Toledo, Spain — It's hard to know what to look at first. On the one hand, we have this view of Toledo, much the same as it looked to El Greco when he did his famous paintings of the place. On the other, we have the Parador Nacional. And, if anything could compete with the view of Toledo, it is the setting and decor of this parador.
Parador is Spanish for inn; but in the past few decades the word has taken on an international meaning of much greater stature, because it is the collective name the Spanish government gave to the network of castles and other buildings it converted into first-class, reasonably priced hotels.
From the earliest days of the conversion in 1928, there were auspicious signals from high places:
''In a number of small towns and villages and in two or three of the great cities,'' Somerset Maugham wrote early in their history, ''the State has established Paradores, which are inns in which the traveller can be sure of finding all the comfort he can ask for, nicely furnished rooms, very clean modern bathrooms, and excellent food.
''With good sense, the authorities have taken for this purpose fine old houses of the 17th and 18th century and have arranged them with good taste.''
Since Maugham wrote those words, the network has expanded considerably. There are 84 Paradores, scattered throughout almost every province in Spain. About 28 are in castles and historical buildings; the rest are more standard hotel edifices. But, while there have been some changes, the accommodations (and the bath towels) are still something to write home about.
The Paradores (Pah-ra-do-rays in Spanish) may be a bit uneven in room size and quality of construction, and the food may not always excite the palate, but it's hard to complain about a string of hotel reservations that has you waiting breathlessly to see what the next day's lodging will look like.
Take the Conde de Orgaz here in Toledo, for instance.
You get here by means of a twisting road ascending among the stony ridges and gorges, gashed in the green hillsides, leading to a dramatic promontory perched above the pollution-choked river that curls around the city.
The actual building itself, and the courtyard-driveway leading to it, are unprepossessing enough. You are set up to be taken by surprise when you see the high-beamed ceilings, flagstone floors, dark wood walls, wrought-iron fixtures, and brick-arched balcony entrance of your room. You open the doors to the terrace and sit on the balcony overlooking the city of Toledo rising in craggy profile, umber roofs, and Moorish-European spires. The setting sun washes everything with goldness. And all you want to do is write a thank you note to the Spanish government.
Before you do, there are a few drawbacks to Paradores that you really should know.
They tend, for instance, to be situated outside of the main cities and towns, since that's where people built their castles. And, unless you have a car, you will find transportation back and forth a big problem. The Spanish custom of closing everything down from 2 to about 5 in the afternoon virtually mandates that you mosey back to your hotel and return in the evening. That can be tough if your hotel is 15 kilometers outside the city limits.
Another disadvantage of being a captive of the Parador is the menu. The food is good, if uninspired. But, if you've signed up to eat one or two meals a day at Paradores, you will find a depressing sameness to the menu after a while. There are exceptions - La Arruzafa outside of Cordoba puts out an almost irresistible buffet - but many Paradores serve very similar fare.
Paradores are notoriously hard to book into without reservations. It is almost impossible to call from the road and get a room. But actually going up to the desk and asking - sometimes 10 minutes after you were turned down on the phone - can bring much better results.
If you take this approach, however, you have to face the anxiety of driving up to a Parador like the Alcazar del Rey Don Pedro in Carmona, just outside Seville, not knowing all the way if you are going to get to stay in this place. The Carmona Parador can be seen from the road leading south for a number of miles, a crumbling, 13th-century Moorish fortress-castle dramatically situated on a ridge commanding a view of the entire region.
You get to it by working your way through a tiny white village, passing through an ancient stone gateway, and entering the cool darkness of the interior.
In places like this, the view is of supreme importance; and without a reservation for a room with a view, you may find yourself facing an inner courtyard.
Reservations are supposedly made almost a year in advance for May and June in the San Francisco, which sits right between the Alhambra and the Generalife gardens in Granada. Even more difficult, during the high season, is the Gibralfaro, which has only 12 rooms. The Parador Nacional de Nerja, which sits in tranquil contentment over the Mediterranean Sea, has the reputation of being an impossible stronghold to crack without a lifetime reservation. I was turned down at the door here.
In the other two cases, however, I walked up to the desk, found a room, and stayed on for several days on a day-by-day basis.
Both of these Paradores are wrought out of the 15th- to 17th-century stuff that gives mystery and romance to much of Spain, and both are so exquisitely situated as to tempt one to set up housekeeping permanently.
Not all of the Paradores offer such wrappings. La Arruzafa in Cordoba has the look and feel of any modern first-class hotel; and not much more. Like most of the Paradores it offers bathrooms the size of basketball courts, and bathtowels that could double for a quilt on a queen-sized bed.
Whatever the ups and downs of such places, however, they seem to maintain a predictable level of quality. Interviews with travelers always yielded a highly positive reaction. My own experiences in five Paradores, and my observations of another, leave me quite impressed.
The one complaint that surfaces is over the service, which tends to run from slow to nonexistent, mostly the former. But, when you're staying in a castle, you don't mind a little wait.
Practical information: Paradores are scattered throughout the country, with concentrations around the most popular tourist areas. The local people always seem to know where the nearest Parador is, should you decide to try them without reservations. Rates range from $30 to $50 per night. If you want to make reservations (a wiser approach) from the US, contact Marketing Ahead, Hotel Representatives, 515 Madison Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10022, Tel: (212) 759-5170. Marketing Ahead also has brochures.