Basically, they're posh hotels, the equivalent of staying in a stately home overseas. Aside from the obvious locational differences - chateaux in France, paradores in Spain and pousadas in Portugal - the paradores and pousadas are state-owned, the chateaux private.
Chateaux offer different types of accommodation, from exclusive hotels to high-class B&Bs. For example, Relais & Chateaux (0800 960239) offers the most luxurious establishments, but Chateaux & Hotels Independent (request a brochure from the French Tourist Office, see below) has a greater variety of properties and lower prices. Then there's Bienvenue au Chateau (brochure available from the French Tourist Office, see below), which offers B&B in 124 chateaux, manor-houses and country houses on the understanding that you will be treated "like friends" rather than guests.
In 1926, King Alfonso XIII of Spain came up with the idea of restoring Spain's palaces, fortresses, convents and monasteries by converting them into hotels. He chose the site for the first parador in the Sierra de Gredos and there are now 86 paradores in the network of Paradores de Turismo de Espana.
The history of the pousadas (the word comes from "pousar", meaning "to lodge at" or "to repose") is very similar. Established in the Forties, pousadas include castles, monasteries, palaces and some newer establishments. There are more than 60 (all sited in areas of historical significance or natural beauty, and intended to encourage interest in regional cuisine and architecture) but some are quite simple and not all have the same standard of facilities.
AREN'T THEY ALL CRUMBLING OLD PILES?
Not at all. Some of the paradores and pousadas are modern. Of the 86 paradores, 46 are contemporary, including the sophis- ticated Parador de Mazagon, built in the Donana Nature Reserve on Spain's Atlantic coast. Guests can explore the gardens - or even tend them, on one of the parador's gardening courses (00 34 959 53 63 00).
Similarly, about half the pousadas are in modern buildings.
As for the restored castles and monasteries, they may be old - the Parador de Tortosa dates from the 10th century - but crumbling they are not. All have been converted to the highest standards, and improvements are in keeping with the original character of the buildings.
SO DOES THAT MEAN THEY'RE REALLY EXPENSIVE TO STAY AT?
Not necessarily. It really depends on which you choose. In France, Relais & Chateaux are at the top of the price range. Rates vary from a standard double at Domaine de Bassibe in the south west of France (pounds 76 a double) to a suite in the beautiful Chateau de Bagnols near Villefranche (pounds 500). Alternatively, with Bienvenue au Chateau, a room in Normandy's 16th- century Manoir d'Hermos is yours for as little as pounds 25 including breakfast.
The most expensive parador is the Parador de Granada, a convent in the Alhambra gardens where a double room including breakfast costs pounds 82.50 per person per night (00 34 958 221440). One of the cheapest is the Parador de Cordoba, at the foot of the Cordoba mountain range, where rooms start at pounds 40 per person (00 34 957 275900). Until 23 December, you can buy five vouchers for pounds 260 that will give you five nights' accommodation in a single or twin-bedded room at several paradores (contact Keytel International, 0171-616 0300).
With pousadas, you're charged for the room rather than per person and the price includes breakfast. One of the most expensive is the Rainha Santa Isabel, where one night will cost you pounds 134.75 (00 351 68 332075); one of the most reasonable is the Pousada de Santo Antonio (pounds 67.50, 00 351 34 523230). Destination Portugal (01993 773269) also offers manor- house B&B from pounds 20 per person.
CAN I JUST TURN UP?
Since many of these properties have only a few rooms, it is definitely a good idea to book before you leave home. It is quite easy to plan a route and organise your own trip with the help of information, directories and maps from the relevant tourist office. The French Tourist Office (0906 8244123, calls charged at 50 pence per minute) can supply you with brochures on chateaux hotels, except for Relais & Chateaux. Contact the company separately on 0800 960239, by fax on 0800 968152 or by e-mail at www.relaischateaux.fr.
The Spanish Tourist Office (0171-486 8077) provides a Paradores Directory, and the Portuguese Tourist Office (0171-494 1441) can send you a Pousadas Directory.
Pousadas can also be booked direct or through Enatur, Empresa Nacional de Turismo EP, 10a Avenida Santa Joana a Princesa, 1700 Lisbon (00 351 1 844 2000). Reservations for both paradores and pousadas can be made in the UK with Keytel International (402 Edgware Road, London W2 1ED, 0171-402 8182).
HOW SHOULD I PLAN MY ROUTE?
Putting together an itinerary is a matter of choice but if you feel in need of direction, the Paradores Directory lists seven possible routes (outlined on a map) which you can either follow religiously or adapt to suit your own plans. The "Green Spain Route" runs along the north coast of Spain from the Galician estuaries to the Pyrenees; the "Silver Route" is based on the Silver Road, built by the Romans, which runs north to south, passing towns and cities of cultural importance; the "Road to Santiago" follows the pilgrims' trail to Santiago de Compostela; the "Pyrenees Route" passes through mountains and valleys lined with ancient monasteries, villages, Romanesque churches and towns; the "White Towns Route" runs through Andaluca; the "Maestrazgo Route" explores a region coloured by Iberians, Visigoths, Romans and Moors; and, finally, the "Central Mountain Range Route" crosses the Iberian peninsula from east to west.
ARE THERE COMPANIES THAT WILL DO ALL THIS FOR ME?
Certainly. Unicorn Holidays (01582 834400) has two user-friendly brochures that cut out a lot of the leg-work, "The Best of Spain & Portugal, Paradores & Pousadas" and "The Best of France, Chateaux Hotels". The company also provides a number of suggested packages, including "Portugal's Heritage" (from pounds 917 per person), where you stay in a palace, a monastery, a castle and a medieval walled town. "Two Scenic Countries" (from pounds 1,456) takes in northern Portugal and north-west Spain, on a route that includes rolling countryside, mountains and lakes, the famous Douro river with its wine terraces, the Salamanca and the Cabrera mountains. It then goes back into Portugal, staying in chalets, castles and manor-houses along the way and finishing with two nights at a magnificent converted monastery at Guimaraes.
The company stresses that these suggested routes are just that. All the holidays are tailor-made and you create your own itinerary, adding on scheduled flights and fly-drive options or - for the ultimate luxury - opting for a driver to ferry you between hotels.
CAN I TAKE MY DOG?
If you can't bear to be parted from your pet, some chateaux will let you bring him with you, and Rover gets to romp in elegant parkland instead of slumming it in kennels for a few days. The Chateau de Nieuil in Charente (book through Relais & Chateaux), one such place, is straight out of a story book. Originally a royal hunting palace, it has 11 rooms and three suites - all individually decorated by the current owners, Luce and Jean- Michel Bodinaud - plus an art gallery and an antiques shop.
WHAT ABOUT THE KIDS?
You can take them too. In the magnificent Chateau de la Bourbansais in Brittany (book through Bienvenue au Chateau), there is a zoological and leisure park for children to explore and a botany trail to follow (00 33 2 99 69 40 07). Or there's Les Hauts, opposite Mont St Michel, with slides, swings, bicycles and table tennis (00 33 2 33 601002). Other chateaux in the brochure offer babysitting services and en-suite children's rooms.
WHAT CAN I DO WHEN I ARRIVE?
What can't you do? Depending on which region you choose, the options are enormous. Staying in a chateau in the Loire, you are in the perfect location to explore vineyards, chateaux and historic towns. All the chateaux (hotels and B&B) offer activities that range from country walks, tennis and bicycle hire to the more adventurous hot-air ballooning at the Chateau des Briottieres (Bienvenue au Chateau).
Activities at all the paradores and pousadas are extensive, but golfing is big at the paradores. Special agreements with 25 golf courses throughout the country (in addition to the paradores' own golf courses), mean that guests can enjoy an extensive range of golf, including special discounts of up to 50 per cent on green fees and the possibility of reserving tee- time without leaving the hotel. The paradores' golf course El Saler was built by Javier Arana, a famous golf architect, and is supposedly one of the best in the world.
WILL I BE TREATED LIKE ONE OF THE FAMILY?
Pousadas, paradores and many chateaux are, of course, hotels, but in Portugal a private B&B scheme called Turismo de Habitacao - also known as Turihab or Solares de Portugal - has been set up to save aristocratic piles from rack and ruin. Each manor-house has only a few rooms so the welcome is personal, and you get to experience local life in an atmosphere of faded grandeur. Breakfast with your hosts is quite usual and dinner off the family silver a definite possibility. Occasionally the lack of heating in the winter can be a problem, but otherwise it is a unique and reasonably priced way to explore Portugal.
Contact TURIHAB (Associacao do Turismo de Habitacao, Praca de Republica 4990, Ponte de Lima, Portugal, 00 351 58 741672, fax 00 351 58 741444, e-mail turihab@mail. telepac.pt) for more information. You have to stay for a minimum of three days.
Destination Portugal (01993 773269) also organises made-to-measure itineraries in Quintas (elegant manor-houses and palaces, furnished with antiques and family heirlooms), Casas Antigas (country houses and smaller manors, many dating from the late-17th and 18th centuries) and Casas Rusticas (traditional farmhouses). These are family homes and not hotels and many of the owners (one of whom is an ex-ambassador to China) will invite you to have dinner with them. Try the Paco de Sao Cipriano in Taboadelo, on Portugal's Costa Verde, owned by the Sottomayor family, who are used to welcoming footsore travellers to their 15th-century manor-house on the route to Santiago de Compostela. The tower room has a four-poster bed and views on to gardens, orchards and vineyards.
Brittany Ferries Holidays (0990 360 360) also offers high-class French B&B in Chambres d'Hotes. Pommerit Jaudy, in Treguier, Brittany, is a 15th- century chateau that has been in the Comte de Kermel's family for more than 500 years. With only five rooms, the chateau has an owner renowned for her friendly welcome - and is also reasonably priced at pounds 29 per person (minimum stay, two nights).
I FANCY SOMEWHERE REALLY UNUSUAL
On the Setubal Peninsula near Lisbon, the Pousada de Sao Filipe (00 351 65 52 3844) was built as a castle by Filipe I in 1590 to fend off English attacks on the Spanish Armada. The property includes huge ramparts and a chapel decked out in 18th- century azulejos that depict the life of Sao Filipe, and some of the rooms are in the dungeons. Sip a glass of the regional muscatel wine on the terrace's battlements as the sun goes down over the Sado estuary. While you're there you can walk in the Arrabida mountains, explore the city of Setubal and go hot-air ballooning, dolphin-watching or microlighting.
Alternatively, at Les Hautes Roches (Relais & Chateaux), the 11th-century cave dwellings have been transformed into 15 luxurious rooms, with canopy beds and large fireplaces. Or, if turrets and ramparts aren't enough for you, go for the Chateau d'Adomenil (Relais & Chateaux) in France's Alsace Lorraine region. Created by the Duke of Lorraine as a "petit Versailles", it has a moat, complete with gliding swans and ducks.
Bienvenue au Chateau also includes a few moated gems, such as the Chateau de Fontaine-Etoupefour. Owned by the Comte and Comtesse Henry du Laz, the chateau is set on an island accessible only by two bridges, one of which is a restored 15th-century drawbridge.
AND FOR THE HUNTIN', SHOOTIN' AND FISHIN' BRIGADE...
So you've always wanted to don plus- fours and a hacking jacket and swan around like an aristo? Well, at many of the chateaux, paradores and pousadas you can do just that.
The Chateau de Riell (Relais & Chateaux), perched in the Pyrenees, offers fishing, hunting, climbing and horse-riding. Then, to ease your aching limbs, you can relax in the thermal baths.
At the Posada de Nuestra Senora da Assuncao (00 351 66 41 9340), a 16th- century monastery in a valley near Arraiolos, you can shoot rabbit, grouse, hare and partridge - or wimp out and opt for a spot of paintballing instead. At the Pousada de Sao Miguel, near Sousel (00 351 68 55 0050), situated on a hill overlooking the vast Alentejo plains, you can add wild boar to your score sheet.
Paradores that offer hunting include the Parador de Benavente in Zamora, a 12th-century castle (00 34 980 51 4497), and the Hostal San Marcos in Leon, a magnificent building dating from 1515, with an ornate facade, a cloister, a chapterhouse and a church (00 34 987 23 7300).
SO WHAT ABOUT THE FOOD?
Let's face it, the grub is definitely one of the main reasons for visiting. France is, of course, an enormous culinary extravaganza. Not only can you savour the delicious food at La Cote Saint-Jacques, (Relais & Chateaux) one of the most renowned restaurants in France, you can also learn how they cook it. Guests at the chateau's 20 rooms and nine suites, on the banks of the river Yonne, can choose to take private cookery lessons with Michel and Jean-Michel Lorain.
The pousadas are sometimes referred to as the largest restaurant chain in Portugal, and are famous for their regional specialities and Portuguese wines. Shredded green cabbage soup seems to feature high on the list of many establishments, including the Pousada de Sao Bento (00 351 53 647190) in the heart of the Peneda/ Geres National Park, where spicy sausage is added to the concoction.
The paradores, too, take cuisine extremely seriously, and have grasped the opportunity to promote Spanish culinary culture. All of them have elegant restaurants that feature local specialities on the menu, and they take it so seriously that they regularly stage conferences on topics such as the Cuisine of the Golden Age Theatre, Medieval Cuisine, the Cuisine of the Convents, Mutton Cuisine, Roman Cuisine, and Cuisine of the Generation 98. The paradores boastfully offer 23 types of traditional breakfast - all featuring extra-virgin olive oil - and there is even a book available, Paradores Cuisine.
SHOULD I DRESS FOR DINNER?
But of course. Bienvenue au Chateau provides high-class B&B in 124 French chateaux and in many you will be able to dine in style with your hosts. At the Chateau du Mesnil Geoffroy in Ermenouville, for example, Docteur and Madame Kayali are happy to arrange a traditional French dinner - including some original 18th-century dishes. And at the Chateau de Monhoudou, home of the Vicomte and Vicomtesse de Monhoudou, you are invited to dinner by candlelight with the owners. Remember to let your hosts know in advance if you require dinner.
AND, MORE IMPORTANTLY, THE WINE?
The cellar of the Chateau Cordeillan-Bages, (00 33 5 56 59 24 24) an elegant 17th-century chateau, is stacked with more than 1,000 bottles of Bordeaux. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the chateau is also home to the Ecole de Bordeaux, which offers wine-tasting courses.
Arblaster & Clarke Wine Tours (01730 893344) offers trips to Spain, Portugal and France that involve stays in a range of paradores, chateaux, manor- houses and hunting lodges. The "Rioja & Northern Spain" trip runs from 27 September to 2 October and explores hill towns such as Laguardia and Haro, and there's the "Sherry & Andaluca" trip with visits to famous bodegas and the parador at Cadiz. For those who would rather stay in a chateau, the company is organising a trip from 6 to 10 September on which you can be a private guest of the famous Chateau Lascombe and learn all about claret - including the odd bit of tasting.
CAN I WALK IT ALL OFF?
Maybe not in a straight line, but Winetours (01306 712111) offers an eight-day escorted group walk in the Rioja region of Spain that costs from pounds 1,095 and stops off at the hosteria de San Millan de la Cogolla, an old monastery at Yuso, an old convent in Haro and the fortified hilltop village of Laguardia, among other places. The company also arranges tailor- made gourmet holidays. One such trip is a five-day visit to Champagne that incorporates one night at the moated Chateau d'Etoges outside Epernay (from pounds 395), and a trip to the Douro Valley in Portugal staying in private manor-houses (from pounds 399).
THE BEST FOR...
Classical or jazz? Surrounded by Beaujolais vineyards and a moat, the 13th-century Chateau de Bagnols (Relais & Chateaux) is famed for its classical music concerts. If that sounds a little staid, the Chateau de Montcaud near Avignon offers a swinging Louisiana Jazz Brunch.
A medieval romp
An 11th-century fortress built by the Saint-Victor monks at the entrance to the Gorges du Verdon, the Chateau de Trigance (Relais & Chateaux) overlooks the Provencal landscape. Medieval rooms furnished with four-poster beds, oak chests and tapestries, and a magnificent dining room in the cellar decorated with medieval banners and coats of arms.
Definitely not for the faint-hearted, the Parador de Jaen sits on top of an extremely narrow ridge. A 13th-century Arab fortress with 20m high arches, this castle has breathtaking views, cold garlic soup and a swimming pool.
Tennyson-lovers everywhere should head for the Chateau de Tennessus (Bienvenue au Chateau), an impressive 14th-century moated chateau with working drawbridge. Entered by a spiral staircase, the two bedrooms are decorated with medieval furnishings and canopied beds - the ultimate pre-Raphaelite fantasy.
Peace and quiet
How about a parador in the middle of an extinct volcanic crater, or a medieval tower with walls so thick you won't hear your neighbours snoring? The Parador de Canadas del Teide on the island of Tenerife is in the nature reserve of the same name in a crater, while the Parador de Vilalba is a 15th-century medieval tower in the north of Spain.
A GENIUS STAYED HERE
1 Le Vieux Logis, a 17th-century Carthusian monastery in the Dordogne region of France, is so enchanting that Henry Miller arrived for a week and stayed for a month. Birdsong, babbling brooks and dinner beneath the vaulted ceilings of the old tobacco-drying room had him hooked.
2 Chateau de Castel-Novel, a 15th-century castle with fairytale turrets and an idyllic park, was where French writer Colette packed her bags and moved in as lady of the manor. Book through Relais & Chateaux.
3 La Ferme Saint-Simeon, a favourite retreat of 19th-century artists Monet, Sisley, Courbet, Boudin and Jongkind, is a restored Breton farm. With fresh seafood on its menu and Italian palace decor in the spa, it's still one to check out. Book through Relais & Chateaux.
4 Chateau de La Ballue in Brittany is where Balzac, Victor Hugo and Musset all stayed at one time. Lose yourself in the maze, enjoy fishing and woodland walks, and relax in front of log fires in the library - or indulge in some serious wine-tasting. Call 00 33 2 99 97 47 86 or book through Bienvenue au Chateau.
5 Parador de Ubeda, a 16th-century Renaissance palace, is possibly the parador with the greatest claim to literary "fame". Guests have included Ernest Hemingway, Paul Bowles, Pio Baroja and Garcia Lorca.Reuse content