Geography of Spain

Spain’s Landscape

Most of the mainland Spain landscape is dominated by a high plateau called the Meseta Central. The Meseta is skirted and crossed by a number of mountain ranges, such as:

  • the Pyrenees (which extend into Navarre, the Basque Country, Aragon and Catalonia)
  • the Sistema Central (Madrid, Castile-Leon, Castile-La Mancha)
  •  the Sierra Nevada (in Andalusia)
  • and the Cordillera Cantábrica (extending through Galicia, Asturias, Cantabria, Castile-Leon and the Basque Country).

These mountain systems have a profound impact on Spain’s weather.

The geography of Spain is also marked by its many coastal plains (such as the Andalusian Plain in Andalusia) and lowland river valleys (like the Ebro Basin in Aragon). In general, the regions of Spain can be subdivided into four main groups: the Meseta Central, other mountain systems, lowland areas and islands.

Geography in Spain

The Meseta Central

The Meseta is a huge plateau in the centre of Spain, averaging around 500m above sea-level and covering around 40% of the Spanish mainland. The Meseta Central is divided by a range of mountains called the Sistema Central, which runs through the north of the region of Madrid continuing westward into Castile-Leon and on to Portugal. The uppermost peaks of the Sistema Central are snow covered: the highest mountain in the range exceeds 2,400 meters.

The south of the Meseta is subdivided by two mountain ranges: the Toledo Mountains (Castile-La Mancha) and the Sierra de Guadalupe (Extremadura).

The mountainous regions surrounding the Meseta Central are the Cordillera Cantábrica, the Sistema Ibérico (Aragon) and the Sierra Morena. The Sierra Morena moves westward into southern Portugal and joins the southern arm of the Sistema Ibérico in the east. The Cordillera Cantábrica runs along the northern coast near the Bay of Biscay. It’s range includes in the Picos de Europa National Park (divided between Asturias, Cantabria and Castile-Leon) with its highest points surpassing 2,500 meters. The Sistema Ibérico runs southeastwards from the Cordillera Cantábrica close to the Meidterranean coast. Its highest peaks exceed 2,000 meters.

Other Mountain Systems in Spain

Outside of the Meseta are the Pyrenees (los Pireneos) in northeast Spain and the Sistema Penibético in the southeast (Andalusia and Valencia).

The Pyrenees stretch out from the east of the Cordillera Cantábrica in the Basque Country to the Mediterranean coast at Catalonia and so form a large border between France and Spain. The western and eastern fringes of the Pyrenees are relatively low so at these points the construction of travel infrastructure has been possible. The central area of the Pyrenees is much higher and more difficult to penetrate (many peaks exceed the 3,000m mark).

The Sistema Penibético stretches northeastward from the south of Spain in Andalusia where it joins the southern fringes of the Sistema Ibérico at Aragon and the eastern arm of the Sierra Morena (in Andalusia). It also penetrates the region of southern Valencia. The highest peaks in the Sistema Penibético rise above 3,000m.

Lowland Areas

The Andalusian Plain in Andalusia, the Ebro Basin (la Depresión del Ebro) in Aragon and the coastal plains are the major lowland areas.

The Andalusian Plain is a very wide river valley: the river flowing through it being the Andalusian Plain is essentially a wide river valley through which the Rio Guadalquivir. The Guadalquivir travels an ever widening route to its widest point the Gulf of Cadiz (el Golfo de Cádiz). The Andalusian Plain is surrounded by the Sierra Morena in the north and the Sistema Penibético in the south.

The Ebro Basin has been formed by the Ebro River valley (el Valle del Ebro). It is surrounded in the south and west by the Sistema Ibérico and the Pyrenees in the north and east. There are other low-lying river valleys based around the Tajo River (which rises in Aragon and flows through Castile-La Mancha, Madrid and Extremadura) and Guadiana River systems in the west of Spain (Castile-La Mancha, Madrid, Extremadura and Andalusia).

Located between the coastal mountains and seas are the coastal plains. The broadest of these are found along the Gulf of Cadiz in Andalusia. The narrowest of the coastal plains lies along the Bay of Biscay in the northeast of Spain.

Islands

The other areas of note in terms of the geography in Spain are the island groups: the Balearic Islands in the Mediterranean Sea eastward of Catalonia and Valencia and the Canary Islands located in the atlantic Ocean off the northwest coast of Africa.

The Balearic Islands are an extension of the Sistema Penibético which rises up out of the Mediterranean. The highest points of the Balearics (exceeding 1,400 metres) are found on the northwest of the island of Mallorca.

The Canary Islands are volcanic in origin. The highest peaks can be found on the islands of Tenerife (in excess of 3,700m) and Gran Canaria (in excess of 1,950m).