Paradores. Have you ever gone to a museum, or palace, or other place of untold beauty and said, “I wish I lived there.”? Spain’s paradores offer that kind of experience every day. Among the most noteworthy and impressive buildings in the country, these masterful structures are saved from an otherwise tragic fate of neglect and deterioration, to be restored to their former glory. They range from 3-star to 5-star properties, and so they are sometimes more than affordable, offering a much more authentic experience than the local nondescript hotel chain.
The small unassuming town of Olite (oh-LEE-tay) is another of those pristine hamlets lost in time. It has a small population of locals, cobblestoned streets and pathways, and a small town square for a handful of restaurants excelling in regional specialties. It also has a castle which happens to be a parador.
We went to Olite because we were driving the northeast region of Spain and thought it would be a good stopping point between Barcelona and San Sabastian. The fact that there was a parador there that we could afford helped seal the deal.
And so, here we were, driving the dry summer roads of Spain, searching for the little town. We made our way through the outlying countryside dotted with trees, to come to the old city. Once on the only main road, it could lead to only one place: the Parador.
There it was, towering over the little city, like Gulliver over Lilliput. And oh my, was it a castle; -- complete with heavy stonework, ramparts, towers, and a drawbridge. Built in the 13th century, the castle itself is divided into two areas: the older part, or “old palace” which has been converted to the Parador, and the newer part, or “new palace” which was updated in the much more recent 15th century, and is still preserved as a museum, giving Olite its major tourist site. The hotel lobby was filled with antiques, and on the reception desk was a small poster advertising the annual medieval fair celebrated in the city. “Wouldn’t it have been that much more fabulous to be here during the fair?”
And so we checked in, and wound our way through the high-ceilinged, tapestried halls of the castle to our room, which I can only describe as the greatest room ever. Palatial in size, the room was adorned with decorative tiled floors, heavily beamed ceilings, and antique furniture. But the absolute highlight for me, was the half-canopied bed in dark, ornately carved wood, complete with fanciful blue and white bed linens, draped in elegant curves from the top of its crown to the dramatic puddle at its feet. The ladies reading this will completely understand my obsession with this bed. Princesses-at-heart should always have a canopy, and this one walked out of a dream and into my parador.
After freshening up, and exploring every corner of my noble chamber, it was with some remiss that I dragged myself from this heavenly setting to visit the other section of my castle. We were after all in a new place. We should see the sites. And so we walked out of the castle and through the archway leading to the main square of the town to find it opened to another world. Like Dorothy in her Technicolor Oz, we were met with an overwhelmingly bright city in full regalia. The castle was decorated in lavish banners hanging from every arched window and doorway. The plaza was filled with hucksters, wenches, farmers, and peasant folk in medieval garb. There were stands and booths with artisanal crafts in banged copper, terra cotta pots, and carved wood. Local delicacies abounded: breads, fish, meats, honeys, sweets, and of course, local wines.
We hadn’t even noticed that the medieval fair started that day and was to last for our entire stay. So not your chintzy Renaissance Fair like we do it in the States, these people actually passed down these crafts and skills through the centuries, continuing the long tradition of the fair always held here. The atmosphere was pure magic as we made our way through the town and the weekend full of events, -- yes, culminating in a joust with skilled riders executing the most exacting tasks of precision at full gallop.
When all was said and done, the last banner rolled up, and the last pot packed on the wagon, the local restaurants set up tables in the square for dinner under the stars. And so we ate grilled sardines, -- a local specialty and one that I wish I could replicate because they were some of the most simply delicious fish I’ve ever eaten, -- and lingered over a beautifully subtle local white wine, watching the children play on the plaza until one by one they dropped in complete exhaustion into their parents’ laps.
As if it were not enough to stay in the authentically rich surroundings of an actual medieval castle, Olite brought the experience to life in a way that could never have been conceived in my expectations. I love paradores.
To find out more about paradores, visit: http://www.paradores-spain.com/
The medieval fair in Olite is held every year in August. This year, it is scheduled for August 20 – 22.
For help planning your trip to Spain, contact Maria Puma at email@example.com