Spain's Paradors Face an Uncertain Future

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We crisscrossed Europe in the family car when I was a child. My father, a sports columnist based in Paris in the 1960s, was always testing tips he had gotten from Grand Prix racecar drivers. My mother, no surprise, was constantly telling him to slow down. In the back seat, my sisters and I were usually hungry, tired or fighting. But we saw amazing things: castles, cathedrals, villages slapped up against cliffs to protect them from Roman invaders, beaches still scarred with the wreckage of World War II battles.

Yet in all my memories of these travels, the night we stayed in a parador in Spain still stands out. My father had been promising a night in a real live castle, and there it was, with turrets and a courtyard, dimly lighted passageways and rooms filled with antiques. I was awed -- not because it was bigger or better than other castles I had seen, but because I could actually go to bed and wake up in this one.

Spain, I learned from my father, had been restoring historic buildings and turning them into luxury hotels for decades, an ingenious idea that helped preserve all kinds of failing structures while generating income in some of the country's more remote corners. Today, there are 93 government-owned sites as part of the chain Paradores de Turismo de España, most of them in ancient monasteries, medieval castles and Moorish forts. Each is unique. Many of them are jaw-dropping.

But they are also in trouble. Last year, Paradores posted losses of about 28 million euros on top of a 105-million-euro debt. The government, which is struggling with a broad economic crisis, announced recently that it wanted to close 7 paradors completely and more than 25 for at least four months a year. In the face of union resistance and popular dismay, however, it quickly backed down on much, though not all, of this plan. Spaniards are proud of their paradors -- and are some of their most loyal customers.

But whether the network will survive remains an open question. For the most part, the paradors get high marks for service and food. And the hotels are in pristine condition, too. Their problems are related to management and staying alive in tough competitive times. Tourism is one of the few industries in Spain that did well last year, benefiting from the turmoil in the wake of the Arab Spring. But the paradors, many experts say, have been slow to catch on to Internet booking systems and indifferent to the need to play nice with tour operators. They have not been paying much attention to a growing number of competitors in the private sector taking over old buildings either.

"You have to adapt," said Ramón Estalella, the secretary general of the Confederation of Spanish Hotels and Tourist Accommodations, commonly known as Cehat. "The problem with the paradors is that they have not adapted to the market, to the ways of the tourism industry today. They need a changing mentality."

Mr. Estalella says that the chain, too often run by politicians, not industry experts, became complacent about the need to attract new and international clients, instead relying on a high percentage of Spanish clients, who right now have no discretionary money and are doing little vacationing. When opening new paradors, he said, the government also invested poorly in recent years, in areas where there was too little interest. As a government enterprise, the paradors also have a bulky and inflexible staff, he said. As government workers, they expect to be employed for life.

"If you have 12 people eating in the dining room," Mr. Estalella said, "do you need 15 people in the kitchen? A private chain would adapt to the off-season numbers, cut back on staff or close for a time. But the paradors have not been doing that. They have been paying 200 people to work full time on union business alone."

Ángeles Alarcó Canosa, who was recently appointed to manage the paradors, largely agrees with this analysis. To save about 20 million euros this year, she will lay off 350 employees among other austerity measures, and close one parador permanently and 24 paradors on a seasonal basis. She is also hoping to generate new business by developing a range of strategies to market the paradors in a more modern way, including offering packages that blend hotel stays with bicycling tours and regional cooking classes, for example.

Usually, unprofitable businesses show signs of wear. But my friend David and I saw nothing like that during a three-day weekend driving from parador to parador -- an activity the chain encourages by organizing routes a traveler might take and offering package rates. We drew up our own itinerary, circling an area south of Madrid to get close enough to see a bit of Seville and Córdoba, though we would have probably been happier to spend the days in the towns and villages the paradors belong to.

And yes, of course, we had to drop in on the parador of my childhood in Zafra.

The highways in Spain -- after years of investment -- are velvety, tunneling through or bridging over any ridge or river in the way, making drive tours about as easy as it gets. If you like country roads, they are also in good shape. We got to almost all of the paradors ahead of schedule, stopping first in Cáceres, where the parador is in the old town high on a hill, a largely intact medieval village, which was controlled by Arabs for centuries.

Legend has it that a young Moorish girl, in love with a Christian soldier, crept out of Cáceres one night through a secret passageway to meet her lover. He begged her to tell him how she had managed to leave the city undetected. She showed him the secret passageway and gave him the keys so that he could come to her the next night. But the following night, the girl's lover entered the city with hundreds of Christian soldiers who slaughtered the Moors and won the city for their king.

Today, the Moorish princess would have a hard time recognizing anything inside the Cáceres parador, which has been renovated with a modern touch. There are antique chests in the halls and a display of knightly armor. But it feels a bit too much like any other high-end hotel. On the other hand, you can't complain about comfort, slickly outfitted bathrooms and free Wi-Fi. Beyond it, though, the town is a wonder. No signs of modern life intrude.

One criticism of the paradors is that the staff, which averages more than 18 years on the job, is set in the old ways of hotel manners. Staff members speak few languages and tend to get about the business of checking you in without the friendly banter people are used to these days. This was pretty much the case here.

Next came the parador of my childhood, if only for lunch. It was still charming -- a 15th-century picture-book castle. The exterior looks like a fortress, the interior resembles a palace with a Renaissance cloister in the central courtyard. The night we spent there, some 40 years ago, the bread at dinner was so hard that we began making jokes about using it for cannon fodder. The lunch in the bar recently was not much better. My Spanish omelet tasted as if it had been made a week earlier. My friend's cheese sandwich was just that -- a chunk of not very appealing bread split in half with some cheese in between. And it wasn't cheap either.

Later that day, we drove through the narrow archway entrance of the Carmona parador, another Arab fortress, this one set high on a hill, offering amazing views. This parador was in great shape, too. But unlike the one in Cáceres, the interior was full of painted Spanish tiles, giving it a far more regional feel.

The next night, we headed for the Almagro parador, a rebuilt convent, which manages to capture the mood of contemplation (each room has a marble font for holy water). But there are enough brightly painted wooden beams and beautiful gardens to keep the place from being gloomy, even on a winter weekend.

In Almagro, we did notice that there were more people working in the dining room than there were guests. But it hardly interfered with our meal.

IF YOU GO

A sampling of some of Spain's spectacular paradors:

Zafra Parador A 15th-century storybook castle with stone battlements, nine looming towers and original coats of arms in the hallways. Plaza Corazón de María 7,  Zafra.

Cáceres Parador Two 14th-century palaces, linked by labyrinthine corridors in the historic town center. The clean-cut, environmentally friendly interior contrasts with the beautiful stone facades. Calle Ancha 6, Cáceres.

Almagro Parador A reconstructed Franciscan convent in a pretty medieval town. Guests sleep in what were once the nuns' cells. Ron da San Francisco 31, Ciudad Real.

Carmona Parador Different civilizations have settled where this 14th-century Moorish citadel stands, high above the fertile plains of the River Corbones; chronicles suggest that King Peter used it as a "place for love and pleasure." Alcázar, Seville.

Santiago de Compostela Parador This late 15th-century hostel was originally a resting place for pilgrims, sinners and penitents travelling the St. James' Way. It says it is the oldest hotel in the world. It certainly is one of the most beautiful. Plaza Do Obradoiro 1, Santiago de Compostela, A Coruña.

The La Granja Parador In the 18th century these two recently restored palaces in the Guadarrama mountain range were commissioned by Charles III of Spain as residences for his children. The lodge for the royal children was possibly the first building in Spain to have lavatories. The parador is 11km from a World Heritage city, Segovia. Calle de los Infantes 3, La Granja de San Ildefonso, Segovia.

The Alarcón Parador This eighth-century Moorish fortress stands on a craggy hilltop and dominates the Castile plateau for miles around. Its imposing battlements, moats and towers did not protect its Muslim inhabitants from King Alfonso VIII, who captured it in the 12th century. Avenida Amigos de los Castillos 3, Alarcón, Cuenca.

The Santo Estevo Parador A remote Benedictine monastery surrounded by woodlands. Rooms look out over the cloisters, the nearby River Sil canyon, and the lush chestnut woods. Experts believe the monastery may date back as early as the sixth century. Monasterio de Santo Estevo, Nogueira de Ramuín, Ourense.

The El Saler Parador A luxurious, modern hotel for golfing enthusiasts, constructed on a nature reserve by the Mediterranean coast, rather than in a historic building. The 18-hole, 72-par golf course, which stretches down to the shore and incorporates several sand dunes, has hosted the Spanish Golf Open three times. Avenida de los Pinares 151, El Saler, Valencia.

The Alcalá de Henares Parador The extraordinary modern architectural design of this UNESCO world heritage 17th-century convent was recently on display at the MOMA in New York. The hotel is one of the newest paradors, and is only 26 km from Madrid. Colegios 8, Alcalá de Henares, Madrid.

-- RACHEL CHAUNDLER

travel

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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