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SPAIN: Napoleon slept here, and so can you
IF you've been looking for those castles in Spain — to sleep in, that is — the network of state-owned paradores that crisscrosses the country will fill the bill.
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.
The hamlets near Santo Estevo are working people's villages and not particularly picturesque. But within a few miles are glorious drives. (By the way — if someone advises that the "road is very bad," believe it.)
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.
Monforte de Lemos
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.
The dining room serves regional specialties such as cod and chickpea stew and marinated quail salad. One night, ordering from the Spanish-language menu, I thought I was getting chicken and lobster stew, but what came was a piece of blood-rare chicken, a nugget of lobster and grilled red peppers.
On my full day at Limpias, I drove a mountain pass through the Soba Valley, stopping to photograph a magnificent waterfall, granite cliffs and snowcapped mountains. Following the Ason River, I stopped in the tiny town of Ogarrio for a café con leche at the Casa Tomás.
Paradores have different amenities. Some have golf courses, some spas. Bountiful buffet breakfasts, $13.50 per person at the paradores I visited, made lunch irrelevant. The choice was astonishing — eggs, meats, cheese, all manner of breads and pastries.
Paradores are popular with both tourists and Spaniards. In six days, I met a few Britons but no Americans. The most popular paradores, such as that on the grounds of the Alhambra at Granada, book months ahead.
Profits generated by the hostelries are reinvested — for preservation or for creation of hotels in areas that attract few tourists. The mother organization, Paradores de Turismo de España, has a goal of at least 100 paradores by 2008.
This year, the paradores are participating in the countrywide 400th anniversary celebration of the publication of "Don Quixote." A Don Quixote parador route takes visitors to places pivotal in the life of author Miguel de Cervantes. It also traverses landscapes in which Cervantes placed his character. As yet, none of the paradores is claiming that the elderly knight and his squire slept there.
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From LAX to Madrid, connecting service (change of plane) is available on Air France, American, British, Continental, US Airways, Lufthansa, Delta and KLM. Restricted round-trip fares begin at $780 until Aug. 31, then decrease to $643 until Oct. 31.
To call the numbers below from the U.S., dial 011 (the international dialing code), 34 (country code for Spain) and the local number.
WHERE TO STAY
Parador de Santo Estevo, 17 miles from Ourense in the Galicia region of northwestern Spain; 988-010-110, http://www.parador.es/english or http://www.paradores-spain.com . Beautifully renovated monastery artfully blends old and new. Seasonal rates $143-$161. Closed November through February.
Parador de Monforte, at Monforte de Lemos, Galicia; 982-41-84-84, http://www.parador.es/english or http://www.paradores-spain.com . Converted monastery and palace on a hilltop site. Elegantly furnished in dark woods, velvets. Doubles $143-$161, depending on season. Closed November through February.
Parador de Limpias, in Limpias, 37 miles from Bilbao in the Cantabria region of northeastern Spain; 942-628-900, http://www.parador.es/english or http://www.paradores-spain.com . Extensive wooded grounds surround this converted palace. Doubles $149-$174.
TO LEARN MORE:
Paradores de Turismo de España, central booking office; 915-166-666, http://www.parador.es/english .
Tourist Office of Spain, Los Angeles; (323) 658-7188, http://www.okspain.org . Or, Tourist Office of Spain, New York, (212) 265-8822, http://www.spain.info
— Beverly Beyette