Dr. Ben Lerner’s superb first novel, Leaving the Atocha Station, is an extraordinary glimpse into the world of Adam Gordon, a talented, if neurotic and unreliable young American poet living in Madrid on a Fulbright Scholarship in 2004, the year of the horrific Madrid bombings. The book is a sinuously comedic account of this self-doubting, self-prescribing, young pretender’s descent into medicated madness. On the eve of the terrorists’ actions, our narrator takes himself on a dizzyingly reckless journey of debauched luxury in an attempt to win back the affections of a young Spanish beauty. They end up at The Ritz; the epitome of old-school European elegance in a city saturated in history and tradition. This is Gordon’s last ditch attempt to lure her back to him, his grand gesture to make things right. We leave him paralysed by cheap wine, contraband medication and an unrelenting fear of what’s to come, but wrapped, post-coitally in a thick-pile Ritz dressing gown, in a beautiful mahogany-clad room which faces the front of The Prado…the very room we’re lucky enough to be led to on arrival at this extraordinary monument to the glamour of the past.
The hotel was opened at the request of King Alfonso XIII in 1910. The king had been touring Europe, living it up somewhat and had visited The Ritz in Paris and London, and been charmed by the grandeur of Cesar Ritz’s palace hotels. He felt it was important for Madrid to have a monument of similar prestige and enlisted Ritz to get to work designing a masterpiece. Throughout the 20th century, the Madrid Ritz was known as an exemplar of discreet Spanish elegance. Everyone from Picasso to Hemingway, via Buster Keaton and Orson Welles has stayed at the hotel – what stories it must hold! What whispered, late night utterings must have soaked into the polished oak pannelling of The Velasquez Bar.
The hotel’s position is a big part of its appeal. Looking out on to stunning gardens on one side and the aforementioned Prado Museum on the other, this is the hotel for the travelling aesthete. Today the hotel is under the management of Orient Express Hotels, perhaps the world’s greatest luxury hotel group with properties including Venice’s Cipriani and Villa San Michele in the hills above Florence. With this umbrella of prestige, the attention to detail is as close to perfection as you will find. The grandeur you experience on arrival is breath-taking, the scent of lilies hits you as you move into the ornate, air-conditioned, baroque entrance hall – a world away from the throbbing heat of Madrid in late August.
The welcome is generous in its warmth, drinks are poured and recommendations proffered as you go over the check-in details. Across from us stands the hotel’s fine dining restaurant, Goya. The restaurant is situated in a sumptuous set of rooms at the front of the hotel, where chef Jorge Gonzalez manages to combine classic haute Spanish dishes with elements of new-wave Basque cuisine. I don’t manage to have dinner at Goya – something to savour next time I’m in the Spanish capital – but I do enjoy a leisurely breakfast in the dining room – it is one of the greatest hotel breakfasts I’ve ever experienced. Layers of nutty pata negra ham, fresh Spanish omelette, pastries – each, as fine a version of that delicacy imaginable.
The journey to the room is an experience in itself, involving a tour of the gardens, a look into the aforementioned Velazquez Bar and stroll along a seemingly endless, silent corridor until we reach our room. The room is quite simply, magnificent. It evokes other times, but seems calmly part of this one. The view of The Prado is mesmerising, particularly as night begins to fall. There are macadamia nuts and aged oloroso sherry for our delectation – such attention to detail. When I shower later, I am so charmed by the balance between space and power (a huge amount of space and commanding power, creating a cocoon of hot water), that I never want to get out, and stand there soaking under the hot sprays until we’re late for dinner.
The Madrid Ritz sits in a rarefied, gilt-edged sphere, alongside a small number of hotels around the world. It doesn’t simply offer luxury, impeccable service and an admirable history; The Ritz Madrid whispers a story that you’re left delighted to be somehow part of; it allows you to brush past the shadows of your long departed heroes and revel in these ethereal connections.