Airports aren’t places you would normally associate with elegance but Madrid’s was a revelation to me. Landing there on a beautifully warm September afternoon having left a rainy London just two hours before, we were rather taken with its majesty and quiet sophistication. It is Richard Rogers’ largest and most ambitious project to date and, at one billion Euros, his most expensive. But although it was grand and impressive, it was also quietly understated.
We felt exactly the same about Hotel Único. After a brief taxi journey from the airport we were standing in front of a pristine 19th-century façade, expertly blending into its surroundings and otherwise invisible, were it not for the very friendly uniformed doorman who materialised from nowhere to take our bags. It was a neat trick. Once inside, past the hidden entrance and silent sliding doors, we didn’t feel like we were in a hotel at all; more like one of Madrid’s most elegant private residences.
That first impression remained with us for the rest of our stay. Único is quiet, yes, but in a very good way. It is situated in the heart of the Salamanca quarter, flanked by swanky shops, but it feels secret and hidden. Our room was slightly serious and monochromatic but generously proportioned, uncluttered and it gave out onto a fantastic Juliet balcony with views up and down the quiet street. I loved the clever partitioning in the modern bathroom and the feeling of space created by the long entrance hall.
Architecturally Hotel Único is exquisite. The swirling mosaic motif on its floors, dramatic staircases and marble walls are bold touches but not at all overstated. Just like the staff, in fact, who were always polite and on-hand but never overbearing. I am grateful to the very smiley blue-eyed receptionist who spotted the mistakes in our museum schedule, knew the exact opening times of the big galleries and corrected our itinerary. Thank goodness he did – we would have missed Museo del Prado!
We spent our first day smooching around the atmospheric side streets of the city’s Latin quarter. We had great fun grazing in the covered Mercado San Miguel near Plaza Mayor – a board of pata negra here, a plate of pimientos de padron there – and then tried and failed to find an open tapas bar from the many that had been recommended. The most famous strip, Calle Cava Baja, was mostly boarded up at 8pm and only began to reveal itself after 9pm; Madrileñas clearly eat late. We headed back to the hotel to shower and change for supper at the city’s most famous restaurant, Ramón Freixa Madrid.
That a chef of Ramón Freixa’s stature is in residence at Único’s restaurant is clearly a huge bonus for the hotel. The restaurant is set to the rear of the building with its own private garden and entrance. It is elegant, of course, understated, naturally, and is as pretty as a picture. A huge Venetian mirror sits impossibly on the ceiling reflecting the dining room back down onto itself and a trompe l’oeil panorama fills an entire wall giving a feeling of heightened grandeur. I loved the chandeliers, which had been encased in a tight-fitting white web, reminding me of the work of Japanese artist Chiharu Shiota.
We sat down in an empty room just after 9.30pm (I told you Madrid eats late) and enjoyed eight courses of the most skilful and witty cooking I can remember in recent years. The dining room was only full by 11pm, just as we were winding down, but what a superb and memorable meal. Incidentally, our bottle of Chassagne-Montrachet Premiere Cru was both exceptional and remarkably good value too. It is refreshing to visit a twice Michelin-starred restaurant with such a great attitude to wine mark-ups. Bravo.
We woke early the following morning to the sound of, well, nothing. It really is remarkable how peaceful this hotel feels while being in the very centre of a major European capital city. Breakfast was neat, expert, and met the official ‘Classy International Buffet’ standard. Good coffee.
Madrid’s galleries alone are reason enough to visit the city and, I have to say, the Prado museum’s collection is breathtaking. I would strongly advise that you limit yourself to just a few rooms per visit; it is easy to get gallery fatigue if you try to take in too much. Highlights for me included the Velazquez dwarf paintings and his masterpiece of comic bathos ‘Mars’, El Greco’s best works from around 1580 and, dear reader, the most astonishing collection of Goya paintings you will ever see. His depiction of ‘Saturn devouring his son’ is one of the most horrifying images ever committed to canvas. You have been warned.
After a good few hours scouring the excellent flea market of El Rastro (where I bought an old flamenco guitar and the missus got a hand-tooled leather handbag – both for just a few euros) we had a very enjoyable evening in the Latin quarter. The tapas bars there really are the best in the city and the highlight for me was the excellent hangover dish of poached eggs and fried potatoes from Los Huevos de Lucio on Calle Cava Baja. Back at Hotel Único, our bed was turned down and our curtains were drawn as we settled in to another perfect night’s sleep.
On our last morning we were determined to fit in a visit to the Reina Sofia gallery before leaving for the airport. (It is definitely worth a trip, if only for the superb collection of Picassos and the monumental ‘Guernica’, the jewel in Spanish modern art’s crown.) We asked Blue Eyes if we might check out at 1pm instead of the advertised noon. ‘Of course!’ was the reply. ‘Stay later if you like; 2 o’clock, 3 o’clock…’ Full marks.
Único is a very smart hotel indeed. It is discreet, understated and classy. Its position in Salamanca makes it good for a business trip but I could recommend as a destination in its own right, especially if you like peace, comfort, tasteful interiors and a two-Michelin star dining experience on your doorstep. (Or even if, like me, you prefer egg and chips.)