Fairy Tale Living in Spanish Paradores

Don Harris | June 2015

Imagine walking up the narrow cobblestone streets of an ancient Spanish village. As you reach the top of the hill, you see a medieval castle straight out of a fairy tale. Then it hits you – this is my castle – my hotel room is right there in the tower!

Spain boasts over 90 Parador hotels, many of them situated in restored castles, palaces and ancient monasteries. They are all tastefully appointed, and surprisingly affordable. I plan many of my trips around an itinerary of visiting these jewels of Spanish architecture. Many are conveniently close to major cities and tourist areas, but some of the most delightful are a bit off the beaten track.

The system of Paradores de Turismo was started by King Alfonso XIII to promote tourism in Spain, with the first Parador opening in Gredos, Ávila, in 1928. Virtually all of them are historic monuments tastefully adapted by the Department of Tourism to delight the leisurely traveler: handmade fabrics and local furnishings typical of the region. If you become an enthusiast of the Paradores, as we have, you become an Amigo de los Paradores and you will be given special consideration.

Inside the many Paradores we have visited over the years, we have found antiques, tapestries, paintings and carpets that reflect an attention to authentic detail in every aspect: linen, lace, silk and other natural materials. All the charm of the past is in perfect harmony with the comfort and quality of a fully modern hotel. My wife Ruth and I had our first experience in a Parador almost fifty years ago when, before there was an extensive tourism network, we were on our own, exploring the byways of Spain.

Perhaps the most amazing of all of Paradores is in the Galician city of Santiago de Compostela: the goal of pilgrims from Europe for the last thousand years. Queen Isabella, a devout Catholic, built a spectacular hospice for pilgrims. It sits across the square from the phenomenal 12th century cathedral, and the two edifices make up sides of the famous main square of Santiago, one of the most visited pilgrimage sites in the Christian world. 

Also known as Hostal dos Reis Catolicos, the Parador building dates back to 1499, just seven years after Isabella had triumphed over the Moors in Granada, and had dispatched Columbus to the New World. The queen meant the site to be a place of refreshment and nurture for the thousands of pilgrims upon their arrival the holy city. Therefore, some people claim this Parador is the oldest hotel in Europe. 

Ruth and I were amazed at the medieval interior of this beautiful building, especially the four courtyards named after the authors of the four Gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. After settling into our room (which featured a canopied bed) we slipped out the front door to visit the towering Romanesque cathedral. Afterward we enjoyed mingling with the local population, which was made up of fishermen, shopkeepers, medical school students and musicians. Of course, we enjoyed talking with pilgrims who had just finished their long journey.

Another remarkable Parador is in Cangas de Onís, about 100 miles to the east of Santiago in the mountains of Asturias. It was here, at the Battle of Covadonga in 722 AD, that the Spanish first defeated the invading Moors after 12 years of setbacks. From the beginning of the Moorish invasion in 711 AD, refugees and knights from the south had been moving north to avoid Islamic authority. Some had taken refuge in the remote mountains of Asturias. The struggle between the two sides would last in one way or another for the next 700 years until 1492, when Isabella completed the reconquest by conquering Granada.

The Parador was originally a monastery named San Pedro de la Villanueva, built in the 12th century. It is now a national monument. There are quite a few well-appointed rooms, but the secret is to ask for one of their suites. It costs a little more of course, but I have rarely had a more peaceful rest. Outside the bedroom window was a rippling brook. Down the stream, we noticed a few fly fishermen trying to catch some trout. The town itself is a beautiful mountain village famous for Gamaneo cheese, which is made only in this village. If you are lucky enough to be there on Sunday, you can mingle with the local shepherds and the cheese makers in their market. 

This part of Spain was originally populated by Celtic people, similar to those who live in Scotland and Ireland. One Sunday a parade of local bagpipers marched through the village! The town is near the famous caves that produce Cabrales, the amazing blue cheese of Spain.

Finally, you can’t miss the Parador of León, formerly the 16th century monastery of San Marcos. It is nothing less than spectacular. This huge, elegant Renaissance building faces a massive stone square, and is filled with antique furnishings and tapestries. Best of all, the Parador is just a ten minute walk to the elegant 13th century Gothic cathedral, felt by many to be the most beautiful in all of Spain. Its walls are built almost exclusively of stained glass. On a sunny day light bathes the church in a transcendent glow. 

Nearby is my favorite church, the Real Basilica of San Isidoro, built in the early 10th century on the site of an ancient Roman temple. Within the church is the Royal Pantheon, burial place of the early kings of León. The walls are covered with some of the finest Romanesque frescoes of Spain. 

These three Paradores are but a sampling of the amazing hotels in the system. There are more than ninety other Paradores scattered throughout Spain. I would like to leave you with the secret to finishing your trip to Spain in the best way possible, full of memories of Spain’s ancient past. 

As our journey is coming to an end, unavoidably thoughts invade our minds in anticipation of the dozens of details necessary for a successful trip home. If only we could avoid the dreaded airport hotel and whisk away directly from the Spain we love to our home, where our welcoming dog would greet us. It would be so much less jarring to the body and soul. In recent years, we have softened the blow of reality by spending our last night in Spain in an amazing 12th century castle on a hill. 

The Parador in the town of Sigüenza is an imposing medieval castle situated within an Arab fortress, built atop a Roman settlement. The hotel's traditional Castilian furnishings are tastefully displayed in the welcoming bedrooms. Some of the rooms feature canopy beds that will make you feel as if you are lodging in a real palace. Within the thick stone walls, there is a cobbled courtyard, and a stately dining room.

We find our rooms within the stone walls of this medieval fortress; linger with a glass of sherry or a cup of tea in one of the many handsome reading rooms. After a short rest, we head for a final quality Spanish dinner. 

Before retiring or the night, we leave a message at the desk that we need to be up early the next morning. Then, after a sumptuous breakfast – or just a cup of coffee and a Magdalena if we have lingered too long – we load our suitcases into our rental car and off we go. One hour later we are at the airport and embark on our trip back home. What better way to bid farewell to Spain?

If we are coming from the South – Castilla La Mancha or Andalucía – there are other Paradores within an hour of the airport. We might choose the sumptuous Parador of Toledo, with an unparalleled view of the magnificent medieval capital of the realm. Alternatively, sometimes we want to be a little more lighthearted and choose the rural Parador in Chinchón, which is located in the buildings of the former XVII C Augustinian convent of Santa María del Paraíso. 

The interior walls are decorated with Renaissance murals, magnificent tapestries and classical furniture in the Castile style. We find the bedrooms pleasant and spacious with windows looking out onto the gardens that were the old cloisters, now enclosed in glass.

The Parador/Monastery forms part of the famous "Plaza Mayor," the large square that is closed on Saturdays in summer to hold bull fights. The spectators watch from the galleries that surround the square. When not being used for bullfights, the Plaza Mayor is a very pleasant square with cafes where many people drink the locally produce aniseed aperitif. 

We always stop at the restaurant that features old Spanish tiles and a large ceramic oven, which provide us with cochinillo, delicious roast suckling pig. The classic square is dominated by the parish church, where the brother of Goya was the parish priest and may have an altar decorated by the great artist. 

From the north or the south, we prepare to fly home from either of these Paradores – all about an hour or two from Barajas, and avoid the hustle of the city.

¡Buen viaje!

Tu amigo,