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Fine Art and Fine Dining at Madrid's Villa Real

It was the Roman philosopher Seneca who said “Wise people know how to be among things which exalt their intellect,” but it is the Spanish hotelier Jordi Clos Llombart who has taken this adage as a personal mission.  By moving works from his private collection of art to his collection of hotels, he allows guests the opportunity to exalt their intellects as well their spirits.

Jordi Clos is the president of the Derby Hotels Collection, six unique properties in Barcelona and Madrid. We discovered one of them, Madrid’s Villa Real as a result of a dinner engagement at one of its restaurants. Villa Real means royal villa and indeed the name suits the building which looks like a nineteenth century Spanish palace. Its seven story sand-stone and white façade is studded with balconies framed with wrought-iron fences which look down on a statue of Cortez dominating the plaza below. From the upper floors, all of Madrid spreads out, the broad boulevards and fountain-filled plazas, the jumbled rooftops where little towers are ornamented with Baroque design and topped with a single figure precipitously standing on a steeple’s peak.

The Villa Real sits in the artistic center of Madrid; its grand trio of museums: the Prado, Thyssen-Bornemezia, and Reina Sofia are mere minutes away. Yet the hotel is a miniature museum of its own with eighty works of art that range from classical to  modern times. It does not take long to get the idea.  You enter the creamy marble lobby and immediately come face-to-torso (sorry, no head) with a life-sized, toga-clad male from ancient Rome.  You turn the corner into East 47, the Villa Real’s eclectic restaurant which serves dishes like steak tartar and sashimi, and are greeted with two Andy Warhol takes on Marilyn Monroe. (The restaurant is named for East 47th Street in New York City where the pop artist once had a studio.)

Move onto the lounge, and you will be mesmerized, as we were, by a huge mosaic in shades of gray, beige, pink and yellow. Its abstract design is suggestive of  Modigliani, but it was created between the first and third centuries.  This room of travertine floors and walls is furnished in Bauhaus leather sofas and chairs and filled with spectacular antiquities, many of them mosaics depicting animals or geometric patterns. Go on to the breakfast room beyond and wonder at a 2,300-year old Greek urn of the sort that Socrates and Plato might have seen, of the sort that might have moved John Keats to write “Ode to Beauty.”

The urn was spellbinding, and it took some effort to break away, but a table was being held for us in Europa, the Mediterranean restaurant upstairs.  And so we moved onto a room with a very different kind of atmosphere. Here everything was starkly modern from the gleaming rosewood floor to the cool white halogen lights recessed in the low ceiling, to the gray suede and teakwood chairs, to the coarse linen blinds on the windows, even to the pure white china rimmed with black.  The mood was pristine and subdued so that attention was drawn to the black-framed graphics and lithographs on the walls by the renowned contemporary artist, Barcelona-born Antoni Tapies. 

It was time for dinner, a different kind of artistry. So smitten were we by the art, we had forgotten we were hungry.  But all it took was some rustic crusty bread cut into little pieces and served with olive oil, and a poached egg served on a red potato chip for our appetites to be revived.  The waiter suggested we try a Rued A Superior 1999, a white wine from Valladolid, a city northwest of Segovia.  It was dry with just a hint of fruit and a good accompaniment to the thick and creamy potato soup served with a dollop of Beluga caviar, and dish of scallops resting on a bed of thinly sliced celery, green pepper, carrots, and zucchini.  One of us then had poached cod fish served with Egyptian humus – a novel combination, moreso for its being spiced with cumin, the other risotto with duck in a brown sauce.  Both were beautifully presented and flavorful.

Desserts were divine: an airy rice pudding on top of mango soup for one, white and black melted chocolate over a very rich Catalan cream pudding foam for the other. We each had a glass of Catalonian champagne which was fruity and foamy and tried, but were unable, to resist the traditional Spanish sweets: hazelnuts, coffee beans covered with powdered cocoa, a kind of halvah, little squares of marzipan. The calories must have reached four figures, but who was counting?

Felix Garcia, the general manager of the Villa Real, told us that since Jordi Clos purchased the hotel in 1996, it has been completely renovated. It also moved up from the four to the five star category. Now they are now hoping to get a gastronomic rating for the restaurants.  From our perspective, Europa has already earned the highest of ratings.  Chef Joachim Felippe’s preparations were both inventive and delicious. Presentations were in keeping with the aesthetics of the place; service was friendly and fluid.  And to dine in the company of Tapies’s art was more than one could bargain for.

“The Villa Real is a special kind of place,” says Felix Garcia who started out in the hotel business as a teenage bell boy, went on to study law, and ended up working at the Villa Real in 1989. “All our employees begin their career in the industry with us so we can train them to adopt our style. To us, there are no VIPs. Everyone is treated the same. Everyone gets a gift from the management when they arrive. We deliver the newspaper of your choice to your room, the New York Times, the newspaper from Barcelona, Valencia, whatever you like. Our clientele is 30% Spanish, 50% American and the rest European and South American, but Americans are very important to us. This is the kind of hotel they like. It’s like a jewel.”

Hotel Villa Real
Plaza de las Cortes, 10
2801 4 Madrid, Spain

Phone: 34 91 420 37 67
Email: info@derbyhotels.es
Web: http://www.derbyhotels.es 

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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