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The Mystique of the Orient Express and the Magic of the Hotel Ritz, Madrid

 

“Mi querido . . . Mi passion, (my darling, my passion)” said Julio Iglesias of the Hotel Ritz, Madrid, expressing – with typical Latin ardor -- a sentiment shared by close to a century of visitors for a place “so easy to love.”

Since it opened in 1910, the gleaming white Belle Époque structure has been a landmark of Madrid; the black cupolas atop its twin circular towers familiar signposts looking out over the trees lining the Paseo del Prado, the gushing fountain of the Plaza Neptuno, the stately obelisk of Plaza de La Lealtad. The premier hotel in the center of a city in the center of a country which once was the center of the world had witnessed the many trials of 20th century Spain. Yet its magic and majesty remain intact. Today, in the early years of a new century, the Ritz begins a new chapter in its long history having become part of the Orient Express collection. It seems a perfect fit; the mystique surrounding the fabled passenger train so easily lends itself to the legendary hotel.

New ownership often heralds change, but in its essential aspects, one is assured, the Ritz will remain the same. The credo is “evolution not revolution,” and among the plans is restoration of much of the property to its original look through a gradual renovation process that has already begun.

Our Ritz experience began at the very doorstep where smiling doormen in blue-gray uniforms welcomed us with warmth and exuberance. After the check-in process in an alcove discreetly removed from the lobby, the receptionist escorted us to an attractively decorated room whose huge window overlooked the hotel’s garden, handed us a big brass key, and wished us a happy visit. A moment later, a vase brimming with fragrant flowers and a silver tray laden with fruits arrived. We had yet to unpack, and already a standard of service and attention had been set which would be maintained throughout our stay.

That afternoon we met the youthful-looking and extroverted assistant manager José Maria Bermejo in the “Hall” -- the grand lounge area off the lobby -- for an English-style tea that was not much different from the one they serve at the London Ritz. “I started my career as a page boy at a small hotel in the city,” José told us. “Sometimes the head concierge would send me to the Ritz with some message. When I got this position eight years ago, it was an opportunity to be dreamed of.

“But working in a hotel like this is not easy,” he added. “The people who have been here for as much as 40 years view you as a newcomer.”

Newcomer or not, José’s enthusiasm for and knowledge of the property runs deep.  “We are in the best location in Madrid,” he declared. “The Prado is across the street, the Reina Sofia and Thyssen Bornemisza museums, and Retiro Park are all a short walk away,” he said. “We have the best service of any hotel with 167 rooms and 243 employees. Why so many? Because it is the Ritz.”    

Assistant Manager José Bermejo - click to enlarge
Assistant Manager José Bermejo

He continued, “Let me tell you how Madrid came to have a Ritz hotel. At the start of the last century, our grandfather king, Alfonso XIII was visiting the cities of Europe. He saw the brand new Ritz Hotel in Paris and the Carlton in London, and they made him think Madrid needed a grand hotel as well. When he returned home, he got a group together. They set up a company, bought a plot of land in one of the best places in the city, and convinced César Ritz to design a hotel for them.” He paused for a moment, then added, “Many people tell me it is the loveliest Ritz of them all.”

We looked around the oval-shaped room, creamy as vanilla custard, bordered by soaring marble pillars, accented with ornate plaster moldings, illuminated by indirect light emanating from behind glass panes in the barrel-vaulted coffered ceiling and within recesses that resembled huge scallop shells high up on the walls. Soft music was being played on a grand piano; it blended with the tinkle of glasses and subdued laughter from a festive crowd. Before us was the gilded circular lobby, an enormous floral display set on a round table at its center, a swirling grand staircase off  to its side. We could not recall a setting more lovely.

“The carpets are unique,” José added, pointing to the magnificent expanse of flowers, medallions, and heraldic motifs in shades of rose, cream, green and blue that stretched out across the breath of the Hall. “You’ll find them in all the guest rooms and some public rooms. They’re  hand-made in the royal tapestry shop of Spain; each is seamless, of one piece. We have a woman who repairs these carpets by hand. Fortunately you can find craftsmen in Spain who can do such fine handwork.”

Examples of fine handiwork and magnificent baroque and neo-classical detail abound in the palatial public rooms surrounding the lounge: the pair of beautiful ballrooms whose huge windows face the Prado, the splendid salon named for the “grandfather king” who first envisioned a Ritz for Madrid, with its immense, incredibly seamless carpet, seventeenth and nineteenth-century tapestries, and arched doorways that open to a marble terrace. A balustrade divides into two stone stairways that lead to a tree-filled garden, dappled with shade even on a January afternoon.

During the warmer months, which in Madrid is late February to late October, white wicker chairs and tables shaded by blue and white umbrellas turn the garden into an enchanted setting for al fresco dining. “Very Madrid, very Ritz,” said José. “It’s not possible to find another hotel with such a garden in the middle of the city.”

Nor can one find another hotel that serves a Sunday brunch to compare to the Ritz, according to maitre d’ Luiz Méndez. “Other hotels have brunches, but they are more informal, cheaper, not of the quality we have,”  said the elegant restaurant manager, sporting a pink tie and matching pocket handerchief. “Here you will not only sample the range of Spanish cuisines, you will enjoy company of citizens from Madrid. More than 80% of the guests are from outside the hotel. The quality of Spanish culture, the Latin character is visible here.”

It was 1:30 in the afternoon, and the crowd had yet to arrive. “Ten years ago the brunch would begin at 11:30,” Luiz explained. “But only the foreign hotel guests would come at that hour; the Spaniards not until 2. Now we open the doors at 1:30 and go on until 4.”


Maitre d’ Luiz Mendez

By 2 o’clock, the parade of Madrileńos began, many multi-generational families, even babies in strollers. It was the weekend following the Festival of the Three Kings, a post-Christmas holiday geared to children. But more than a few young couples dressed in fashionable jeans and blazers had decided to spend Sunday afternoon in this splendid space as well. They sat at tables for two, and as the afternoon wore on and the sun streamed through the tall southern windows, they lingered over glasses of  Cava, the Spanish bubbly.

This Ritz brunch is truly the mother of all brunches with an array of beautifully arranged platters and chafing dishes that run the length of the Alfonso XIII salon. We by-passed the sushi and sashimi, fresh mozzarella and tomatoes, dizzying variety of salads, the pasta and pizza stations, carving boards, even slices of  Beef Wellington in aspic served at room temperature in favor of typical Spanish offerings: monkfish in a vinaigrette with black olives; salmon tartar; poached cod; red mullet with onion; cold poached quail; gorgeous patés -- one made of nova, avocado and white fish looked exactly like a slice of layer cake; goat cheese, avocado and smoked salmon on a sweet dark bread. At the soup station, waiters ladled out seafood soup with tiny clams, garlic chicken consommé, a potage of chick peas with codfish and spinach.

There were tortillas, chicken in cream sauce with rice and grapes, pigeon in a Rioja sauce with onions, three varieties of paella: mussels, seafood, and chicken, and the beans: little black ones, big lima ones, string beans, lentils.

Desserts were manifold: the sinfully rich Navidad or Kings’ doughnut, traditional for this holiday week -- a ring filled with cream and cold custard and served with hot chocolate; apple, strawberry and raspberry tarts; puddings and flan; almond cake and almond mousse. . .

We stood before them, mentally doing a cost-benefit analysis, calories vs. pleasure, when suddenly  a murmuring flitted through the room, followed by excited squeals and a sudden rush of young girls from the salon in the direction of the lobby. Only later did we discover the cause of the rapid exit. Leonardo di Caprio, in Madrid to publicize the release of “The Aviator,” had been spotted checking in. By the time the girls reached the lobby, however, only a group of his handlers remained. But the staff was cool, and so they remained the next day when a limo waiting for the star attracted a little crowd. Evidently celebrity appearances leave them unfazed -- probably because they are so commonplace.

One night during our stay, we stepped out of the elevator and walked right into a line of tuxedoed gentlemen, furs draped across their arms, waiting to check their partners’ coats while the ladies, in beautiful ball gowns, spread across the Hall waiting for them. We watched as one by one, each pair connected and moved on to the Royal Salon for a night of tango. On a morning, we happened upon an assembly of international bankers and their entourage arriving for an economic conference; on another we saw a crowd of municipal leaders who had broken into small groups in the lobby following a meeting with the mayor of Madrid while their drivers congregated at the entrance. But through them all, and despite the unmistakable excitement in the air, an aura of stability and serenity prevailed. Events like these are no more than what one expects – at the Ritz.

There is so much history here, so much tradition, that imprinting a new brand on such a legendary product seems a task most daunting. Yet such is the charge of the Ritz’s new general manager, the Switzerland-born Anton Küng who in addition to running the hotel has taken up the study of Spanish. A distinguished-looking man, impeccably dressed, possessed of a European sensibility and a hearty sense of humor -- in a different setting he might be mistaken for a cardiologist, or then again a sea captain -- Küng came to the Ritz from Reid’s Palace, the Orient Express resort on Madeira where Winston Churchill often vacationed. “I had restructured that property so it meets today’s requirements. But it doesn’t have the feeling of a new hotel,” Küng told us over drinks in the Bar Válesquez. “That’s the challenge here. There is nothing wrong with tradition, and it would be a pity to destroy it. But expectations of international travelers have changed.


General Manager Anton Küng

“The Ritz has the same level of protection as the Prado,” he continued. “For every change, interior as well as exterior, we have to get a permit which means a long process. There are all kinds of protective restraints. But within these restraints, there will be changes. Half our guests are tourists, a relative rarity for a downtown city hotel. A leisure guest wants to enjoy leisure and spa facilities which we want to introduce. We will upgrade the rooms within the next couple of months. We will redo the furniture in the lobby, redesign the lobby layout.

“Why do people talk about Swiss hospitality?” he asked rhetorically. “We have a few watches; we have a few banks. It is a beautiful country, but we have no resources to rely on. Everything is rare. The country is narrow; the mountains are narrow. So we have to be focused. We have to look after the little details. I’m bringing a bit of that mentality here.”

The “go-fer” dressed by Balmain - click to enlarge
The “go-fer” dressed by Balmain

One charming little detail Küng has already installed is the “go-fer” in the lobby, this being the petite young lady in a uniform evoking the Philip Morris bellboy of yesteryear (actually, like all the Ritz uniforms, it’s designed by Balmain) whose job, according to the G.M. “is to do what others don’t do. Watch if someone wants to put his coat down. Get the door if no one else is around. Find the guest who’s needed on the telephone. Bring a message to a room. The little services which you used to have 40-50 years ago in many great hotels. We’re even getting bells for her to ring.

The installation of the “go-fer” may be a small touch of the Orient Express style, but the transformation of the Ritz’s restaurant from good hotel dining room to gastronomic destination promises to be a major imprint. Named for the great Spanish artist whose likeness stands directly across the way in front of the Prado, the Goya Restaurant is yet another of the hotel’s palatial salons with fabulous appointments, gilded mirrors, glittering chandeliers,  huge arched windows, luxurious fabrics and one of those gorgeous, gigantic carpets. But it was in need of new direction and a new chef, Küng said, “someone young enough to adjust, someone able to handle 32 cooks who had been here for many years.

“Before I was able to define our concept, I had to know what was going on,” he continued. “So I went to all the fine restaurants in town. Spain has gone through a great revolution in the culinary scene. It is very fashionable today.

“One night I ate in a local restaurant, and there I found the chef I wanted. I called him the next day. ‘I think you have talent. We have a great hotel. That is a good match.’”

 

Chef Jorge Gonzáles Carmona appears to be very young. He is soft spoken, gentle in demeanor, and at the same time, dead-serious and determined. “The Ritz needs a restaurant on the best level of restaurants in Madrid, and that is my goal,” he said.

Chef Jorge Gonzáles Carmona - click to enlarge
Chef Jorge Gonzáles Carmona
and the Goya staff - clicks to enlarge
and the Goya staff

“I was so surprised when I got the telephone call,” Jorge told us. “I had been very happy where I was working, and at first I didn’t know what to do.  A lot of people, especially restaurant critics, told me I was crazy to come here. They said it would be impossible to change the old ways. I had eaten here once before, and my impression was comme ci, comme ca, the cuisine appeared to be from the 70s and 80s. But then I thought there is a new owner of the Ritz, a new direction. And they made me an offer I couldn’t refuse.”

Jorge comes from a town near San Sebastian in the Basque country, a region -- along with neighboring Catalonia -- famed for its French-influenced cuisine. “When I first began my career, I worked with a Basque chef in an excellent Basque restaurant in Madrid,” he told us. “Then I went to France and worked in restaurants in Toulouse, in Paris  including the two-star Michelin Les Ambassadeurs in the Hotel Crillon. They were all very creative kitchens; I learned a lot of things. When I returned to Spain, I tried to adapt to the Spanish tastes using the French techniques, olive oil instead of butter and cream.

“At this restaurant, things have been the same for ten years, and it is difficult to change the mentality of people who have worked here for a long time. But they are good persons and hard workers, and at this moment, they are helping me a lot. Little by little, I try to show them there are new plates that are interesting. Little by little. If I change all at once, it will be too much of a strong statement. Recently two people who had worked with me before joined the team. It is very important for me to have people I know, who know me, who know what I want.

He continued, “I change the menu every day or every other day. It all depends on the products. I search for the best purveyors to supply the best products. I speak with them every day to find what they have. If the quality of a particular fish is not very good, I will change to whatever is of good quality. The cuisine here is a mixture: I like the Spanish products, but I’ll buy them from anywhere. Usually France and Italy, but we have violet potatoes now that I got from China.”

The exquisite ambience of the Goya set the mood for the exceptional dinner we had inspired by the young chef. Every table held a silver candelabra with a pair of lit candles, a silver vase holding a single rose, and napkins slipped into silver rings. Lights from the chandeliers were dimmed, and piano music drifted in from the lobby.

Javier Gila, the award winning sommelier recently recruited by Anton Küng, was off that night, but a bright and lively female sommelier, who has been pairing wine and food at the Ritz for the past five years, started us off with a glass of French champagne. When it came to wine, however, we quickly scanned the weighty wine list with over three hundred selections from all over the world, but asked her to select a Rioja. After all, we were in Madrid. She opened a full- bodied and spicy 1999 Monjes Reserve; it proved a perfect fit for the dishes to come.

Jorge says the kitchen is on the “cusp of evolution.” Judging from our experience, it has fully evolved. We had light crusty wontons filled with wild mushrooms and tiny bits of scallions made surprisingly sweet by a honey sauce; lobster carpaccio -- paper-thin slices topped with slivers of toasted almond and a long crispy sesame cracker in the center -- that looked like something from Nobu; a poached egg on “Torta del Casar,” a creamy goat cheese from Estramadura  with smoked salmon, spinach, and raisins; wild mushroom ravioli, the pasta thin and delicate, the mushrooms earthy and flavorful, and the white truffles from Piedmont generously shaved over the dish a strong, enlivening grace note. We had wonderful sautéed mushrooms that were brown and crisp, coquille St. Jacques with  the violet potatoes from China  that married mountain and seafood flavors, tender, succulent pigeon roasted in a slow oven in a sauce made of the bones and a little white wine and served with “false risotto” – the pasta made of cornmeal.

A lovely dessert plate which included refreshing mango mousse and tart red currants was preceded by selections from a cheese tray that focused on the range of Spanish cheeses, from the popular Manchega, to Alaba from the Basque, to a salty and strong blue goat cheese -- the only goat cheese made in Spain.

“Spanish gastronomy has developed greatly over the past decade,” Jorge had said. “Not only in the Basque and Catalonia but throughout the country. And today there is communication between schools and restaurants to improve the level of preparation.” Clearly the level of preparation has improved at the Goya.

“The guest can take three things from the hotel: photos, the bill, and the emotions which tell you whether you had a good or bad stay,” Anton Küng had said. “We went through a program of staff training to help insure the emotions are positive ones: how to establish a standard of service, how long before you answer the phone, how to operate on an individual basis -- every eye contact, every service is a product.

“What makes the difference between one hotel and another is the chemistry. When I walk into a hotel, I can feel the chemistry.”

There’s chemistry, between the Ritz in Madrid and the Orient Express, Mr. Küng. We felt it.

The Hotel Ritz-Madrid is a member of The Crown Collection.  For reservations and information contact The Crown Collection at 800-268-8929 or res@crownluxurytravel.com.

Hotel Ritz, Madrid
Plaza de la Lealtad, 5
28014, Madrid, Spain

Phone: +34 91 701 67 67
Web:  http://www.ritzmadrid.com

photos by Harvey Frommer

#  #  #

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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