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Keeping the Best of the Past at the Westin Palace, Madrid

The question is how do we retain the special identity of this hotel within the corporate model?” asks Carlo Suffredini. We are sitting in the domed rotunda of Madrid’s Palace Hotel. Late afternoon sunlight filters through the stained-glass, the bands of sky-blue and the garlands of roses above us, adding to the illumination of a chandelier shimmering with light. Delicate strains from a harp are background to tinkling glasses and conversations in a mix of languages. Madrileňos and foreign hotel guests, Americans but also English, German, and French, are enjoying coffee and pastries around small tables this first weekend after the New Year. And for a moment, time seems to stand still. If not for the contemporary dress of the crowd, we could be part of a scene in the Gilded Age.

The amiable, Italian-born general manager has posed an interesting question. Since March 2000 when the historic property became a Westin hotel and part of the Starwood Luxury Collection, it has undergone refurbishment of rooms and renovation of operations systems to bring them up to international corporate standards. A state-of-the-art business center is in place adjacent to the front desk. Club Neptuno, a fully equipped fitness club with all manner of exercise machines and training equipment, has been installed on the rooftop level where it looks out as far as Retiro Park.

“All 466 rooms now have the Westin ‘heavenly’ beds, and within the next six months, all bathrooms will be equipped with the ‘heavenly’ two-headed shower,” Suffredini tell us. “The sixth floor is being turned into an executive level with its own private reception area, VIP lounge, meeting room, and the latest communications technology. The rooms will be refreshed; full breakfasts will be served in the lounge, and butler service will be part of the experience.”

He pauses for a moment and smiles looking out to the animated gathering around us. “But the local crowd doesn’t care about such innovations,” he says. “To them, the hotel remains the Palace, the favorite meeting place for the Madrid community. Saturday and Sunday afternoons, you will find the top-class market here. They’ll come for a drink or coffee, to celebrate a special time.”

Branding, he maintains, has not interfered with the essence of this property built in a record eleven months by the fabled hotelier César Ritz in time for King Alfonso XIII’s wedding in 1912. And clearly it still retains the identity of the original green and cream, marble and gilt Palace -- from the frescoes of classical scenes in the lobby, to the grand stairway leading to the luxury-shop-lined second level punctuated by mirrored doors, to the circular lounge beyond that opens up to the greater circle of the rotunda and at its center, surrounded by marble pillars, the heart of the hotel, the recess beneath the dome: El Jardin de Invierno which, no matter how many times one has seen it, never fails to take the breath away.

The amiable, Italian born general manager: Carlo Suffredini - click to enlarge
The amiable, Italian born general manager: Carlo Suffredini

Still there are losses, we told Suffredini, and went on to relate  how earlier in the day, we had strolled the marble-floored perimeter of the rotunda off which the hotel’s salons, lounges, restaurants, and ballrooms are located. We looked into the wood-paneled English bar with its cozy arrangement of green and navy sofas and continued on to La Cupola, the Palace’s gastronomic restaurant which we recalled for its collection of  classical Spanish paintings and classical Spanish preparations. Only to our dismay, we found it was no longer there. In its place was a Chinese restaurant!

“Ah yes,” the general manager sighed. “We found La Cupola was competing with La Rotonda,” and he gestured to a brightly lit area further along the perimeter. “Since the menus of both restaurants were similar, we decided to outsource the space to something entirely different.”

An old friend: maitre d’ and sommelier Angel Sastre - click to enlarge
An old friend: maitre d’ and sommelier Angel Sastre
 

The space is strikingly decorated with swaths of brocaded silk in shades of iridescent green and gold, strings of paper lanterns, and pagoda-shaped furnishings. And judging by the number of people we saw headed in its direction that evening, the cuisine is a draw. But somehow we could not warm to the idea of having Chinese food in Madrid, and so we took Suffredini’s advice and booked a table at La Rotonda.

At 9 p.m., we walked around the rotunda to the open yet romantic dining expanse furnished with gold-leaf furniture and Grecian urns where to our surprise, we were greeted by an old friend: Angel Sastre who was maitre d’ and sommelier of La Cupola during our visit a few years ago. We remembered him well, how he had told us his original ambition was to be a matador, how he had helped us select the right dishes and perfect wine last time around. Now he’d moved over to La Rotonda which, he said, combines the cuisines of both restaurants with an emphasis on Mediterranean flavors.

Confidently we put ourselves in his hands once again and were rewarded with a delightful dinner that included a salad of radicchio and micro-greens dressed in a balsamic vinaigrette whose trace of honey added just a touch of sweetness, a pungent seafood broth, lobster wrapped in white asparagus and topped with salmon roe, a thick tender sirloin with a delicious gravy that had simmered in a slow oven overnight, and a marvelous turbot paired with fried artichoke slices in a red wine sauce -- all of which were accompanied by an excellent Rioja. As we lingered over coffee, having splurged on desserts of cheese mousse and a pineapple carpaccio with banana ice cream, and listened to a young man play haunting refrains on a Spanish guitar, we had to agree that corporate branding has not dimmed the illumination of this unique treasure of Madrid

Perhaps staff longevity has something to do with it. With fourteen years on the job, Angel is junior compared to others, some of whose tenure exceeds four decades. “During the Civil War, the hotel was closed down, and it functioned as a hospital,” Suffredini had told us. “Surgery was performed in the rotunda beneath the domed skylight; it wasn’t until 1946 that it became a hotel again. There are people still on staff who began working here at that time. The hotel is a part of their lives.

“There is also the longevity of guests,” he continued. “A woman from Ecuador lived here for 15 years. Finally she returned home but left a large amount of luggage behind her. Each  year she’d send a Christmas card asking us to please keep the luggage, she’d be back. Finally when she was 95 years old, we decided not to wait any longer and sent the luggage to her.”

He went on, “And then there are the traditions. Next door to the hotel is one of the most famous churches in Madrid. Every year on Good Friday, the Christ statue is carried in a procession. As it goes down the street alongside the hotel, a supplier for the hotel who is also an amateur singer steps onto a little balcony outside a first floor hotel room. They stop the procession in front of him, and for about ten minutes, he sings Saeta, which are songs like a prayer,  very Spanish, like a Flamenco. It’s worth coming here on Easter to see this alone.

“Then there is the Bull Fighting Fair at the start of the season in May when the best bull fighters come to town. They stay at the hotel, get dressed here before they go to the arena. That is another tradition of the Palace.”

In the ways in which the hotel is a center for Jewish-related events, it harkens back to even earlier traditions that have only recently begun to become reclaimed. During our first visit to Spain, we met a young man in the Palace’s jewelry shop who told us, “Cut any Spaniard and you will find Jewish blood.” That was in 1993, a year after the 500th anniversary of the expulsion of the Jews from Spain, a time when the nation began to acknowledge the consequences of that act and reach out to descendents of long-ago exiles. Since then, we have seen many examples of the resurgence of Jewish life throughout Spain and an interest in reclaiming this lost heritage.

“We have a good relationship with the Jewish community in Madrid,” Suffredini told us. “We have frequent kosher weddings and bar mitzvahs. The kitchen is sealed; the meshgiach comes in to inspect it. We import the kosher wine from France. Last October a group of European rabbis were here celebrating an anniversary of Maimonides, the 12th century Jewish sage. From here they organized a visit to Cordoba, where Maimonides was born, as well as Seville.” Among the general manager’s plans is a Passover package that would combine a visit to Madrid and Israel. “There is a direct three-hour flight from Madrid to Tel Aviv every day,” he told us.

“This is a historic place and I feel it all the time,” he says. “The socialists declared fascism is over on a balcony of the House of Parliament right across the way. That was less than thirty years ago. Spain is still a new democracy. The people feel the youngness of the democratic free life.  Despite the terrorism, the attack on the train there is an optimism. The spirit is great. It is very close to Italian which I why I feel so at home here.”

Last May the wedding of Spain’s Prince Philippe brought dignitaries from all over Europe to Madrid. As one would expect, many stayed at the Palace. One of them, the prime minister of a wealthy country, approached Suffredini. “I have not been in Madrid since I was married many years ago. We honeymooned in Spain and spent some days here at the hotel,” he told him. “It is amazing to see it is the same as it used to be. Nothing has changed.”

Of course much has changed in the nation, the city, and the Palace.  “But that is our challenge,” Suffredini maintains, “to move forward, to stay with the market. But also to keep the best of the past.”

The Westin Palace, Madrid
Plaza de las Cortes, 7
28014 Madrid, Spain

Phone (34)(91) 360 8000  Fax (34)(91) 360 8100

Photos by Harvey Frommer

 

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About the Authors:  Myrna Katz Frommer and Harvey Frommer are a wife and husband team who successfully bridge the worlds of popular culture and traditional scholarship. Co-authors of the critically acclaimed interactive oral histories It Happened in the Catskills, It Happened in Brooklyn, Growing Up Jewish in America, It Happened on Broadway, It Happened in Manhattan, It Happened in Miami. They teach what they practice as professors at Dartmouth College.

They are also travel writers who specialize in luxury properties and fine dining as well as cultural history and Jewish history and heritage in the United States, Europe, and the Caribbean. More about these authors.

You can contact the Frommers at: 

Email: myrna.frommer@Dartmouth.EDU
Email: harvey.frommer@Dartmouth.EDU
Web: http://www.dartmouth.edu/~frommer/travel.htm.

This Article is Copyright © 1995 - 2012 by Harvey and Myrna Frommer.  All rights reserved worldwide.

 

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