I capture the castillo
Parador del Cardona
Parador de Aiguablava
The foreboding Castle of Carmona, surrounded by the fertile plains of Seville, was once home to Pedro the Cruel, 14th century King of Castile. You needed to work pretty hard to earn yourself a stand-alone title for cruelty in medieval Spain – this was a land renowned for violence, intimidation and general skullduggery. However, Pedro’s reputation seems well-deserved; his business was conducted with an imaginative vindictiveness that impressed even his most savage contemporaries.
Hassle at the castle was a regular feature, including one episode that may have you nodding thoughtfully. During Pedro’s reign, a visiting Arab dignitary was foolish enough to rock up to Carmona wearing what was the largest ruby in the known world. Mistake. Pedro had him murdered and nicked the ring, subsequently presenting it to his pal Edward the Black Prince. Eventually, the gem became part of the British Crown Jewels, wheeled out to this day on British state occasions.
The site of this dark deed, the Castle of Carmona, is today a Parador Hotel. Needless to say, the ghosts of its clamorous past are now silent; the castle slumbers on peacefully in its hillside fastness.
Today guests at Carmona are treated to lavish comfort and gracious living, with nary a worry about the security of their bling. The Parador Hotels of Spain, or Los Paradores de Turismo de España as they like to call themselves on formal occasions, are a chain of Spanish luxury hotels founded by Alfonso XIII in 1928 to promote tourism. The first opened in Gredos, Ávila, and they remain a state-run enterprise, occupying former castles, palaces, fortresses, convents, monasteries and stately homes. To tour Spain via these hotels is to come face-to-face with this country’s long, and seldom mundane, history.
It’s an odd concept, really – a government running hotels. You can’t really imagine, say, an Enda and Eamon-run BB, never mind a whole chain of luxury hotels. But in Spain it works well – and why wouldn’t it? This is, after all, a nation with the best roads in Europe, with constitutionally guaranteed naps in the afternoon, and the best nibbles ever invented – tapas. Okay, part of the country wants to have nothing more to do with the rest of the Spain – in fact the part we were travelling through, Catalonia, but hey, those of us from Co Down are used to a spot of rancour.
Our visit began at a former ninth century castle, the Parador Cardona in the province of Barcelona. Its former inhabitants could speak of handbags with Charlemagne the Great, William the Hairy, Almursur the Moor, and of course Pablo the Lacking Any Single Stand-Out Characteristic. Manu, our driver, turned out to be a constant source of offbeat information. (And in case you’re wondering – hiring a man and a Merc isn’t as wantonly extravagant as you might think for a group of people, see blailimousines.com.)