Spain’s nationalised heritage paradores: unlikely in Britain, sadly

If you were looking for parts of the economy to nationalise, luxury hotels would probably be low on most people’s lists – and for the last three decades, British governments have mainly privatised, not nationalised, with most of Royal Mail being privatised this week.

Having just spent a week in a different parador – Spain’s nationalised chain of hotels – every night, that’s a bit of a shame. Not because hotel accommodation urgently needs to become part of the public sector, but because it’s difficult to imagine any organisation but a government doing what Spain has done with several paradores: take a fantastic but decrepit old building and make it usable again.

Several paradores were created from former monasteries. (Britain is at an immediate disadvantage there, of course, with such institutions having been nationalised, then marmalised, several centuries ago by Henry VIII.) Another, in the cathedral city and pilgrimage destination of Santiago de Compostela, can claim to have opened five centuries ago as a kind of hotel, specifically a pilgrim’s hostel. (It also functioned as a hospital, in the days when such definitions tended to merge – as in Lille.) It still serves three days-worth of free meals to the first 10 pilgrims who apply each day.

In each case, the Spanish government undertook major work to turn the old buildings into a parador. In Santiago in 1953/4, it stuck another floor onto the ancient courts – and added some internal gargoyles of those who did the conversion. In Nogueira de Ramuin a decade ago, it glassed in walls, added lifts and turned monks’ cells into modern hotel rooms to create the Parador Santo Estevo. In Leon, it added a new accommodation block on to the back of the old pilgrims’ hostel, one of the city’s most amazing buildings.

In Britain, great old buildings tend to get turned into museums of themselves; they are preserved, not re-used. There are exceptions – the Royal Shakespeare Company’s recycled theatre in Stratford is a wonderful update of the original, and the Bodleian’s new Weston Library in Oxford looks set to be equally inspiring. However, in both cases, the original buildings are less than a century old. Putting anything much older under the knife is near unthinkable.

The 94-strong chain of paradores used to make money, but following Spain’s financial crisis they may be up for privatisation and/or closures (as discussed in this article from El Pais, in English). Some, including the three mentioned here, are well worth visiting soon; those that are not in danger of closing, such as Santiago’s, could probably charge much higher rates. It’s worth it not so much for the experience of being served by public-sector waiters who have to wear unflattering pyjama-style uniforms – but for the joy of staying in wonderful centuries-old buildings that have been rejuvenated.