Anyone who has travelled at all in Spain is likely to have come across a Parador de Turismo. For the greater part of a century these state-run establishments have been a guarantee of reliability for the traveller looking not for sol y playa but stone and plazas. The newest parador, in the wilds of south-western Asturias, both reminds us of the brand’s many virtues, and suggests it may be on the verge of a promising new era.
The Parador de Corias, which opened this summer, brings with it several agreeable surprises. First, the setting – a verdant, little-known and sparsely inhabited corner of northern Spain, where Asturias borders on Galicia and León. Second, the building itself, a former monastery whose enormous scale and austere architecture has led to it being known locally as the “El Escorial of Asturias”.
A third surprise is the restored building’s espousal of bare-walled minimalism, neutral colours, light-coloured wood and Scandinavian design – none of which have been typical of the chain hitherto. As I walked into my room I almost murmured, “Bravo.” I for one have always associated the paradors with heavyweight historicist decor, all pelmets and valances and repro Castilian furniture, but there was a simplicity and sobriety here that did my soul good.
Some of the Paradores de Turismo, especially the new-build ones such as Córdoba and Vielha, are dull and uninspiring. But the best of the grand historic properties in jaw-dropping locations are truly startling. Granada’s parador, for example, grants you the privilege of kipping down within the grounds of the Alhambra. The one in Úbeda occupies a palace on the town’s lovely Renaissance main square. Over the years I must have stayed at 20 or 30. At the mighty Hostal de los Reyes Católicos on Obradoiro Square in Santiago de Compostela, a 15th-century former hospital and one of the world’s most venerable hotels, I found it hard to sleep for the murmur of history all around me.
Their story kicks off in 1928, when the Marquis of Vega-Inclán created the first Parador de Turismo in a former royal hunting lodge in the Gredos mountains. New properties followed in the 1930s but the chain’s era of greatest expansion came in the 1960s under the aegis of Franco’s tourist minister Manuel Fraga, who conceived the Paradores de Turismo as a mid- to high-end equivalent of the lowbrow coastal resorts.
During that decade, their number grew from 40 to 83 and there are now 94, accounting for more than 9,000 hotel beds. Of Spain’s 17 autonomous communities only the Balearic Islands are without one – though this will change with the eventual opening of the long-awaited, long-gestated Parador de Ibiza.
Apart from their popularity with foreign visitors – who make up about 75 per cent of clientele – they also play a role in the civic life of their home cities. The parador is where families go for coffee on a Sunday afternoon. It is where celebrities are accommodated, posh weddings held and visiting dignitaries accorded the pomp they expect.
Latterly, however, the chain has weathered some rough seas. In 2011, the worst year in its history, Paradores de Turismo made a loss of €113m (compared with a €45m profit in 2004, the most successful year in recent memory). By last year, when the occupancy rate had slumped as low as 52 per cent, it was clear that painful changes would have to be made.
Twenty-seven establishments are now undergoing temporary closures of between 40 days and four months, while one (Puerto Lumbreras, in Murcia) has shut its doors definitively. Among other cuts, 350 jobs have been shed. Yet things are looking up, according to Angeles Alarcó, who joined as president and chief executive in March 2012. Falling demand from the domestic market was reversed in May this year, while this summer international arrivals grew about 2 per cent year-on-year.
As Alarcó admits, in recent years the company has tended to pursue a policy of “popularización” – essentially, lowering prices and standards – to the detriment of its own image. Her mission, she tells me, is to “sort out the properties we already have”. “We want to add value to the brand by spending our limited budget on refurbishing interiors, and improving important details like towels and bed linen, china, glassware and amenities. We are also updating our restaurant menus, because the paradors bring in as much money from gastronomy as they do from accommodation.”
Large-scale investment may have come to a pause but Paradores de Turismo is a tanker that takes a while to slow down. Among the projects that were already under way before the economic storm hit, only Corias has come through unscathed. Others still in the dry dock are Morella (Castellón), where work on the old Convent de Sant Francesc has ground to a halt, and Ibiza, where the reconstruction of a fortress at the top of Dalt Vila has been bedevilled for years by bureaucratic wrangling, most recently over archaeological remains discovered on the site. Alarcó says the problem is not within her remit, as Paradores de Turismo merely operates the hotels while the buildings are mostly owned by the state heritage body Patrimonio Nacional. “The project in Ibiza is stopped and we don’t know when it will get going again,” she says. “When work starts there won’t be much more to do, so it could open within a year.”
Given the sombre financial panorama, the idea of a new parador in a remote location with a restoration bill of €29m might seem unlikely. But such is the case of Corias. The new place is ambitious, not to say courageous. Its situation is perhaps the least accessible of any parador, if accessibility is measured in distance from the regional capital (85km to Oviedo) and kilometres of winding country road to the nearest motorway (94.7). Neither of which has prevented it enjoying immediate popularity. There may be a novelty factor: hotel director Carlos Martínez tells me about obsessives who have already stayed in the 93 other paradors and need this one to “collect the set”.
The truth is that Corias is a good example of what made paradors such a great idea in the first place. A building of splendour and importance has been rescued for the nation. And in a region whose economic base, coal-mining, is dying on its feet, a project like this can only be welcome.
As Alarcó suggests, when a parador opens, the effect on the local economy is palpable. “Having a parador puts its host town on the tourist map,” she says. “Whenever a parador has closed, however long ago, the mayor of the town is usually still begging to have it open again.” I met business owners in the small town of Cangas del Narcea, 2km down the road from Corias, who were already noting an influx of visitors. The tourist office said the number of callers had grown fivefold since the previous summer.
The deep-set windows of my vaulted room, a suite in all but name, looked out into lush woodlands and the fast-flowing river Narcea. The Monastery of St John the Baptist, founded by a pair of Asturian counts in 1022, is an imposing edifice, its four-square shape giving it the aspect of a fortress in rough white marble. The building is a lofty expression of Asturian art – especially in the monastery church, restored to its original combination of whitewash and stone lit up with gold leaf and polychrome, where a chapel contains the 12th-century Cristo de la Cantonada, a long-haired and gold-crowned Christ of exceptional beauty.
Given the scale of the building and the tight budgets, the less-is-more approach to interiors seems a cunning plan. In the library, Portuguese artist Rui Macedo has created an artwork around empty frames and bookshelves devoid of books, making a virtue out of necessity.
As if to compensate for the general sobriety, there are clever touches I have not seen in other paradors: local references in the mine-themed bar and clogs outside each room; lamps with real candles in the cloister. There is an underground spa of impressive dimensions, and a restaurant offering Asturian dishes with a twist. The hotel even has its own archaeological site: in what was intended to be the car park, builders stumbled on a 10th-century basilica, the remains of which can now be reached by lift.
Beyond the parador, tourist attractions are few and far between. Cangas del Narcea has a winemaking tradition unique in this northerly province, and its new Museum of Wine is an attractive place to while away an hour before lunch at a local asador.
But where the Parador de Corias scores most highly is the access it affords to astounding landscapes – none more so than the deep green universe of Muniellos, where the largest extension of virgin oak forest in Europe is so rigorously protected that only 22 visitors per day are admitted. The Natural Park of Fuentes del Narcea, which covers much of the local area, is home to rare fauna including the Iberian wolf and brown bear.
Part of the paradors’ new message, says Alarcó, is that the cultural and natural context of a given property, with opportunities for everything from birdwatching to winetasting, is a vital aspect of the parador experience. When money is scarce, it makes sense to look for added value in what lies closest to hand.
Paul Richardson was a guest of the Parador de Corias (www.parador.es). Doubles cost from €75