Monastic and Modern: Central Spain’s Parador de Cuenca

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Visitors to the Castilla-La Mancha region can absorb Spanish traditions at this strategically located monastery-turned-hotel. Dining is a special delight.

Story and Photos by Randy Mink

For soaking up the heritage and romance of Spain almost by osmosis, nothing beats staying overnight in one of the country’s government-owned paradors. Many of the parador network’s 90-plus hostelries occupy former castles, palaces, fortresses and other types of historic buildings. They’re a big hit with North Americans seeking out Old World flavor.

Both for its prime location and historical ambience, the 63-room Parador de Cuenca, once the monastery of San Pablo, makes an ideal home base in the enchanting city of Cuenca. Set on a rocky outcrop high above the Huecar River, the hotel affords postcard-perfect views of ancient buildings clinging to the cliffs across the gorge. And just steps from the entrance lies the city’s photogenic San Pablo Bridge, a gorge-spanning walkway that leads to the Ciudad Alta (Old City).  

This Hotel Has a Glorious Past

A destination in itself, Parador de Cuenca was built in the 16th century by the Dominican order. The monastery, with a Gothic-style church, Renaissance cloister and Baroque facade, was converted into a university in the 1800s and later served as a hospital, secondary school and military headquarters. 

The gracious cloister has been well preserved.

The gracious cloister has been well preserved.

One of the hotel’s most striking features is the beautiful cloister that wraps around an open-air courtyard where you can enjoy a drink on a summer evening. The arcades, graced with semi-circular arches, beamed ceilings and black-and-white-tile floors, are accented here and there with antiques, including wooden chests and a grandfather clock. (On the Saturday of our visit, a wedding party had taken over the courtyard after a ceremony held under a tent in the plaza out front.)

Dining is Always a Treat at Spain’s Paradors

Also impressive is the coffered wooden ceiling of the parador’s restaurant. Once a chapel where monks prayed, the vaulted room is a heavenly place for breakfast. At the buffet we helped ourselves to fresh fruits, meats, cheeses, yogurt, artisan breads and all kinds of homemade pastries. A fan of baked goods, I filled up on mini brioches with chocolate chips, pretty pink-frosted strawberry chocolate donuts, shortbread cookies made by nuns from a local convent and Manchego flowers (or flores manchegas), a flaky, flower-shaped pastry of fried dough dusted with sugar and cinnamon. 

Among the many pastries offered at the parador’s bountiful breakfast buffet are Manchego flowers, or flores manchegas.

Among the many pastries offered at the parador’s bountiful breakfast buffet are Manchego flowers, or flores manchegas.

From the a la carte menu we could order piping-hot churros or eggs any style, but both days I went for migas, a humble dish that became a favorite of mine while traveling in Spain. A satisfying comfort food, migas combines fried crumbs from stale bread (soaked in water to get moist), olive oil, garlic, paprika (coloring it orange) and bits of chorizo. The crispy concoction is usually topped with a fried egg.

Long ago, the parador’s dining room was the monastery’s chapel.

Long ago, the parador’s dining room was the monastery’s chapel.

Paradors are known for purveying the best in Spanish gastronomy, and the restaurant’s dinner menu features many dishes with traditional recipes from central Spain’s Castilla-La Mancha region. Entrees include shoulder of suckling lamb, Manchego-style roasted lamb with rosemary sauce, and baked cod with Manchego ratatouille and saffron sauce. 

The word Manchego, known to North Americans as the name of a prized, semi-hard sheep’s milk cheese, also refers to the La Mancha region. The parador’s menu offers a selection of Manchego cheeses.

Like the dining hall, the bar evokes the spirit of the old monastery. Just look up at the lovely religious ceiling frescoes framed by ornate plasterwork. 

Summer guests can enjoy the parador’s swimming pool.

Summer guests can enjoy the parador’s swimming pool.

Across the road are the tennis courts, outdoor swimming pool and party room. The main building has a fitness room.

The high-ceilinged guest rooms at Parador de Cuenca are tastefully appointed. My third-floor nest had a desk, TV, refrigerator and individual temperature controls. There were two floor lamps, two upholstered chairs and a coffee table. The red-tile floors and carved wooden doors lent a rustic look. Bathroom amenities included vanity and dental kits, make-up mirror and hairdryer. In both the bedroom and bathroom, windows let in fresh air and allowed me to hear crowing roosters at the farmstead across the river. 

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Lead Photo: Parador de Cuenca overlooks the gorge-spanning San Pablo footbridge.

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