I sat on a centuries-old stone window seat cushioned by pillows and took in the scene: a dense forest of oak and chestnut trees covered a lush green valley. No other building intruded on the scene. The only sounds came from the flap of birds’ wings and the rustle of leaves moving in the breeze. A morning mist blurred the view just enough to make it feel like a dream. I felt like I had opened a window to the past.
I had simply awakened at the Parador de Santo Estevo, a centuries-old former monastery in Spain’s River Sil canyon that is now a luxurious inn. As I looked out the window, it seemed that little had changed since monks occupied the place, perhaps as early as the sixth century. But then I remembered my plush bed, the marble-clad modern bathroom and the cortado, Spain’s version of an espresso, served on the terrace cafe overlooking one of the monastery’s three picturesque cloisters.
This lavish hideaway in the remote northwest Galician region of Spain is one of a network of paradores, government-run upscale hotels located in restored medieval fortresses, imposing castles and peaceful monasteries.
The first parador, Parador de Gredos in the mountains near Madrid, opened in 1928 in a royal hunting lodge, as a way to preserve the historic structure and bring an economic boost to an out-of-the-way area. Now, 94 paradores dot the country. Many offers spas, top-notch restaurants, hidden courtyards and mysterious passageways. Each is unique, in a setting rich in history.
I haven’t visited them all, but wish I could. Parador de Santo Estevo is among my favorites. Here are some others.
Parador de Santiago de Compostela
When I stepped out of the entrance at the Parador de Santiago de Compostela, the first thing I saw was the city’s stunning cathedral, the final destination for millions of pilgrims following the Way of St. James.
Considered the oldest hotel in the world, the parador was originally built as a royal hospital in 1499 to accommodate the pilgrims, sinners and penitents even then.
Now the royal hospital is a five-star luxury lodging. Plush rugs cover polished wood floors, sculptures flank fireplaces, elegant upholstered chairs create small sitting arrangements, chandeliers light the many hallways. Artwork, tapestries and coats-of-arms fill the walls. Visitors today (sick sinner or not) sleep in an antique four-poster canopied bed and have a “pillow menu,” from which to choose their preferred headrest.
Wandering through the historic building is part of the pleasure when staying in such ancient quarters. Inside this one, tucked away like secrets, are four beautiful arcaded cloisters. The original two ring stone fountains; the other two, added in later years, surround box gardens with unique water wells at their center.
The parador is located on Santiago de Compostela’s impressive Obradoiro Square, only steps away from the cathedral. Toward twilight when the crowds of tourists and pilgrims thin out, I liked listening for the melancholy sounds of a faraway bagpipe, the most audible evidence of Galicia’s Celtic roots. I also found the parador’s terrace a perfect spot to watch the fading light slowly transform the cathedral and the square into a mystical stillness — along with a feeling I couldn’t quite put into words.
Parador de Granada
The scent of roses enveloped me on the walkway to the Parador de Granada. At least 24 varieties of roses are carefully tended on either side of the paved stone pathway that leads to the entrance of one of Spain’s most popular (and expensive) paradores. (You must reserve months in advance.)
This parador’s popularity is founded in part by its location; it sits on the grounds of the famed Alhambra.
That monument — a UNESCO World Heritage Site that sits high on a hill above the southern Spanish city of Granada — is Spain’s most-visited heritage site. A complex of fortresses, palaces and gardens of exquisite Moorish architecture and design, the Alhambra is loaded with legends, filled with fountains of marble, patios and pools, intricate tilework, painted friezes, lavish gardens and notable buildings such as the Palace of Carlos V. Tickets are required to enter the Alhambra complex, but you can overlook the beauty and have easy access to it by staying at Parador de Granada.
As I looked out the window of my room, I felt as if I were gazing at a postcard picture or a painting. Below me were some of the Alhambra grounds’ artfully hedged and shaped greenery with small splashes of yellow, red and pink — roses. Across from me, tall, slim cypress trees bordered another part of the Alhambra, the ancient summer palace that Nasrid kings and their families once used for leisure and retreat.
The parador is built on the site of a mosque and palace founded in the 14th century. Guests can take a self-guided walking tour of the building, which is something of a living museum.
I entered its courtyard with arcaded columns wrapped in sweet-scented jasmine and edging a pool of water and finally understood the ancient meditative appeal of the sound of water (the Arabs liked it to “flow like a whisper”) and the aromatic scents of flowers. I found that a glass of wine didn’t hurt, either.
Parador de Cáceres
Except for the church bells clanging out the hour, the peaceful vibe in the pedestrian-only old quarter of Cáceres could probably make you forget the time.
The parador here is set in the heart of this gorgeous and originally walled city, about a three-hour drive southwest of Madrid.
Made up of two 14th-century palaces linked together, the parador is a labyrinth of rooms and passageways. “Similar to the castle of the little magician from the U.K.,” the desk clerk informed me. “Harry Potter?” I asked. Yes, she smiled.
As with all paradores, the dining room focuses on the cuisine and specialties of the region. Long known for its many culinary offerings, Cáceres was selected Spain’s Capital of Gastronomy last year. The parador has been showcasing the area’s delicious food for years, serving such favorites as torta del casar, a strong, pungent and runny sheep’s milk cheese, and spiking dishes with the smoky pimento de La Vera (paprika), the spice synonymous with Extremadura, where the peppers are grown.
Among the culinary delights at Parador de Cáceres are cookies baked by cloistered Spanish nuns who sell the sweet treats up the hill from the parador at Convento de San Pablo. The convent, built in 1492, is worth a visit, if only to witness how the treats are sold to the public. Because the nuns do not wish to be seen, the process requires patrons to ring a bell and order via a speaker system. Then the transaction takes place through a small cupboard with a sort of Lazy Susan inside. You place your money on it, spin it around and soon, the box of cookies you requested is spun back to you.
Parador de Santo Estevo
A forest of oak and chestnut trees surrounds the picturesque Parador de Santo Estevo, which is well worth the scenic but winding roads to reach it. Its setting is magnificent. It wasn’t even an inconvenience when I had to wheel my suitcase down the final steep hill to the entrance. (The road was too narrow for our vehicle.) The walk took me past chestnut trees with nets underneath to collect the harvest, an unusual and unforgettable autumn scene.
Inside the sprawling complex, Romanesque, Gothic and Renaissance details are everywhere. Some rooms (mine included) even have the original built-in stone benches the monks may have used for meditating, conveniently located by windows that overlook the lush nearby River Sil canyon.
Parador de Hondarribia
I sat in a comfy chair in my room at Parador de Hondarribia, in the Basque region. Out the window, I spied sailboats, small fishing vessels and yachts bobbing in the calm blue water of Txingudi Bay. The coast of France, nonthreatening these days, loomed in the distance.
But back in the 10th century the stark and austere fortress with its immense stone walls had to guard against the dangers and attacks that came from the sea.
Prowling around the paradore’s public spaces, I found medieval armor and framed swords and spears on the stone walls — a nod to the past. Rich tapestries and ornate antique chests were scattered in various nooks and crannies, often surrounding beautiful upholstered furniture where it seemed almost odd to find guests checking their cellphones for messages.
Many paradores are located in such quiet, unspoiled and colorful hamlets like Hondarribia, often not far from places more popular with tourists. (San Sebastian is close to this one.) I loved pretty Hondarribia’s peaceful pace, and especially strolling its cobbled lamplit streets at night. During the day, it was fun slipping into charming small shops — including the one selling handcrafted puppets, where master puppet-makers carried on their craft in full view, or serendipitously finding a tiny storefront showcasing cute and inexpensive espadrilles. (I bought three pairs.) Score.
Parador de La Gomera
There’s nothing like waking up to the sound of palm trees rustling in a sea breeze and sunlight streaming through a half-open shutter. Such was my morning at the Parador de La Gomera in the Canary Islands, a spot in the islands off Morocco that has to be one of Spain’s most beautiful settings for a parador.
But this parador has not been here for centuries; in fact, it was new construction.
Besides restoring and conserving historic buildings, the state-owned corporation of Paradores de Turismo de España occasionally creates these new paradores in some of Spain’s most stunning settings.
The parador on the island of La Gomera in the Canary Islands is one. It’s such a perfect rendition of the island’s architectural style and charm that it was difficult for me to believe it hadn’t been there since the 16th century like many of the other homes in the city.
With a traditional “Canarian patio” open to the sky but enclosed between the building’s four sides, it also featured the typical second-story wood balcony that overlooked a pretty patio along with plenty of potted plants — both quintessential Canarian features.
Atop a 250-foot cliff above the port of San Sebastián, the parador’s subtropical gardens and grounds were designed to accent the island’s dramatic vistas, sunrises and sunsets. I watched transfixed during one sunset as Mount Teide on the island of Tenerife melted into a dark silhouette — majestic and surreal in a smoldering sky.
This is a parador where it’s easy to unplug (Wi-Fi is available only in the lobby and on the patio), refresh your body and pay attention to your soul. Like all the paradores, it puts you in the present, but takes you back to the past.
Donna Tabbert Long is a freelance writer in Minneapolis. You can follow her on twitter @tabbertlong.