One day, I drove to the pier in the nearby village of Loureiro to take the motorized catamaran that plies the Sil. The commentary was in Spanish, but the sheer cliffs framing the olive green water and the waterfalls and terraced vineyards needed no translation.
RELUCTANTLY, I checked out of Santo Estevo after two nights and drove a mountain road with switchbacks 20 miles northeast to Monforte de Lemos. This parador occupies a 16th century palace and a 17th century monastery and overlooks the town from a hilltop site with a medieval keep.
The parador, which opened in July 2003, is very different in feel from Santo Estevo. My room, one of 50 around a central cloister, was furnished in dark wood, with burgundy velvet draperies.
I freshened up a bit and headed for the dining room, an attractive space with high-backed velvet chairs and a raftered ceiling decorated with heraldic banners. A woman in regional dress took my order for prawns; entrees ranged from $12.50 to $37.
My plan for the following day was to visit the much-admired town of Santiago de Compostela, but the rain was heavy, and driving almost 80 miles each way on a Spanish motorway in almost zero visibility did not appeal to me.
Instead, I grabbed an umbrella and walked downhill into the old section of town, where I was lucky enough to stumble on the annual medieval fair.
Ducking into a covered space, I found myself mingling with costumed maidens, monks and knights. For $1.85, I bought a tapa — ham on peasant bread — and red wine in a pottery cup, sat down on a hay bale and joined in.
The rain had scared away the street performers. At booths selling pastries, olive oil, wine and leather, merchants huddled behind sheets of plastic. The narrow cobblestone streets were all but deserted. A small crowd had gathered where a knight in chain mail was giving archery tips to little boys aiming bows and arrows at a painted target.
Wet and cold, I returned to the parador. Sacred choral music was playing and, in the loggia that wraps around the courtyard, I sat on a velvet settee and took in the beauty of the place, with its three-story cloisters and courtyard dominated by an ancient cistern.
A charmingly costumed young woman at the front desk tried to convince me that I'd enjoy that night's medieval dinner with entertainment, but at $62 for lamb's brain and goat, I wasn't convinced. I headed for the parador's Doña Catalina cafe and had a sandwich de jamón (ham sandwich).
FOR my third stay, I chose Parador de Limpias near Santander, 37 miles west of Bilbao in the northeastern corner of Spain.
Checking out of Monforte on a rainy Easter morning, I had a good two- and three-lane highway almost to myself as I drove to Ourense to turn in my car and catch a train to Bilbao. It was a spectacular mountain drive, with vistas of los Cañones del Sil and the river. Mist hung over cliffs that plunged to the river. At lower elevations, I was hugging the riverbank on my slow, hourlong trip.
I had just settled nicely into my train seat when the conductor came by to check my ticket and, gesturing excitedly, kept repeating, "No Bilbao! No Bilbao!" I was in the right seat, but the wrong car, and, had I stayed put, would have wound up in San Sebastián.
The train, the Diurno, was decidedly not an express — we made about a dozen stops on the eight-hour journey to Bilbao. But, blessedly, there were no-smoking cars.
In Bilbao, after stopping two nights — mostly to see the Frank Gehry-designed Guggenheim Museum — I picked up a rental car and joined the truckers for the 37-mile drive on the busy motorway to Limpias.
Driving onto the grounds through massive wooden doors set into a stone wall, my heart sank at first glimpse of the parador, a square gray building onto which was tacked a joltingly modern wing. Luckily, my room was one of 18 in the main building, a 19th century palace that once was summer headquarters for King Alfonso XIII's council. It had bright textiles and a large terrace.
Limpias, which opened in spring 2004, is less elegant than the two other paradores I visited. The lobby décor is modern and bland, save for the grand staircase, which has a lovely stained-glass window at the landing. But the parador has indoor and outdoor pools, tennis courts and 14 acres of woodland for strolling.