A dramatic castle offering spectacular, cliff-top views, the 4-star Parador de Jaén is a mesmerizing place to stay, says Rachel Webb. Its enviable location is only part of the attraction; former French president Charles de Gaulle penned his memoirs here.
From a distance, the Spanish parador is as imposing as it is beguiling. Climbing up the winding, pine-covered hillside of hairpin bends and stone barriers proves to be an enticing introduction and arriving at the entry gate, replete with fluttering flags, is a thrill. The cobbled streets, solid squat fortress and breathtaking views from the top stir the senses, but prove to be a mere aperitif of what is to come.
As ought to be expected, the hotel (also known as the Parador Santa Catalina after the hill and castle upon which it sits), has a genuine stately feel about it.
Sitting under the lofty arches of the drawing room whilst sipping local wine makes you dream of a bygone era. Everything about the hotel – from its large, welcoming lobby and majestic, dimly lit corridors to the enormous vaulted ceiling and hefty studded-wooden doors – serves to depict its Moorish roots.
The panoramic views from the Mirador de la Cruz viewing point and from the parador rooms include the towering crags of the Sierra Magina, the snowy peaks of the Sierra Nevada in Granada and silvery-green olive trees that fade into the horizon. Many, but not all of the bedrooms have balconies or terraces with such views; so be sure that you reserve one. Even the restaurant, hotel terrace and the outdoor pool have stunning vistas – you end up walking in an almost permanent state of awe at the setting.
Couples. The Parador de Jaén is a romantic and enchanting place to whisk away your other half, whether celebrating a special occasion or simply for a romantic break. It is especially dreamlike under the clear blue skies and starry nights of summer.
My room has a four-poster canopied bed, stone walls and a high ceiling fit for a Moorish princess. I inelegantly throw myself on top of the soft sheets, and imagine being gently fanned on this stiflingly hot afternoon.
Yanking open the windows, I immediately feel the warm breeze float in. The only sound I can hear is the innocuous noise of the birds and crickets. Eagle and vultures can often be seen circling above, I’ve been told, but unfortunately they prove elusive during my stay. The views from the parador more than make up for the room’s slightly out-dated appearance.
The bathroom again has seen several years of use, but is very clean and the shower provides a welcome respite in the heat.
The superior suites are the best bet, mainly for their spacious balconies. But all the parador’s rooms, because of the castle’s remarkable location, have views to die for. If it is available, why not book yourself into Room 13: this is where General de Gaulle wrote part of his memoirs.
Eating and drinking
Breakfast consists of a huge and impressive buffet of eggs, cold meats, caviar, cheese, breads, yogurts, a variety of fruit and juices and cava (the Spanish sparkling white wine). The restaurant is designed like a baronial-style banqueting hall; it’s worth eating here for its incredible setting. Service is laid-back and formal, and the menu has plenty of appetizing local dishes, including ajoblanco (a white garlic soup), cabrito (goat’s meat) and tarta de Queso y Membrillo (quince cheesecake).
If more variety is desired, then it’s only a short taxi ride down or a 10 minute leisurely walk to Jaén, where the excellent Restaurante Salvador amongst others await. Remember, if you decide to walk, you’ll have to negotiate a steep hill on your return.
Room for improvement?
The service isn’t particularly speedy, but in a way this suits the whole lazy experience and the ambience of this amazing location and building. Whilst I was here, some improvements and maintenance works were going on, so it is not quite as photogenic as I’d have liked in some spots. There’s a well-worn feel in some areas such as the general toilets, not yet shabby, but certainly heading that way.
Out and about
On the elongated hill there’s also a castle in ruins but undergoing renovation. Admission is €2. It’s a great place to scramble around and has, as you might have guessed, fantastic views. Walk to the end of the hill and there’s an enormous monumental white cross that towers over the city sprawl below. I went back at dusk to see the city lights appear one by one like fairy dust with the mountains silhouetted behind. It was beautiful.
Explore the compact, culturally-rich city of Jaén with an enormous Italian Renaissance cathedral, award-winning Arab Baths and numerous, handsome churches dotted throughout the windy cobbled streets of the old quarter.
The neighbouring UNESCO twin towns of Ubeda and Baeza are crammed with 16th century monuments and many other delights. Baeza has a friendly, quaint feel about it and would be my choice should there only be time for you to visit one. Both are on the edge of Spain’s largest protected area, Cazorla, Segura and Las Villas Natural Park, a wilderness of natural beauty.
Castillo de Santa Catalina, s/n, 23001 Jaen
Tel: (34) 9532 30000.
Prices: Rooms from €120 per night.
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