Not too long ago, Extremadura was so forgotten it wasn't even included in the national weather forecast on the Spanish nightly news. That little detail should electrify any traveler seeking the kind of raw, lusty thrills Provence and Tuscany provided before they discovered how to market $40 bottles of olive oil. Divinely isolated southwest of Madrid along the Portuguese border, Extremadura has a dry and scratchy landscape that rustles with evergreen oaks, whose fruit nourishes all those scrumptious little jamones ibéricos. Surprisingly, Extremadura also has a near embarrassment of good, original places to stay. Where are Spanish hotels headed?The big boys in Madrid and Barcelona would do well to check out the region. For despite the weather report, Extremadura is hot.
HOSPEDERÍA CONVENTO DE LA PARRA
Mara Ulecia and Javier Muñoz would consider it quite enough if their hotel were building a reputation as the freshest and most exciting in Spain. But they'd be wrong to set their sights so low. The Hospedera Convento de La Parra is one of the freshest and most exciting hotels anywhere.
It's difficult to imagine a category of traveler it would not suit. Guests keen on design fill their notebooks with forward-looking solutions to everything from lighting to bedside tables. People who demand a lot in a setting will love the hospedería's duality: it's in the middle of an untrampled, whitewashed village, population 1,500, yet in seconds you can be in the countryside, crunching wild oregano underfoot or picking a ripe fig. Those whose nerves are shot can bask in the limpid atmosphere, dedicating an afternoon to watching the hotel's resident storks repair their nest on the bell tower. The best place for this mind-freeing entertainment is one of the daybeds piled with chenille throws in the arcaded galleries overlooking the cloister.
The convent was built in 1673 for the Order of Santa Clara, its immense plaster walls and tiny fenestrations ensuring a measure of coolness during the punishing Extremadura summers. The last clarisas left reluctantly in 1979, baking to the end the little cookies they sold to passers-by via a wooden turntable in the vestibule wall, a device that allowed them to remain hidden and that still twirls. A tombstone fragment uncovered during the building's restoration revealed that one of the good sisters arrived at age 13 and didn't check out until her death at 84. The chaste legacy of the nuns is reflected at the hotel today not just in its look but in its customers. For even if you're not prone to good thoughts, you really do start thinking them.
Ulecia and Muñoz understand that God is in the details. The 21 guest rooms make a claim on both the past and present, with floor cushions, grommeted sailcloth curtains, and wood-burning stoves. A bathroom might have a terra-cotta basin painted with curls and dots, and a simple cotton roller blind dividing it from the sleeping area. Breakfast coffee is poured in the cloister from charming red enameled-tin pots. The oranges that yield the juice for a Campari cocktail are freshly picked and squeezed, the drink served on a handmade galvanized tray with bowls of just-shelled pistachios. The charcuterie, all local, was the best I ate in Extremadura.
Wary at first, the people of La Parra are warming to the hotel. When Ulecia goes out in the morning with her dogs to collect the wildflowers she masses into lyrical bouquets, she returns to find that neighbors have left bouquets of their own for her. Most of the staff is young and from the village. With no training except what Ulecia and Muñoz have given them, they have a professionalism that, leavened with native goodwill, is disarming. Like that long-ago nun, I never wanted to leave.
Hospedera Convento de La Parra, 16 Calle Santa Mara, La Parra; 34-924/682-692, fax 34-924/682-619; www.laparra.net; doubles from $90.
I awoke to the music of cowbells and the heavenly smell of moist brown earth- exactly what I had come to Extremadura for. But my mental picture of the region hadn't included the policemen pacing the courtyard outside my hotel room.
"No reason to panic, Señor Petkanas," a staff member assured me. "We have the Portuguese ambassador to Spain staying with us. The police are just part of his detail."
I shouldn't have been surprised. Before arriving at Rocamador, a 16th-century monastery stylishly recast as a deeply rural hotel, I'd heard that Madrid society was booking the place out on weekends. They come to chill, to reconnect with nature, and to dine at one of the country's most trumpeted spots, run by an under-30 husband-and-wife team that cooked at Arzak, the Michelin three-starred restaurant in San Sebastián. Rocamador's tingling juxtaposition of wild and tame, rustic and sophisticated, sacred and secular, also explains its cult appeal.
Having celebrity owners- actor Carlos Tristancho and his wife, Lucía Dominguín, whose father was the mythic bullfighter Luis Miguel Dominguín- hasn't hurt the hotel a peseta. "We are anti-machinery, so we did the restoration largely by hand, employing the techniques and materials, like wafer brickwork, originally used to build the monastery," notes Tristancho. The couple lived alone at Rocamador before being persuaded to accept paying guests, but it still feels private. I'm one of those people who think that exclusiveness, in the right place in the right dose, can work. It works here.
So does the hotel's unexpected, poetic design. Filled with faded hydrangeas in metal tubs and straw trays heaped with rose petals, the cloister where breakfast is served has been given a poison-green wash: a kid's coloring-book idea of a cloister, and why not?The restaurant, in the former chapel, has granite-ribbed ceiling vaults, braziers under the tables in winter, and a 21st-century lighting system- bulbs strung on steel cables and shaded by pierced terra-cotta saucers. Though I found the food too conceptual by far (veal carpaccio with pork fat, truffles, and dried apricots is typical), the regional cheese plate was a revelation.
Hulking, labyrinthine, and built on so many levels you lose count, Rocamador cultivates a sweetly neglected, slightly overgrown look. Pails, watering cans, and eloquently rusting scales and sewing machines are set out on the many terraces. Chubby little Botero-esque statues are everywhere. Among the 31 guest rooms, the Oratory has gorgeous frescoes; in the Rock, a dramatic natural stone wall erupts straight from the floor. It says armfuls about the hotel that when an olive tree intrudes on a footpath, it's cut back just enough to allow passage. But not an inch more.
Rocamador,Carretera Nacional Badajoz-Huelva, Almedral; 34-924/489-000, fax 34-924/489-001; doubles $92.
PARADOR DE PLASENCIA
According to the Mapquest printout crumpled on my lap, I still had about 10 kilometers to go. But wasn't that the Parador de Plasencia looming huge and magnificent in the distance?It had better be. It was nearly 1 a.m. Being state-run, paradors might not live by the same rules as privately run hotels, I thought. Maybe no one would feel obliged to wait up for me. Maybe I'd be sleeping in the car.
The floodlit monument I had picked out was indeed the parador, whose hours I needn't have worried about. This being Spain, people were just finishing dinner. Hotel guests, most of them obvious members of the Spanish bourgeoisie, trickled through the lobby, the men in cashmere, the women sporting obsessively tidy, slightly retro coiffures.
And the reception clerk was expecting me. Briskly efficient, he gave me a quick thumbnail of the 66-room parador, a ravishing late-Gothic convent with Renaissance additions, and of the town. Despite the hotel, he said, Plasencia was unsullied by tourism, with a great market, a beautiful and sprawling main square—not to mention its own Benetton. Testing his description, I installed myself the next morning at one of Plaza Mayor's cafés and observed the unselfconscious ebb and flow of life in this model Extremadura town. Plasencia's elders held their faces up to the sun, thankful simply for someplace to be. A Victoria Abril type smiled at the good job the shoemaker had made of a pair of pumps. Someone bought a bouquet of mimosa. "How about a quick tapas?"
The man responsible for Spain's parador system was the Marqués de la Vega-Inclán. A century or so ago, when there was scarce interest in the country's architectural heritage, the marquis was a force in the restoration of Seville's Jewish quarter. In the late 1920's he built the first state-operated parador, modeled on a Castilian hunting lodge. Vega-Inclán's heirs expanded the concept, carrying it to an entire network of threatened historic buildings. The group's logo is a pediment, which turns up even on sugar packets and can be read, teasingly, as a crown.
Staying at the Parador de Plasencia, I certainly felt like a king, or at least a grandee. Nourishing the fantasy was the grandeur of the public spaces and everything in them, including an antique choral book it would take a forklift to carry, carved candlesticks taller than a man, and polished pewter pitchers and tureens with the potbellies to serve hundreds. The refectory has triple-height beamed and coffered ceilings, huge tapestries, wrought-iron chandeliers bigger than wagon wheels, and thousands of lovely, gently worn wall tiles painted with waves and foliage. The chef, poor thing, strives to keep up, piling a plate with six succulent, garlicky, adorable little lamb cutlets.
The hotel's epic scale is geared to the kind of traveler who dislikes having his every movement observed, who seeks a degree of anonymity. But anyone would love the more human dimensions of the rooms, as Spanish as paella with their rough terra-cotta floors, interior shutters, and snowy damask bedcovers. From the crucifix over the bed you might guess that the parador is an entirely serious and respectful place, but you'd be wrong. Barry White is piped into the glassed-in cloister, and the old confessionals are taken over by cigarette machines and pay phones.
Parador de Plasencia, Plaza San Vicente Ferrer, Plasencia; 34-927/425-870, fax 34-927/425-872; doubles $101.
HOSPEDERÍA DEL REAL MONASTERIO
Rooms converted from monks' cells are a source of bottomless fascination to guests at the Hospedera del Real Monasterio in Guadalupe. But nothing-not even a hotel this vast, imposing, and intriguing- upstages the town's shrine to the Virgin of Guadalupe, a pilgrimage site second in Spain only to Santiago de Compostela. Before arriving in town I had heard Guadalupe referred to as "el alma de España"- "the soul of Spain." It is.
The Virgin Mary herself is said to have posed for the tiny cedar figure, carved by St. Luke the Apostle, that people flood the town to see. According to her believers, the relic- which has a face the size and color of a walnut- was lost for centuries and discovered some 700 years ago by a herdsman under a rock in Guadalupe. A modest shrine was built on the spot, evolving over time into the mammoth cathedral and monastery seen today. Americans have a special connection with the town: Columbus made good on a promise to name a scrappy Caribbean island after the pilgrimage site if he was delivered from a terrible storm on the return voyage from his first expedition to the New World.
The hospedería is a small part of the 14th-century monastery built on the orders of King Alfonso XI- today a World Heritage Site with quarters for the handful of monks who have managed to hold on, a book museum crammed with diurnals and illuminated manuscripts, a scant but elegant trove of El Grecos and Goyas, and one of the finest embroidery collections in the world. The black velvet funeral vestment adorned with skulls and skeletons in heavy gold thread is Halloween haute couture.
Going to bed at night in an unknowably colossal, working monastery filled with ancient treasures is a powerful experience. It feels weirdly good, even for those who usually value luxury in a hotel over history and architecture. Still, while not strictly necessary, a taste for saints and relics and religious legends goes a long way toward making a stay at the hospedería pleasurable.
So do the three cloisters, one used as the hotel restaurant to enchanting effect. The Sunday I was there for lunch, a local girl celebrated her confirmation in a stiff white dress with a bell skirt propped up by tulle petticoats. (Her cousins showed that Britney has infiltrated the Spanish hinterland.) When the sun became unbearable, a green-and-white-striped awning was pulled across the courtyard, where a young boy kept knocking over the potted oleander with his Razor scooter. Polite without being ridiculous about it, waiters dressed in charcoal trousers, navy V necks, white shirts, and dark ties served fresh, incredibly sweet shrimp a la plancha singed with delicious burn marks.
People who feel they are always priced out of suites will be thrilled to find that the hospedería's are within easy reach. Room 218 has a cathedral ceiling, a bed with a mounded canopy, a rare footed chest with feathery carvings, and a writing table with lovely cabriole legs. Number 108 includes a separate sitting room and is decorated with gold damask curtains, funny little 19th-century slipper chairs, and antique Portuguese beds with lacy headboards and barley-twist posts.
A mere $119, it may be the best hotel bargain in Spain.
Hospedería del Real Monasterio, Plaza Juan Carlos I, Guadalupe; 34-927/367-000, fax 34-927/367-177; doubles $44.
PARADOR DE GUADALUPE
Guadalupe's official parador sits just across the street from the Hospedería del Real Monasterio, but they are as different as Rocamador is from the Hospedera Convento de La Parra. Among Spain's 83 paradors, Guadalupe's is one of the most stylish, intimate, and romantic. If you didn't know it was part of the group, you could easily mistake the 40-room hotel for a long-standing family-run establishment- one whose owners have taken almost unreasonable care and pride in choosing the furnishings, tending the garden, and making sure guests' needs are met. (It's a long way from the building's 15th-century beginnings as a hospital, where the first official autopsy in Spain was performed.) That slightly institutional quality you find at some paradors, wed to a feeling that management is overwhelmed by the patrimony and unable to harness the space they've been handed, is completely absent. Paradors are usually too big to be sexy. Not this one.
The Virgin is big business in Guadalupe, her startled dollish image frozen on everything from key rings to bookmarks. The parador does a more respectful job with it, evoking her likeness in colorful mosaics embedded in the whitewashed walls of some guest rooms. Mannish, pure, and pristine, many rooms suggest a conquistador's lair, with upright wood-frame chairs stretched with leather held in place by giant brass nailheads. Others have canopy beds with rich or chaste hangings, one suitable for an infanta, the other for her lady-in-waiting. The tops of bedspreads are outlined with crisp frames of fabric, a very David Hicks-ian idea I wasted no time borrowing for my sofa cushions at home.
Rooms give onto the courtyard, planted with fragrant, evenly spaced orange trees, or onto an olive grove with a mountain backdrop. Water trickles into a blessedly underdesigned swimming pool through the mouth of a terra-cotta olive-oil jar turned on its side. Guests love leaving the hotel to explore the hushed, twisting back streets and copper shops that make Guadalupe a town of some charm.
The Virgin exerts her pull even on poolside slackers. Just as I finished slathering myself in sunscreen, I realized that the ticket I'd bought to tour the shrine was about to expire. I raced to the cathedral. From the nave, I looked up at the relic, which seemed city blocks away; well, I shrugged, I guess I'm not getting any closer than this. Later in the visit, after you feast on the Zurbaráns in the sacristy, the lay guide turns you over to a monk. He's dressed, believe it or not, in a brown robe with a cord around his waist, and he leads you up endless flights of marble stairs. By this time you have completely forgotten the Virgin and, unless you've been paying close attention, you have no idea what remote cavity of the church you could possibly be in. The monk flicks his hand, setting a turntable in motion, and the Virgin glides into view. The crowd gasps. You've never seen a monk with such a big grin.
Parador de Guadalupe, 12 Calle Marqués de la Romana; 34-927/367-075, fax 34-927/367-076; doubles $72.