When we decided to travel to Spain with our 6 year old daughters, we knew we had to find a way to spend a time in a castle. We had heard of Paradores, a government run system of historic buildings that have been restored and are run as hotels and resorts, though we had never indulged in such luxurious accommodations.
The official Parador website is over the top – you can view and select the locations of all the Paradores in Spain on a map and some of the sites have intense interactive maps and 360 views of the rooms.
Our primary criterion was to be close to Madrid to keep travel simple with kids. There are Paradores in nearby locations like Segovia, Toledo, Avila and even in the outskirts of Madrid. But we needed a castle – a real medieval stone castle, preferably with a moat, gargoyles and great big iron light fixtures. Well in Alarcón we found it, and more. Ok, they didn’t have a moat, but, other than that, it had it all.
The Paradores website lists booking representatives in the US and offers online booking. And you’ll find lots of deals for the young, the old and for booking several nights in a row. In all of our Spain accommodations, we were having difficulty finding rooms for a family of four. Often the online forms won’t allow 4 guests in a room. And, while the US rep had some helpful info, we knew more details than they did just from reading the website. So we called the Parador office Spain. (Probably could have emailed just as easily). We were able to book rooms that the US representative had said were not available! In fact we were able to get the one-of-a-kind suite at the top of the tower that we were told was off limits to a family of four.
Well the castle was everything we hoped and more! The location, setting, everything was pretty amazing. And, besides, it is located in the region of Castilla de la Mancha – home of Don Quijote, Manchego cheese and the hanging houses of Cuenca.
As we drove from Madrid to Alarcón we passed several old villages and spotted a few other castles in the distance, just to get us in the mood. (We have a few notes on car rental and mapping directions for Spain travel on our transportation page). To get to Alarcón, you leave the main highway and pass through Tébar another small village worth exploring (also with a castle).
The approach to Alarcon is stunning. We took many pictures but could never capture it. The tiny walled village of Alarcon sits atop a bluff carved out by the river Jucar which surrounds it on 3 sides. The castle is the most prominent feature, with walls and towers that extend around the city. There are also guard towers sitting on the hills across the river that served as part of the security network of the fortress. The one road into Alarcon passes through a small arched Puerta de Calabozo which is guarded by a small tower – you have to imagine the knights yourself, but it doesn’t take much of a leap. You drive over cobblestone streets through the village to the main fortress and Parador.
Alarcon is a tiny village of just about 200 residents and most of the buildings are vacation homes. So the town is very quiet during the week and quite bustling on weekends and holidays. In addition to the Parador there are only a couple of other small inns and hotels and just one or two bars and eateries. The village’s historical buildings are closed to visitors except for small city tours which are offered twice a day, covering the whole town including the Parador. There is a small playground for young kids on the side of the village opposite the Parador.
The Parador itself is not very big. The 6 story tower houses one hotel room per floor plus reception. And a wing off of the tower holds 8 more rooms. A bar and lounge and the beautiful dining area take up the rest of the building on the other side of the tiny courtyard.
You can see the history in the walls of the castle. The literature describes it as an 8th century Arab fortress that has been updated over the years. In the patchwork of textures in the walls you can see each of the various constructions, including the latest remodel. The ultra modern details of the recent improvements work well with the medieval setting. The contemporary fixtures are so simple and sparse (while being a bit luxurious) that they bring out all the castley details instead of overshadowing them. The fancy lighting along the floors really shows off the texture of the old walls. And the bold red canopies over the beds look kind of medieval and modern all at the same time.
It is possible to get full board with the Parador room reservation, and that may be a good option at this location because there aren’t really any other dining options. (New construction of a lodge in the area may change that). Like the hotel accommodations, the restaurant is much more high-end than I am used to in Spain. Generally I love the casual every-day food served in bars and cafeterias. And, while I enjoyed the fine service and setting, the food, to me it was no better than the regular restaurants that are found throughout Spain.
There are many options on the Parador menu, including sections for vegetarians and other restricted diets. Unlike many places, menus are available in other languages. And the kids menu was extensive. The kid’s meals came on a neat plate with a main course in the center plus a bunch of little snacks in compartments around the rim. This was perfect for encouraging the kids try some new and daring foods. Main courses included standard chicken and fish entrees while the side items included almond slivers, endives, fried plantains, croquettes and sausage wrapped in bacon. The adult entrees emphasized traditional food from the region (a lot of game) with some gourmet flourishes. More basic fare was also available. And in the morning, the breakfast is an over-the-top bounty with traditional pastries, toast and full entrees. Just outside the restaurant, the bar and lounge was a relaxing place to grab a table or couch and enjoy drinks and taps, even with the kids.
We knew our choice of the tower-top suite was a little excessive, but we found it well worth it! Hey, how often do you stay in a castle? The Infante Don Juan Manuel Room – named for the famous 14th century writer who once inhabited the room, offers exclusive access to two secret passage ways. (It is important to explore secret passageways while visiting a castle.) One narrow staircase leads to the roof of the tower – nice for enjoying sunsets over the village. And another door opens to a passage that circumnavigates the top of the tower behind the battlements – great for watching bats flit through the spotlights at night. This room also has a small additional princess nook for lounging and sleeping. For those not staying in the tower top suite there is an additional secret passageway along the battlements atop the lower buildings of the castle that can be accessed by asking for the secret passageway key at the reception desk.
There is some really nice hiking around the outside if the walled city. One small hike, perfect for active toddlers or young children, follows the path next to the river and takes a little over an hour. Or you can cross the old roman bridges to the other side of the river and take a two or three hour hike, passing by the intriguing guard towers that can be seen from the castle.
If you are visiting Alarcón, you may also enjoy a trip to Cuenca. With its hanging houses, it is truly amazing. It can make a pleasant 1 hour drive from Alarcón. Or you can plan to visit on your way to or from Madrid (though it is definitely the scenic route and will add a lot of time to your journey.)
Now we know the secret of the Paradores. While I doubt I’d stay exclusively in Paradores, we’ll certainly make sure we book at least one stay in a Parador during our next visit to Spain, especially if we are traveling with anyone a castle fixation.
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