Paradores: the historic luxury hotels of Spain

Spain, spain, extremadura, Extremadura
Spain is known for its rich history, fine art, and excellent cuisine. By staying at a government-owned Parador, you can get all three right in your hotel.

Just look at this shot by Michael Stallbaum . This castle in Zafra, Extremadura, dates to 1437 and was once home to a duke. It’s the sort of place where you’d expect to pay a few euros, get your ticket stamped, and line up for the guided tour. Actually it’s a hotel with luxurious rooms, a restaurant, a garden, and a pool! It stands in the center of a beautiful and old town and right next to a sumptuous Renaissance church.

The Paradores of Spain offer luxury accommodation in some of Spain’s most historic and popular cities, many of which, like Cáceres and Mérida, are World Heritage Sites. In Extremadura, Spain’s historic southwest, there are seven. Besides Zafra, there are Paradores in Guadalupe (in a 15th century hospital), Jarandilla (15th century castle), Plasencia (15th century convent), and Trujillo (16th century convent), Mérida and Cáceres.

When I visited Mérida with my family, we stayed at a Parador housed in an 18th century convent. A lofty chapel is now a lounge and activities room, and an interior courtyard has columns from Roman times. I’m not sure what conditions were like for the nuns two hundred years ago, but our room had comfortable beds and all the usual amenities. The staff were very friendly and helpful. Don’t worry if your Spanish isn’t up to snuff; Paradores always have people on staff who can speak English and other languages.

The popular destination Cáceres has one of Spain’s older Paradores, a 14th century palace built atop Arab foundations. Much of the interior is original, including the grand mantelpiece in the lounge. It’s currently being refurbished and will reopen April 15.

While I’ve concentrated on the Paradores of Extremadura here, you can find more all over the country. Probably the best and certainly the most popular is the one in Granada, housed in a 15th century convent on the site of the famous Alhambra. This Moorish palace is one of the architectural wonders of the world with its quiet gardens, burbling fountains, and intricately carved marble. The best time to go is on the full moon, when the marble glows with an ethereal light. Book WAY in advance for this one.

Another plus with staying in a Parador is that most have excellent restaurants. There’s usually a formal restaurant and a bar that serves light meals and tapas. They tend to attract a lot of the local population, which is always a good sign.

Guys, a word of warning. My girlfriend took me to the Parador in Sigüenza. Now anybody who follows my work knows I’m a sucker for castles, and the combination of staying in a 12th century castle and a bottle of fine Spanish wine made me pop the question. I think it was a plot.

Don’t miss the rest of my series: Exploring Extremadura, Spain’s historic southwest

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Top five castles of Extremadura, Spain

castle, castles, Spain, Badajoz
Spain is one of the best countries in the world to see castles. Throughout the Middle Ages, the Iberian peninsula was split between various Christian states and the Moors, Muslim invaders from North Africa. These factions fought and traded with each other in a constantly changing network of political alliances. Leaders protected their domains with castles and walled cities. One of the hot spots for fighting was in the southwest in what is now the autonomous community of Extremadura, including its provinces of Badajoz and Cáceres. There are literally hundreds of castles here. Below are five of the best, picked for their accessibility and general coolness.

Olivenza
Olivenza is a town in the province of Badajoz. It’s right on the border with Portugal and is actually claimed by that country, although it has been under Spanish jurisdiction since 1801. The castle of Olivenza is an impressive Templar fortress adapted from an earlier Muslim castle taken in 1228. It features high walls and imposing square towers. As you can see from the photo in the gallery, these included “murder holes” set out from the edge of the tower from which to drop rocks and boiling water on attackers. The idea of dropping boiling oil is a myth. Water was much cheaper and easier to obtain, although one account from a siege in France talks about using boiling lead! The castle at Olivenza was expanded in the 14th and 16th centuries and is very well preserved, still dominating this small town of 12,000 people. A gate flanked by slender, semi-round towers, and a wide moat also survive.

Fregenal de la Sierra
This castle is also in Badajoz and guards the road to Seville. As you can see from the above photo, courtesy Fregenal01 via Wikimedia Commons and taken under much better conditions than the crappy weather we had on our trip to Extremadura, the high walls and seven towers now share the skyline with church spires. This wasn’t always the case. The first fort here was built by the Romans, later reworked by the Visigoths and Moors. After the land was taken from the Muslims, King Fernando III gave the castle to the Templars in 1283. They expanded and improved the fortifications and they were still being used as late as 1808 by Napoleon’s troops! The castle courtyard is now the town’s bullfighting ring.

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Trujillo
Perhaps the most visited castle in Extremadura is in the charming old walled city of Trujillo in Cáceres. In the 16th century Extremadura was a poor region that had seen generations of warfare. This bred tough and desperate men willing to take a chance to better their lives. Trujillo was the home of many of the Conquistadores that won the New World for Spain, including Francisco Pizarro. His house is now a museum and sits in the shadow of one of Spain’s most impressive castles. Trujillo was taken during the Moorish invasion of 711 and remained in Muslim hands until 1232. You can see many Arab flourishes to the design, such as the horseshoe-shaped arches. An informative tour takes you all around the battlements. The guides like to point out where the Virgin Mary appeared to rally the Spanish in their final assault against the Moors.

Castillo de Floripes
For something a little different, head to this partially submerged 15th century fortress. Close to the small town of Garrovillas de Alconétar in Cáceres, it got inundated by a reservoir project in 1969. The main tower still rises majestically from the waters, and when there’s a drought you can see much more of the Gothic stonework and even walk around the grounds. It’s a bit squishy, but atmospheric. Supposedly it has its origins in Roman, Visigothic, and Moorish times, but there’s no chance to conduct an archaeological excavation.

The Fortified Monastery of Santa María de Guadalupe
Spain was a rough place back in the Middle Ages, and monks weren’t immune to the violence. This World Heritage Site in the town of Guadalupe, Cáceres, has been one of Spain’s most important monasteries for centuries. Founded in 1340, it became a center of learning and medicine. The tour takes you around the tall towers, the cloisters, and painting of monks done by Zurbarán. The highlight is Our Lady of Guadalupe, a holy image of the Black Madonna. It’s a popular pilgrimage spot, so the town has many hotels.

For more information and photos, check out the Castillos de España website (in Spanish) and its English sister site (which sadly doesn’t have as much material) Castles of Spain. Both feature a handy interactive map. For more general information on castles, go to the website of castle expert Lise E. Hull. She focuses on the British Isles, but includes a lot of general information on castle construction and daily life in the Middle Ages.

Don’t miss the rest of my series: Exploring Extremadura, Spain’s historic southwest

Coming up next: Paradores: the luxury hotels of Spain!

The food and wine of Extremadura, Spain

Spain, Extremadura, Spain, extremaduraOne of the best things about traveling around Spain is trying out the various regional cuisines. Here in Extremadura, in the southwestern part of the country, the people are known for the quality of their cuisine.

First off, there are these shapely pig legs pictured on the right. Cured and ready to be cut into thin slices, this is called jamón, and is a personal favorite of mine. In a country where people are always saying their regional food is the best, a lot of people seek out Extremaduran jamón. The care and feeding of the pigs is the key.

Spaniards love their pork. While their beef steaks are only OK and their chicken dishes good but unremarkable, they seem to have devised unlimited varieties of pork products. There’s lomo (tenderloin), morcilla (blood sausage), chorizo (sausage with dried smoked red peppers), salchichon (Spanish salami) and a million kinds of embutido (seasoned sausage). I’m very glad I’m not vegetarian.

One surprise when visiting Extremadura was to discover my favorite cheese comes from there and only there. Torta del Casar is a soft white cheese made of sheep’s milk. It comes in a soft cake that is sliced open to reveal the gooey cheese inside. It has a creamy consistency and rich flavor, perfect to put on crackers. Extremadura produces a whole range of good cheeses, but torta del Casar is the most unique.

The region is also well-known for the quality of its paprika, called pimentón in Spanish. Not surprisingly it makes it into a lot of dishes, including cazuela, a paprika butter that’s very good on bread. Like every other region, Extremadura also has its own brands of olive oil, preserves, and sweets.

And let’s not forget the wine! One good line is Habla del Silencio, a full-bodied, slightly biting red of consistent quality. Another is Theodosius, a Tempranillo/Graciano mix named after the famous Byzantine emperor.

Every town in Extremadura has at least one shop selling local food and wine. If you’re in Mérida, check out Serraquesada on Calle José Ramón Mélida 24, close to the Roman museum, where most of the photos in the gallery were taken. This family-owned business focuses on Extremaduran products and stocks pretty much anything you could ask for. The front has rows and rows of jamón, and shelves stuffed with other food and condiments. In the back is a well-stocked bodega with a few tables so you can sit and sample Extremadura’s wonderful food and wine. Their website is still under construction but the business offers international mail order via email at ppserraquesada@gmail.com.

Many of Extremadura’s better-known products such as jamón and torta del Casar can be found in better shops all around the country.

Don’t miss the rest of my series: Exploring Extremadura, Spain’s historic southwest

Coming up next: Top five castles of Extremadura!

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The Visigoths: Spain’s forgotten conquerors

Spain, Visigoth, Visigoths, Visigothic, MéridaWhen most people think of the fall of the Roman Empire, they think of hordes of howling barbarians swarming over the frontier and laying waste to civilization. That’s only partially true. In reality, many tribes were invited, and even those that weren’t came with their families not just to conquer, but to settle. This is why historians prefer the term “Migration Period”. And although these tribes conquered, the Romans ended up changing them more than they changed the Romans.

Take the gravestone pictured here, for instance. The product of “barbarians” who had taken Spain, it has Christian symbolism and is written in Latin. It reads, “Cantonus, servant of God, lived 87 years. He rested in peace on 22 December 517 AD.”

The Visigoths spread over much of the western Roman Empire in the fourth and fifth centuries. Their attacks prompted the emperor Honorius to withdraw his legions from Britain so he could get reinforcements, but this didn’t stop the Visigoths from sacking Rome itself in 410 AD. Like other Germanic tribes, they came to settle, and eventually moved as far as southern France and Spain. There they took over the government but left the society pretty much intact. Roman bureaucrats still ran day-to-day affairs. The Visigoths were already Christian like most Romans by this time, and since they lacked a written language they started using Latin.

Their kingdom lasted from 475 to 711, when they were defeated by the Umayyid Muslims. That’s a long time, but the Visigoths have basically become the Invisigoths, a forgotten people sandwiched in time between the Romans and the Moors. Why? Because they had little effect on the people they ruled. The Iberian Romans continued pretty much as they were, developing from the crumbling Classical era into the Early Middle Ages. These Ibero-Romans vastly outnumbered their Visigothic rulers. The only Visigothic word to make it into Spanish is verdugo, which means “executioner”.

If you look hard enough, you can still see traces of the Visigoths. Four of their churches still stand, two in Spain and two in Portugal. One of the best is San Pedro de la Nave near Campillo, Spain. Two shots of this church are in the gallery. Bits of other buildings have been incorporated into later structures. In Mérida, a Moorish fortress called the Alcazaba uses a bunch of pillars taken from a Visigothic hospital. They’re shown in the gallery too. The Visigoths had a distinct artistic style of carvings in low relief, showing plants or animals or people in Biblical or battle scenes. The Visigothic Museum in Mérida has an excellent collection of these.

The Germanic tribes were also good at making jewelry, and the Visigoths were no exception. They liked huge, intricately carved pins called fibulae to hold their cloaks, and wore bejeweled belt buckles big enough to make any Texan proud. Several of their chunky gold crowns also survive, with the names of their kings spelled out in gold letters hanging like a fringe around the edge.

So when visiting Spain’s many museums and historic sights, keep an eye out for remnants of Spain’s underrated rulers!

Don’t miss the rest of my series: Exploring Extremadura, Spain’s historic southwest

Coming up next: The wine and cuisine of Extremadura!

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More Roman heritage from Mérida, Spain

Roman, Spain, MéridaIn the Extremaduran city of Mérida, it feels like at any moment you’re going to turn a corner and meet an ancient Roman. Sometimes that almost happens.

This fellow was at the Museo Nacional de Arte Romano, a world-class museum featuring Roman statues, mosaics, and other artifacts. Built by the famous architect Rafael Moneo Vallés, it looks like an old Roman basilica, with lofty arches, wide corridors, and lots of natural light. This allows each artifact to have plenty of space so it can be viewed from all angles. My five-year-old son loved this place. With the crowds dispersed in such a large area, he didn’t have to keep close to my side all the time. He could wander at will (within my sight, of course) and examine the chariot races on the mosaics all by himself. He also liked the basement, which included a Roman road and several crypts.

While the museum is one of the best I’ve seen, the whole city is actually a museum. Behind a cafe I saw spare chairs stacked under a Roman arch. The local church incorporates parts of a temple to Mars. The main pedestrian bridge across the Rio Guadiana, dating to about 25 BC, is the longest surviving Roman bridge in the world.

Last time I talked about the Roman theater and amphitheater at Mérida. These are the two most popular sights in town, but perhaps more impressive is the Casa del Mitreo. This Roman mansion is located near the subterranean temple of Mithras, a mystery religion that was the main competitor with Christianity for the hearts and minds of the Romans in the late Empire. It’s not clear if the house was actually associated with the temple, but a beautiful, complex mosaic on the library floor suggests it was. It shows the divine principles of sky, earth, and sea in a vast interconnected group. These aren’t gods, but ideas, such as Copiae, the riches of the sea; Aestas, the summer; and Chaos. The whole mansion has been excavated and protected under a modern roof, so you can stroll around on a modern walkway and look down the bedrooms, patios, and wall paintings. My wife voted this the best attraction in town. Near the house is a rather spooky Roman graveyard.

%Gallery-112140% On the edge of town you can see one of the best preserved Roman hippodromes in the world. Chariot races were even more popular than gladiator fights or plays. Like the theater this was an institution that the early Christians disapproved of. But like the Mérida theater, it got a major face lift courtesy of the early Christian emperors in the years 337-340 AD. It took some time for the Christians to enforce their strict morality on the Roman populace. Walking along the 440 meter (481 yard) long racetrack you can easily imagine cheering crowds and crashing chariots. Thirty thousand people could be seated here. Nearby are the remains of one of Mérida’s two aqueducts.

Mérida protected the crossing of the Guadiana river, and so even after the Roman Empire crumbled it was an important spot. The Visigoths, a Germanic tribe, built an imposing city wall and fortress here. Little of that period remains, but the next rulers of Mérida, the Moors, built a sprawling fortress called the Alcazaba next to the bridge. When we visited we had the place pretty much to ourselves. My son got to walk the ramparts and look out over the river, imagining what it would have been like to live in those times. He especially liked exploring the dark tunnels under the main tower, which lead to a cistern that provided the soldiers with water. The upper story of this same tower was once a mosque.

“Fun for the whole family” is a horrible travel writing cliché, but it does apply to Mérida! While the modern town isn’t much to look at, it’s full of ancient surprises. The food and wine are great too. More on that in another post.

Don’t miss the rest of my series on Exploring Extremadura, Spain’s historic southwest

Coming up next: The Visigoths: Spain’s forgotten conquerors!