Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Spain's Paradores and Portugal's Pousadas-- Government run hotels which work: The Spain and Portugal Diaries, Part III

Cathedral in Viseu

One of the pleasures of going to Spain and Portugal in early Spring is the bright green landscape. When we drove through central Spain in 1986, we found a depressingly barren, brown, rock-strewn landscape. In mid-March it’s still austere, but the green got brighter and lusher as we approached Portugal.

Our first stop in Portugal was Viseu which our guidebook described quite accurately as having “an enthralling old town.”

Old town square in Viseu

We stayed in one of Portugal’s pousadas—a government run hotel housed in a converted early 19th century hospital. Rick and I are drawn to historic buildings converted into modern hotels and we’ve stayed in more converted convents and monasteries than I can remember.

This however was our first converted hospital and a very enjoyable stay at an affordable 81 euros a night. Another advantage of off-season travel in Portugal and Spain is that off-season rates for the government run pousadas and paradores are significantly lower than high season rates.

From what we’ve read recently the pousadas (of Portugal) and paradores (of Spain) are going through something of a crisis. They were established in the early 1970’s as a way of luring tourists out of Madrid and Lisbon into the provinces, thus spreading the tourist dollar around. When they first opened they were often the only game in town. Now they have competition form new boutique hotels with a more “flexible” labor force.

The staff of the pousadas and paradores are government employee with benefits that most workers in the hospitality industry can only dream of. A recent New York Times article acknowledged that the paradores “For the most part...get high marks for service and food.” But according to Ramón Estalella, the secretary general of the Confederation of Spanish Hotels and Tourist Accommodations, “As a government enterprise, the paradores also have a bulky and inflexible staff...As government workers, they expect to be employed for life.”

According to the New York Times reporter, one criticism of the paradores is that “the staff, which averages more than 18 years on the job, is set in the old ways of hotel manners. Staff members speak few languages and tend to get about the business of checking you in without the friendly banter people are used to these days. “

This was not our experience. We found the staff to be friendly and competent and if you like the idea if a hotel run by well-compensated employees with benefits maybe then maybe the pousadas (of Portugal) and paradores ( of Spain) are the place for you.

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