1902 Encyclopedia > Spain > Spain - General Description. Coastline. Surface.

(Part 1)


Spain - General Description

Spain, a country rather more than twice the size of Great Britain including the adjacent small islands, constitutes in its mainland portion about eleven-thirteenths of the Iberian Peninsula, and has in addition an insular area (in the Balearic and Canary Islands) of nearly 5000 square miles. On all sides except that of Portugal the boundaries are natural, the Peninsula being separated from France by the Pyrenees and on every other side being surrounded by the sea. On the side of Portugal a tract of inhospitable country led originally to the separation between the two kingdoms, inasmuch as it caused the reconquest of the comparatively populous maritime tracts from the Moors to be carried out independently of that of the eastern kingdoms, which were also well peopled. The absence of any such means of intercommunication as navigable rivers afford has favoured the continuance of this isolation. The precise line of this western frontier is formed for a considerable length by portions of the chief rivers or by small tributaries, and on the north (between Portugal and Galicia) it is determined to a large extent by small mountain ranges. The British rock of Gibraltar, in the extreme south of the peninsula, is separated from Spain by a low isthmus known as the Neutral Ground.

Coastline. The coastline on the north and north-west is everywhere steep and cliffy. On the north there are numerous small indentations, many of which form more or less convenient harbours, but the current flowing along the coast from the west often leaves in the stiller water at their mouths obstructive bars. The best harbours are to be found on the rias or fiord-like indentations in the west of Galicia, where high tides keep the inlets well scoured; here occur the fine natural harbours of Pontevedra and Vigo, Coruiia and Ferrol, the last one of the chief stations of the Spanish fleet. Less varied in outline but more varied in character are the Spanish coasts on the south and east. Flat coasts prevail from the frontier of Portugal to the Straits of Gibraltar. Between the mouth of the Rio Tinto and that of the Guadalquivir they are sandy and lined by a series of sand-dunes (the tract known as the Arenas Gordas). Next follows a marshy tract at the mouth of the Guadalquivir, after which the coastline becomes more varied, and includes the fine Bay of Cadiz. From the Straits of Gibraltar a bold and rocky coast is continued almost right round to Cape Palos, a little beyond the fine natural harbour of Cartagena. North of Cape Palos a line of flat coast, beginning with the narrow strip which cuts off the lagoon called the Mar Menor from the Mediterranean, bounds half of the province of Alicante, but in its northern half this province, becoming mountainous, runs out to the lofty headland of Cape Nao. The whole coast of the Bay of Valencia is low and ill-provided with harbours; and along the east of Catalonia stretches of steep and rocky coast alternate with others of an opposite character.

Surface. The surface of Spain is remarkable at once for its striking contrasts and its vast expanses of dreary uniformity. There are mountains rising with Alpine grandeur above the snowline, but often sheltering rich and magnificent valleys at their base. Naked walls of white limestone tower above dark woods of cork, oak, and olive. In other parts, as in the Basque country, in Galicia, in the Serrania de Cuenca (between the head waters of the Tagus and those of the Jucar), in the Albarracin (between the head waters of the Tagus and those of the Guadalaviar), there are extensive tracts of undulating forest-clad hill country, and almost contiguous to these there are apparently boundless plains, or tracts of level tableland, some almost uninhabitable, and some streaked with canals and richly cultivated—like the Requena of Valencia. While, again, continuous mountain ranges and broad plains and tablelands give the prevailing character to the scenery, there are here and there, on the one hand, lofty isolated peaks, landmarks for a wide distance round, such as Monseny, Monserrat, and Mont Sant in Catalonia, the Peiia Golosa in Valencia, Moncayo on the borders of Aragon and Old Castile, and, on the other hand, small secluded valleys, such as those of Vich and Olot among the Catalonian Pyrenees.

Central Tableland. The greater part of the interior of Spain is composed of a tableland bounded by the Cantabrian Mountains in the north and the Sierra Morena in the south, and divided into two by a series of mountain ranges stretching on the whole from east to west. The northern half of the tableland, made up of the provinces of Leon and Old Castile, has an average elevation estimated at about 2700 feet, while the southern half, made up of Estremadura and New Castile, is slightly lower—about 2600 feet. On all sides the tableland as a whole is remarkably isolated, and hence the passes on its boundary and the river valleys that lead up to it from the surrounding plains are geographical features of peculiar importance. The isolation on the side of Portugal, where the tableland gradually sinks to the sea in a succession of terraces, has already been referred to. On the north-west the valley of the Sil and a series of valleys further south, along both of which military roads have been carried from an early period, open up communication between Leon and the hill country of Galicia, which explains why this province was united to Leon even before the conquest of Portugal from the Moors. The passes across the Cantabrian Mountains in the north are tolerably numerous, and four of them are already crossed by railways. The two most remarkable are the Pass of Pajares, across which winds the railway from Leon to Oviedo and the seaport of Gijon, and that of Reinosa leading down to the deep valley of the Besaya, and now crossed by the railway from Valladolid to Santander. In its eastern section the chain is crossed by the railways from Burgos to Bilbao and San Sebastian, the latter of which winds through the wild and romantic gorge of Pancorbo (in the north-east of the province of Burgos) before it traverses the Cantabrian chain at Idiazabal.

On the north-east and east, where the edge of the tableland sweeps round in a wide curve, the surface sinks on the whole in broad terraces to the valley of the Ebro and the Bay of Valencia, and is crowned here and there by more or less isolated mountains, some of which have been already mentioned. On the north-east by far the most important communication with the Ebro valley is formed by the valley of the Jalon, which has thus always formed a military route of the highest consequence, and which is now traversed by the railway from Madrid to Saragossa. Further south the mountains clustered on the east of the tableland (Albarracin, Serrania de Cuenca) render direct communication between Valencia and Madrid extremely difficult, and the principal communications with the east and south-east are effected where the southern tableland of La Mancha merges in the hill country which connects the interior of Spain with the Sierra Nevada.

In the south the descent from the tableland to the valley of the Guadalquivir is again comparatively gradual, but even here in the eastern half of the Sierra Morena the passes are few, the most important being the Puerto de Despeiiaperros, where the Kio Magafia has cut for itself a deep gorge through which the railway now ascends from Andalusia to Madrid. Between Andalusia and Estremadura farther west the communication is freer, the Sierra Morena being there broken up into series of small chains.

Cantabrian Mountains. Of the mountains belonging to the tableland the most continuous are those of the Cantabrian chain, which stretches for the most part from east to west, parallel to the Bay of Biscay, but ultimately bends round towards the south between Leon and Galicia. Almost everywhere it consists of two parallel ranges, the higher of which, the more southerly, is the immediate continuation of the Pyrenees. The highest summits of the chain belong to the Jura limestones of the Penas de Europa, on the borders of the provinces of Santander, Oviedo, Leon, and Palencia. The highest of all is the Torre de Ceredo, which attains the height of at least 8750 feet, and next is the Pena Prieta (8300 feet). At the sources of the Sil the main chain divides into two branches, enclosing the fertile and thickly-populated district known as El Vierzo, once the bed of a lake, now watered by the stream just mentioned and its tributaries. The whole chain is remarkable for its intricate ramifications and its wild grandeur, but, as already indicated, is not so much of a barrier to communication as might be expected from its general aspect. Besides the railways above mentioned it is crossed at many points by bridle-paths and roads.

A peculiar feature of the chain and the neighbouring parts of the tableland is formed by the parameras or isolated plateaus, surrounded by steep rocky mountains, sometimes even by walls of naked rock. Among the larger of these are the bleak districts of Siguenza and Soria, round the headwaters of the Duero,—districts which separate the mountains of the so-called Iberian system on the north-east of the tableland from the eastern portion of the central mountain chains of the peninsula.

Central mountain chains. Of these chains, to which Spanish geographers give the name Carpetano-Vetonica, the most easterly is the Sierra de Guadarrama, the general trend of which is from south-west to north-east. It is the Montes Carpetani of the ancients, and a portion of it (due north of Madrid) still bears the name of Carpetanos. Composed almost entirely of granite, it has an aspect when seen from a distance highly characteristic of the mountains of the Iberian Peninsula in general, presenting the appearance of a saw-like ridge (sierra) broken up into numerous sections. Its mean height is about 5250 feet, and near its centre it has three summits (the highest named the Pico de Penalara) rising to the height of nearly 8000 feet.

A region with a highly irregular surface, filled with hills and parameras, separates this sierra from the Sierra de Gredos farther west. This is the loftiest and grandest sierra in the whole series. Its culminating point, the Plaza de Almanzor, attains the height of 8725 feet, not far short of that of the highest Cantabrian summits. Its general trend is east and west; towards the south it sinks precipitously, and on the north it descends with a somewhat more gentle slope towards the longitudinal valleys of the Tormes and Alberche which separate it from another rugged mountain range, forming the southern boundary of the paramera of Avila. On the west another rough and hilly tract, similar to that which divides it from the Sierra de Guadarrama in the east, separates it from the Sierra de Gata, the westernmost and the lowest of the Spanish sierras belonging to the series. These hilly intervals between the more continuous sierras greatly facilitate the communication between the northern and southern halves of the Spanish tableland. The Guadarrama is indeed crossed by three good passroads, and even the Sierra de Gredos has a road across it connecting Avila with Talavera de la Keina by the Puerto del Pico; but for the most part there are only bridle-paths across the sierras, and up to the present date not a single railway crosses any one of the sierras directly. The only railway crossing the central system of mountains is that from Madrid to Avila, which traverses the interval between the Sierras de Gredos and Guadarrama, passing through numerous tunnels on the way. A railway from Madrid to Segovia to cross the latter sierra at the Puerto de Navacerrada (5830 feet), the pass at present crossed by the principal high road across these mountains, is now (1886) in course of construction.

On the southern half of the tableland a shorter series of sierras, consisting of the Montes de Toledo in the east (highest elevation 4600 feet) and the Sierra de Guadalupe in the west (highest elevation 5100 feet), separates the basins of the Tagus and Guadiana.

Sierra Morena. The southern system of mountains bounding the Iberian tableland—the Sierra Morena—is even less of a continuous chain than the two systems last described. As already intimated, its least continuous portion is in the west. In the east and middle portion it is composed of a countless number of irregularly-disposed undulating mountains all nearly equal in height.

Even more important than the mountains bounding or crossing the tableland are those in the north-east and in the south, which are connected with the tableland only at their extremities.

Sierra Nevada. The former are the PYRENEES (q.v.), the latter are the Sierra Nevada, and the coast ranges still farther south. The Sierra Nevada, or "snowy sierra," is a well-defined chain, between 50 and 60 miles in length, and about 25 miles in breadth, situated to the south of the valley of the Guadalquivir, and stretching from the upper part of the valley of the Jenil in the west to the deep valley of the Almeria in the east. It is composed chiefly of soft micaceous schists, sinking precipitously down on the north, but sloping more gently to the south and south-east. Its culminating summit, the Cerro de Mulahacen (11,660 feet), is the highest in Spain, and the range contains several other peaks upwards of 10,000 feet in height, and above the limit of perpetual snow. On both sides deep transverse valleys (barrancas) follow one another in close succession, in many cases with round basin-shaped heads, like the cirques of the Pyrenees. In many of these cirques repose alpine lakes, and in one of them, the Corral de Veleta, there is even a small glacier, the most southerly in Europe. On the south the transverse valleys of the Sierra Nevada open into the mountainous longitudinal valley of the Alpujarras, into which open also on the other side the transverse valleys from the most easterly of the coast sierras, the Sierra Contraviesa and the Sierra de Almijara.

Sierras of the south coast. The latter are continued farther west by the Sierra de Alhama and Sierra de Abdalajiz. Immediately to the west of the latter sierra lies the gorge of the Guadalhorce, which now affords a passage for the railway from Malaga to Cordova; and beyond that gorge, to the west and south-west, the Serrania de Ronda, a mountain group difficult of access, stretches out its sierras in all directions. To Spanish geographers the coast ranges just mentioned are known collectively as the Sierra Penibetica. North-east of the Sierra Nevada two small ranges, Alcaraz and La Sagra, rise with remarkable abruptness from the plateau of Murcia, where it merges in that of the interior.

Lowland valleys. The only two important lowland valleys of Spain are those of the Ebro and the Guadalquivir. The former occupies the angle in the north-east between the Pyrenees and the central tableland, and is divided by ranges of heights proceeding on the one side from the Pyrenees, on the other from the base of the Moncayo, into two portions. The uppermost of these, a plateau of between 1000 and 1300 feet above sea-level, is only about one-fourth of the size of the remaining portion, which is chiefly lowland, but is cut off from the coast by a highland tract connecting the interior tableland with spurs from the Pyrenees. The Guadalquivir basin is likewise divided by the configuration of the ground into a small upper portion of considerable elevation and a much larger lower portion mainly lowland, the latter composed from Seville downwards of a perfectly level and to a large extent unhealthy alluvium (las marismas). The division between these two sections is indicated by the change in the course of the main stream from a due westerly to a more south-westerly direction.

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Spain - Table of Contents

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