Parador Paradise and Golf Heaven; Discovering a Corner of Northern Spain, Rachael Crofts Stayed in Unique Historic Buildings Converted to Hotels
Crofts, Rachael, The Birmingham Post (England)
Only the Romanesque Church acknowledged our arrival at the village of Villalcazar de Sirga by sounding the ancient bell.
Three o'clock. The wind whistled through the deserted streets and our footsteps echoed on the cobbles. We felt like extras in a spaghetti western.
In the white-washed houses surrounding the village square, no one stirred. Even the lone restaurant - a traditional resting place for pilgrims on the route to Santiago de Compostela - looked closed.
But as we pushed open the heavy wooden door of the ancient Meson de Villasirga and negotiated a thick woollen curtain, we found all the life in the village packed inside.
Benches of diners turned to look at the newcomers and then, well used to passing pilgrims, turned back to their plates of lamb, dried beef and chorizo sausage.
Huge dried hams hung from the ceiling, adding to the rich aroma of roasting meat, while religious icons, brightly woven tapestries and pictures adorned the white stone walls.
The bar is still used by pilgrims making the historic journey to Santiago, but today travellers staying overnight in the nearby city of Leon are able to rest in more luxurious surroundings than in medieval times.
The city's monastery and pilgrim's hospital has been converted into a Parador, a five star government-run hotel.
It is the jewel in a crown of a chain of state-owned subsidised hostelries which offer excellent accommodation in unique, often historic buildings.
More than half of the Paradores are restored castles, monasteries, or palaces, which are traditionally furnished with wooden floors, period antiques and enormous white-tiled bathrooms.
The benefit of the Parador scheme is two-fold. Ancient buildings which may have fallen into disrepair are restored and preserved, and in turn provide tourists with an opportunity to touch the hem of history.
Parador touring is one of the best ways to see this part of Northern Spain. Dotted at key locations across the provinces of Cantabria, Asturias, Castille and Valencia, they provide excellent resting points in any route.
The area itsel while popular with Spanish tourists, is largely unknown to British holiday makers, apart from golfers.
Golfers love northern Spain. Golfing orphans know this. It is here that the young Seve Ballesteros first learnt to pitch and putt, and the Spaniard's own course overlooks the bay of Santander.
But if you can't tell a seven iron from a soldering iron, you can soak up history in villages like Santillana Del Mar, explore deserted beaches and quaint fishing villages, or even ski in the mountain ranges which shelter the coast.
In Santillana medieval red-roofed houses look up to the imposing Augustine Church like worshippers kneeling at a shrine.
The village gained importance in the Middle Ages when its isolated location ensured it was not taken by the Moorish invaders. …