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The Paradores of Spain: A Sojourn to Refresh the Preservation Soul  

12-09-2015 17:35

Imagine this scenario: You are invited to a meeting with an aide to the President who presents you with this proposal:

Identify the most important historic places in the nation in need of preservation that are in economically depressed areas and that have high heritage tourism potential, so that the government can begin their restoration as travel-based accommodations.

A preservationist’s dream—perhaps hallucination— to be sure. Well, in Spain that is essentially what happened...spread out over an 80-year time span.

Now celebrating its 80th anniversary, Spain’s remarkable system of Paradores de Turismo began in 1928 as the government’s response to improving local economies and substandard tourist accommodations as well as addressing the derelict state of many important historic sites throughout the country. Begun under the reign of King Alfonso XIII, the original principles of the Parador system, by which they still operate, are:

To act as guardian of our national and artistic heritage while promoting quality tourism and dynamizing those regions with fewer economic resources.

It was no accident that this system of restored lodging venues was conceived at a time of relative political stability when automobiles were first beginning to appear throughout the country, with the resultant mobile traveler. The Parador system began in smaller towns, where places to stay were infrequent; the initial concept was to develop a chain of accommodations that were a day’s drive apart. As it evolved over the ensuing decades, the idea of taking important historic sites, some of which had been abandoned for many years, and rehabilitating them for use as tourist venues while maintaining a large measure of regional character was nothing short of brilliant—both from an economic and a tourism point of view. The ongoing success, indeed flourishing, of the Parador system to nearly 100 locations attests to that genius.

The premier Parador, Parador de Gredos, opened in 1928 in the tiny village of Navarrendonda de Gredos, set amidst the granite peaks of the Gredos Mountains in central Spain. In fact this first Parador (literally inn or stopping place) was new construction, but it incorporated typical exterior stonework and interior detailing found in this area of the Province Castilla Leon. It is reported that King Alfonso himself chose the site for this Parador during royal hunting excursions to the mountains. It is known that in 1978, on the 50th anniversary of the Parador system, Parador de Gredos was the location of a meeting of influential Spanish leaders who shaped the final draft of the Spanish Constitution at the beginning of the reign of Spain’s current monarch, King Juan Carlos I (grandson of King Alfonso). So, though new in 1928, the Parador de Gredos now holds an important place in Spanish history, basking in its status as the progenitor of this unique collection of tourist venues that would become a hallmark of Spanish and European hospitality.

At present, 93 Paradores exist throughout Spain, most occupying historic monuments of some sort, though there are a few “brand new” examples. In cities and villages, rural areas and mountainous hamlets, Paradores are found in every corner of this ethnically rich nation.

The Guest Experience

Thanks to my wife’s internet savvy, and a friend who speaks fluent Spanish, we navigated our way into this web of historic accommodations. Intrigued by the initial search, we pursued the notion and found ourselves awash in a world of Spanish architecture, history, and regional culture, the likes of which we only could have dreamed existed. former castles and citadels, monasteries and convents, once-glorious palaces—some dating from as early as the 10th century—unfolded before our eyes on the official website, www.paradores.es. Booking is through designated travel agents around the world, and we happily paid the required surcharge to embark on a Spanish sojourn built around staying in these reclaimed historic resources. In all we visited six of the Paradores, but there are many to choose from.

Our first Parador was at Avila, a UNESCO World Heritage walled city reputed to be Spain’s best preserved medieval fortress town, With no fewer than 82 round bastions protecting this ancient provincial seat. Nestled along-side the massive city walls, this Parador began life as the 16th-century Piedras Albas (white stones) Palace. Reincarnated, after years of decline, the Avila Parador more than satisfied our initial curiosity. Overlooked by storks nesting on a nearby campanile, a short path through the Parador’s sculpture-strewn garden leads directly to the parapet walkway atop the immense walls. For a small fee you can walk virtually the entire perimeter of Avila, encountering spectacular views, historic exhibits, and local character of countless sorts.

Most Paradores currently would be considered higher-end accommodations, offering central heating and air conditioning, “TVs in every room,” queen- and king-size beds, impeccable maid service, marble and glass showers, and mini-bars. A typical evening’s lodging generally will range from $150 to $220 (US) per night for two persons; the full Spanish breakfast requires a modest supplement and is well worth the cost. The rooms are modern, yet strongly reflective of local historic and architectural character. Paradores also are marketed as stylish reception and modest-sized conference venues featuring ample dining salons, meeting and break-out rooms, and modern-day amenities such as heated pools and workout stations, wireless internet connectivity, interactive television, and videoconferencing.

Spain, recall, was a charter member of the European Union and has been enjoying a tourism and economic renaissance as a result. The number of construction and rehabilitation projects, both publicly and privately sponsored, was astounding, so much so that in every location we visited scaffolding adorned at least one historic site and virtually any horizon was sprinkled with construction cranes, sometimes upwards of a dozen at a time.

Adapative use on a Grand SCA

The approach to the rebirth of these once neglected places is analogous to the popularly perceived American definition of adaptive use, but with the understanding that architects and contractos, locally hired whenever possible, will ensure that the look and feel of the venue will remain vintage and sympathetic to its often historic surroundings. The existing exterior envelope and important interior architectural details generally are preserved and reused to the greatest extent possible, while modern amenities are carefully added, and concealed. New additions are not uncommon, but again are deftly designed to compatibly coexist with the original structure. Window locations, for example, are not changed cavalierly to accommodate an occupant’s convenience. At a Parador in Spain’s northcentral Province of Aragon, the row of Renaissance- era arched widows on the facade was kept intact. Offering fabulous views of the valley below, yet too high on the interior to easily peer from, these windows were made accessible through the creation of a bank of short rises in each room, allowing guests to step up to the windows and enjoy the impressive scene below. Cleverly, the tilelined risers conceal the new heating and cooling systems that service each room.

Neither are new Paradores uncommon, such as those at Toledo or Calahorra, though the majority utilizes some portion of a historic structure.

The ruined condition of many Paradores demanded that they either be reconstructed or reconstituted, often combining both levels of intervention. In the case of the 12th- and 13th-century former castle/convent, now Parador Alcaniz La Concordia, images of the structure indicated that it had fallen into severe disrepair. Architecturally compatible stones, both original and new, were used to restore the edifice perched high on a rocky summit overlooking the red-roofed village of Alcaniz.

The restoration incorporated a 12th-century tower that holds some of the most intact medieval wall paintings in Europe. To view these frescoes requires waiting for an appointed time and guide. So precious are these images that only a handful of guides are allowed to safeguard the ornate metal keys that open the massive strap-hinged wooden door guarding the colorful murals.

Celebrating Regional Character

Preserving and promoting regional personality is a high priority at each Parador and throughout the entire nationwide organization. Clearly seen in the overall architectural design and construction methods, these local characteristics also are found in the furnishings, the language spoken, the artistic enhancements, and especially the food. The breakfasts, los desayunos, are a repast worthy of royalty. All manner of morning fare is presented, with the addition of regional specialties...smoky meats and strong cheeses, exotic fruits and vegetables, traditional egg dishes, distinctive baked goods, liters of olive oil, and always the local sausage (chorizo)...even chocolate and wines of the district may be offered. At one Parador we feasted on pan de hogaza, con jamon de Teruel y aciete de oliva virgen extra, in other words “country loaf [bread] with Teruel ham and extra virgin olive oil.” At some Paradores the wait staff dress in period clothing unique to that province or town, and recipe cards describing the dish and its nutritional value are supplied.

The public spaces of Paradores are typically lined with ancient tapestries, heavy wooden medieval furniture, old master paintings and delicate architectural engravings, wrought iron light fixtures, and often Islamic-inspired pottery. Tilework, for which Spain is so well known, is everywhere—in the floors as deep—red terra-cotta pavers, on the walls, on stairs as treads and risers, and as decorative elements throughout. Intricate multi-tile panels, vividly depicting provincial stories of famous marriages, battles, and medieval festivals, often adorn walls.

Bringing the Past into the Future

Fortunately the fledgling Parador system survived the Spanish Civil War of the 1930s and has prospered, perhaps beyond even what King Alfonso had imagined. With the turn of a new millennium, most Paradores are scheduled for major renovation, including some effort toward environmental sustainability.

The Parador system is keenly aware that the reuse of such monumental structures is a sustainable act in and of itself, and openly promotes this fact in its literature. The upgrades to some Paradores are completed but most are scheduled or underway. During retrofitting, the Parador may remain open on a limited basis with perhaps half the rooms and public spaces being renovated at a time, so that the inn is never actually closed, as was the case with the Parador in Toledo. (At Toledo, where occupancy was limited due to construction, we elected to stay in a former Archbishop’s Palace perched on an outcrop overlooking Toledo. It was here where the famed mid-2nd millennium painter El Greco is said to have conceived his famous View and Plan of Toledo while musing in the prelate’s lush gardens high above this ancient walled city.) Funding for these renovations, and for the development of new Paradores, is not widely disseminated information. Even our Spanish fluent fellow traveler had difficulty in ascertaining exactly who manages and funds the Parador system nowadays. If occupancy is an indication, however, much of their financial support comes from the abundance of overnight and event bookings we observed at every location. The popularity of these historic venues is a testament to the singular appeal they hold for Spanish, European Union, and foreign visitors alike.

Reflections

To say that the trip was “recharging” would be an understatement. We felt privileged to have been able to experience this unique chain of historic accommodations. A favorite moment of the trip came in an encounter with a distinguished Spanish couple who were delighted that Americans had discovered the Parador system; that we had found this particularly secluded Paradore (Alcaniz) before they had was, however, a certain vexation to them.

This was an informative trip offering many lessons, on matters from heritage hospitality to conservation methods to architectural and regional history. Not the least of these was respect for the remarkable direct and sustained involvement of the Spanish government in the restoration and reuse of so many important historic places.

Interestingly, Spain’s neighbor, Portugal, followed suit and established its own system of Paradores in the 1940s. Known as pousadas, they claim a similar ancestry and a philosophy of reusing existing historic structures, though now are managed by a private hotel group. But that’s another story!

Additional Resources

Paradores Directory. Central Reservations Office, Requena, 3. 28013 Madrid. c. 2007.

Ballard, Sam and Jane. Paradores of Spain: Unique Lodgings in State-owned Castles, Convents, Mansions and Hotels. Boston: Harvard Common Press, 1986. Wildman, Sarah. “Spain’s Ageless Beauties.” New York Times, July 23, 2006.

The official Paradores website: www.paradores.es.



Publication Date: Fall 2008

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Author(s):Theodore Ligibel
Volume:23
Issue:1

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