Knights, Romans and Clergymen
- MAP Travel
By Muriel Bolger
Knights, Romans and Clergymen
People have been going to Spain for decades and some of them have never experienced the real essence of the country. Muriel Bolger says you won’t find it lolling on beaches and on the tourist drags along the Costas, but venture inland a bit and, wham, you’re immersed in it, surrounded and captivated by it.
The way to do it is stay at one or more of the Paradores hotels. All former castles monasteries, convents and stately villas, instead of letting then crumble to ruins, the State stepped in 1928 to save them - with a view to enhancing tourism, while at the same time preserving buildings of natural and artistic heritage. King Alfonso XIII opened the first one and there are now 93 of them. The estate agent who first said location is paramount must have been to at least a dozen of them, as they are all in the primest of prime locations and in reaching them you get to discover the most amazing countryside and towns that you’ve only come across in books.
I’ve only stayed at a handful of these Paradores, but each was a unique experience, transporting me back to bygone days when knights and princes, kings and counts held court and ruled everything they could survey from their lofty domains and further afield. They also introduced me to places like Avila, Segovia and Toledo, as well as to a fleeting walkabout in Aranjuez, which used to be the summer residence of the royal family. It’s popularly known as the Versailles of Spain.
Siguenza dominates the medieval town of Castilla la Mancha, about 138 miles north east of Madrid, and as its name suggests it was on Don Quixote and Sancho Panza’s amblings.
It’s a spectacular sprawling fortress with its own little chapel and it was the home of the kings, bishops, and cardinals until the end of the 19th century. The bedrooms overlook a large enclosed courtyard and have terrifying wooden balconies outside. All around you’ll find peace and tranquility, peppered with specks of history. The walk down a very steep street to the famous cathedral opens doors to another world when people travelled up here on foot or by donkey only. We missed the el Greco in the cathedral!
I could have spent a lot more time here, but we were expected at Cuenca. Here the Parador was a former convent – they were all called convents in Spain – whether occupied by men or women. It’s set in a spectacular location between two rocky gorges. Above the swimming pool massive rock formations pointed skywards mimicking gestures which could be considered by some to be rude. We feasted on strawberries and cream, sipped local wines and enjoyed the birdsong and settings here.
The town is famous for its hanging houses, which literally do cling to a steep cliff face. The rails on the bridge connecting the former convent with the medieval town are filled with locks of every description – signs of ensuring love left by lovers who had crossed it.
Dinners in these establishments are feasts served in former refectories, where it’s not uncommon to have the Virgin Mary, Saint Francis or some other unrecognisable confrere, looking down from the frescoes as you eat.
Founded by the Lords of Chinchon in the 17th century for the Dominicans, Parador de Chinchon is in the prettiest town imaginable. It was like walking into a film set where symmetry was forbidden. The Plaza Mayor or town square sloped erratically. And it wasn’t square, more an ill-drawn circle. Apparently this was used as a temporary bullring on several occasions. The galleried houses were holding each other up drunkenly. Steps tethered crookedly and balconies tilted perilously. We were drawn into the little shops that hid an eclectic assortment of interesting goods. The Parador here was definitely more of a bijoux affair, and I couldn’t help thinking that the religious here had a good life in these cloisters and gardens, without the swimming pool, no doubt, but the views haven’t changed. And its only 68kms from Madrid.
We arrived in Toledo on a night when some large corporate funded the illumination of all the historic buildings in the town – and they are plentiful. There happened to be an eclipse of the moon too, so it seemed as though mankind and nature had conspired to give us an ethereal overview of this city and the winding River Tagus from the large terrace of our Parador. It didn’t need such a build-up – it’s splendid without the add-ons. We spent the next morning in the city, doing a walking tour, which I highly recommend as it’s a labyrinthine city and there’s so much to miss if you don’t meander with intent. Its cathedral is supposed to one of the richest in Spain with works by Rubens, El Greco, Bellini and Titian among it treasures.
Our exploration took us through Segovia, 90 kms north of Madrid. There incongruously a still functional towering 2,000 year old Roman aqueduct looms nonchalantly above everything else, spanning the middle of the town, with a busy roundabout, tour buses and hundreds of tourists all going about their business as though this were normal!
The 16th century palace where we stayed in Avila literally butts onto the city walls. Fittingly, as the place is so intrinsically associated with its patron, Saint Teresa, they have even named a dessert after her – Yemas Santa Teresa – a confection made with lots of egg yolks and lots of sugar. Perfect after their roast suckling pig. Don’t worry - you can walk it all off on the ramparts afterwards. They’re almost two miles long!
See what I meant about discovering the real essence of this country. There’s something different everywhere you go. We drove through verdant countryside, though mountains and along by carefree waterways and we never saw a sheep or a cow anywhere. We found tons of antiquity amid the corridors and cobbles, alleyways and squares. We sat at cafes in pedestrianised squares, savouring the peace and beauty everywhere, and then we repaired with anticipation to our lodgings at the various Paradores en route.
There we lived like the lords and ladies, the cardinals and kings who had occupied our very rooms, without the luxuries. We dined on local specialties, soaked up the different ambiences in arched hallways, large dining rooms, cloisters and private garden sanctuaries. We had found a different Spain – one we loved and will revisit.
We travelled to visit the Paradores of Spain with MAP Travel, who are the official Irish agents for the Paradores. They specialise in niche markets including the Paradores of Spain and the Camino de Santiago. They can book pre-planned routes such as the Wine route, The Castles route or the World Heritage Cities route.
MAP Travel (01) 8783111 or www.maptravel.ie