Just what is a parador?
Stay in a medieval castle, a Renaissance palace, a serene old convent; a mountain lodge: Spain's paradors not only offer an extraordinary range of accommodation but also present a wonderful insight into the country's makeup, both past and present. What may seem even more remarkable is that this is a hugely successful, hugely enterprising chain run by a state-owned corporation. Paradores de Turismo de España is committed to conserving and restoring historic properties, yet it also creates brand new hotels, while behind the scenes it has recently started implementing an initiative focusing on sustainable energy. There is even a parador school, set up in 2006 to train future managers and give advanced gastronomy courses.
The first parador opened for business in 1928: Parador de Gredos (00 34 920 34 80 48; doubles from €104, room only) in the forests of the Gredos mountains is a purpose-built stone property constructed in traditional Castillian style – a pleasing combination of whitewashed walls and exposed beams – with 74 classically furnished rooms (originally there were 30). Its opening launched what was then the objective of bringing tourism to remote and poor regions.
The scheme grew rapidly with the backing of the then king, Alfonso XIII, and expanded to incorporate the restoration and conversion of crumbling old buildings – of which there were many at the time. During the Civil War some of these hotels became hospitals. They were converted back again in the post-war dictatorship. Indeed Franco took a great interest in the parador initiative, for all its regal connections. The gradual stream of hotel openings continued after his death in 1975 and since the 1990s there has been a buzz of parador activity, with hotels being created and many established properties being painstakingly refurbished and rendered more environmentally friendly.
Today there are 93 paradors, with a further five shortly to be completed (Ibiza's stunning Almudaina Castle and the Cistercian monastery of Santa María de Veruela in Aragon among them). In addition, nine more are in development, including a 90-bedroom parador complete with thalassotherapy centre at Muxia on the Costa da Morte in north-west Spain.
What's the damage?
The emphasis is on providing good quality at a fair price. Don't expect the last word in luxury, or cut-price bargains. These are four- and three-star establishments (with two five-star exceptions – at Santiago de Compostela and Léon). All of them have restaurants (see panel above), many have swimming pools and some have spas. The basic idea is that by staying in a parador you will be celebrating and seeing the real Spain – and more specifically relishing the culture of the region that you're visiting. Bookings can be made online or through the telephone reservation centre in Madrid (00 34 902 54 79 79; paradores.es). Note that the individual parador phone numbers given below are for information rather than booking purposes. The rates shown here are the official tariffs; varying seasonal packages (well published on the website) generally provide better value. Alternatively consult the officially appointed UK representative for the Paradors of Spain, Keytel International (020-7616 0300; keytel.co.uk).
Take me to the oldest
A good third of the paradors are in wow-factor heritage buildings. Parador de Santiago de Compostela (00 34 981 58 22 00; doubles from €265 including breakfast), for example, is possibly the world's oldest extant hotel. It was built in the late 15th century for pilgrims – who were, after all, the earliest of tourists. This magnificent hospice and resting place complete with four cloisters once welcomed streams of very footsore travellers visiting the tomb of St James in Santiago de Compostela. Today it is one of the most luxurious of the paradors; many of its 137 rooms are furnished with antiques and four-poster beds.
Over in the olive-rich landscape of Andalucia's Jaé*province you'll find one of the most beautiful old buildings in the chain: Parador de Ubeda (00 34 953750345; doubles from €135 room only). The hilltop town of Ubeda is Spain's little-trumpeted answer to Florence, its old quarter full of staggeringly lovely Renaissance buildings – including the parador. It was built in the 16th century as the palace of Dom Fernando Ortego Salido, and in 1930 it became one of the earliest of the parador restoration projects. Today it offers 35 rooms evocatively furnished to capture a Renaissance spirit while its corridors feature suits of armour and tapestries.
And modern wonders?
Mixing old and new, Parador Ceuta (00 34 956514940; doubles from €100 room only) is one of the most intriguing of the group. For a start, the little city of Ceuta itself has an exceptional setting: it occupies a small patch of Spain on the North African side of the Straits of Gibraltar. The parador is both in the city centre and also on the shores of Mediterranean. It is housed in a contemporary building that incorporates the walls of Ceuta's old royal palace, and in keeping with a sense of regal largesse its facilities include a glorious garden and a palm-fringed swimming pool. Its 206 rooms are decorated with Moorish flourishes, many of them with private terraces and sea views.
In the Aran Valley in the Catalan Pyrenees, Parador de Vielha (00 34 973640100; doubles from €137 room only) is well positioned for winter sports and also for summer hiking. Originally a 1960s-era complex, it was extensively and fabulously revamped in 2002 and now offers a chic, circular restaurant with terrific views and a state-of-the-art spa.
I want to be in a prime position
Many of the paradors are in wonderful locations. Take the Parador de Granada (00 34 958221440; doubles from €312 room only), for example. Check into a room here and you'll be right inside one of the greatest sights of the medieval world. Dating from the 13th century, the citadel of Alhambra is a magnificent complex of fortresses and ornate palaces built by the Moors and added to by the kings of Spain. Set within the old red walls, the parador here started life as a mosque, later became a convent and in 1945 was refurbished into one of the best of the state-run hotels. The 40 stylish bedrooms are sensitively decorated to retain an atmosphere of serenity, but better still are the exquisite courtyards and the terraces with breathtaking views.
Further south, the ancient town of Ronda dramatically straddles a deep gorge and is spectacular and pretty in equal measure. On one side of the canyon is Ronda's glorious old town complete with Moorish remains and a maze of streets. On the other, linked by three bridges, is a "modern" quarter built largely in the 18th century. The most amazing views are, without doubt, from the Parador de Ronda (00 34 952877500; doubles from €160 room only). Once the town hall, it looks over the great divide on to the rows of the old town's white houses which cling tenaciously to the cliff. In close proximity behind the property is one of the oldest bullrings in Spain, dating from 1785. The parador's facilities include lovely gardens and a small swimming pool perched on the cliff edge.
I want get off the beaten track...
Then you'll have a tough time choosing between a number of particularly peaceful paradors. In north-eastern Andalucia, Parador de Cazorla (00 34 953727075; doubles from €104 room only) is set in an outstanding wilderness haven. The mountainous and extensive Cazorla Nature Reserve is rich in plant and bird life and is home to wild boar, ibex and more. Tucked away in this beautifully wooded area, the 33-room parador has traditional Andalucian furnishings; facilities include a swimming pool and, adding to its sense of remoteness, a helipad. Activities include hiking, hunting and fishing.
In northern Spain, Parador de Cervera de Pisuerga (00 34 979870075; doubles from €104 room only) lies in the Fuentes Carrionas Reserve, a ruggedly lovely region of the foothills of the Picos de Europa. V CThe 80-bedroom parador overlooks Ruesga reservoir and, with coffered ceiling, stone fireplaces and wood panelling, looks and feels like a hunting lodge. Yet for all the impressions of isolation here, the parador is only 2km from the small town of Cervera de Pisuerga and, should you tire of its views and hiking trails, offers easy access to some of the Romanesque architecture of Castilla's Palencia province.
Spain's Canary Islands also present a sublime haven of quiet. Parador Cañadas del Teide (00 34 922374841; doubles from €135 room only) is in the crater of an extinct volcano in the Teide National Park on Tenerife. It is the only building in this reserve, which became a World Heritage Site in June 2007. Here you can go hiking during the day and gaze at stars by night. (Set well away from city light pollution and at an altitude of more than 2,000m, this is a prime area for astronomy.) The parador has two telescopes for guests' use and arranges free sky-watching talks every Friday evening.
Can I follow a trail?
There are more than 30 recommended parador routes around the country, each taking a theme. Examples include wine in the Rioja region, the ancient Ruta de la Plata trading road, or the royal palaces of central Spain (at Chinchón, Versailles-like La Granja de San Ildefonso and Tordesillas). These are self-guided tours for which you organise your own transport having bought a parador package for a trail of between three and seven nights. They're keenly priced, too: the seven-night Ruta de la Plata trail between Parador de Ciudad de Rodrigo and Parador de Gijón, for example, costs from €368 per person (based on two sharing, as are all the following prices) with breakfast but without dinners, and from €564 per person, half board.
On many of the routes you may feel as if you're on something of a treasure hunt. The three-night monastery trail (B&B from €150 per person), for instance, leads you to two glorious areas little known to tourists. You start in the Castillan town of Soria in the Duero Valley where you stay in a modern parador, explore the Romanesque monastery of San Juan de Duero and take a lovely riverside walk to the 13th-century Knights Templar church of San Polo. Moving on, you make for Olite, a remarkable medieval town off the beaten track in Navarra, where the parador is in a 15th-century palace. On the third day you're back on the tourist map at Sos del Rey Católico, a medieval hilltop town which was the birthplace of Fernando II and contains the entrancing Iglesia de San Esteban. Accommodation is in a reconstructed Aragon town mansion.
By no means all the routes are focused on culture. Follow the seven-night Mediterranean trail, for example, and you'll be beside some of Spain's best beaches – at Costa del Azahar, Costa Blanca and Costa del Sol (B&B from €423 per person). Parador de Nerja, for example, offers spectacular views from a light-filled building on cliffs above the Málaga coast.
Eating up the ambience
At Parador de Aiguablava near Girona they serve lobster stew and sea urchins; stewed partridge is often on the menu at the parador in Toledo; and at Parad or de Salamanca you can frequently sample suckling pig. Each parador offers a menu of regional specialities alongside Spanish staples – but you'll also find other options, including dishes for children and some for vegetarians.
Nearly half the income of the parador group comes from its restaurants, so providing appealing cuisine in equally appealing dining rooms is an enormously important consideration.
The original concept of the parador restaurants was to present traditional food in an appropriate setting. Over the last few years they have been gently pushing the boundaries of that remit, so in many cases time-honoured dishes have been lightened, updated and given a modern twist. And in line with contemporary gourmet outfits, several of the paradors have also started celebrating their chief chefs. Stars of the show include Daniel Turrado at Parador de Santiago de Compostela; Cristóbal Sáez at Parador de Lerma; and Bartolomé Rodrigo Lucena at Parador de Málaga Gibralfaro.