Many a childhood fantasy is a once-upon-a-time story at a castle in a distant land. Grown-ups don't have to relinquish those fairy tales. You can feel like royalty by staying in one ofSpain'sparadores.
These are not re-creations of castles or monasteries but the actual buildings that have been brought into the 21st century with modern amenities.
In 2011, the average price of a room was 97 euros, or about $121, according to Miguel Martinez, the chain's president, but the price varies by locale and season and depending on which discounts you have used. You can view all of the pre-set routes, discount programs and book your stay at http://www.paradores.es. If there's a wedding in your future, look at the http://www.bodasenparadores.es website.
The paradores are spread across Spain, so first decide which regions you want to explore. By U.S. standards, Spain is not a large country. But unless you have an extended amount of time, don't try to see too much at once.
Over the years I have visited nearly a quarter of Spain's paradores. Here are some of my favorites.
About 100 miles from Madrid in east-central Spain, this parador is historic and in an unusual natural setting. Cuenca is a medieval Spanish town with Muslim, Christian and Jewish roots that sits atop a rocky landscape above the Huecar River gorge. Its most iconic image is its Casas Colgadas, or Hanging Houses, dating at least to the 14th century.
"Sometimes you can't see where the house ends and the rocks start," said tour guide Luis Noe.
The parador, formerly the Convento de San Pablo, built in the 16th century, is on one side of the river, and Cuenca's old town is on the other, connected by a bridge that takes visitors on an easy walk past the Hanging Houses and into town. The building, which was home to monks until 1975, is on the Paradores' Route of Don Quixote, in the region of La Mancha.
With its brightly painted buildings and extensive collection of old and modern art, the town is a draw on its own. There are big celebrations here at Easter and also a running of the bulls through the old town in the fall. The city's Cathedral Santa Maria de Gracia was consecrated in 1208 and houses a Virgin Mary statue from the 12th century.
Be sure to get a drink at the parador bar with its elaborately painted ceiling, and try the morteruelo, a traditional dish using game meat that seems like a warm pate.
In Almagro, also on the Quixote route, the 54-room parador was converted from a 16th-century Franciscan convent and is notable for its many courtyards and traditional tile decor.
The dining room is a pleasant setting for the elaborate breakfast buffets that you find all over Spain. Don't miss a chance at another meal to try the pickled eggplants ubiquitous in Almagro.
Almagro's town square is a short walk from the parador, and there you can find Spanish lace-makers who will happily demonstrate the elaborate production process. Also near Almagro and worth a stop on its own is the small town of Consuegra and its saffron fields. Schedule a trip in the fall, and you'll be able to see the harvest and saffron festival and snag some of the expensive spice at bargain prices from local growers. Nearby is a hilltop site of 11 historical windmills made famous in Miguel de Cervantes' "Don Quixote," published in 1605 and considered the first modern novel.
The Santo Estevo parador is one of those places you begin making plans for a return before you've entered the building. To get to the former Benedictine monastery dating from at least the 10th century — some say the sixth — visitors enter the Ribeira Sacra region of eastern Galicia with its terraced vineyards and stunning views where the Rivers Sil and Mino converge. You first see the building with its stone walls and red roof after passing through an old-growth chestnut forest.
Inside, the 76-room parador delivers more delights: three cloisters, one each in the Romanesque, Baroque and Gothic styles; rooms with great views of the rivers and forests; a spa with an outdoor whirlpool; and, unexpectedly, avant-garde furnishings in the common areas that mesh surprisingly well with the stone architecture.
The most outstanding feature of the parador in Toledo is its spectacular view from a hill overlooking the city. Though a modern building with 82 rooms, it's built of stone and doesn't feel out of place in the historic region. A short taxi or bus ride from the center of the city, it's worth a stay for the view. At the very least, stop for a meal or a drink on its outdoor terraces. You could easily spend a week in Toledo without exhausting all there is to see and do there.
Santiago de Compostela
Considered to be the world's oldest hotel, this five-star parador with more than 100 rooms dates to the late 15th century, when it was a refuge for pilgrims traveling to the cathedral where the remains of St. James are buried. That practice continues today, as the cathedral is the end point for pilgrims walking the Way of St. James.
Parador de Lorca
Spain's newest parador, a four-star, 76-room hotel housed in the Castle of Lorca, a 15th-century medieval fortress, opens July 14 in Spain's southeastern region of Murcia.