Thursday, May 27, 2010

Lost in Time, The Parador of Olite



And so, promising another blog on the wonders of the paradores of Spain…

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.

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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
info@renaissancejourneys.com

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

The Keys to the Kingdom...


And so, with thoughts of Spring’s arrival still fresh, I thought I would meander more into the beautiful world of dining al fresco, bringing to light a few more of my all-time favorites.

Spain. So many places to choose from; so many opportunities to eat in the warm, open air. I can hardly remember a meal indoors in that country. But by far -- and by far, I mean out of the stratosphere, -- the most wonderful was one of the most simple and most unexpected.

Approximately an hour outside Madrid stands one of the most stunningly picturesque towns in a country filled with the stunningly picturesque. Toledo, (pronounced Toe-lay’-doe, unlike its sister city in Ohio) like most small medieval towns that seize the mind and spur the imagination, is a crammed jumble of interlocking streets and alleyways that sits atop a hill encircled by ancient walls. Walking through its portal is like entering a time machine set to the Middle Ages, where buildings, storefronts, and plazas have remained unchanged through the city’s history. One of the local crafts, the famed metalwork of Spain’s illustrious past, can still be seen in the coats of armor, fine swords and elaborate filigree work arranged for sale in the windows and doorways; adding even more to the old world atmosphere.

You can spend an afternoon or a lifetime exploring the winding streets and cracked fa├žades of Toledo, and everywhere you look will be yet another perfect vision: the way a cobblestoned street climbs, curves and then disappears around a bend, luring you around the corner; the textured aging of an imposingly heavy wooden door opening to a flowered courtyard; the way the shadows of the narrow alleys give way to an explosion of sunlight upon entering an open plaza.

But one of the best views of all, is of the city itself. And one of the most striking vantage points lies just on the other side of the scenic Tajo River, strategically set on the patio of the Parador Conde de Orgaz.

Now for those of you who don’t know, the parador is the stuff of fantasy. Paradores are historic buildings: stately manors, pristine monasteries, lush palaces, and even towering castles, that are restored to their former glory and converted into luxury hotels. They dot every town and region throughout Spain, and in each case, add an absolutely unimaginable firsthand experience of culture, architecture, history, and gastronomy in one place. Seriously, haven’t you ever dreamed of living in a castle? In a parador, you can be the prince and princess, the lord and lady, sometimes the sultan and the harem, ahem; but you get the idea. Now that I’m writing this, I realize I will need an entire blog series devoted to paradores, but back to the Conde de Orgaz...

The Conde de Orgaz was an old manor situated on the hill facing Toledo. Perfectly conceived, the grounds here are sprawling and lovely, the kind of place that was just begging for a manor. The fact that this hill is called the Cerro del Emperador, or the Hill of the Emperor, only serves to prove my point.

As you enter, the building has everything your Spanish manor should have: beamed ceilings, decorative tile work, heavy wooden antique furniture that looks like it will outlast another five centuries. And just off the main floor is the perfect patio, surrounded by trees and hills, facing just across the river to Toledo, offering that view worthy of your manor.

This little wonderland allows you to sit even if you are not a guest at the parador, and it offers table service for drinks and light fare. And so, not to disappoint one of my blog followers who recently pointed out that all my blogs tend to lead to tales about food; I will tell you that after a day of touring the sites of Toledo, one does tend to get parched and just a little hungry. And so, light fare and drinks are very much in order.

Sangria, wine mixed with fresh fruit and juice, is Spain’s answer to our iced tea and lemonade. Light and refreshing, it goes down easily, maybe a bit too easily, on a sunny afternoon. It also acts like a chameleon, adding the perfect accent to any type of food, from light tapas, to heavy meats. And as you already know, after a day of touring in the hot sun, you don’t crave heavy fare, but rather something light and easy that will fill you up and satisfy your hunger: Jamon Serrano and Manchego, Spain’s answer to our ham and cheese. Jamon Serrano is preserved ham, much like Italian prosciutto, but not quite as salty and little meatier. Manchego is the king of Spanish cheeses, mild enough not to be overwhelming, but creamy and salty enough to stand on its own.

So here we are, with our perfect little meal, and our perfect little Sangria, on our perfect little patio, with our perfect view of Toledo, spread before us like our own perfect little kingdom. There is no one else there, except for the wonderfully astute and quiet server, who creeps in silently to replenish Sangria or add more cheese. And just as we don’t think it can get any better, the sun starts to set over the town, giving an unearthly light to the stones of the city until it glows.

In that moment, it feels like the world is yours. And when you’re sitting outside your parador, eating delicious foods and sipping delicious drinks, with one of the most beautiful sights in the world at your feet; it is.

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For more information on Spain's paradores, or for a consultation on your travels, contact Maria Puma at info@renaissancejourneys.com.

Many thanks to Anita Puma and Lisa Peck for the pictures.