SPAIN: Napoleon slept here, and so can you
Former convents, one-time castles, previous palaces. They're now historic hotels in Spain's parador system.
In 1928, the king of Spain began converting crumbling monasteries and castles into paradores, or hotels, to help pay for renovation of the historic buildings. (Beverly Beyette / LAT)
Established in 1928 at the instigation of King Alfonso XIII to bolster tourism and save historic buildings whose owners could no longer afford their upkeep, the paradores have evolved into a collection of 91 diverse, popular hostelries.
Castles aren't the only lodgings, although there are 14 of them. There also are 15 onetime convents, a former Arab fortress (at Jaén), an ancient mill and nine palaces, among them the Parador de Argómaniz, where the warring Napoleon once took some R&R. Forty-six are in newer structures, some of which showcase local architecture.
In the spring, I stayed at three paradores that recently opened in historic buildings — Santo Estevo and Monforte de Lemos in the Galicia region in the northwest and Limpias in the Cantabria region near Bilbao in the northeast. They were not equally appealing, but they were comfortingly predictable — in this case, not a bad thing.
What I found: fairly priced, attractive rooms with roomy baths — a good value. Each had identical guestroom amenities — cable TV, hairdryer and the same label bath gel, shampoo and cologne (which I mistook for mouthwash and took a good swig). All three paradores had elevators and air conditioning and each had an attractive restaurant (semi-pricey) with food at a generally high level. The single dish that made me want to shout "¡Olé!" was an appetizer at Monforte: six baby artichokes in a sinfully rich prawn cream sauce.
Staffs were almost invariably courteous and helpful, and there was always someone who spoke English. But I suspect it's difficult to keep top-notch help in a parador that closes in the winter, as do Santo Estevo and Monforte de Lemos. At both, service was uneven.
I travel light, which is fortunate because there wasn't always someone to schlep bags. And a quiet dinner in a parador restaurant, even at the fashionable hour of 10, wasn't a given. Paradores are popular with families, including small children, who were definitely heard as well as seen.
MY odyssey began in Madrid, where I'd spent a couple of days after another assignment. My first destination was Santo Estevo, near Ourense in the north. On a March morning, I boarded an express AutoRes bus in central Madrid for the six-hour, 40-minute ride. A pleasant surprise — the bus was clean and comfortable, with soft burgundy leather seats.
As we traveled north, we passed vineyards and plains dotted with towns with tile-roofed houses and dominated by church towers. And, yes, there was rain on the plain in Spain.
There was rain too in Ourense as I walked to the train station to pick up a rental car. Soon, I had a silver SEAT and directions to Luintra and the Parador de Santo Estevo. Instead of finding Luintra, I found myself going in circles, traffic whizzing past me as I juggled the map and the stick shift. Finally, a kind motorist pointed the way.
Luintra, 17 miles from Ourense, is in the country, reached by narrow, twisting mountain roads. Just when I was certain I was lost again, a sign would appear pointing the way to the parador. I squeaked in just before dark.
I was enthralled from the moment I parked by the little church out front and walked through the huge carved stone portal. The parador, in an ancient Benedictine monastery, opened in the summer of 2004 after a six-year restoration. The result is a dazzling blend of old — Romanesque, Baroque, Gothic, Renaissance — and new. Antiques, contemporary furnishings, art and sculpture coexist happily, as do ancient cloisters and 21st century steel and glass.
My room was immaculate. (Even the TV remote had a little sticker declaring it had been sanitized for my protection.) The décor was in neutrals, with blond wood and touches of old stone. A small window overlooked an expanse of forest.
Nine of the 74 rooms bear the names of bishops who resigned in the 10th and 11th centuries and withdrew to the monastery. After the last Benedictine community left in 1836, much of the monastery fell into disrepair. The north cloister tumbled down and has been replaced by a curtain of glass that reflects the arches and columns of the other cloisters that wrap around the courtyard.
Today, the public rooms are grand, including the lovely two-story dining room with crimson chairs and vaulted stone ceiling.
Hungry and tired, I was quick to reserve on checking in. Choosing the fixed-price three-course menu at $31, I passed up several rather puzzling items, including "traveling potatoes with octopus." My first course was equally puzzling — "artichokes with attacked of fungi" (mushrooms) — but very good, followed by a nice veal stew and a glass of regional red wine. The next night, I wasn't as lucky. My fish was dry and overcooked.
Exploring Santo Estevo, I found wonderful little niches in which to read or just sit, enjoying serene vistas of forest and mountains. Like the other guests, I snapped plenty of pictures of the lovely courtyard with its flowering magnolias.
Santo Estevo is in the heart of the Ribeira Sacra, named for the hermitages established along the "sacred bank" of the Sil River between the 10th and 13th centuries as places for meditation and prayer. It is a region of stunning landscapes, with rivers (the Sil and the Miño) cutting through canyons.