Special hotels offer a taste of medieval Spain

By Robert N. Jenkins

bobjenkinswrites.com

Guests at the parador at Siquenza enjoy al fresco dining in the courtyard. Photo courtesy of Paradores of Spain.

Spain is the most frequently visited nation in the world; credit its warm-weather beaches and cosmopolitan big cities for drawing mostly European tourists.

View down a cobbled alley (never built for motor vehicles) from the hilltop lodging in Siquenza to the more modern part of town. Photo by Robert N. Jenkins.But Spain also attracts enlightened holiday-makers intrigued by its millennia of history – evident in the wealth of preserved structures -- its robust cuisine and well-regarded wines, and variety of landscapes.

Just over a century ago, the national government sought to increase tourism by creating a network of approved lodgings. While Europeans and many North Americans were aware of Spain’s quaint accommodations in coastal villages, the idea was to broaden the nation’s appeal by showcasing its history and landscapes away from the beaches.

The first lodging was actually built in a mountainous area and opened in 1928. The government realized the value of utilizing historical structures that visitors could not find – much less spend the night in – elsewhere. Consequently, the government renovated abandoned castles, monasteries and other ancient buildings into first-class hotels with modern guest rooms and bath facilities.

Almost 100 charming choices

These are the paradores (pah-rah-DOE-rays), the Spanish word for inn. Now, each of these lodgings has a quality restaurant featuring regional dishes – and a 30-percent discount for guests 55 and older.

Numbering nearly 100 facilities, about two-thirds in reclaimed or renovated ancient structures – palaces, fortresses, convents, etc. – the paradores are quite popular, so much so that on one of my trips to Spain, my first two choices were booked. I was able to spend a total of three nights in two others, and I was shown a guest room in one of my original choices.

Here's what I found:

Parador at Calahorra. Photo by Paradores of Spain.In Calahorra: The hotel is not a rehabbed ancient structure but is the best hotel in an ancient city. Calahorra (cal-ah-OR-ruh) was a town when the Romans took control of it nearly 200 years before the birth of Christ.

Consequently, this parador is named for a great Roman orator who was born in the city, Marco Fabio Quintiliano. A section of a Roman wall still stands just beyond the hotel's driveway.

My room had a double bed; squeaky but varnished plank floors with throw rugs; a small desk; good closet space (and hangers with the clasps so handy for slacks and dresses), and drawers in the closets.

Thoughtful touches

The bedroom measured about 14 by 10 feet. The closets were in an entry hall, and the bedroom had a door to this hall, which made for a quieter sleeping area.

Someone had paid special attention to the bathroom, which was huge, modern and marble everywhere but the ceiling. Unusual for European hotels, the tub was exceptionally large. The vanity had two sinks, with the paradores' logo "P" embossed on the faucet handle of each. There was an adjustable magnifying mirror for shaving or makeup application, and a hair dryer.

A bedroom in the parador at Calahorra. Photo by Paradores of Spain.

In addition to the usual shampoo, and shower gel, the amenities basket included a comb, razor and shaving cream, toothbrush and toothpaste, shoe shine sponge, shoehorn – and a card offering forgetful guests everything from a nail file to diapers.

The bedroom had narrow, floor-to-ceiling French doors opening onto a "balcony" only 4 inches deep but a nice touch, nonetheless.

The hotel had two attractive lounges off the lobby and spacious sitting areas by the elevators on the two guest room floors -- areas to accommodate the conversation-loving Spanish.

The glories of ancient Spain are not only hilltop castles: Look close to find treasures such as this battered lock – and its modern substitute to the side. Photo by Robert N. Jenkins.The parador is well located, a few blocks from the oldest section of the city and at one end of a pedestrian mall that had the full complement of tabernas, or small bar/restaurants. One block over, the buildings and tabernas were decidedly rougher.

Rooms generally have twin beds or a double, and rates run from $185 to $277 a night in the winter season, Nov. 1-Feb. 28, to $200 to $300 from March 1-Oct. 31.

But the hotel, renovated this summer, is not in a historic building, which is the factor setting these hotels apart.

In Siguenza: That's the case with the parador in medieval Siguenza, a city you do not just happen upon. Siguenza (sig-WAYN-thah) is more than 70 miles northeast of Madrid and 12 bumpy miles on a rural road from the nearest highway.

Hilltop parador at Siquenza. Photo by Paradores of Spain.

But the reward is a parador recreated in a hilltop castle that dates to the 12th century. "Recreated" is the operative word: Taken in 1969, an aerial photo near the front desk shows the shell of the ruined castle just before the reconstruction began.

The hotel opened in 1976, amid rebuilt turrets, crenellated ramparts and an arched main hall that is the impressive dining room. The ceiling must be 25 feet above the tiled floor.

This same tile is used throughout the hotel. Where the parador in Calahorra has typically straight hotel corridors and a few right-angle turns, Siguenza's hallways keep turning, first this way, then that. Small stairways lead off the lobby from the main staircase.

Calahorra has a smallish landscaped terrace in back; Siguenza has a spacious courtyard that includes a small garden of hedges, a fountain and tables set for dining or cocktails. Many guest rooms face the courtyard, and several of these rooms have full balconies two floors above the courtyard.

My room had twin beds and was a square measuring about 13.5 feet in both directions. The bathroom was comparable to the one in Calahorra, though it was notably older and had tile rather than marble walls.

Disappointingly, the bedroom had barely adequate lighting. The sconces on either side of the bed were insufficient to read by, whereas the bedside lights in Calahorra were on swing-out, adjustable arms.

Rates in this parador are $208 to $416 (for a suite) in the off season, $225 to $451 in the high season.

In ancient Santo Domingo de la Calzada, where I had tried to book a room in the parador, I was allowed to look at a typical room. It had more modern furnishings than either of the parador rooms in which I did stay. The room was of comparable size to the others.

Parador at Santo Domingo de la Calzada. Photo by Paradores of Spain.This structure was originally an inn for pilgrims in the 12th century and is across a small plaza from a similarly ancient church. Reaching this parador by car means driving on exceedingly narrow streets in the ancient village that developed around the church and inn; parking is limited. But it is just that sort of extraordinary experience that makes staying in a parador a special vacation memory.

If you go

The paradores' wonderfully user-friendly web site www.paradoresofspain.com offers rates in euros, U.S. and Canadian dollars and British pounds. The site lists all room options and rates for both seasons.

The page for each parador includes photos, a history of the facility, lists of nearby attractions and festivals and a general menu. Also on each parador’s page is a map of Spain locating that lodging, with driving directions to it from the nearest city or large town. There are distances from this parador to several others nearby – so that you could plan your night-to-night journey.

A “Golden Days’’ discount is 30-percent off for anyone 55 or older, but those ages 20-35 can book rooms at just 57 euros per person. Additionally, there are two-night and five-night cards good for 20-percent discounts.

Robert N. Jenkins is the former travel editor of the St. Petersburg Times.

Cover image of the parador at Siquenza courtesy of Paradores of Spain.

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