A Riveting Paradox - Page 2

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Ubeda parador in Spain
INSIDE AND OUT: Ubeda parador  (image courtesy, Tourism España)

Southern Spain could be a poster child for multiculturalism. Romans, Visigoths, Moors, Christians, and others left their marks, creating a land so deeply colorful and flaunting such a mélange of architectural and design styles that visual euphoria resides on every cobbled street.

Almagro, 120 miles south of Madrid, is in the province of Castilla-La Mancha, famous for being the homeland of Cervantes' beloved character Don Quixote and for delectable Manchego cheese. Almagro itself is known for lace-making and a mini eggplant that looks more like an artichoke and flavors dishes across the region.

You can wander Almagro's historical district in a couple of hours, but it's worth staying at the Parador, a 16th-century convent whose inhabitants apparently made a lot of wine between prayers in still-present massive clay vats. Cozy rooms have details like original tiles and wooden shutters, offering a serenity that modern hotels can't conjure, even by artful design.

From Almagro the highway to Andalusia cuts through a deep gorge before spilling out into an expanse of green where squat olive trees cover the undulating landscape. Some run in lines north-south, others east-west. No fences among landowners here, just a change of direction in the infinite rows of trees to mark one man's grove from another's.

Úbeda, 93 miles from Almagro, is larger and has more to offer visitors, especially if you combine it with nearby Baeza where 18th-century political graffiti is still visible on historic buildings.

It was in Úbeda that my easy-to-manage luggage suddenly wasn't. Blame it on olive oil. The province of Jaen produces nearly 20 percent of the world's olive oil from its 65 million trees. There are entire stores devoted to the stuff, shelves stacked with bottles in all sizes and shapes, which raises the question: Can you have too much olive oil? Um, yes, if you're lugging suitcases up and down steps in Paradors without elevators.

Then there's the pottery for which Úbeda is known, most of it glazed in shades of green that replicates the palette of light and shadows playing out across the olive groves. I asked for the best pottery to visit and was directed to Alfar Paco Tito, a father-son studio where you can watch pots being created, and then purchase any of hundreds for sale, adding to your luggage weight.

From my corner room in Úbeda's 15th-century palace I looked out on the former owner's immense private chapel, whose inscrutable gargoyles stared cryptically back. In a room with rich fabrics and steps down to the tiled bathroom, it's easy to imagine being a royal—never mind that it was the local swells from Úbeda crudely referenced in Baeza's graffiti.

The restaurant here is excellent, just the place for late-night, two-hour Spanish dinners with figs in every dish, topped off by—don't knock it 'til you try it—olive oil ice cream.

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