Madrid, Meliá, marvelous

Luxury hotels have been opening apace in Madrid, but for this writer one in particular ticks all the boxes.

The hoteliers and developers of Madrid have been busy. The city — not short of good hotels, although in recent years, shall we say, lacking in great ones — has seen a recent explosion of new, top-notch hotel openings, reaching its apogee at the height of the pandemic. At the top end, Four Seasons, the luxury brand previously conspicuous by its absence, has entered the Spanish market with panache. Its first-ever Spanish property — bang in the center of town, just steps from Puerta del Sol —is the amalgamation of seven early-19th century buildings, many of which formerly functioned as banks or insurance companies. No wonder the full restoration took  eight years. But the result is superb, with original, soaring marble columns, stone and marble fireplaces and exquisite wrought ironwork incorporated into typically contemporary Four Seasons design.

And hot on the Four Seasons’ unveiling last summer, the long-shuttered Ritz, which we are now obliged to call Mandarin Oriental Ritz Madrid — a mouthful that few Anglophone travelers  can get their lips around — opened its (no longer revolving) new doors to universal plaudits. Renewed and refreshed and not before time, the Mandarin Oriental people have given this grande-dame — the Madrid hotel of choice for everyone from Mata Hari to Elton John — the full-on refurb treatment. With a reported renovation budget of $115 million, this Ritz was always going to be a radical refit. But money doesn’t always amount to good taste, so it’s lucky that finesse and refinement are two things that the Mandarin Oriental group possesses in spades. 

My personal choice of where to stay in the Spanish capital, however, is the only slightly less-grand but comprehensively box-ticking Gran Meliá Palacio de los Duques, which opened in the heart of historic Madrid back in 2016. 

Occupying the site of the 13th-century Convent of Santo Domingo, which later became a palace and home to the dukes of Granada de Ega and Villahermosa, Palacio de los Duques is the near-perfect hotel for a business trip or family vacation for style, comfort and, not the least, sympathetic pricing.

Converted into a luxury hotel by leading Spanish hotel company Meliá, the reimagined ducal palace takes the work of the great Spanish artist Diego Velázquez as the inspiration for its interior design — the great storehouse of Velázquez originals, of course, being the Prado Museum, barely a half-mile away. So, while on the one hand the hotel could be said to be gilding the lily, with its vast reproductions of the master’s paintings looming large on its walls, walkways and even guest-room bedheads, there is no mistaking this enchanting property’s profound sense of place.

As for its location, it is first-rate, right in the cultural heart of Madrid, with many of the city’s most important monuments — the Royal Palace, the Teatro Real and the magnificent Almudena Cathedral among them — just a short stroll away.

At the hotel entrance, a formally clad doorman with a fondness for winking sets the tone. Traditional in the best sense this hotel may be, but its staff is laidback and personable. No one stands on ceremony, a sense immediately borne out by the line of seated front-desk agents and concierges waiting to attend to you just inside the door. Switched-on, attentive and working harmoniously together, this friendly, helpful team contributed as much to the enjoyment of my stay as virtually any other element.

Assailed now by the heady scent of flowers as you make your way to the elevators, you will discover that these are not indeed fresh blooms perfuming the air but the hotel’s signature scent, called “Intuitive,” which is not for sale in stores but may be purchased at any Gran Meliá property, of which there are now eight in Spain and a further six worldwide.

You don’t get marble bathrooms at the Palacio, or at least I didn’t, but you do get the most generous room size per respective room category in the city, as well as Clarins products and the best water-pressure in the shower of any Madrid hotel I’ve recently tried. That in itself means a home away from home for Americans. Coupled with a whirlpool and small swimming pool on the roof — perfect for a restorative dip after a long day’s business meetings, museum-trudging or sightseeing — it means the hotel’s waterworks, so to speak, are fully turned on. Furthermore, there can be few more heart-stopping city-views in all of Spain than of Madrid laid out at your feet in the glow of the setting sun, as seen from the Palacio’s rooftop.

For further “watering,” repair to the hotel’s ground floor Coroa bar. The bartenders mix fearsomely good, strong drinks and cocktails here, such as a G&T — Sipsmith gin and Fever-Tree tonic in equal measure — which you can enjoy in the well-appointed bar itself, or in the hotel’s beautiful and historically important garden, fragrant with box pines, bay trees and azaleas. And at the hotel’s on-site Dos Cielos restaurant, run by Barcelona’s celebrated restaurant brothers, Javier and Sergio Torres, the Spanish art of sobremesa — spending hours around the table savoring dessert, coffee, liqueurs, even playing board games, long after the main event of dinner has ended — is a cultural practice actively promoted. For your part, all you have to do is bring along a reasonable constitution, the willingness to enjoy yourself and a disregard for the lateness of the hour. Very Madrid, that.

Besides, any overindulgence can be counteracted the following day with a visit to the Palacio’s Thai Room Wellness area, where expert Thai therapists offer a variety of massages, body wraps, facials and body scrubs against a backdrop of Burmese lacquerware, Chinese antiques and Tibetan art. My 50-minute Thai-style massage, with elements of acupressure and incorporating Ayuverdic principals enjoyed early morning, struck me as thoroughly authentic. Along with pitstops taken at intervals for soot-black coffee, superb tapas and the odd ice-cold cerveza, it set me up well for my day exploring this profoundly rich, multifaceted, ever-evolving European capital city.

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