July 23, 2006
Spain’s Ageless Beauties
By SARAH WILDMAN
NESTLED on cushioned, mahogany wicker armchairs spread across a terra-cotta floor, chatty knots of Spaniards nurse drinks and rest legs, weary after a day of climbing hills in the medieval town of Cuenca, displayed before them outside large arched windows. The bar they are in has walls that are almost as old as the town and hung with antique pen-and-ink drawings of Spanish soldiers and admirals in brushed-metal frames, stern images softened by the crisp, cheerful yellowy green of the walls and silk curtains, a combination that faintly recalls a colonial tropical destination or the summer Pottery Barn catalog.
A scrim of cigarette smoke curls gently above the tables and disappears into the triple-height ceiling, where a restored painting of a supplicant Jesus in monk’s robes is joined by other paintings of saints, all looking heavenward from their posts within these 16th-century friezes.
Below these prayerful images, Santos Martin sips resolí, the local liquor, in a brandy glass. His companion, Isabel García Álvarez, slides a bright gold card across the table. The phrase “Amigos de Paradores” rolls across the top in American Express-style glittering gold.
“I have been to nearly all of them,” Ms. García, a Madrileño, says proudly about Spain’s paradores. The card, she explains, is for a rewards system connected to these historic hotels spread from the Portuguese border to the Mediterranean. She ticks off her favorites: “León. Sos del Rey Católico. Plasencia.”
Out the window, just beyond Ms. García’s fuchsia blazer, the dramatic cliffs of Cuenca glow with evening light of late June; the sheer drop into the Huécar River Valley provokes sharp intakes of breath.
“You pay for quality and location,” she continues, and Mr. Martin nods, swirling the ice in his glass. A burst of laughter ripples from a clutch of physicians finishing an early cocktail.
Centuries ago, this was a room for penitence and prayer. Now this bar is a gathering point for guests of the Parador de Cuenca, a station for pilgrims of tourism.
After the first parador opened near Ávila in the Gredos Mountains in 1928, dozens of convents, monasteries and castles were reclaimed and converted into dramatic lodging by the Spanish government with Hilton-like zeal. King Alfonso XIII knew there was romance and mystery in the walls of these 500-to-1,000-year-old buildings that dot the Spanish countryside. The king hoped to bring Spaniards from one part of the country to another, preserve the aging structures and knit together disparate regions in a common historical journey.
The royal hotelier system was eventually discovered by foreign tourists. Paradores became a way to see authentic Spain, a way to leave the sterility of big-name hotels and cities to literally sleep and dine with history. Who, after all, could resist the idea of staying in a castle? Or eating in a room that has seen wine spilled since the time of the Inquisition?
Thus the dormant 16th-century Dominican Monastery de San Pablo became the Parador de Cuenca. The city lies at the heart of Castile-La Mancha, the sparsely populated central section of the country. The romance here is literary: this is the Spain of Cervantes and “Don Quixote.”
Filling rooms at paradores like this one was once effortless. But despite the delight travelers have long felt in staying in these storied spots, in the last decade the paradores started facing competition. From Barcelona to Bilbao, ever sleeker hotels began going up, with older ones being rehabbed, using well-known architects and artists.
Even Madrid — slow to join the hotel boom of the 1990’s — has had an explosion of boutique hotels with designer pedigrees in the last five years. Most notably, the Puerta América, which opened last summer on the edge of the city, showily bequeathed a floor each to 12 architects from around the world to design as they wished.
Recognizing these changes, in 2001 the Spanish government announced a plan to overhaul the paradores, renovating and updating them to meet the four- and five-star standard for the 21st century. They are pinning 500 million euros on the hopes that though tourists have come to expect Wi-Fi, mod furniture and plasma TV’s, they still maintain a yen for history and authenticity.
By 2010, all of the more than 90 paradores in Spain’s network, which is growing, will have been refreshed and modernized, making them as enticing as any city hotel. At Cuenca, a renovation began early in 2004, and has been completed save a temporarily closed gym and sauna.
The tourists here, like those at the majority of paradores, are mostly Spaniards, many from Madrid, with a smattering of other Europeans. They have come here as much to see the town as the parador itself.
“Toledo was sold out,” says Pia Lädrach, 38, from Bern, Switzerland, referring to Toledo’s also recently restored, well-regarded parador. Nearby — and even more lavishly renovated — is the 15-room castle of Alarcón, but that was booked as well. So, she adds, “We looked and saw here was this nice place with an old city,” not well known like Toledo, but still historic.
Rodolfo Lazarich Gener, an economist from Cádiz, agrees. “You come here to live like people did in the Middle Ages, but in a four- or five-star hotel,” he says.
Cuenca is an ancient city with a 12th-century core. In 1177, Alfonso VIII “liberated” it from the Moors, and the construction of a central cathedral began. While quaint and, occasionally, exquisite, it is like many of the ancient parador locations: a bit far from everything. (Elsewhere in Spain, if you call someone “from Cuenca” it’s akin to saying from “the sticks.”)
The two-and-a-half-hour trip from Madrid in an overcrowded, over-air-conditioned bus passes through a blurry landscape of olive trees and uninhabited stretches of land, punctuated by one-street towns and crumbling ruins. Cuenca is known for the casas colgadas, or hanging houses, cut improbably into the cliffs and dangling dangerously over the ravine, as well as its Moorish history, a quirky cathedral built in fits and starts over the course of several centuries, and an unexpectedly excellent selection of (mostly Spanish) modern art.
Cuenca’s parador lies just across a narrow, nerve-racking wood-and-iron bridge spanning the Huécar gorge from the base of the old city. The building seems to grow from the rock rather than cling to it — especially seen from the far side of the gorge, out the window of the Fundación Antonio Pérez, another former convent and one of two major stops for modern art — the other is the well-edited Museo de Arte Abstracto Español, housed in one of the casas colgadas.
Ms. García points out that like many paradores built in former monasteries and convents, this one is known for its breathtaking entrance and foyer. In them, impossibly high ceilings, with 18-foot arched windows recently swathed in mustard yellow Thai silk that look out onto an internal courtyard are set into thick and cool stone walls that once gave respite during pre-air-conditioned Spanish summers.
These dramatic hallways feel more palatial than religious: the updated décor recalls Camelot — high-backed velvet print couches and vaguely royal-court-looking chairs that make tall people look tiny, and force all to sit up straight; pointed archways, once confessionals, now hide phone booths; religious art adorns the walls.
The theme continues in the bedrooms, where the high carved-back beds are hung with elaborate half-canopies, and the dining hall, which has a carved period ceiling and newly lilac-colored walls. A white marble pulpit hovers above the heads of diners.
DINING is a major draw in parador culture: the menus reflect the food eaten in this countryside for centuries. Meals are relaxed affairs with multiple bottles of reasonably priced Spanish red wines presented first alongside an amuse-bouche of migas (literally, crumbs), which is day-old bread that has been seasoned and fried in local spices and surrounded on a plate by the textures and tastes of the area. Here they include grapes, eggplant, bacon and onions, each sautéed and meant to be dipped and rolled in the crumbs.
The emphasis is on hearty (read: very heavy) country fare and game: loin of deer in red wine, roast suckling pig, thick garlic soup with a dollop of poached egg and ham. Mortuelo is a simmered carnivorous mix of all the meats in season you can think of — from ham to partridge to hen to pork loin mixed (again) with bread crumbs. But there is also a vegetarian menu, with, for example, fried eggs on a bed of spiced eggplant, tomato, peppers and onions (what anywhere else would be called ratatouille), a local delicacy eaten any time of day.
But though the menu and wine list are extensive and the room austere, the feeling is more family than formal: this is Spain after all, and kids eat with their parents until well into the night. No one has dressed for the occasion save the waitresses, who wear uniforms of blue taffeta and a white apron embroidered with vaguely Swiss flowers, a native dress worn during regional festivals.
They can’t be terribly comfortable, but they look the part and are happy to recommend local sweets — like the lyrically named suspiros de monja, (nun’s sighs), a type of meringue. On our second night, a large local wedding closed the dining room to regular hotel guests, and well-to-do Conquenses, as residents are called, ate course after course of their local specialties.
In a nod to changing times, there are modern areas of the parador as well, relaxing spots not quite so heavy with history. A second-floor solarium lounge has bridge tables and striped modern couches, comfy armchairs and plush rugs. A pool lies just beyond a tennis court beneath the cliffs. These are not indigenous elements.
But then neither is the art-space Espacio Torner, housed since December in the Iglesia de San Pablo, once the private chapel, and attached to the parador. Inside, abstract paintings and sculptures of a Cuenca native, Gustavo Torner, are displayed with stark restraint and focus. The combination of space and light — the soaring vaulted ceiling juxtaposed against the temporary white space allotted to show the works — is unexpectedly powerful.
“This is a special place,” says Dr. Elena Oliete, a family physician from Valencia who worked at Cuenca’s hospital for three years, about the parador. “When I lived here, I lived in the old part of the city. I would take people who came from Madrid or Barcelona for a coffee here.”
At the parador, she explains, both Spaniard and foreigner — in awe together of the 600-year-old space — are both tourist and time traveler.
Cuenca is a two- and-a-half-hour drive southeast of Madrid. Avanza buses go there from Madrid’s Estación Sur every two hours from 6:45 a.m. until 10 p.m. Tickets are 9.75 to 13.75 euro one way ($12.65 to $17.90, at $1.30 to the euro) from www.auto-res.net. The national rail company, Renfe (www.renfe.net), runs four trains daily from Atocha station to Cuenca (9.90 euros one way).
In high season (summer), doubles at the Parador de Cuenca start at 120 euros a night and suites at 270 euros. Breakfast adds on an additional 12 euros daily. Deals can be found midweek for multiple nights and for guests under 30, but only when mentioned at the time of booking.
Parador de Cuenca, Subida a San Pablo s/n, Cuenca 16001, Spain; (34-969) 23-23-20; www.parador.es.