Paradores: the historic luxury hotels of Spain

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


Top five castles of Extremadura, Spain

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 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.


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!

Lon-done? Visit Bath

London’s pollution and stress getting to you? Take the waters in Bath! Just ninety minutes away by train, this well-preserved Georgian-era resort makes for a relaxing day trip or, even better, a weekend getaway.

Bath is famous for its natural hot springs that supposedly have medicinal qualities. The Thermae Bath Spa offers you a chance to soak, but for old-school elegance you’ll want to visit The Roman Baths Museum and Pump Room. Here you’ll see where the ancients came to get healed by the hot mineral springs. The lower parts of the once-giant complex are still remarkably preserved. As you walk around the dim halls and central pool you’ll feel like the Romans left 15 years ago, not 1,500.

After the Romans abandoned their province of Britannia in 410 A.D. the baths fell into disuse. They didn’t come into national prominence again until Queen Anne stopped by in 1702 to cure her gout. The British love of imitating royalty kicked in and Bath was on the map again. An entire city appeared in the 18th century to take care of wealthy visitors, who often stayed an entire year or more. The Pump Room was the central meeting place, an elegant hall where you can still drink some of the healing water. It tastes very heavy in minerals and is served warm.

Bath’s most famous resident was Jane Austen, who penned sharp-witted novels about its residents and their pretensions. Fans won’t want to miss the Jane Austen Centre. Guides in period costume explain what it was like to live here in Austen’s day and trace the history of high society in this first of English resorts. A Regency-style tea room offers refreshment.

There’s lots of period architecture in Bath, but the two jewels that shine the brightest are No. 1 Royal Crescent and the Bath Abbey and Heritage Vaults. Restored and furnished as it was in Georgian times, the Crescent is part of a great sweep of townhouses that are collectively a World Heritage Building. When completed in 1774 they became the swankiest address in the city. In fact, it still is. In 2006 a house in the Crescent sold for £4.5 million, or $7.3 million. The elegant interior of No. 1 is faithfully restored with period furnishings and conveys an excellent idea of what it was like to be ridiculously wealthy more than 200 years ago.

%Gallery-83685%Bath Abbey’s Gothic spires loom over the city’s skyline. Begun in 1499, this is the last of the great Gothic cathedrals built in England and in many ways a culmination of the style. Its great clear windows on the north and south soak the interior with light, while the intricate stained glass on the west and east are breathtakingly beautiful. When lit up at night it looks like a glowing tiara, and locals have dubbed it “The Lantern”. The Heritage Vaults in the cellar trace the history of Christian worship on this site from the 7th century to the present.

The one off note with Bath is the number of visitors. It’s far more crowded than St. Albans or even Canterbury, so you might want to consider visiting outside of the tourist season. Since most of the visitors are day trippers, staying overnight will give you a chance to walk the historic streets in relative peace and see the Abey lit up. There are no shortage of hotel options. If you want to splash out try the Royal Crescent Hotel and live like you’re in a Jane Austen novel. To save your budget after all those spa treatments, eat at Yak Yeti Yak, a cheap and filling Nepali restaurant.