Published in – Chronicle Herald – February 13-14, 2015
Rekindling Romance in a Medieval Spanish Castle
(Castle in Spain can become sweet reality on Catalonian tour)
The advancing storm blackens the sky over the farms and forested hills of the Catalonia countryside in northeastern Spain. From our perch on the stone terrace of Parador Castell de Cardona, my spouse and I sip Rioja wine and watch lightning pierce the darkness over the medieval town below. We’ve travelled here to the little town of Cardona, an hour from Barcelona, in search of one of life’s most elusive qualities — romance.
My story would end here if romance of place was the only variety we were seeking. Remote and exotic, pastoral and historic, this star in the Spanish chain of state-run luxury hotels boasts all the characteristics that make for a romantic setting. But we were after something more.
Founded in 1928 as a way to promote tourism, most of the Paradores de Turismo de Espana are former castles, fortresses, palaces, convents or monasteries. The chain stretches from Galicia in the north to Andalusia in the south and beyond to the Canary Islands, with a couple across the Strait of Gibraltar in northern Africa.
The town of Cardona and its ninth-century castle were built on the salt trade. A thousand-year-old mine still operates nearby and is visible from parts of the castle. A visit to the salt museum in town tells the story.
The town and castle is the last stop on our two-week trip to Spain. This final splurge on luxury is meant to spoil the two of us before returning to our lives as a family of four back home in Nova Scotia, where everything from housework to the needs of two growing children has complicated our life together.
After arrival at Cardona’s parador that afternoon, we’d settled into our room furnished and decorated with the castle’s medieval lineage in mind. There’s antique wooden furniture and a four-poster bed with wooden panels at the headboard that stands on a floor of large terracotta tiles, cool on a traveller’s feet.
The view out the glass doors to the balcony shows a grand vista of a plain and hills where human history has played out for more than 5,000 years.
Once settled, we explored the castle’s interior, the cobblestone courtyard beneath vaulted stone ceilings, the simple, hushed sanctuary of the Romanesque San Vicente church and the dining room. For those with an interest or for couples looking for excuses to cuddle closer at night, there’s Room 712 on the top floor where a male ghost materializes in period dress.
Later, we made the steep descent into town, meandered the close alleyways, found a handmade tablecloth as a gift for friends back home and sipped coffee at a table beneath trees at the edge of the town square where a few men idled away the afternoon at checkers and chess.
“Until now,” my spouse said over her coffee, “I didn’t know how much you needed this trip.” The voices of the men echoed around the walls of ancient stone, the romance of the place seeping into our relationship.
Up the switchback road to the ramparts of the hilltop fortress, we enjoyed a siesta, a reprieve from the heat before dinner. At the Restaurante Abad, we chose from a menu specializing in regional, decidedly Mediterranean cuisine like cod with leek noodles, shoulder of suckling kid and a dessert found all over this region, a delicate crema catalana with glass-like burnt sugar topping.
As we’d discover the next morning, the dinner selections pale in comparison with those at the breakfast buffet, with wild mushrooms and local cured sausages and hams, omelettes prepared to order, characteristic Spanish cheeses from the Pyrenees Mountains just to the north and plenty of fresh fruit from the south.
But we still have this final evening in romantic Spain before us, so we head to the stone terrace to watch the sunset and enjoy earthy Spanish wines from the famous Rioja region across the plains to the west. My favourites are the Crianza reds that aren’t submitted to now standard oak aging and are meant to be drunk young.
With the trip home so close now, we talk of practical matters like returning the rental car at the airport in Barcelona and of missing the kids. We reminisce about the circumstances that had thrown us together and about how well we’d done to build a family.
From our perch, we watch as the storm recedes in the distance. Lightning flashes far away over the distant hills. And then there are fireworks. Not the metaphorical, romantic kind, but they might as well be. There’s a celebration of some kind, and we’re here for it.
Fireworks bloom in the sky over the town, flashing coloured light off the ancient stone buildings below. Headlights dart among the buildings. Car horns resound. A crowd gathers in the square to shout and sing and wave flags.
On our last night in Spain, Cardona is the place to be, and the place to be in Cardona is right here in one of Spain’s finest hotels. My love and I stroll hand in hand over to the stone wall at the cliff edge and watch as the fireworks fuse the romance of this place with our own.