The building’s bold architecture comes as a jolt of surprise. I usually like to stay in the old parts of any city – especially in Spain – where narrow alleyways wind round to exciting little bars and boutiques. Driving up the wide, tree-lined avenue of Paseo de la Castellana, past the dancing fountains on the hotel’s driveway isn’t giving me the same sense of insider buzz I usually seek out (although of course, any city’s old town is usually the most tourist-infested quarter). Mr Smith, however, is thrilled – he knows that blocky, 70s’ buildings usually mean large, comfortable rooms. He’s right, of course.
We’ve just cast our eyes over the cool, marble and wood-lined reception, with its sapphire velvet sofas and impressive contemporary art when I discover the first of this iconic address’s little secrets: its back entrance leads straight to the doors of a particularly swish outpost of El Corte Ingles, Spain’s best-loved department store. Directly into the shoe and bag department. My pulses race: it’s so true that first impressions only ever tell a fraction of the story.
The more we unpick our location, the better we like it. At the front entrance of that Corte Ingles is Calle Serrano, effectively Madrid’s version of New Bond St. We’re in Salamanca – where the city’s wealthy live and play – and the wide streets are paved with everything from Armani to Zara. (Basically, there is every designer name you’ve ever heard of, plus a few more besides.) The district was built in the 1860s, specifically for the nobility – and the sense of exclusivity remains. Minutes up the road is the ABC Serrano shopping mall, three storeys of high fashion under one roof. It’s fair to say that Mr Smith’s eyes look a trifle glazed-over at this point.
Fortunately, across the Paseo in the other direction is flamboyant Chueca, lively, gay-friendly, and throbbing with cool little bars by night and niche boutiques (especially shoe shops; yes, shoes again) by day. It’s rammed with excellent restaurants: we love chic Tomate, just a stagger from the hotel’s front door, where sophisticated young Madrileños come to eat delicious little dishes from a fragrant smoke-belching wood-fired oven.
Villa Magna’s restaurants are pretty impressive too: we have a wonderfully lavish, formally served breakfast in the Restaurant Villa Magna, their Mediterranean eatery by night, but a sense of perversity leads us to book the hotel’s other culinary draw for dinner: Tse Yang, renowned as one of the best Chinese restaurants food in the city. This is the full atmospheric swank, elaborately filmic with its carved mahogany screens, glittering porcelain and celadon, and servers in embroidered silk.
There’s something slightly comical about what turns out to be beautifully rendered versions of takeaway favourites (filete de buey Szetchuan is a ringer for crispy shredded beef; pollo kon pao bears a striking resemblance to sweet ’n’ sour chicken), every spoonful silver-served by super-attentive staff, complete with cloches and trolleys. But it’s beautifully done, with first-class ingredients; little wonder Villa Magna is very much a Saturday night destination for Madrid’s movers and shakers. Our fellow diners drip with designer labels and the kind of jewellery you rarely see outside safety deposit boxes.
Vodkatinis in the courtyard outside Tse Yang lead to more cocktails in the clubby Magnum Bar and finally this segues to alfresco tipples on the plant-fringed terrace of the hotel’s Lounge. How did it get to be one in the morning? Never have I been so glad to see our calming, cream and taupe room with its vast, slippery-fresh-sheeted bed. Somebody has kindly furnished us with a milky white orchid, some herb tea and weeny macaroons. The large, marble-tiled bathrooms offer every bit as much of a retreat: huge, soft towels, Penhaligon’s toiletries, rain showers.
The rooms are even scented with fragrance designed especially for the hotel. We sink onto the bed in our oversized, fluffy robes and flick on the mirror-technology flatscreen TV, giggling like teenagers. Only the fiendishly complicated lighting system detracts a little from our buzz, but I’m happy to blame that on the vodkatinis.
A mere sweep down the Avenida and we find the world-famous Prado Museum with its haunting ‘black’ Goyas, and the edgier Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía. Here in the modern-art museum, we spend far too long behaving like children, swooping up and down the glass elevators stealing a gawp-worthy view over Madrid.
But after long, hot days spent necking cavas in tapas bars or boggling at the wealth of art in the Spanish capital, it’s never anything less than a pleasure to relax back into Villa Magna’s understated, service-led luxury. According to the charming manager, during the recent 17-month, €50 million refurb, all staff were kept on the payroll and allowed to take language classes or retrain in ways that would be of benefit to the guests. That’s what I call taking the long-sighted view.
What wows you about Villa Magna won’t be its cutting-edge supercool or eye-popping fashion-forward design. But initial impressions of Spanish sobriety are tempered by a soothing levity – friendly barmen, quirky modern art, wonderful, 60s’ stained glass on the staircase that leads down to the Club Wellness spa. If it’s good enough for Madonna and Angelina Jolie when they visit Madrid (although unlike us mere mortals, they’re on the top-floor suites, with their panoramic terraces), this blue-blooded charmer suits these Smiths just fine.
Anonymously reviewed by Marina O'Loughlin (Clandestine critic)
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