Thursday 9 August 2012

Parador de Cardona, Catalonia

An imposing medieval fortress perched on a hill overlooking the charming town of Cardona, this Parador is a memorable place to stay. As you wind your way up the hill, you pass the sprawling outer walls, studded with mini-turrets, before reaching an expansive car park. If you have luggage, you might want to drive under the archway up the steep stone ramp, bordered by shrubs and an old canon, to the castle gates - a real sense of arrival.  You then take the sharp turn up to the much smaller car park. Inside the keep is an elegant courtyard, complete with cloisters, leading on to wooden boardwalks with wide open views of the open cast salt mine and the surrounding wooded hills. The Parador's reception is an inviting room with appropriately grand furniture and handsome fittings, adorned with the Spanish, Catalan and European flags. From the castle, a steep path zig-zags through the walls down to the town. But the climb back up can be tough in the heat.

A good's night sleep
The Parador's spacious rooms, which have very high ceilings, are equipped with massive four poster beds, cool, terracotta floors, large en-suite bathrooms and safes, plus free WiFi. The well sound-proofed windows, which have very wide stone ledges and pillars, might overlook the castle courtyard, Cardona or the rolling landscape. If you are unlucky, you might have a panorama of the mine. In any case, the castle's thick walls ensure the rooms are very quiet - you should get a good night's sleep here.

Almost everything you could want
Breakfast is served in the large, elongated dining room, which has a cloistered stone roof, starched white table cloths and very upright, striped chairs. There is little daylight and the room has a rather stuffy, formal atmosphere - a  bit intimidating for young families. The elaborate breakfast buffet includes cava, lots of fruit, a big selection of cold meats, cheeses, cakes, some hot food, breads, toast, mini packets of cereals - almost everything you could want. You can also order some hot dishes, such as scrambled eggs, but the waiting staff can be hard to catch. While the food is generally good, it doesn't quite live up to the surroundings.

Local dishes
In the evenings, the dining room is the venue for the Parador's Catalan restaurant, which serves mainly local dishes, often combining meat and seafood in some kind of stew or soup. The chicken with prawns (a local dish costing 16.65 euros), in a rich, thick sauce, is very good. You get a decent portion, but there is no carbohydrate and a plate of grilled seasonal vegetables costs a hefty 15 euros on top. This dish includes some exotic mushrooms and asparagus, but still seems pricey. You'll need the accompanying bread and oil, which costs about a euro a head. The Parador has a suitably Spanish wine list and you can get a half bottle of a respectable, local white wine (Vina Sol Blanco) for about 9 euros. On the kids' menu (14 euros), options include rice with sausages, tomatoes, fried egg, plus a desert and a drink. The kids' portions are large - the desert, for example, could be two scoops of good ice cream with fruit on the side.

Sun-trap terrace
Dotted around the castle, there are a handful of elegant lounges with tasteful, good quality fixtures and fittings, plus a poky little gym. But the Parador's finest feature is probably the large sun trap stone terrace with tables and wicker chairs from where you can order a drink (a beer costs 2.6 euros) or ice cream (accompanied by free nuts) and admire 180 degree views across the terracotta rooftops of Cardona, the attractive countryside and the scars left by the salt mine. You can climb the steep steps of the ancient conical tower for an even better vantage point. 8/10