San Sebastian and Santander and in many smaller seaside resorts along the Biscay shores.
Sea-bathing in Spain, as an organised and commercially-run activity, began in San Sebastian in the late 1820s or early 1830s, a century later than in England. By the time San Sebastian was beginning to attract bathers, Brighton was already long-established as the first large specialised seaside resort in the modern world, with a population in 1831 of over 40,000. A pattern of lesser resorts was forming, especially in the south and east within easy reach of London, and seaside resorts were to feature prominently among the fastest-growing English towns of the nineteenth century. Spain could not match the scale, pace and ubiquity of English seaside resorts, but nevertheless the rise of her north coast resorts was an impressive phenomenon.
The scope for seaside resort development in nineteenth-century Spain was constrained by geography, wealth and social structure. Spain was one of Western Europe's poorest countries. It did have a free-spending aristocracy and a numerous commercial and official class but this potential market was disproportionately concentrated in Madrid, right in the centre of the great Iberian peninsula. This set a premium on transport facilities, which were neither cheap nor convenient. Before the railways, it took more than two days to travel from Madrid to San Sebastian, in the discomfort of a diligence drawn by fourteen horses or mules, which set off at four or five in the morning. From the mid-1860s the railways reduced journey times and costs sharply, but the Spanish system was infamously slow and circuitous, and ticket rationing with interminable queues was still the rule in the 1920s. The problems of travel restricted the demand for seaside holidays in Spain, although they did ensure that many of those who braved the rigours of rail and road would stay for several weeks when they arrived.
Aspiring Spanish resorts also suffered from domestic and foreign competition. Despite travelling conditions, the richest Spaniards were often tempted abroad, especially to resorts in southern France such as Arcachon, Bagneres de Luchon and (above all) Biarritz. This exodus was not balanced by an equivalent influx to the Spanish seaside, although French visitors in their thousands came to San Sebastian's August bullfights from the 1870s onwards, while Las Arenas, near Bilbao, was aiming advertisements specifically at English visitors in 1872. But what mattered was home demand; and within Spain there was an extensive network of inland spas to cater for the health and pleasure needs of those whose travel horizons were limited to the local and provincial. There was a long tradition of taking the waters, which extended to the lower orders as well as the petty bourgeoisie and small local landowners. …