If you've ever experienced a state-owned hotel in the former USSR, you might run a mile at the idea of government-controlled holiday accommodation. So the paradores of Spain are a revelation - beautiful buildings in stunning locations offering visitors a warm welcome. Robin Lustig pays a visit

Say the words "state-run", and I'm afraid I immediately hear the disapproving voice of Margaret Thatcher. Images of the Gas Board, the National Bus Company, and British Steel pass across my brain. It's not quite what you have in mind when you're looking for places to stay in Spain.

But one of the joys of travel is that it destroys your preconceived notions of the way the world is. Take the paradores of Spain. They are - shock, horror - state-run hotels. Mrs Thatcher, presumably, would never have set foot in one. But she might have been surprised to learn that they owe little to socialism.

The idea that the Spanish government might run a chain of hotels was born in the early years of the last century, during the reign of King Alfonso XIII. He came up with the plan of restoring Spain's grand palaces, castles, monasteries and convents and converting them into hotels. (He's better known as the king who lost nearly all of Spain's colonial possessions, including Cuba, Puerto Rico and the Philippines, and who eventually lost his throne when the Spanish republic was formed in 1931).

The paradores have turned out to be doughty political survivors. Born under a monarchy, they endured under, in turn, a socialist republic, a Fascist dictatorship, and now, a constitutional monarchy. So they must have something going for them.

The secret seems to be location, location, location. (McDonald's and Starbucks have flourished for much the same reason, but that's about all they have in common with the paradores). The first one I ever stayed in, when I was living in Spain more than 30 years ago, was in Toledo. The view from my room over the sweeping curve of the river Tajo lives on in my mind's eye to this day. It is said that the parador occupies the site chosen by El Greco to paint his View of Toledo. If it was good enough for him, it was more than good enough for me.

More recently, I spent a couple of nights in the parador in Ronda, in southern Spain, high in the Sierra north of Marbella. The town is famed for its 360ft deep gorge and the breathtaking 18th-century bridge, the Puente Nuevo, which spans it. Cross the bridge as you enter the town from the south, and immediately on your left you see the imposing façade of the old town hall.

What was the town hall is now the parador. As soon as you enter the glass-covered courtyard, you discover that the façade is all that's left. Inside is an imaginatively designed modern hotel, with vertigo-inducing views over the gorge. Sit in the restaurant, one of the best in Ronda, and watch the sun go down. Both the food, and the view, are treats to be savoured. My definition of a hotel with all mod-cons used to be one that has a phone extension in the bathroom. (Newsrooms have a habit of phoning at inconvenient moments, and I did once find myself broadcasting live from a hotel bathroom). In Ronda, though, I encountered sophistication of a different kind: a cigarette-dispensing machine cunningly hidden in a wooden case in the hotel lobby, identifiable only by the barely discernible neon glow of its display, blinking through the wooden lattice-work.

It's not always easy to get rooms in the most popular of Spain's paradores. We booked Ronda six weeks ahead, and only split-level suites were available. Pricey, yes, but fabulous with it. A spacious lounge with private terrace, shower room and loo on one level, then up the stairs to a landing, bedroom and spacious bathroom, plus another balcony.

Ronda itself is a delight. Its narrow streets, lined with white-washed houses and their over-flowing flower pots, are a joy - it's one of those places where merely meandering brings undiluted pleasure. In the old, Moorish section of the town, La Ciudad, there are courtyards to stick your nose into, and at the Casa del Rey Moro (House of the Moorish king), beautiful gardens to wander in, and a stairway of 365 steps down to the foot of the gorge. The gardens are also well worth a visit.

There are now nearly 90 paradores in Spain: the first was opened in 1928 in the mountain town of Navarredonda de Gregos, 60km from Avila; the most recent opened last month in a restored 17th-century Benedictine monastery in Monforte de Lemos, in Galicia, north of the Portuguese border. But by common consent, the jewel in the crown is the Parador de San Francisco in Granada, a former Franciscan convent built inside the walls of the city's great Moorish citadel, the Alhambra.

If it was difficult to get a room in Ronda, it was impossible in Granada. They say you need to book at least six months in advance for the parador, and I am rarely that organised. So we chose instead the Alhambra Palace, a huge belle-époque edifice, magnificently situated just outside the walls of the Alhambra, and with superb views over the city.

There is nothing wrong with the Alhambra Palace, although the glittering opulence of its public areas is not matched when you open the door to your room. It was the brainchild of the Duke of San Pedro de Galatino (full name: Don Julio Quesada Cañaveral y Piedrola, Duke of San Pedro de Galatino and Count of Banal a de las Villas), and it was designed specifically to cater to the tastes of rich travellers in the early 20th century. Over the top? Er, yes, probably, with its flamboyant kitsch-Moorish architecture (complete with imitation mosque dome), its arches and pillars and intricate plasterwork.

The view from our room was breathtaking - and it was a huge pleasure to be able to walk out of the hotel, along the shaded, tree-lined avenues of the Alhambra hill and into the citadel within 10 minutes. So why did we make a beeline for the parador and sigh wistfully at its understated elegance and charm?

First, we popped in for mid-morning refreshment, essential when doing a serious Alhambra exploration in the heat of a Spanish summer. And we were back again in the evening for dinner - if we couldn't stay there, we could at least eat there.

I have stayed at state-owned hotels elsewhere in the world: the old Rossiya Hotel in Moscow and what used to be the Hotel Leningrad in what was once Leningrad deserve a special place in any anthology of Travellers' Horror Stories. So I'm not a romantic about the glories of public ownership. But somehow, Spain seems to have found a way to get it right: the right buildings, the right locations, and, most important, the right spirit of hospitality. So the next time I visit Granada, I'll try to remember to book a year ahead.

Robin Lustig presents 'The World Tonight' on Radio 4 and is a regular broadcaster on BBC World Service

Parador de Ronda: 00 34 952 877 500, www.parador.es, €124 (£89) for a standard double room

Alhambra Palace Hotel: 00 34 958 221 468, www.h-alhambrapalace.es, €171 (£122) for a standard double room

Parador de San Francisco, Granada: 00 34 958 221 440, www.parador.es, €222 (£159) for a standard double room

GOVERNMENT-RUN HOTELS AROUND THE WORLD

From the colonial palaces of Ethiopia to accommodation for business travellers

CHINA

The Jianguo Hotels group is a government-run chain of four-star hotels found in the major cities in China, including Shanghai, Xian, Guangzhou and Beijing. The Jianguo Hotel Beijing (00 86 6500 2233; www.hoteljianguo.com), pictured below, is in the central business district. Its rooms have traditional Chinese interiors and are arranged around cloistered water gardens. Prices start at £60 per room per night.

NIGERIA

State-run hotels are scattered throughout the country, offering accommodation in colonial-style buildings. The Federal Palace Hotel, on Victoria Island, Lagos (00 23 41 262 3116; www.interhotels.com) has single and double rooms, with bathrooms and air conditioning, starting at £135.

PORTUGAL

Pousadas are inns operated by the Portuguese government, and housed in historic buildings, castles, palaces and convents. The Pousada Sao Filipe (00 351 265 55 0070; www.pousada.pt), for example, is in a hilltop fortress built in the 17th century by King Philip II of Spain, overlooking the city of Setubal. Single rooms start at £70, double rooms at £78 per night. Keytel International (020-7616 0300; www.keytel.co.uk) takes bookings from the UK.

INDIA

The government-run Ashok chain of hotels is managed by the India Tourist Development Corporation (ITDC). Ashok hotels are often the cheapest five-star hotels in the country. However, the savings can be offset by poorly maintained buildings and bad management. The Ashok Hotel in New Delhi (00 91 11 2611 0101; www.indiahotelsandresorts.com) is the flagship of the group. This hotel, with rose-pink walls and arched and turreted contours, is situated in the prime location of Delhi's diplomatic enclave. Single and double rooms with air conditioning and bathrooms start at £96 and £107 per night respectively.

ETHIOPIA

Ghion Hotels is a state-owned chain, with hotels dotted around the north of Ethiopia in places such as Bahir Dar, Gonder and Mekele. They are often found in old colonial palaces and offer some of the highest standards to be found in the country. The Garden Palace Hotel of East Africa (00 251 1 1513 222), the flagship of the chain, is set in landscaped gardens near the Emperor's Palace in Addis Ababa. Single rooms from £30, doubles £42.

Daniel McAllister

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