Since we were in Madrid less than a year ago, and we'd done the Mediterranean coast of Spain and the Balearic islands on previous trips, we decided to rent a car and see some of the Paradores of Spain, as well as check out the Starwood Luxury Collection Convento do Espinheiro in Evora, Portugal on a recent 10 day trip. The spanish Paradores (www.paradores.es) are generally heritage properties in smaller places, and we didn't exactly select at random but we certainly didn't set out to find "the best of the best" or minimize our driving time. Instead, as a few evenings' research task, we started browsing the Parador properties as well as the Portuguese "Posadas" (same type of castle/heritage properties) and fooled around with an itinerary that would take us to some corners of Spain we hadn't been to, all within our time frame. First task: a reasonable rental car. A couple months back, I had reserved an Avis rental car at Madrid airport for the entire trip, with 8 days' rental coming in at about US$ 385. However, 10 days before we left I was able to change to Hertz and instead of a VW Passat, settled for a "Category C" Opel Astra and got it for $218 prepaid, all-in, which I usually don't do but in this case the savings were just too good. As it turned out, Hertz' service was flawless, the Opel was a great car, and we weren't charged a cent extra. The Opel got about 30 mpg, so even though I drove over 900 miles and gas was expensive (about $10/gal. 1.38 Euros/liter) the cost of our ground transportation was reasonable. We overnighted in Washington DC, prior to taking American's Fl. 94 Business Class 757 from JFK-MAD. The conversion of the 757 front cabin to essentially equivalent to an AA 767 cabin is pretty acceptable to me; we've done this once before, and other than having to climb over one another to get up at night, it's "flat" beds (on an angle) were fine for sleeping. The JFK-MAD run is only about 7 hours, so after dinner there's only about 5 potential hours to sleep. Nevertheless, I got 4 and found it fine to arrive in Madrid at 6:45 and immediately head out in the rental car. It was still dark, so we began driving east toward Cuenca, our first stop, before the traffic really locked up in Madrid. About two hours later, we arrived at the 15th Century convent that is the Parador de Cuenca, across a steep gorge from the hilltown of Cuenca, home of the "hanging houses", which are built on the side of the cliff overlooking the gorge. A pedestrian bridge functions to walk across the gorge from the Parador to the town. The Cuenca property is quite beautiful: built as a rectangle around a central court, there is a restaurant and a bar, and tennis courts and a pool, although they seemed to be closed when we were there. This was not a problem: we arrived during the middle of the weeklong "Fiesta de San Mateo" when the whole town has events including a running of the bulls through the Plaza Mayor several evenings. The room itself was large despite our having paid for only the lowest rate, and the view out the windows was up the hill to the city on the mountain. Breakfast was a decent buffet, and the staff was wonderful. We ended each evening having a drink in the courtyard,which was pleasant and convivial. The beds aren't up to modern 4-5 star standards, but were nevertheless adequate and the bathroom was spacious and properly furnished. The entire Parador system has adopted free wireless throughout, thumbs up for that. All in all, a great choice, either the best hotel in town or one of two or three. The festival was amazing--- huge celebrations in the streets from about 3pm on every day, and the bull running was a trip. At night, the Spanish fests feature "Penas" which are either family based or organizational based, and each Pena has its own "uniform" (usually a tshirt) and many of them have catering trucks, beer or wine booths, and a lot of eating and drinking. While non-Pena members aren't allowed to buy a beer or join for food, actually we were invited by several groups to either food or drinks, and really appreciated the nice hospitality. It would be an understatement to say the whole town turns out: it appeared that every town in the region turned out for each evening's party. Cuenca itself is a beautiful little town, and the lower, more-modern city is a pleasant walk. The daily walk from the Parador over to the upper city is quick and pleasant, the bridge being highly scenic and not at all rickety. Great place to stay, highest recommendation. After two nights, we drove south to Jaen, to our second Parador. The Parador de Jaen is literally on a mountain over the city of Jaen, probably 2,000 feet up: the view is of the city in the foreground and then perhaps 40 miles in every direction of olive groves-- quite amazing. You really can't get a good picture of the Parador, as it perches on the side of the mountain and is massive--- envision a long castle, stretched out, at the top of a mountain overlooking a kingdom. Jaen's parador was scenic and enjoyable, but the least desirable of the ones we hit. Not only is it isolated from the (not particularly compelling) town, but the property's peculiarities bugged us. The wireless internet is spotty, and requires a code to use instead of simply being open (boo!). The staff was impersonal and generally poorly trained. We liked the room, but the bed was the worst of those we had on the trip. We ate in the restaurant, typical local food, and it was quite good but the service was impersonal. Unlike Cuenca, the staff seem to be poorly trained. For example, if you are an "Amigos" member of the Parador frequent guest program, they give you a certificate good for a couple glasses of wine at checkin. Our waiter took the certificate but charged us anyway. When I objected, he said "nothing could be done" as it was on the check already. Thanks! The parador has a number of meeting rooms, and it seemed as if business meetings is their main concern--- although there is a "TV room" with large screen (and a suit of armor), we never saw anyone in it. The pool (which was thankfully open, as the weather was quite hot) featured an attendant who grudgingly got us a couple of lounges, but refused to place them where we wished, insisting that we go out on the lawn rather than relax by the pool itself. Her relief person was really nice, which sort of made up for the sullen original attendant. There is no wireless at the pool at any of the properties we stayed at, which is puzzling since it really wouldn't take much to enable it. After a day and a night, we drove next to Zafra, about 50 miles from the Portugal border, and checked into the Parador de Zafra, which was the most amazing property of the three. It is a palace, again built with the sort of Moorish open center, and the rooms, beds, staff, parking, and physical surroundings of the Parador, which is right in the center of town, were the best. Zafra itself has some very interesting streets and boutiques, a main shopping pedestrian street, two main squares, and a plethora of good restaurants. We spent a couple days enjoying both our hotel and the town. The desk will sell you 24 hour parking right next to the building for about 4 euros a day, and make some recommendations on restaurants which we found reliable and good. The wireless is again "open" so connections are no problem and multiple devices (kindle, iPhone, computer) are no big deal. The town residents are sweet people; we met and talked with people, especially over dinners outdoors on the square, and found a real service culture--- we were treated wonderfully everywhere. On Friday night, the parador featured a superb guitar player in the courtyard later--- he must have played until 1. The whole operation was a class act, fully trained staff, decent breakfast, nice rooms with good furnishings, a place we would definitely stay again. We headed next to Evora, Portugal, a town about 90 min to the west across the border, and Starwood's Convento property, which is again outside of town. This hotel is amazing. Despite the apples-to-oranges comparison, my Platinum membership in SPG's program resulted in the assignment of a gorgeous suite, probably 900 sq feet, and while the cash-and-points rate didn't include breakfast (which is a mind boggling 24 euros a head), we loved this hotel and would like to return. The property has a large chapel at its center, suiting its origin as a convent, but the public spaces (which are quite a warren of hallways) are gorgeous throughout, and both the interior and exterior pools are wonderful. The restaurant was a superb experience, the complimentary wine tasting was interesting and enjoyable, and the staff of the hotel was uniformly excellent. Bravo Starwood. The town of Evora was again a fine hilltown with Roman ruins located a short drive from the hotel. We enjoyed exploring the narrow streets (park outside the wall and it's free), eating breakfasts, and visiting the Portuguese Pousada, up top by the roman ruins. The Pousada also looks like a superb choice for lodging. The town is pleasant and worth visiting. The hotel is superb. We decided to have our second dinner there as well: the food was that good. This time, we opted for a table in the courtyard, open sky dining and a pleasant, quiet space where we dined in style. Essentially the whole menu is available. Highly recommended are the Gazpacho with fried mackerel on the side, the beef, and the tartare. Again, bravo Starwood. Hooray for their beds and bedding--- the best of the trip. (More on this hotel in a separate thread I posted in Starwood' forum)... Finally, we reluctantly left the property to start the return journey home--- we spent the night in Toledo, at the Hilton Buenavista, which is a fine business hotel but really outside Toledo's hilltown. They can arrange a car to take you to town for a few euros, which we did, but the hotel staff was poorly trained. We couldn't arrange to mail some postcards; they gave us a suite upgrade as Hilton Diamond members, but they couldn't understand that the two of us needed multiple internet connections--- we simply picked a device and used it, but it was strange not to be understood on this. Asking for a second robe brought nothing, and the restaurant featured 14-18 euro appetizers and 30 euro mains. We opted to eat in Toledo itself. Parking is an additional 10 euros a room per day, by the way. Still, it was a nice evening for our last in Spain, and only about 90 minutes to the Madrid airport the next morning. We returned the rental car and headed back to the US having had a truly enjoyable short trip to Iberia, and enjoying in the main every place we stayed. We would look forward to exploring some more Paradores and Pousadas, perhaps taking a trip up to San Sebastian and into Galicia, but this itinerary was plenty for the time allowed as running up through Portugal to Gallicia and back around would have added maybe 600 miles. We found that two nights at these properties was a great experience--- enough to explore the property itself and the town it's in, and yet cover a lot of ground. We'll probably do this again . If you go, get the free Amigos membership, as they'll send you a certificate good for free restaurant breakfasts, and they seem to usually pass out that wine cert too. (It worked in Zafra, btw. Nice tinto). Note that the Paradores have various rate plans, including a significant discount for two-day stays, and for over 55s. Enjoy!