“ Hotel housed in an historic tower in Vilalba, Galicia, Spain. „
"Have you ever slept in a Palace?" asks the official Paradores de Turismo de España website on its home page. As it happens, I can honestly answer "yes" to that question, though I have only done so in India, where it is not too difficult to find a converted palace in which to stay at an affordable price. In Europe it tends to be rather more challenging, and whilst the range of historic buildings, including palaces, run as hotels by the Spanish Paradores organisation has always appealed to me, the price has tended to be a deterrent.
When, therefore, my wife and I found ourselves at nightfall approaching Vilalba in north-western Spain, we weren't really considering the Parador as a place to stay. We knew we would find other hotels there, from the list helpfully provided by the Galician tourist board. "Let's head for the centre, find a café and check the list to see what looks good," I suggested, steering the car into the winding alleys of the old town. Before long we arrived in a quiet square, with no parking spaces available and no apparent way onwards. I pulled up illegally in the shadow of a high stone tower.
"I think this must be the Parador," said my wife, pointing to the tower. "You stay with the car if you're worried about the parking. I'll go in and see what they can offer."
Ten minutes later she was back, having negotiated a deal. For Euro100 we could have one of the six 'superior' rooms in the tower itself, or for Euro60 a more than acceptable standard room in the newer extension. I didn't know at the time how this compared with rack rate (a subsequent check on the website suggests Euro180 and Euro138 respectively, though there is every indication that discounts are available), but it certainly didn't sound unreasonable. Parking in the underground car park, normally Euro12, would be included too. Admittedly breakfast, if we chose to take breakfast there, would add Euro16 for each of us, which seemed a bit steep; nevertheless, all told it was an attractive offer. The standard room was perhaps the better value for money, but we decided that if we were going to stay in a Parador we'd do it properly and opted for the 'superior' tower room.
* The building *
The Parador de los Condes de Villalba, to give it its full name, can't really pretend to be a palace, or even a castle, though the tower on which it is based was indeed once the keep of a 15th century castle, stronghold of the Andrade family, Counts of Villalba (the original spelling) and thus the local lords. The tower is the only vestige of the castle that remains. About 100 feet high, it seems to be the tallest building in town with the possible exception of the church steeple. It is octagonal, constructed in local fawn-grey granite, and still has the original machicolations intact around the ramparts that crown it. Only a few narrow windows pierce the six-foot thick walls, which does make for a rather gloomy interior.
Within, the whole of the lower floor is taken up with a double height lounge, with sombre furnishings and mediaevalish murals, frescos even, on the walls (not, I'm sure, the original decorations, but decidedly in keeping with the period). From here, the lift or staircase takes you to three upper floors, each divided into just two guest rooms. You cannot, alas, go on up onto the roof.
The modern extension, reached through a glass-covered walkway, is allegedly built in the style of a traditional Galician pazo, or manor house, but I have to say it struck me as uninspiringly institutional in outside appearance - more like municipal offices or even a prison - though it is well-finished and well-furnished within. It has much more interior space than the tower and houses the main reception area, the restaurant, the bar and other hotel facilities, as well as forty-two more bedrooms. We saw a double room there, which was well up to the standard you'd expect from a four-star hotel (the Parador's official rating) for size, comfort and equipment, but it had no special character.
By contrast, our room in the tower had character to spare.
* Our room... *
...was large, perhaps fourteen foot wide by twenty foot long, with an additional five foot or so extending into a window alcove, in which were seats to either side in case you wanted to sit and inspect the view across the roofs of Vilalba to the hills beyond. These bare stone seats were the only Spartan touch; the main body of the room was an agglomeration of dark polished wood and plushy fabrics. Comfier seating than that by the windows was provided by a sofa upholstered in green velvet and two armchairs. An additional upright chair stood beside a bureau ready for a guest to write or use a laptop; free wi-fi is available throughout the hotel. There was also a coffee table in the seating area around the stone fireplace, which is essentially for show, the actual temperature being maintained by discreetly installed heating and air-conditioning.
Our four-poster double bed was a rather magnificent affair in turned mahogany with heavy brocade curtains gathered around the posts. It was also very comfortable, and we enjoyed a good night's rest. Doors, including those for the built-in wardrobes, were all in panelled oak. Underfoot was more polished wood, strewn with rugs, whilst overhead were beams. Brass and wrought copper light-fittings and rather dull prints on the walls completed the décor - all highly traditional apart from the forty-inch flat-screen television perched on the cabinet that concealed the minibar, which proved to be well-stocked but overpriced, in the tradition of hotel minibars everywhere.
* The en-suite bathroom... *
...was as modern as the bedroom was traditional: all clinical, uncluttered lines. All well-finished and high-quality too, though. The floor and surfaces were in a polished, mottled granite, with plain tiled walls. Everything was spotlessly clean and in full working order. There was both a bath and a separate shower compartment, a separate loo, and twin inset 'his and hers' basins. Plus a hair-dryer, a full complement of towels and a plentiful array of toiletries. Apart from being a touch out of keeping with the general style, it was all very satisfactory.
* The restaurant... *
...is spacious, and furnished in the traditional style of all the public rooms. The tables boast two layers of table-cloth and lots of neatly arranged, solid quality tableware. We decided not to dine there, however, partly because it threatened to be quite expensive (three courses would set you back probably Euro30 a head, plus a minimum Euro14.50 for a bottle of wine), partly because it was almost empty and we didn't fancy being isolated there at the mercy of unctuous, hovering waiters. The latter concern was perhaps unfair, but we'd just come away from an uninspiring stay at a hotel in the west of Galicia (one that is perhaps best left nameless here, but which my wife summed up as "Fawlty Towers meets The Shining") with just such a deserted dining-room, and didn't want to risk a repetition. Who knows? Perhaps we missed a memorable gastronomic treat in consequence. The menu certainly included some intriguing local specialities.
Instead, we could have taken a more modestly priced snacky meal in the bar, but that didn't look all that welcoming either except perhaps its outdoor terrace, for which the evening was too cold. So we went out and found the Taberna Galega a Lareira around the corner opposite the church, and enjoyed a copious, tasty dinner in a relaxed atmosphere for Euro33.60 between us, wine included. Recommended, in case you ever find yourself in Vilalba.
Our experience of the dining room at the Parador was thus limited to breakfast, which proved to be a well laid out and fully-stocked buffet offering the usual 'international' range of hot and cold dishes, plus juice, fruit, frequently replenished fresh rolls and pastries, hot drinks and so forth. It was a good buffet breakfast, even a very good buffet breakfast, but surprisingly lacking in local flavour, not exceptional and I still think fully priced at Euro16 a head.
* Other facilities... *
...apparently include a gym, and sauna/Turkish bath, although I have to admit I didn't see them and cannot comment. The TVs, in all bedrooms, have an extensive satellite service and I was able to watch Premier League highlights, as well as the news in English on BBC World. There is also self-operated safe in every bedroom. Disabled access would be okay in the new part of the hotel, but poor in the tower, since this is reached by steps. A lift takes you up the new part from the underground garage, which has plenty of room and was easy to manoeuvre around. I wouldn't have paid the regular price of Euro12 to park there, though; I'm sure it would be possible to find free public parking not far away.
* Location, location and location *
The Parador is well-situated in a quiet corner close to the town centre. As a place to see, though, Vilalba is, frankly, nothing special. It is the main market town for the fertile region known as 'Da Terra Cha', a relatively flat arable area amid the hillier - and more scenic - terrain of much of north-western Spain. Vilalba is pleasant enough to wander round, with a main square that becomes animated in the evening, but the Parador tower is the only building of note. The cathedral city of Mondoñedo, 25 km away, is much more attractive and interesting, but doesn't seem to have any hotels of substance. Odd. You wouldn't divert to go to Vilalba for its own sake, but if you're passing that way - and it's not a bad route to or from Santiago de Compostela, especially if you've already travelled round the coast and want to avoid retracing your footsteps - then it's worth a stop.
* Recommendation *
A quick check tells me that Tripadvisor commenters generally seem to think Vilalba to be below par for a Parador, but then we paid below par and I felt we received very good value for money. If we'd just stayed in a 'standard' room for Euro60 the value would have been outstanding.
I find it hard to fault. The service was polite and efficient, though perhaps lacking in charm. Everything was of good quality, and the place certainly has character; if it's not a character entirely to my taste - just a little fusty, stuffy even - maybe my taste needs to become more adaptable. Provided you don't truly expect a palace, you shouldn't be disappointed. Probably it deserves five stars, but I'm meanly only going to give it four, partly because I think it would be expensive if you had to pay full whack, and partly because it didn't make me feel generous.
Meanwhile, I'm inclined to believe the chain lives up to its promises, and I'd certainly stay in a Parador again, provided Mrs T can once more exercise her negotiating magic and secure us an equally good deal.
© Also published with photos under the name torr on Ciao UK, 2011