What is a Parador? Well, quite simply, it is a state-run hotel in Spain, but Paradors are by no means simple. Many of them are former palaces, castles or monasteries.
During the 1920s. Spain saw an opportunity to save many medieval and renaissance buildings by restoring them and creating modern, luxury accommodation for foreign tourists. Not all are historic though, a few are modern buildings designed by talented Spanish architects, such as the Parador Malaga Golf resort and the Parador Valle de Aran, a ski resort. To date, there are about 90 Paradors in Spain and I have recently visited a few of them.
The Parador de Los Reyes Catolicos was originally a hospice for pilgrims to Santiago de Compostela. Built in 1486 by King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella, it overlooks the large Prazo do Obradoiro and the main entrance to the cathedral. Now it is a five-star hotel costing over €200 a night, but they still have a tradition of offering rooms for free to a few select pilgrims. I enquire at the reception about viewing the hotel and am told that a self-guided tour will cost €3 and I can only visit between 12 and 2pm. Instead, I ask where I can get a cup of coffee and am directed through the plush residents lounge to the bar, where I order and take a table outside in one of the 4 courtyards of the Parador. My coffee comes with two small buns dusted with icing sugar, an unexpected pleasure. I feel very decadent, sipping my coffee and studying the architecture of the former cloister. After, I am able to wander freely to another courtyard and past the chapel where staff are clearing away after some special breakfast event. It seems an odd place to eat!
The next day, while driving through the Ribeira Sacre, I stop to visit another Parador, housed in the former Santo Estevo de Ribas de Sil Monastery. It dates from the 12th century and is surrounded by chestnut groves on the edge of the Sil canyon. The Benadictine monks left in 1836 during the seizures of Mendizábal but it has recently been restored and opened as a Parador in 2004. I order coffee, which comes with some tarta de Santiago, and sit overlooking the largest of the three cloisters. Here, they seem quite happy for visitors to wander around, providing information boards about the history and architecture of the building. In the upper corridors of a smaller cloister is an exhibition of painting and sculptures by Florencio de Arboiro and the fabulous front entrance is adorned with a coat of arms representing the nine sanctified bishops who retired there. In contrast to the warm, welcoming Parador, the church is cold and uninviting, the only light shining through two modern stained-glass windows, high in the main apses.
A few days later I arrive at the coastal town of Baiona. Hidden inside the high walls of the Monterreal Fort is another Parador – Conde de Gondomar. The tourist office is situated just outside the main gate to the fortress and they provide me with a small brochure detailing walks around the old town, as well as the 3km Monte Boi route which circles the peninsula where the fort sits. It’s a pleasant walk between the towering walls and the sea, but the Parador is as impregnable as the 14th century Franciscan Monastery and governor’s castle that used to stand there. The town itself has a colourful maritime history, not least as the first European port to receive news of the discovery of America. There are maps and monuments along the coastal route and a replica of the Pinta caravel is moored in the harbour.