Mad for Madrid, Part I: Urso


In a travel double bill this weekend, Tom Garton, The Arb’s own Marcus Brody, returns to a city where he once resided, drawing on past cultural knowledge and a forgetful scholar’s grasp of the language…

“Estas barritas son excelentes,” I garbled to the waitress at breakfast, helping myself to second helpings of the barritas con tomate y aceite.

Back in the Spanish capital, six years since I lived here, I was trying to show off my deteriorating Spanish to the hotel staff and my glamorous companion. All were unimpressed. What a waste of four years at Oxford.

At least my time spent immersed in Spanish culture helped me blend in with my breakfast choice. The traditional Spanish breakfast (the aforementioned barritas con tomato y aceite) of lightly toasted baguette with tomato pulp, extra virgin olive oil and a pinch of salt is one of my favourites. It’s best accompanied with a café cortado and freshly squeezed Valencian orange juice.

As a breakfast, it’s punchy, moreish, zesty, sharp, and like any national dish it can be made crudely or gracefully.

As you’d expect from this kind of five star establishment, the barritas at Urso fall into the graceful category. The toasted baguettes are slightly sweet, soft inside, and with a crisp crust. The tomato pulp is light with a rich hint of tomato, and the Spanish extra virgin olive oil is aromatic, and deep. I considered a third helping, but that would be gluttony.

But what else would you expect from this sophisticated, boutique hotel? Located right on the border lines of three Madrileñan districts: Chamberí, Chueca and Malasaña, it’s perfectly situated to get a taste of how cool, elegant and fun the city can be.

Chamberí, Chueca and Malasaña are three very different areas of the city, each with their own distinct appeal.

Chamberí is the quiet, elegant part of Madrid. Well connected, and predominantly residential, it’s not as posh as the Salamanca district, but has a good selection of upmarket tapas bars, and fashion boutiques.

Chueca, meanwhile, is the vibrant gay zone of Madrid. The Plaza de Chueca is a fun, chilled, sun trap, leading to countless great bars and terraces. A few years ago I won a karaoke bingo competition compered by a drag queen in one.

Malasaña is Madrid’s Shoreditch or Lower East Side. After Franco died in 1975, it became the base for La Movida Madrileña – a counter culture movement which produced an explosion of hedonism, transgression and underground art, punk music and independent cinema. Pedro Almodovar is its most famous product. Unlike Shoreditch and the Lower East Side, it’s still populated by artists, musicians, students, and punks. In the squares you’ll find impromptu parties fuelled by wandering beer salesmen, who sell cans of chilled Mahou from shopping trollies for around one or two euros.

Urso sits at the epicentre of these three districts and weaves the different characters of its surroundings into its luxury experience.

For example, the Chamberí elegance and tranquility is on show from the moment you walk through the doors. It’s set in a rather imposing, neo-classical, former palace. The grand entrance, manned by two doormen, is hidden off a side street. Inside, the reception room is awash with light yellow and cream, Japanese prints and a slightly Scandinavian feel.

The 78 bedrooms continue this quietly sophisticated theme. The floors are dark, hard wood. The walls green, grey and cream. The beds excellent. The sleep perfect.

The breakfast room and restaurant are typical of the cool stylishness of Chueca. The aforementioned excellent breakfast is served in a bright, airy room with floral-printed wallpaper, the sun seeps in from a large window in the roof. Media Racion the hotel’s adjoining restaurant is chatty and informal serving innovative versions of classic tapas.

But more intangible is the hotel’s hipster edginess. It’s definitely there, but it’s more a feeling or atmosphere. The hotel doesn’t feel stuffy or even quiet, it has a slightly mischievous air to it, and an easy disregard for rigidity or convention.

After that breakfast, we headed out into town. On our inebriated wandering through the city, we stopped off at a flea market near Noviciado, had some tapas on the Cava Baja in La Latina. Fortunately, at every opportunity I was on hand to use my Spanish “¡Una caña para mi señor!” ¿Cuanto cuesta? My glamorous companion tried to ignore me, drowning her embarrassment in ever larger bowls of gin and tonic.

For more information about Hotel Urso, including details of the spa, events and an insight from the concierge, visit

Tom’s return to Madrid continues tomorrow…