Homage to Catalonia

Isabel Conway experiences a break with a difference — Spain’s luxury state-run Parador hotels.

Homage to Catalonia

MOONLIGHT flits like quicksilver over the battlements below my window as I take temporary leave of my senses, induced by the fine regional wines that washed down delicious Catalan specialities inside a picture book castle earlier in the night.

An ancient tale of thwarted love draws many a guest, including myself, lodging at the Paradore of Cardona — a luxury hotel in a medieval setting, 80km from Barcelona — to search out room 712.

Here in an obscure wing the resident ghost Adales roams, seen and heard by staff, guests and a succession of ghost busters. The beautiful maiden died of a broken heart back in the 15th century, locked away in a turret, her father’s punishment for falling in love with the enemy — a dashing young (Muslim) Moor.

A night porter points me in the general direction of the haunted wing. Staircases of time-worn stone and confusing corridors beckon. The ghost hunt eventually ends in a shadowy courtyard, the centre point of a maze of floors and dead ends without any spooky sightings. Yet one could easily imagine Game of Thrones-style dark deeds in this setting.

My generation of Irish caught our first sunburn on the overcrowded sands of high rise Lloret de Mar on the Costa Brava. This exploration of the other Costa Brava and its interior, from the vantage point of Spain’s beloved Paradors hotels is a revelation.

There are 97 Paradors — a network of state-run luxury hotels — spread across Spain, created back in 1928 with the twofold purpose of enhancing tourism and also preserving buildings of national and artistic heritage. Your Parador hotel could be a former palace, a stately home, a medieval monastery, a castle, even a Moorish fort.

Restored to their former glory, these monuments possess the comforts of the 21st century, yet allow you to experience the magic and rich history of Spain.

Castle-Paradore Cardona towers above the little town of the same name. Cardona is slapped against steep hills, overseeing a huge salt mine known as ‘the Mountain of Money’ whose resource, exploited since Roman times still represents valuable currency.

A tourist attraction these days but also worked in part, our camera phones fail to do justice to the glittering weirdly shaped salt outcrops that could have been sculpted from the gallery walls.

Montserrat, perched on a hairpin incline, has views on a clear day as far as the Costa Brava, and behind, in the far distance, the snow-capped Pyrenees. Boys as young as eight attend the oldest music school in Europe, famed for its choir L’Escolania within Montserrat monastery. The younger boy sopranos look and sing like cherubic angels in their white surplices. Long ago the boarding school past pupils went on for the priesthood, became music teachers or high-ranking civil servants. Now they are more likely to join rock bands, opera companies or the Voice of Spain reality show.

In the foothills of the Pyrenees, an hour’s drive inland from Barcelona and near the provincial city of Vic, we discover another unique Parador. Paradore de Vic-Sau is modelled on a Catalan stately home and overlooks a lake which hides an ancient bell tower that re-emerges in times of drought.

Vic offers a mix of antiquity, a notable cathedral and museum and a main square lined with restored Romanesque buildings. A belle époque restaurant named CA L’U specialises in those long and indulgent meals in which the whole of Spain excels. Time stands still as you happily spend an entire afternoon enjoying the food, the wine, the chat in such places.

The next morning we returned to Vic for the Saturday market watching farm-fresh produce change hands, asking about unfamiliar types of forest mushrooms piled in pyramids, enjoying the crush of the crowds and banter of the traders.

A table groaning under a mountain of sweaters and other clothing, priced at €3 is rummaged through by customers, some looking as if they would be more at home in fancy department stores.

Old cobbled pedestrian streets have tempting little food shops featuring colourful artistic window displays. Outside one shop a tidily dressed middle aged woman is begging.

A passing student translates the card she carries “My husband lost his job, we lost our home, we have little to eat and no heat, please help us”. He shrugs, “Our economy was hit badly here in Spain, it is sad because people are still in trouble”.

My favourite Parador during a long weekend packed with surprises was romantic Aiguablava, built on cliffs jutting out into the Mediterranean with only seabirds for company.

The hotel’s location is amazing and notices forbid walkers from venturing down pathways eaten away by erosion, with a dizzying drop in front. The rain was beating down but I could not resist taking a long stairway down to a secluded golden horseshoe shaped beach far below on the ‘safe’ side of Paradore Aiguablava.

A seagull comes to call, attracted by a piece of cake beside the coffee cup on my rain spattered balcony.

He eyeballs me calmly, in no hurry to leave, pecking at the cake crumbs.

The ghost of Adales’ lost love? As the seagull flies, her turret atop that castle of Cardona is not so far away.

Flights

Aer Lingus (www.aerlingus.com) fly to Barcelona daily.

Accommodation

MAP Travel, 36 Upper O’Connell Street, Dublin 01-8783111, see www.maptravel.ie, is the official Ireland representative for the Paradors network, offering expert advice. It books accommodation and holidays from wine routes to world heritage city routes, and pilgrim paths to a la carte options. Overnight rates vary. Expect to pay between €70 and €110 per person, per night, for luxury accommodation, including a substantial buffet breakfast featuring dozens of hot and cold breakfast tapas. For further information, see www.costabrava.org and www.spain.info.

Sights

Explore the rocky coast, sandy coves, lush plains and mountain scenery. Girona, with a fine medieval centre, is often overlooked by tourists. Begur and Palamos, contrasting coastal towns north of Lloret de Mar, are hidden gems. Begur is known for the elaborate mansions built by locals who made their fortunes in Cuba and Latin America. Palamos draws on its reputation as an important commercial fishing port. Next to the wharf-side fish auction, a leading Catalan cook, Lluis Planas (www.espaidelpeix.org), champions less well-known fish with cooking demonstrations and classes, and participants eat the fruits of their labours afterwards. Figueres, on the northernmost stretch of the Costa Brava, is home to zangy Theatre-Museum Salvador Dali. The artist is interred beneath the floor, close to his Cadillac, awash with water on the inside, among the renowned exhibits.

The food

Cal Sastre Restaurant (www.calsastre.com), tucked away in the medieval village of Santa Pau, is worth a trek across the volcanic foothills of the Garroxta national park, just for its famed cannelloni stuffed duck with truffle cream sauce. We enjoyed delicious tapas everywhere, notably Cardona and Aiguablava Paradores. Be sure, also, to take a detour to Vic, for lunch, at the belle époque CA L’U on Carrer de la Riera 25, where time stands still and prices for beautifully prepared cuisine are cheap by top Irish restaurant standards.

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