Heritage hideaways in Spain
The best heritage hideaways in Spain
The traveller, slipping southward in Spain, can feel as if they have landed inside a jewel box of elegantly shabby cities and towns, grand buildings overgrown with fig trees and broom, lanes lined with cistus, and hoardings centuries-thick with posters for bullfights. Everywhere you look, in this potent vision of Byzantium and Rome, of Visigoth and Carthaginian, the country’s many invaders seem to be remembered on almost every road, in every square. Never forget that Spain claims the oldest city in Europe, Medina-Sidonia. Cadiz may officially hold the title but it is tiny Medina-Sidonia that was the centre of a Phoenician colony, and the town still sits amid fields of sunflowers and wheat behind a Moorish gate, its highwinding street lined with 17th-century mansions .
The longing to stay in such old buildings, to enter even briefly such gorgeously jumbled history, is as much a part of tasting the intense flavour of a Spanish journey as eating tapas or drinking sherry. In many of the properties covered in this feature, the various palaces and manorial houses and pretty cortijos have been restored by owners whose love of their properties extends to never dreaming of locking away their antiques and artefacts as such things, and all their attendant family legends, are as much part of the place as the bricks and beams.
I have been taken on spontaneous midnight tours of private gardens to look at one beloved and particularly grand olive tree, or to admire a painting of flower-garlanded children tripping along high barrancos. In Tarifa (as far south as you can get), I have listened, through long afternoons eating gazpacho, potato omelette and bowls of garden cherries, to stories about family oil mills and vineyards, of the sister so grand and beautiful the whole town called her La Reina, and of the restless gentleman brother who, some time in the unrecoverable 1800s, travelled to live with the Tuareg tribes of the Sahara. Such stories are always told as if it were yesterday. Not once have I come away from staying in such places without a personal introduction of some kind, or a tip or detail that hasn’t made me look at a street or city or region in a new way. To watch for the way the father of the bride sits outside the church accepting congratulations during a wedding in Jerez, for example. Or to imagine how the streets of Vejer once operated like grand ballrooms, as places designed to parade and flirt, to laugh and love. “The two elements the traveller first captures in the big city,” wrote the Andalusian poet Federico Garcia Lorca, “are extra human architecture, and furious rhythm.”
THE ELEGANT SPA
There are 900 years of history to soak up at Abadia Retuerta LeDomaine, a former abbey in the wine-producing area of Ribera del Duero in Valladolid, north of Madrid. It is now one of the most luxurious hotels in Spain, a place where calmness washes over you on arrival, and where the contemplative mood is helped by a glass of velvety Abadia Retuerta wine. One of the former stables is now the Santuario Wellness & Spa, where a dedicated spa sommelier will offer a glass of wine before advising on suitable vinotherapy treatments, then running a wine bath in your room, so you can gaze across vineyards to the mountains beyond. The abbey, a celebrated Romanesque building, was founded in 1146 by the Premonstratensian Order. Much of the original structure has been respected — the monks’ former cells are now smart rooms and at the abbey’s grand refectory, now an acclaimed restaurant, chef Marc Segarra Saune uses the estate’s produce to inspire his menus; ledomaine.es.
THE PALATIAL PARADOR
A sense of old-school luxury hits you as soon as you step through the grand doorway of Parador de Santiago de Compostela. One of the oldest lodgings in the world, it was founded at the end of the 15th century by royal couple Ferdinand and Isabella as a refuge where pilgrims could rest their feet after walking across Spain to pay homage to St James, who is buried in the cathedral on Obradoiro Square. The most impressive guestrooms overlook the square and feature four-poster beds and antique Castilian furniture. You feel as if you are taking part in a historical drama but, fortunately, G&Ts, perfectly mixed by a barman with a lifetime’s experience, and exquisite Galician cuisine also form part of the sumptuous contemporary scenario. Pilgrims are still welcome at the parador too, a lucky few being given a meal every day. The massive granite building in gothic, Renaissance and baroque styles is set around four cloisters. Everywhere, there are tapestries, sculptures, coats of arms and paintings, with throne-like armchairs in all corners to sit in and absorb the sheer medieval grandeur of it all. The chapel at the heart of the property provides an evocative setting for concerts; parador.es/en.
THE GRAND DAME
Even the walk up to the front door creates a frisson of excitement, and you can’t say that about many hotels. The Alfonso XIII is a Seville institution, up there with the bullring and the cathedral, and a byword for high living in the Spanish style. Opened for the Seville Expo of 1929, the Alfonso is steeped in history, though an exemplary overhaul in 2012 brought out the best of the past while removing the fustiness of wall-to-wall carpets and repro furniture. Nothing has changed substantially; still there are the arches and columns, the corridors gleaming with iridescent tiles in Moorish tones, the fluted ceiling mouldings and the gold-trimmed lifts. And guests still sip a fino on the patio, but there’s a sprightly lightness about the new look. Novelties include the American Bar, a brilliant take on a classic in a 21st-century art-deco idiom, and Ena, a restaurant where Catalan chef Carles Abellan offers such diverting modern cuisine as the “McFoie”, great croquettes, as a kind of culinary gift from Barcelona to Seville. This is what a grand hotel ought to be — gracious yet comforting, opulent yet elegant, but also just the tiniest bit awe-inspiring; hotel-alfonsoxiii-seville.com.
THE ROMANTIC FARMHOUSE
La Matarrana is a sparsely populated and pristine region of mountains, valleys and medieval villages in what was once the Kingdom of Aragon, in northeast Spain. La Torre del Visco (Mistletoe Tower) is close to its heart, about 11km down a private track. A 15th-century farmhouse with a watchtower set in 100ha of olive and almond trees, it was bought in 1995 by a British couple, Jemma Markham and the late Piers Dutton, who had worked in publishing in Madrid. Beautifully restored, it quickly established itself as an expertly run retreat that counted the former king and queen of Spain among its guests. I first visited 15 years ago, after fashion designer Karl Lagerfeld had nominated it one of the three most romantic hotels in Spain, and fell under the spell of the wonderful breakfasts of breads, hams, cheeses and homemade quince jam in its open kitchen; the gracious library with its 3000 books and gleaming Bechstein piano; the serenity of the 17 guestrooms with their art and fresh-cut flowers; the profound sense of peace encountered on walks in the grounds and the simple pleasure of listening to birdsong. There’s a pool with valley views, a stargazing terrace, and activities that range from birdwatching and truffle-hunting to gin-tasting and wild swimming. For those who’d rather not drive from Zaragoza (two hours) or from Barcelona or Valencia (2 ½ hours), there is the option of arriving by helicopter; relaischateaux.com.
THE QUIRKY PALACE
Originally built in 1879 as a private palace, the Cotton House Hotel on the Gran Via has the gothic-tinged grandeur beloved of Barcelona’s 19th-century bourgeoisie. In 1961 the building became a club for magnates in the cotton industry (hence the name), but its wood panelling, stone staircases and creaking marquetry floors survived intact. Today, it is a hotel that brims with personality. The heady mixture of fin-de-siecle interiors, funky furniture and arresting art (courtesy of Spanish design doyen Lazaro Rosa-Violan) could well make you gasp. The cotton theme is ever-present — armfuls of cotton flowers stand in massive vases, cotton swatches are displayed in vitrines and you can even have a shirt made up by the chic Barcelona store Santa Eulalia. Hands-down winner among the 83 guestrooms is the Damasco Suite, once the mansion’s master bedroom, with soaring ceilings and frescoes with a pair of cherubs wishing you Bon Dia and Bona Nit. The architectural details repay scrutiny, none more so than the spiral staircase, its iron superstructure suspended from the roof with no other means of support; hotelcottonhouse.com.
THE BOUTIQUE RETREAT
Hidden in verdant farmland beneath the ancient town of Vejer, Casa La Siesta looks part Roman villa, part country house, and has stood here for as long as anyone can remember. Now a boutique hotel, it has nine guestrooms, and a mellow atmosphere. All you hear are the sounds of larks and a faint bustle in the kitchen as the cooks attend to a menu that changes daily, but invariably involves local wines and fish and seafood from the coast nearby. The accommodation is large and airy, with muslin curtains, antique floor tiles and wooden beams; the walls are painted pale saffron, hilariously large beds and freestanding baths give on to private sun terraces. Outside are a terracotta courtyard and the gardens, full of swallows and poppies, olives, oranges and lavender. The two pools, edged with pomegranate flowers, are never busy and in the apricot-coloured dusk, the courtyard is transformed with candlelit tables for two. The sense of romance is breathtaking; casalasiesta.com.
THE MINIMALIST MONASTERY
History and heritage meet contemporary design at Parador de Corias, which opened almost four years ago in the region of Asturias, in northern Spain. Its roots are in the Benedictine monastery of St John the Baptist, founded in 1032, and which for centuries was one of the most important places in the region. Unlike Spain’s grander paradors, there are no suits of armour or heavy tapestries adorning its halls, but just quaint details such as a pair of traditional clogs outside every room (many people in the villages here still wear these). The hotel is all modern, understated glamour, with neutral tones, bare walls, wooden floors and Scandinavian-style furniture that accentuates the monastery feel. Staff are discreetly attentive and treatments at the spa include the Olive Ritual with a scrub, olive mud wrap and massage. Set deep in the countryside by the Narcea River with mountains all around, Corias is close to the small town of Cangas del Narcea, but some distance from any major cities. Instead, you have the lure of spectacular landscapes and rural calm; parador.es/en.
You feel as if you are taking part in a historical drama, but G&Ts and Galician cuisine also form part of the sumptuous scenario
Abadia Retuerta LeDomaine, main; San Fernando Restaurant, Hotel Alfonso XIII, top left; Parador de Santiago de Compostela, above left; the Cotton House Hotel, above; La Torre del Visco, below
Indoor pool at Parador de Corias, top; alfresco dining at Casa La Siesta, above; dining room at Abadia Retuerta LeDomaine, above right