Secrets of the Paradores in Spain’s Compelling Extremadura Region

Zafra Castle Parador Hotel in Extremadura Spain

Zafra Castle, Extremadura

They could be museums or galleries or grand homes opened for public tours. Happily for travelers, they’re hotels. But that’s not what makes Spain’s paradores special.

The eclectic collection of castles, convents and other historic structures meticulously preserved and repurposed by the government are no ordinary hotels. They’re portals to a distant past connecting one age to another. For those who step into them as I did, with no pre-conceived notions, the paradors offer up the ethos of long-ago centuries as potent and present as the 21st century humming just outside.

Extremadura’s paradores are among the most compelling in part because the region itself is so intensely evocative. Hugging the border of Portugal, Extremadura is an under-the-radar region of undulating hillsides and wide valleys.

It’s one of those places you’ll want people to know about…but not really.

Divided into two provinces, Caceres in the north, Badajoz in the south, Extremadura is easy to reach via Badajoz airport and trains accessible in multiple cities. Seven of Extremadura’s cities have these historic hotels. Here are three of them.

The Castle of Zafra

Zafra’s parador hotel is a formidable castle, turrets and all. Built in the 1400s, it’s every bit a fortress, forbidding and impenetrable with massive walls and narrow slits of windows. On a tour we stand at the front door peering up at the crenelated parapet above us.

“That’s where defenders could pour boiling oil on invaders,” the guide says.

There’s plenty of oil in Extremadura, one of Spain’s olive-producing regions, but no one seems to be boiling it these days. I breach the front door, luggage in hand, with no resistance and step into history–but not the interior I expected.

Zafra Hotel in Spain, one of the paradores in Extremadura

Unlike the imposing exterior, the parador inside recalls its days as a royal residence of the 16th and 17th centuries. Richly appointed furnishings, some original to the palace, and elegant public rooms welcome visitors. An airy, light-filled courtyard at its center holds cozy pockets of seating and tables. True to its castle bones, however, there are narrow halls to navigate and steep, winding stairways-with no elevator to assist

You’ll want to hone your light-packing skills.

Located in the medieval city center, the parador is only a short walk from chic boutiques, shops and the photo op that is Clavel Street, where thousands of blooms in every brilliant flower color spill from balconies and down white walls. Looking up you’ll suddenly notice something else on Zafra’s buildings: mega-sized bundles of sticks. Stork nests. Once you see one you’ll see them everywhere…because they are everywhere.

The Original Merida in Spain

Roman theater in Merida, Spain

Lots of cities in Latin America are called Merida, thanks to all the conquistadors and their mates that came from here. It goes back further though. Extremadura’s capital city of Merida is a step back into a completely different time when Romans marched across Europe on engineering marvels of roads, built temples to gods, and sent men into amphitheaters to battle beasts and each other to the death. Merida’s evocative collection of Roman ruins includes the Temple of Diana rising improbably among storefronts and apartment buildings. There were only a few tourists the day I went but dozens of feral cats lounge at the bases of Diana’s roofless columns, licking their paws in the warm Iberian sun.

Parador Hotel entrance in Merida, Extremadura, SpainThe city’s most popular attraction is a UNESCO World Heritage Site that includes an impressive 3,000-seat Roman Theater, still used for performances today, and an Amphitheater connected by walkways and pockets of gardens. Entry is about 12 euros.

Merida’s parador hotel, walking distance from the theater, is built on the remains of an ancient temple, yet it’s not only about Rome. The former 18th-century convent houses artifacts from the city’s Visigoth and Mudejar periods as well. Inside and out it’s mostly gleaming white. Stately palms give it the feel of what I imagine an elegant oasis might be–if it had air conditioning, no sand and a stork nest perched on top.

For the definitive perspective on Merida’s Roman influences, head to the stellar National Museum of Roman Art, opened in 1986 at a working archaeological site. Entry is about three euros. The collection of mosaics, glassware, sculptures, paintings, and other artifacts provide a glimpse into the daily life of Romans. Linger over the striking mosaics; they grow more remarkable the longer you look.

Staying in a Parador in Trujillo

Trujillo’s notable claim to fame is its infamous native son, conquistador Francisco Pizarro, whose statue dominates Plaza Mayor (major plaza). Below it, real horses clip-clop along the cobbles pulling carriages of tourists who don’t care to climb Trujillo’s hills.

The parador is up winding cobbled streets at the top of a hill. It’s easy to get lost in the maze of look-alike roads but not to worry: They all eventually lead to Plaza Mayor where you can start again, getting your 10,000 steps in.

In sharp contrast to the notorious brutality of the conquistadors, the former Convent of Santa Clara is a 16th-century ode to serenity. It’s impossible not to feel utterly relaxed here. Guests enter through a rough stone wall but inside graceful arches, cloisters, tiles and vaulted ceilings create an ambiance of timeless grace. Like other paradors, this one has a seasonal pool though I didn’t venture in. What I did take in is the view from the hill, a sweeping panorama past Trujillo’s red rooftops and Moorish tiles, across a wide, green valley to the hills beyond.

View from a Parador in Trujillo, Spain

Although each parador is different, all offer excellent dining in rooms that invite guests to linger long into the night. Local cuisine often stars sought-after Iberian ham and dense crusty bread. Chickpeas, local cheeses, beans, cherries, figs, paprika, garlic, gazpacho, and freshwater fish are regional staples, and some form of lamb stew is often featured. While hotel restaurants frequently disappoint, paradors are an exception.

Truthfully, parador hotels, like the Pousadas of Portugal, aren’t for everyone. If you need an elevator or bellman you may not find either. If you’re addicted to U.S. brands and points, you’re out of luck. But if traveling across centuries to eat and sleep where history yet lives appeals to your intrepid soul, paradores deliver that and more, something no hotel chain can match.

More Paradores in Extremadura

You can stay in style throughout the Extremadura region, checking into a historic castle or mansion and stepping back in time—apart from the Wi-Fi and local white wine in an ice bucket that is. Some of the other Spanish paradores worth exploring in the region include Plasencia, Caceres, Jarandilla, and Guadalupe.

Find additional info about all of the above and discover even more here at the official website.

Learn more about what to do in the region at the Extremadura Region website of Spain.

This post and the photos are by Christine Loomis, who is a regular contributor to USA Today 10 best, Corporate & Incentive Travel, TravelAge West and other print and online publications. She had essays in Volume 11 of The Best Women’s Travel Writing and A Mother’s World and is a longtime member of SATW (the Society of American Travel Writers). She is also the author of Off the Beaten Path Colorado

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City of Trujillo, Extremadura, Spain, where you can stay in a 16th-century convent that's now a parador hotel

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