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!

Ethiopian Jesus

Jesus, Nativity, Christ, jesus, Christmas
It’s Christmas, when the Christian world celebrates the birth of Jesus Christ. The Muslim world celebrates too because in Islam Jesus is considered a prophet.

Christianity has spread all over the world. One of the best things about travel is the different world views it exposes you to, and one of these insights is that religious artists have created Jesus in their own image. Europe has a white Jesus, Africa has a black Jesus, and Latin America has a Latino Jesus.

So what did Jesus really look like? The Bible is a bit sketchy about his personal appearance, but being a Levantine Jew he wouldn’t have looked like the Nordic hippie we’re familiar with in the West. He probably looked a bit more like this picture above, which is in the 16th century church of Ura Kidane Mihret on Lake Tana, Ethiopia. Brown skin, dark eyes and hair. . .this is what most people in ancient Judea looked like.

Ethiopia became Christian in the 4th century, and is the second oldest Christian nation after Armenia. The Ethiopian Orthodox Church has built incredible houses of worship all over the country, including the famous rock-hewn churches of Lalibela, stone buildings dug out of the bedrock.

For more on the fascinating culture that produced this image, check out my series on travel in Ethiopia.

Afghan archaeologists race to study Buddhist site before destruction

We all remember the Bamiyan statues, those giant stone Buddhas the Taliban blew up in 2001. One of the 1,500 year-old statues is pictured here. Pictures are all we have left of them.

Now another Buddhist site in Afghanistan is under threat of destruction. This time the danger isn’t the Taliban, but a Chinese mining company. The site of Mes Aynak in eastern Afghanistan was home to a thriving Buddhist monastery in the seventh century. It’s also right next to an abandoned Soviet mine that may have the world’s second-largest reserve of copper. A Chinese mining company has invested $3.5 billion to exploit the mine and Afghan officials are eager for work to get underway.

A team of Afghani archaeologists is busy excavating the site and has found an entire monastery complex with more than 150 statues. They were originally given three years, a woefully inadequate length of time for a team of barely forty people, and now they’re being pressured to finish by the end of this year. The archaeologists fear that once the miners move in, the monastery will get wrecked.

The mine will bring much-needed jobs and wealth to Afghanistan, which is also courting adventure tours, so the in the rush to yank copper out of their land they might want to think about preserving some of their past.

[Photo courtesy Marco Bonavoglia via Wikimedia Commons]

Weekending: Veliko Tarnovo


The best part of expat life for me are the travel opportunities, especially when living in Turkey, conveniently located where Europe meets Asia. Expat travel takes on a new twist as you seek out the new and unfamiliar as in any new destination, the newly familiar of your adopted home city, and the old and familiar of your original home city. You luxuriate in the things your expat home lacks, compare versions of similar foods and drink, and wonder where you’d hang out, what you’d cook, and where you’d buy groceries in this foreign place. I recently took a week-long trip to Bulgaria (read about Sofia here, and I’ll finish up with the Black Sea town Varna) and fell in love with the country’s old architecture, young creativity, and most of all, the prices.

The place: Veliko Tarnovo, Bulgaria

Veliko Tarnovo (also called Veliko Turnovo, so I’ll simplify as VT) is smack dab in the middle of the country, dominated by a 12th-century fortress, hills aplenty, and the Yantra River (a Danube tributary). Once the Medieval capital of Bulgaria, VT boats a bevy of sights and lots of daytrip possibilities. After the country was liberated from the Ottoman Empire, Sofia became the capital, but VT remains a popular tourist destination and a point of pride for many Bulgarians. Other than the spectacularly Soviet Interhotel (don’t be fooled by glam interior photos, the exterior is an eyesore from another era – see above on right), VT escaped much of the communist architecture of Sofia and retains a historic small-town feel.

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  • While I found Sofia to have the best prices of any European capital thus far, VT is even more budget. I stayed in the boutique Studio Hotel for 45 Euros a night, and ordered local wine in restaurants for 2 leva a glass (and that’s for a 250 ml pour, a third of a bottle!). Two people can hit the town with 40 leva (under $30 USD) in their pockets and come home with change to spare. Real estate signs advertise houses in nearby towns for 10,000 Euros, making you contemplate a rural Bulgarian life.
  • Endless people-watching fun. For a hill town of 70,000 people, the ladies sure know how to dress. On any given weekday afternoon, you may see women in 5-inch stilettos, miniskirts, skin tight jeans, or revealing dresses. The girls may look like they are on their way to a Jersey Shore nightclub, but more likely destinations are a university class or their grandmother’s house. Additionally, ’80s fashion is alive and well in Bulgaria – I spotted mullets (for women), big hair (for men), neon colors, high-top sneakers, and vests everywhere. An entertaining afternoon can be spent at a sidewalk cafe marveling “Did you SEE what she was wearing?!” with your travel mates.

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  • While VT is a charming place, it feels like a one-horse town after a few days of wandering the same streets up and down. The historical sights are lovely to see but small and a tad overpriced (6 leva for a quick tour of a church feels a bit extortionate when you realize it could buy you a meal or get you nice and tipsy). One upside to the tiny museums is few crowds, even in the height of the tourist season. Visiting the weirdly wonderful State Art Museum as the only patron while little old ladies followed me around, turning on and off lights, was a highlight of the trip. The (almost) nightly Tsarevets fortress sound and lights show is fun to see at least once, though I thought it could be improved with more lasers and the Beverly Hills Cop theme song; visiting the fortress by day is a little disappointing and best enjoyed as a scenic view.
  • Another downside to the small-town feel of VT is limited food options. More cosmopolitan Sofia offers sushi, Indian food, and modern Bulgarian; coastal Bulgaria boats seafood galore; VT has traditional and not-terribly-exciting Bulgarian food (which can be a good or bad thing) and pizza. This means a LOT of meat and after a few days, I was literally dreaming of salad. Also: be careful with drinking tap water. Although, opinions are divided on whether or not it is safe to drink, I was sick every day I drank tap water in VT until I discovered the CDC advises against it, and was much improved after switching to bottled water. One favorite place to eat and drink: the Malkiya Inter cafe is eclectically decorated with antiques and musical instruments, buzzing with locals celebrating birthdays or watching football, and serves tasty and cheap drinks and, of course, meat.

Getting there

Centrally located, travelers can fly into Sofia or Varna and bus or drive from there, about 3.5 to 4.5 hours. Bulgarian buses are cheap, comfortable, and clean, and have the added feature (not sure if its a good one) of playing raunchy Canadian comedies with Bulgarian subtitles; I saw the dreadful National Lampoon’s Going the Distance and the “Dan Ackroyd needs a paycheck” White Coats. Trains are available as well but slower and less reliable, though they can connect you to Istanbul and Bucharest.

Make it a week

After a few days in VT proper, rent a car and explore the central Balkans, stopping at Arbanassi for architecture (you can even hike from VT) and multiple monasteries. VT can easily be combined with trips to other major Bulgarian towns, small villages, or even neighboring countries like Romania. If the weather is good, head out to the beach for my next Bulgarian stop, Varna on the Black Sea.

Read my previous Weekending trips from Istanbul here.