ECHOES of a nation’s heritage need not be compromised by modern-day tourism, as Spain’s Paradores show.
The hotels, breathing new life into historic buildings and stimulating visits to some areas perhaps less travelled, open up windows on parts of Spain that can surprise and delight in equal measure.
Since King Alfonso XIII opened the first Paradore in 1928, their numbers have grown but unlike many hotel chains which see uniformity as a virtue, the character of each Paradore is determined by something distinctive of itself, be it its architecture, history or location - perhaps all of these in some instances.
A visit to Catalonia, with stays in three Paradores, provide an ideal snapshot of what they are all about, as well as being good locations from which to see what lies beyond the tourism magnet that is Barcelona.
You do not need to be a student of history to appreciate the hilltop medieval castle, Castell De Cardona, reached via a steep, winding flagstoned road.
Elevated views of the surrounding countryside supply an impressive vista for today’s tourist but hark back to the times when the castle’s strategic position was essential to its inhabitants.
History is all around you, from display cases in reception holding flintlock pistols to arches reaching from floor to ceiling in the medieval banqueting hall which is the restaurant. Just walking around the internal courtyards shows something different around each corner.
The castle has its own church, still used for weddings, while other rooms have been adapted to host family events or business conferences.
The medieval quarter of the town of Cardona itself, just below the castle, has been declared a heritage centre of cultural interest, with Sant Miquel’s parish temple featuring an impressive Gothic nave.
Just over an hour away from Cardona is Vic, where narrow streets all at once open up on to a huge square which stages public events.
If Spaniards - or in this case, Catalans - have an appetite for life, they certainly do not neglect their appetite for a variety of foodstuffs. Lunching at leisure in the charming and intimate Basset restaurant, tapas - a meal in itself - arrives, with olives, beetroot, grated carrot, smoked salmon, boiled egg, fried artichokes and the sausage which is very much a speciality of Catalonia.
It is interesting to note the locals watering down their red wine as they pace themselves in the mid part of the day.
The second Paradore on our tour is the Vic-Sau, a chateau-style building overlooking a huge reservoir between neighbouring hills.
This hotel, much more modern in décor than its counterpart in Cardona, has something in common, however, in the generosity of space in the guests’ rooms. Where the castle had a traditional four-poster bed with drapes, Vic-Sau has a modern take on the four-poster, with the frame but no drapes.
The reservoir held its own secret. At first glance, a white, pointed object visible at some distance at its centre seemed to be a buoy of some sort. It was, however, the top of a bell tower in a village submerged under the calm waters. At times when the water was lower, more of the village could be seen, an eerie prospect, evocative of a ghost story.
Nearby to the Vic-Sau Paradore is the Sant Pere de Casseres monastery, around 1,000 years old and stark but striking in its greyness, with its paintwork having faded over the centuries.
The tranquillity of its location would have been appropriate for the monks who once lived there, strictly following the rules of their calling in their service to God. The story of the monastery is brought to life by our guide on a tour of the site.
Some restoration had been carried out to repair damage inflicted by an earthquake several hundred years before.
En route to our next Paradore we stop in Catalonia’s second largest city, Girona. As we stroll over a river bridge, it is striking to note how colourfully buildings on the edge of the water have been painted, in a variety of shades.
Red and yellow-striped flags, some exhibiting a red star, hanging from balconies remind us of the independent streak of the Catalans, proud of their own identity within Spain.
Another large open square is thronged with people, many of them making their way to the city’s landmark cathedral. Carved statues of the saints adorn the structure, approached up wide, open steps. The interior also impresses, with the ceiling seeming to reach for the heavens.
Leaving Girona, we progress to the third and final Paradore of the tour, Aiguablava, on the Mediterranean coast.
Although the hotel’s architecture seems functional rather than aesthetic, one look from the balcony adjoining the room shows just why the Paradore is where it is. The view is simply stunning, one I am not sure I have seen bettered from any other hotel I have stayed in.
Rugged cliffs have the sea lapping at their feet, while buildings visible across the bay put the scale of the landscape opposite in awesome perspective.
How do you top that? The double rainbow that forms above the sea outside the window of the hotel restaurant as we have our evening meal is not bad for starters, in more than one sense of the word.
Next morning, a pre-breakfast stroll to a small beach, reached down steps through a tree-lined hillside, precedes an outing to the village of Peratallada, not unlike those of the Cotswolds, constructed as it is of stone.
Then it is on to another village, Pals, similar to Peratallada but with sloping streets, before lunching at the fisherman’s village of Calella de Palafrugell. Naturally, sea food features heavily on the menu, with mussels, langoustine and shrimp on offer.
Back at the Paradore de Aiguablava, for those up to it, there is the chance to have an evening walk up a rambler’s path to the peak of a mountain opposite the hotel. Warning - it is not for those of an unfit disposition.
With the trip nearing its end, on the final morning there is time for some free time in Barcelona, before catching the flight home from the city’s airport. You can mingle with the crowds swarming around the Segrada Familia, Gaudi’s church masterpiece, hundreds of years in the making and as yet unfinished.
Maybe the best way to reflect on all you have managed to see and experience in just a few days is to take a stroll along Las Ramblas, the bustling thoroughfare most visitors to the Catalonian capital seem to make a beeline for.
There are probably fewer better ways to pass the time on a warm, sunny day than enjoying a light lunch and watching the world go by from your streetside café vantage point.
ALL three Paradores featured can be booked using a range of special offers throughout the year, including the 5 Night Card - a Go As You Please scheme of 5 nights’ accommodation available at more than 70 Paradors for £435 per room. The Parador de Cardona charges a small supplement of 35€ per night to take bookings under the scheme but includes free buffet breakfast.
Other offers include the Golden Days Offer - a 30 per cent reduction available to those aged 55 and over (only one occupant in the room needs to be eligible to obtain the discount) and the Lowest Prices Yet offer - starting at 90€ for a room at Vic and 130€ for a room at Aiguablava and Cardona over some Summer dates.
For assistance with route planning and to take advantage of the special offers, call Keytel International on 020 7953 3020 or visit keytel.co.uk.
FOR summer 2012, with an expanded UK route network, Vueling is operating from London Heathrow to Bilbao, Galicia, La Coruna and Vigo, from Southampton to Barcelona, from Cardiff to Alicante, Barcelona and Palma Mallorca and from Edinburgh to Barcelona.
In addition, UK passengers can access onward connections via Vueling’s Barcelona Hub operations, currently accessing more than 40 destinations throughout Europe and North Africa with full through baggage check-in from the origin to final destination.
Lead-in fares on all UK routes start from 49.99€ one way, taxes included, through all Vueling’s sales channels: vueling.com, tour operators and travel agencies, iPhone and Android apps, the airline’s mobile portal m.vueling.com and via Vueling’s UK call centre on 0906 754 7541.
TOUR IN STYLE
IF you want to travel in style during your stay in Catalonia, Blai Limousines luxury car rental provides chauffeur-driven vehicles so you can sit back and relax while taking in the region’s impressive landscapes and natural parks, The company can provide excursions and cultural tours. If you want to set your own itinerary and arrange your own programme Blai Limousines will follow it, with your personal chauffeur at your service at all times, even transferring your luggage.
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