One of the pleasures of travel in Europe is that there is always a new region to discover. I have lost count of my visits to Spain, but my recent trip to the northwest still felt like a journey into the unknown. Coming out of the airport in Vigo after a 75-minute flight from Madrid, the air smelled bracingly of the pines and eucalyptus trees that cover the steep green hills of Galicia, a Celtic region that in some ways has more in common with Brittany or Ireland than it does with the rest of the country.
To recover from the transatlantic flight, we had decided to spend a couple of days relaxing at the Parador de Baiona, located on a rocky promontory, 16 miles southwest of Vigo and a 40-minute drive from the Portuguese border. (Lisbon lies 290 miles to the south.) Spain’s paradors are government-run heritage hotels, chiefly housed within converted fortresses, convents and palaces. Although their quality is inconsistent, the chain seems to be in the midst of a revival, with rising standards of food and service. The 122-room Parador de Baiona is contained within the crenellated medieval walls of the Castelo de Monterreal. Our traditionally furnished Junior Suite came with caramel-colored parquet floors, a sofa with striped damask upholstery, framed paintings of flowers and a floor-to-ceiling window that offered a memorable view of breakers crashing on the rocky coastline. A well-lit bath provided double vanities on a gray granite counter and a combination shower and tub. Although we were perfectly comfortable, on a future occasion I would book one of the property’s three Unique rooms — 201, 242 or 323 — since they’re larger, more distinctively decorated and come with hydrojet tubs.
The property’s fine restaurant specializes in the seafood for which Galicia is renowned. Scallops, goose barnacles (percebes in Spanish, and a great local delicacy), octopus, lobster and spider crabs can all be found in the waters around the nearby Islas Cíes. Commonly available Atlantic fish include hake, monkfish, turbot and sea bass, the latter cooked with razor shell clams and turnip greens in a delicious dish known as lubina con navajas. The cuisine is well supported by the local Ribeiro and Albariño wines. During the summer, meals are also served on a spectacular terrace overlooking the yacht club. In search of variety, we drove 45 minutes north one evening to enjoy a superb dinner at chef Pepe Solla’s Casa Solla, on the outskirts of the small city of Pontevedra.
Although we spent most of our stay at the parador, within easy reach of the large outdoor pool and Jacuzzi, we made a memorable outing to the Islas Cíes, three islands off the coast reached by regular ferry service from Baiona, which became part of a national park in 2002. There, we passed a blissful day on the Praia das Rodas, a crescent of soft, pale sand fronting an expanse of calm, clear sea. (We had ordered a picnic from the hotel the night before.)
Historic charm; spectacular setting with magnificent views of the sea.
Inattentive front desk staff.
Baiona has an American connection; it was here that the Pinta arrived to announce the discovery of the New World in 1493. A replica of the ship is on display in the town’s harbor.
Setting out on our journey, we opted to follow the coast, rather than the main AP-9 highway, to the famous pilgrimage city of Santiago de Compostela. The Galician shoreline is indented with long fjordlike creeks, known as rías, which add visual drama to a littoral that is often reminiscent of northern California. Named for St. James, one of the apostles and the patron saint of Spain, Santiago is a gracious and unspoiled university city. According to legend, the saint’s remains were discovered during the ninth century by a shepherd led by a bright star. A church was built to house them, and pilgrims soon began making the journey to venerate his tomb. Today, more than 200,000 devotees still follow the 500-mile-long Camino de Santiago (Way of St. James) annually from Roncesvalles in the Pyrenees.
The focus of the historic heart of Santiago is the magnificent granite cathedral, construction of which began in 1075. Across from the cathedral on the northern edge of the main square, the Praza do Obradoiro, is the 137-room Parador de Santiago de Compostela — also known as the Hostal dos Reis Católicos — which occupies a 15th-century structure originally built to lodge pilgrims. The hostel is constructed around exquisite courtyards, with trimmed boxwood parterres and trickling fountains.
We had booked one of the Unique rooms for our one-night stay. San Lucas (No. 124) was built in 1798 by Nicolás de Neyra, the director of the hostel, to house his offices. As soon as the porter opened the heavy oak door, we liked our choice. The huge room had a massive barrel-vaulted stone ceiling, parquet floors, a pair of tapestry-covered armchairs, black wrought-iron floor lamps with parchment shades and a canopied four-poster bed. The recently renovated bath featured double vanities on a white marble counter, and a separate tub and shower. Overall, the room was quiet, comfortable and authentically historical.
The bar and restaurant at the Parador are very popular with non-residents, which gives the property a lively and cosmopolitan atmosphere. (The main lounge, however, is for residents only, as are the interior courtyards.) The food in the Restaurante dos Reis, which occupies the vaulted former stables, is excellent. For 43 Euros, the menu included a langoustine salad, followed by veal entrecôte with pimientos de Padrón — tiny green peppers grown locally that are served grilled and salted — and roasted potatoes. However, the greatest pleasure of Galician restaurants is the spectacular seafood, so ordering à la carte is invariably more interesting. The service during our stay was mixed. Some staff were friendly; others tended to be chilly and, occasionally, chiefly conspicuous by their absence.
Ideal location; the majestic architecture of the 13th-century palace.
This is one of the most popular hotels in Spain, so reservations should be made as far in advance as possible.
Though the Parador de Santiago de Compostela offers an ideal location and historic charm, travelers who prefer a peaceful country setting, plus a swimming pool and spa, should consider the 51-room A Quinta da Auga, an intimate and refined hotel that has been created in an 18th-century former paper mill on the River Sar, three miles west of town. Surrounded by a verdant two-and-a-half-acre estate, this family-owned property offers a welcoming atmosphere and attentive personal service. Framed family photographs add a distinctive touch to the stylish public areas, which are decorated with a fine collection of 19th-century oil paintings.
On arrival, we flung open our bedroom shutters to admit light and fresh air, as well as a chorus of birdsong and the soothing sound of rushing water. Our spacious 1,075-square-foot suite was decorated with blue-and-ivory toile de Jouy wall coverings, crystal chandeliers and antique furniture. A well-polished mahogany table with two chairs facilitated room service dining, and in the separate sitting area, we found oak floors, a large leather-topped desk, a leather sofa and an occasional table piled with magazines. The marble bath came with a Jacuzzi tub and a separate shower.
The hotel’s fine Filigrana Restaurant is under the supervision of chef Federico López Arcay, who serves a menu of traditional Galician dishes, with appetizers such as sea urchin stuffed with a velouté of sea urchin roe, or grilled octopus with San Simón cheese, followed by monkfish with king prawns and fried rice, or grilled loin of Galician beef with tartiflette (a dish of potatoes, cheese, onions and lardons). The hotel’s other principal amenity is its spa, which offers a range of facilities for hydrotherapy treatments, including a Dead Sea “flotarium.”
The sound of rushing water in our beautifully decorated and extremely comfortable room, suite 401.
The supplementary charges for both the pool and sauna; the poorly trained staff in the dining room.
Casa Barqueiro in nearby Negreira is a simple country inn specializing in delicious roasted meats, including Galicia’s famous beef.
From Santiago we headed to Lugo, 70 miles to the east, on the N-547. The road runs parallel to the Camino de Santiago, and we often caught sight of pilgrims striding along determinedly. Lugo is the only city in the world surrounded by completely intact Roman walls, which reach a height of 50 feet along a 6,950-foot circuit. The walk along the top is continuous and well worth the effort. From Lugo, we continued driving east for 140 miles to León, a city of 130,000 inhabitants, chiefly famous for its magnificent 13th-century Gothic cathedral, with its 19,000 square feet of glorious medieval stained glass.
On the edge of the city, the 184-room Parador de León occupies a spectacular 16th-century palace that was built as the western headquarters of the Military Order of Saint James. Aside from its ornate Renaissance façade, which is beautifully lit at night, highlights of the building are an interior cloister and quiet, well-furnished public rooms, including a library and a good restaurant. To be happy here, however, you’ll need to enlist the help of your travel agent. This parador is comprised of the historic palace and a large modern annex, and you want to be in the palace, but, even here, rooms vary considerably. Our Superior Double Room was adequate for a night, but the faux medieval furnishings — two red velvet-covered armchairs and a bed with a gold damask canopy — were worn. Alas, León simply doesn’t provide a better option.
Good location, excellent restaurant and easy parking.
Tired interior décor and impersonal service.
This is one of the most popular paradors in Spain, so high-season reservations can be hard to come by.
The two-hour, 115-mile drive from León to Burgos on the N-120 passes through lovely countryside and again parallels the pilgrims’ route for much of the way. Burgos is an elegant little city, with pollarded plane trees lining the promenades on either side of the Arlanzón River. A focal point is provided by another magnificent Gothic cathedral, which here contains the tomb of the legendary 11th-century warrior El Cid. Like many provincial cities in Spain, Burgos has a complex and confusing traffic system, so I chose the 110-room NH Collection Palacio de Burgos hotel in part for its ease of access and on-site parking, as well as an ideal location five-minutes’ walk from the cathedral. Although primarily a business hotel, the property was created from a 16th-century convent and is a successful mixture of new and old. The vestiges of the old palace, including a large cloister, comprise the public areas. We were very comfortable for a night in our quiet and spacious Premium Room, with its dark parquet floor, contemporary furniture and windows overlooking a park along the river. Adjacent to a spacious dressing room, a travertine-paneled bath came with a combination tub and shower; amenities included an espresso machine. During our brief stay, the staff were charming, and the breakfast buffet was excellent.
Excellent location, comfortable room and friendly staff.
The excessive daily parking fee.
The best rooms are on higher floors with river views.
Sixty miles to the east, the charming town of Haro contains many of the great bodegas of the La Rioja wine region. After several winery visits in Haro, and a fascinating afternoon at the Vivanco Museum of Wine Culture, we arrived at the nearby village of Villabuena de Alava. It is on the northern slopes of the Ebro Valley and is home to several outstanding winemakers, notably Luis Cañas.
In the past two decades, La Rioja region has seen the debuts of dazzling new winery buildings and hotels, designed by high-profile architects. The best known of these is Frank Gehry’s Hotel Marqués de Riscal, which I have recommended for some years. On this occasion, however, I decided to try someplace different. The 33-room Hotel Viura was created by architect-owners Joseba and Xabier Aramburu and has a bold, modern design of concrete cubes clumped together in fanciful disarray. Initial apprehensions inspired by the hotel’s avant-garde appearance were somewhat allayed by the friendly and efficient front desk staff. Our third-floor Junior Suite turned out to be attractive and well-equipped, and came with dove-gray walls, a spacious living area with an oak desk, a comfortable bed made up with high-quality cotton sheets, a plump chaise longue and two floor-to-ceiling windows. The bath contained a separate tub and a shower. Outside, our private terrace afforded views over the pretty village.
In addition to pleasing accommodations, the Viura has a superb restaurant serving Riojan and Basque cuisine. There we dined on white asparagus in foie gras sauce, baby artichokes with wild mushrooms, and hake with black cauliflower risotto, all accompanied by a magnificent 2010 Luis Cañas Reserva. The property also offers a wine bar and a small spa.
Comfortable accommodations, excellent wine bar and outstanding restaurant.
The occasionally standoffish staff.
This hotel makes a perfect base from which to explore La Rioja wineries.
Within the past 15 years, Spain has emerged as a major gastronomic destination, which is why we headed to the pretty resort town of Ezcaray the next day. Situated 40 miles to the south, Ezcaray has recently become a gourmet mecca due to the spectacular talent of chef Francisco Paniego. His Michelin two-star restaurant, El Portal, is housed within the family-owned Hotel Gastronómico Echaurren, which also contains the Echaurren Tradición restaurant, for sturdy traditional Riojan cooking, and a tapas bar. (In addition, Bistrot Comilón, with a lighter, more modern menu, is located nearby.)
Now managed by a fifth generation, the 27-room hotel has recently been redecorated in a streamlined contemporary style inspired by both classic Scandinavian design and Japanese ryokans. Though not especially luxurious, our accommodations were comfortable and well-designed, with oak parquet floors, oak beds and electrically operated window shades. Our meal at El Portal, however, proved to be wholly exceptional and included traditional and earthy dishes like red beans with chorizo, blood sausage, crackling and collard greens, as well as more experimental entrées such as langoustines accompanied by the meat of a brined and deboned pig’s ear and baby leeks. (This may sound alarming, but it was delicious.) The following lunchtime, we tried the traditional restaurant, where the menu features the superb recipes of Marisa Sánchez, Paniego’s mother, who won an award as the best chef in Spain in 1987. This very different but no less delicious meal began with croquetas (deep-fried beignets filled with ham and chicken in a cream sauce), followed by an earthy sopa de cocido (soup of meat and beans), and roasted suckling lamb and meatballs with truffles and potatoes. This hearty fare was quite different from Panciego’s lyrical cuisine at El Portal but equally outstanding.
The hotel’s two outstanding restaurants, one a Michelin two-star serving contemporary Spanish food and the other a charming spot featuring traditional Riojan cooking.
Sullen waitress at breakfast.
The hotel has a convenient parking garage for guests just down the street.
From Ezcaray, it was a two-and-a-half-hour drive south to the little town of Aranda de Duero in the Ribera del Duero, another of Spain’s great wine regions. Just down the road from the famous Vega Sicilia vineyard, the magnificent 1,730-acre Abadía Retuerta LeDomaine estate has become the talk of Spain since it opened after a multimillion-dollar renovation in 2012. Not only is the vineyard producing some spectacular wines, but the 30-room hotel, created from a former 12th-century Cistercian monastery, is wholly exceptional.
The austerity of the original building was respected rather than overwhelmed during the renovation, and its style remains authentic and low-key. The architects had the sense to embrace the essential rusticity of the property with its beamed ceilings and limestone floors. The public spaces, including the renovated chapel, are spare, while the character of the rooms derives from the exquisitely simple teak furniture, the wide-planked oak floors and the beautifully made oak shutters in the tall windows that overlook the surrounding vineyards. Well-equipped baths come with oversized soaking tubs and separate showers.
The hotel features two excellent restaurants, the Vinoteca, a casual wine-oriented bistro, and the Michelin-starred Refectorio, where chef Marc Segarra, who trained at the renowned Mugaritz restaurant in San Sebastián, produces intriguing, if slightly over-elaborate, tasting menus. Guided tours of the winery are offered. Amenities include an outdoor pool, plus a spectacular 10,000-square-foot spa featuring vinotherapy treatments using grape extracts. Horseback riding and golf are available.
The estate provides a perfect base from which to discover the Ribera del Duero, as well as the atmospheric old city of Valladolid, where the National Sculpture Museum is housed within the 16th-century Colegio de San Gregorio. Abadía Retuerta LeDomaine is a truly wonderful property and ideal for either a timeout during a tour of northwest Spain or a weekend away from Madrid. The Spanish capital lies an easy 120-mile drive to the south.
Supremely comfortable rooms and spectacular wines in a magnificently restored medieval monastery.
Exasperating pre-arrival guest information forms to be filled out, plus constant emails insisting on the need to make reservations in advance for all hotel service.
This region is sweltering during July and August and is best visited in May-June or September-October.