Since high-speed train service between Barcelona and Madrid began in 2008, no one needs to fly between the two cities anymore. The rail journey is fast and very pleasant, not least because the track runs parallel to the Mediterranean as far as Tarragona before heading inland. (I much prefer the spacious, comfortable and well-designed AVE trains to the relatively cramped first-class cars of the French TGV.)
My intention on this trip to Madrid was to give its two best-known luxury hotels — The Westin Palace and the Hotel Ritz — another look; to try Spain’s newest three-star restaurant, DiverXO; and to explore some of the city’s smaller museums.
On recent visits, I have favored the charming Hotel Orfila and the AC Santo Mauro over the two grandes dames next to the Prado museum, but since the Spanish capital has a surprisingly limited roster of luxury hotels, it seemed time to become reacquainted. On our arrival at dusk, the impressive white façade of The Westin Palace and the large illuminated sign on its roof held a promise of Old World glamour. Check-in was perfunctory, however, and as soon as the brisk young woman at the front desk asked whether we needed help with our bags or wanted to be escorted to our room, my expectations withered. Such courtesies should be automatic at a hotel with pretensions to luxury (especially here, since there are steps leading from reception to the elevators).
Upstairs, our suite was quiet, spacious and had fine views of the nearby Neptune fountain. A chandelier lent elegance to the large sitting room, which was furnished with a sofa, a pair of Napoleon III-style armchairs, and end tables holding crystal lamps. Overall, however, the atmosphere seemed slightly forlorn. Also, it was disappointing to discover that there was no espresso machine, a fairly standard amenity nowadays. The bedroom was similarly spacious, with wall-to-wall carpeting and fabric-covered walls. A reproduction cabinet housed a rather dated television, and the small bath with its stone counter and combination tub-shower was also in need of updating.
Downstairs, we had a drink in the 1912 Museo Bar, which has the sober décor and atmosphere of an English men’s club and was once a favorite of artistic luminaries such as Ernest Hemingway and Salvador Dalí. The cocktails were well-mixed, and we caught a brief glimpse of what this hotel, built in 1912 at the initiative of King Alfonso XIII, must have been like in its heyday. The following morning, we sampled the excellent breakfast buffet in La Rotonda restaurant, so named for its magnificent stained glass cupola, then checked out with a mild sensation of relief.
AT A GLANCE
LIKE: Ideal location; spacious rooms; excellent breakfast buffet.
DISLIKE: Windows that could only be opened a few inches; corporate atmosphere; desultory service; baths in need of updating.
GOOD TO KNOW: The atmospheric 1912 Museo Bar is a great place for drinks even if you’re not staying at the hotel.
The Westin Palace 89 Executive Room, $390; Junior Suite, $505. Plaza de las Cortes 7, Madrid. Tel. (34) 91-360-8000.
The Hotel Ritz is little more than 200 yards away and also was built at the behest of Alfonso XIII, who wanted Madrid to have luxury hotels on par with those in London and Paris. It is smaller than the Palace, with 167 as opposed to 468 rooms. Since it was only 11 a.m., I anticipated leaving our bags with the concierge and returning to check in after lunch. But our cases were seized by an eager doorman, and the front desk assured us that our room would soon be ready and invited us to have a coffee during our short wait. Overall, the welcome was especially warm and gracious, and it was a pleasure to sit in a handsomely appointed lounge adjacent to the marble-floored lobby, watching the world go by.
Our Junior Suite proved cozy rather than grand, with the kind of traditional décor that you might expect to find in a patrician living room on Park Avenue, Beacon Hill or Pacific Heights. The snug oval sitting room came with brocade-print wallpaper, elaborate moldings, a decorative marble fireplace, an overstuffed damask-covered sofa and framed sepia-toned etchings of ancient monuments. In the bedroom, the heavy shellacked oak doors on the built-in wardrobes seemed rather old-fashioned, but the bed was made up with fine white linen sheets, and the lighting was excellent. Our only disappointment was the small and rather dated bath, which came with a combination tub-shower.
After a perfect martini in the Velazquez Bar, we had an exceptionally good dinner at the elegant Goya Restaurant, which is under the supervision of talented chef Jorge Gonzalez. Cuttlefish croquettes and wild tuna tataki were followed by outstanding roasted suckling pig with green cabbage and figs. The restaurant is also notable for a wonderful terrace where it is possible to dine outside in fine weather. Other amenities at the hotel include a small fitness center and spa.
During the course of our two-night stay, we were impressed by the flawless service and delighted by the atmosphere of a bona fide European grand hotel. Alas, not many such properties remain, with more and more falling victim to ill-considered renovations intended to appeal to a younger clientele that prefers a denim-clad lifestyle to a gray-flannel one. (The elegance of the Hotel Ritz still inspires a degree of sartorial effort.) To be sure, some baths need updating and there is no swimming pool, but this is a fine hotel for traditionalists, providing warm Spanish hospitality.
AT A GLANCE
LIKE: Exceptionally gracious service; Old World charm; delightful outdoor terrace where meals are served in season; memorable cuisine in the Goya Restaurant; proximity to the Prado museum.
DISLIKE: The absence of a swimming pool; small bath in our Junior Suite.
GOOD TO KNOW: Suite reservations include airport transfers.
Hotel Ritz 94 Deluxe City View Room, $545; Junior Suite, $810. Plaza De La Lealtad 5, Madrid. Tel. (34) 91-701-6767.