For Joaquin Jesus Serrano, working as a bartender at the Parador de Zafra, in a commanding 15th-century castle, used to feel a bit too much like returning to the Middle Ages. "The lighting was so dark, and the walls were plain white," he explains while refilling a glass of Rioja. Today, Serrano may as well be in West Hollywood. The parador's backlit bar is as subtly glam as anything on Melrose Avenue. Round silver mirrors line the soft gray walls, and a sophisticated crowd settles into brown, round-backed chairs.
Spain's state-run parador system was founded in 1928 by King Alfonso XIII, with two goals. He wanted to preserve deteriorating buildings--about half of the 91 paradores are in palaces, convents, and the like--by opening them as lodgings (parador means "stopping place"). And he hoped to make exploring the country easy for all by keeping the rates low.
After decades of wear and tear, however, the properties were in need of another dose of preservation. In 2001, the government launched a $496 million initiative: All of Spain's paradores will be renovated by 2010, and nine new ones will be built. Seventy renovations have already been completed, but several of the most beautifully redone historic buildings will be opening over the next year.
Prominent interior designers in Spain competed for the opportunity to redesign each parador. "These buildings are a part of our cultural heritage, of world heritage," said Jaime Beriestain, the man behind the renovation of Parador de Zafra in 2003. (Visitors to Spain may know his work from the Hilton Barcelona's 2003 refurbishment.)
When taking on the Zafra project, Beriestain was reminded of "those castles that you draw as a little boy, towers and all. I wanted to maintain the tradition of the space." The result is still unmistakably a castle: Many guest rooms have arched, carved wood doors with big iron knobs in the middle; off-white bedspreads are accented by regal red-and-pink pillows and dust ruffles; beds are bedecked with golden headboards and canopies. But the building has also been warmed up. It's a castle, but it's cozy. The courtyard has wrought-iron chairs with comfortable white cushions, and leather chaise lounges cluster around a fireplace in the second-floor living room. "It's a place to curl up with a hot drink," says Beriestain. For his color palate, the designer referenced the drastic seasonal changes of the region, Extremadura. The carpets in the corridors incorporate lush greens and arid reds in a swirling motif reminiscent of topographical maps.
Beriestain also oversaw the $4 million renovation of the Parador de Trujillo, a 16th-century convent 90 miles northeast of Zafra. While the most dramatic change was probably the addition of a rooftop swimming pool, he brought in colorful artwork and furniture as well, such as the parlors' red banquettes and low-slung mustard-and-white couches. In the breakfast room, which was once the convent's chapel, Renaissance arches are trimmed in a warm shade of salmon. "Trujillo was the seat of the conquistadors," says Beriestain. "It was the place they would come home to from the New World." Beriestain played up the past by introducing gold wherever he could: Fixtures in the hallways bounce light off of large golden plates; an enormous gold circle hangs above the bar; and modern chandeliers--four tiers of gilded circles--hang in the dining room.
Retaining a sense of history is only one aspect of a parador's renovation, according to Madrid-based Pascua Ortega. "The artistic part is converting it into a 21st-century hotel," he says.
Prior to the initiative, in 1995, Ortega had completed a redesign of the Parador de Ávila, a 16th-century palace 70 miles northwest of Madrid. It's a good example of what visitors can expect from his and other designers' renovations to come. Ortega's first order of business at Ávila was to introduce more light: "It was just too dark." Now, green fabrics and sunny yellow walls brighten the rooms, and a sleek bar with royal-blue cushioned stools serves as a social hub. Cream canopies hang over four-poster beds in each of the 61 guest rooms, and small red lamps are suspended above the tables in the dining room.
As with the other two paradores, history still has a hold on the grand building, which abuts the town of Ávila's Roman walls. Lest you forget that you're entering a place that's over 400 years old, a full suit of armor stands guard at the reception desk, and beautiful wooden beams run throughout the ceilings in the hotel. "You want to conserve whatever you can," says Ortega. "These buildings have their own charm."