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Getting the Royal Treatment
at the
Hotel Villa Magna of Madrid

It was late morning when our Air Europa plane landed at Madrid’s Barajas Airport and early afternoon when we checked into the Hotel Villa Magna.  By the time we unpacked and slept off the jet lag, night had fallen.  As it was not yet nine o’clock, the hour restaurants throughout Spain open for dinner, it seemed a good idea to go out for an evening stroll.  We took the little elevator down eight stories, stepped out into the lobby, and it was as if we had walked into a shower of light.

A Shower of Light - Photo by Harvey Frommer - Click to Enlarge
A Shower of Light - Photo by Harvey Frommer
Click to Enlarge

The madrono trees along the Paseo de la  Castellana were illuminated by hundreds of tiny electric bulbs for the holiday season, and from the glass walled entrance of the hotel they looked like a spray of golden stars against a jet-black sky. Within, great crystal chandeliers and Christmas trees swathed with metallic ribbons sparkled brightly, their light mirrored in the marbled halls. That was our glittering first impression of the Villa Magna, and its glow lasted the entire week of our stay.

The Villa Magna is the kind of place where a single perfect rose is placed before your bathroom mirror and a vase filled with gorgeous gladioli stands on the table beside your bed, where you return from an afternoon of shopping on Serrano Street or a visit to  one of Madrid’s magnificent museums to find a chilled bottle of champagne, a tray of traditional Spanish confections, a basket of apples waiting for you, where you never have to wait more than a moment for an elevator, where all manners of comfort are arranged silently, unobtrusively in an atmosphere of utter serenity.

“A room is a room,” says assistant manager Denys Courtier. “It can be blue, it can be green. But at the end of the day, it is the attention to the little details, the individual service that make the difference.”

Nine years ago the Villa Magna became part of the Park Hyatt chain, and one of the consequences of this affiliation has been the hotel’s increased concentration on service. “We pride ourselves on creating a warm and intimate atmosphere, on making people feel comfortable,” the Paris-born hotelier says.

It was the warm and intimate atmosphere that made us feel we were guests at a small boutique hotel rather than the 182-room property the Villa Magna is. “You’ll never see a crowd here, even if the hotel is fully booked,” Denys Courtier warned us, and indeed while the lobby is a series of large, luxurious expanses one leading into another, the actual reception area is rather modest in size and whenever we passed, it was uncrowded and uncluttered, free of the usual paraphernalia of people checking in and out.

Front Desk at the Villa Magna - Photo by Harvey Frommer - Click to Enlarge
Front Desk at the Villa Magna
Photo by Harvey Frommer
Click to Enlarge

You approach the front desk while the concierge is assisting a guest, and instantly someone emerges from the office in the rear to see to your needs. With a permanent staff of 200, which translates into a ratio of better than one staff member for every two guests, such a level of attention is possible. 

“The concierge, the receptionist know the guests; they greet them by name,” Denys adds. “All of us are oriented in this way. Our staff is made up of fantastic people, some of whom have been here since the hotel opened nearly thirty years ago.

Denys himself does not share that distinction.  He was working for a Park Hyatt property in Rabat, Morocco in 1996 when the opportunity to transfer to the only Park Hyatt in Madrid came up. “I decided to make the change,” he told us. “I knew I would love Madrid. The quality of life is so exceptional here, better than Paris. People know how to live. They take the time to go out with friends to restaurants and bars, to enjoy themselves.”  Engaging and personable, Denys Courtier has clearly picked up the joie de vivre that attracted him to this city, an infectious attitude that sets the tone of the five-star establishment he runs.

Photo by Harvey Frommer - Click to Enlarge
Denys Courtier, Beverage Manager
Photo by Harvey Frommer
Click to Enlarg

Around the time Denys came to the Villa Magna, Danish-born Peter Dramensfky transferred from the Park Hyatt he was working at in Hong Kong to become the Villa Magna’s  food and beverage manager.  When we met Peter, we were quick to thank him for his surprise afternoon deliveries. Nonchalantly, one of us let drop his fondness for Spanish olives.  The next day, like magic, a platter of briny green olives appeared in our room.

Denys Courtier and Peter Dramensfky represent a new generation of multi-lingual hotel executives who comfortably cross national boundaries with an easy-going, informal style that belies the expert managerial skills required to run first class properties. The stamp of these two young men is on the Villa Magna.  So is that of the hotel’s communications director who brings to the position a smart efficiency coupled with a distinctively feminine flair.

Marta Butragueno - Photo by Harvey Frommer - Click to Enlarge
Marta Butragueno
Photo by Harvey Frommer
Click to Enlarge

Tall, blonde and beautiful, Marta Butragueno strides through the lobbies of the Villa Magna in high-heeled camel-colored suede boots. Marta is also representative of a new generation, in her case of educated young women who have risen to levels of responsibility unimaginable even a decade ago in still-traditional Spain. When she was hired, the general manager told her: “You are the right person. You know Madrid. If you want the job, you can do it.” And Marta has. 

“I love working in a hotel and controlling every detail,” says the only woman in a position of power at the Villa Magna. 

“A hotel is like a small city. It has all the problems of a small city. As my family has been in Madrid for generations. I know the culture, and that is very important in terms of being able to get things done. If something is needed, I know whom to go to. I know how to deal with the Spanish press.”

In the three years since her arrival at the Villa Magna, Marta has had frequent need to deal with the press especially when guests are on the order of Madonna, Michael Douglas, Julio Iglesias,  and the new president of Mexico, Vincente Fox, for whom she arranged complex security details that included blocking off an entire floor. Sometimes if certain celebrity guests cause too much of a commotion, it is Marta who makes the difficult decisions. “When the Back Street Boys were here a while ago, their fans were everywhere,” she tells us. “They were shouting outside of the hotel. We had to get extra security to control them. Our guests did not like it, and neither did we. Today we would reject them.”

Marta also supervises the technological support system the Villa Magna makes available to its many, and mostly American, business guests. Internet access and e-mailing, secretarial assistance and translations are among the services she will arrange. “We are up to date in terms of technology and communications connections, moreso than any other hotel in Madrid,” Marta says, “and we have ten conference/banquet rooms that can be divided or combined for various purposes.”

But what about people like us, we wonder, who are neither heads of state nor CEO’s, neither rock nor movie stars, but simply tourists who have come to Madrid to see the sights of this graceful old capital?  Marta assures us of equal attention.

“As Madrid is becoming more and more interesting as a tourist destination, we are attracting more and more tourists.  We have even begun to offer attractive weekend getaways,” she tells us. “But they are not sold as packages where you go with a group and have to be at a certain destination a certain time. We do things on a personal, individual basis.  Our concierge will provide the information and arrange the visits, be they tickets to a football game or the opera, be they a day trip to Segovia or Toledo.”

And so we turned to one of the Villa Magna’s long-time concierges. “We want to see Flamenco,” we told Placido Jerez. “What’s available?” Placido efficiently consulted the week’s listings of events and described the various options in detail.  But little did we know, we were talking to a true Flamenco aficionado who could not help but reveal his personal preference for an actual dance performance in a theater as opposed to the tourist-oriented nightclub version.

That very night, our second-row center tickets were waiting for us at the front desk. And in a large and filled-to-capacity theater, we saw a full length, three act-Flamenco dance inspired by the story of Cinderella, starring and choreographed by the legendary Canellas, accompanied by live musicians who played a variety of traditional instruments, and a male and female singer who improvisationally sang the story as the dance unfolded. The largely Spanish audience responded with overwhelming enthusiasm. So did we, for although we could not understand the words of the narrative singing, the language of dance is universal. As we later told Placido, thanks to his forthright and heartfelt advice, we felt we had been allowed a glimpse into the Spanish soul.

Madrid’s three great art museums, what they call the “golden triangle,” also allow a glimpse into the Spanish soul.  Our second day in Madrid, a clear, brisk morning, we walked from the Villa Magna to the legendary Prado.  It took twenty minutes along the broad, tree-lined Paseo de la Castellana even with stopping to admire the grandiose Baroque fountain-filled plazas along the way.  A single day is hardly enough time to digest the Prado’s masterpieces of eleventh to nineteenth century European art, in particular the great range of paintings by the Spanish giants: Goya, Velazquez, El Greco, and Murillo.  But there is also the Thyssen Bornemisza virtually across the street from the Prado.  This most recent of Madrid’s museums takes you on a time journey of western art from the 14th through the 20th century.  And then there is the Reina Sofia museum of contemporary art, a ten minute walk from the Prado, with its incomparable collection of works by Picasso, Miro and Dali including the world renowned “Guernica” which Picasso created during the Spanish Civil War.

With the Villa Magna so convenient to this trio of museums, which together contain the most complete collection of Spanish paintings and one of the greatest collections of western art in the world, we returned to each museum several times during our one week stay. When the weather was inclement, we took a taxi for less than four dollars. Once we picked up the #20 bus at the Plaza de la Cibeles with its fantastic sculpture of the goddess seated in a lion-drawn chariot amidst the spray of multiple fountains. It let us off right in front of the hotel and cost each of us about seventy cents. If Marta was right about the Villa Magna’s level of concierge service, she was equally correct in touting the hotel’s location. 

Beyond its proximity to museums, the Villa Magna is a walking distance from the Parque del Retro, with its 17th century palaces, beautiful gardens and lagoons, the national library, the architectural museum – and, lest we forget, the city’s most elegant shopping district. Early in our stay, Marta showed us the graceful courtyard in the rear of the hotel. “In warm weather, this patio is filled with flowers, and we have tables set up for dining.  You know how the Spaniards love the sun,” she said. “We are trying to get this entire area enclosed so it can be used all year round.”  Then she pointed to the opposite end of the courtyard. “And here, right at our doorstep, is Il Cortes Ingles.” 

A popular department store, Il Cortes Ingles has branches all over Madrid, but the one directly behind the Villa Magna is more of a high fashion emporium as befits its location. With the favorable exchange rate in mind, we soon returned ready for some serious shopping.

The front entrance of Il Cortes Ingles faces Serrano Street, the Madison Avenue of Madrid with its array of exclusive shops.  Directly across is the only Llardro center in Spain, aside from the factory in Valencia. More like a museum than a retail outlet, it not only showcases the familiar porcelain figures of women, flora and fauna, but enormous sculptures as well, some of subjects as unlikely as Sumo wrestlers. Next door is Suarez, the jeweler to the royal family of Spain.  On the corner is the elegant shoe shop where Marta purchased her boots.  And a few blocks down is the Peta Nieto boutique, a line of women’s clothes by a Spanish designer whose minimalist space is like something out of SoHo.

Serrano Street and its surrounding byways make up Salamanca, a neighborhood built for the nobility in the 1860’s.  Back then, the streets were lined with palaces whose entrances were wide enough to accommodate horse-drawn carriages. A century later, when descendents of these noble families were left with what had become unmanageable properties, they sold them to banks and insurance companies who had them torn down and replaced with modern buildings. But enough of the old beaux arts palaces with their ornate detail and wrought iron balconies remain to provide a glimpse into an earlier day. Carved up into commercial spaces and apartments, their grand entrances still lead into courtyards, only the horses and carriages have given way to pretty gardens surrounded by little cafes and exquisite shops. Occasionally an elevator-for-two fitted with a pair of red velvet seats can be spotted, a remnant from a building’s previous life.

With all the sights and shops so close at hand, it is easy to become a very lazy tourist while staying at the Villa Magna. To dine, one need not ever leave the hotel.  The Champagne Bar serves continental breakfast, light lunch, afternoon tea and cocktails in the creamy marble lobby either at café-style tables or on coffee tables surrounded by comfortable sofas and arm chairs.

Tse Yang, the gourmet Cantonese restaurant with branches in a number of European cities and Manhattan, is open for lunch and dinner. Located off the courtyard, its dark, cool interior focuses on a huge aquarium with an array of radiant tropical fish. Lalique-type glass panels etched with images of flowers and animals separate dining booths. A vase on each table filled with small rocks, water, and a spouted oil lamp emitting a constant flame symbolizes  the basic elements: earth, water, and fire. Decorated in shades of aqua and plum, Tse Yang   is a study in Zen-like tranquility.

The maitre d’, Miguel Angel Garcia who comes from Toulon, France and capably guided our delicious dining selections, told us Chinese restaurants are becoming the fashion in Madrid, and Tse Yang is the most elegant and sophisticated of them all. King Juan Carlos and Queen Sophia, the popular Spanish regents, dine there regularly -- unfortunately, however, not the night that we were there.

The main dining attraction at the Villa Magna, however, is Le Divellec, the Mediterranean seafood  restaurant named for its creator, the two Michelin star French chef, Jacques Le Divellec. It is a handsome woody place with French doors opening onto  a dining terrace. The look is traditional, even club-like but for the contemporary carpeting: black, gold and coral spirals on a taupe background, the chairs upholstered in teal blue, and the striking abstract paintings that hang on the dark paneled walls. 

Here is where Marta’s ‘feminine flair’ has come into play. “Previously the restaurant focused on a male clientele,” she told us. “Everything was dark including the diners, always in their dark suits. I have changed the carpets, put in new lighting, new chairs, tried to brighten things up.”

The paintings are Marta’s idea too.  “I have a relationship with an art gallery here in Madrid who furnishes us with works by Spanish artists,” she adds. “We change them every season. Sometimes our guests are interesting in purchasing one of them, and in that case we provide information about the artist and the name of the gallery. Right now, we have some work by Agus Puig who died only last year and is very much admired.  There is an exhibition of his paintings in Barcelona at this time.”

For us, dining at Le Divellec enhanced the glow that surrounded our entire stay at the Villa Magna.  Seated at a window table overlooking the brightly lit Paseo de la Castellana, we began with a glass of champagne and a dish of, you guessed it, green olives.  Then a basket of crusty rustic bread appeared along with a cruet of Spanish olive oil flavored with a bay leaf, red chili pepper and sprig of dill.

At this point, the Madrid born and raised maitre d’, Juan Jose Castro, stopped by our table. Young and enthusiastic, he has been at Le Divellec for a year and a half. “I love my job, I love the restaurant,” he told us. “It is a very atypical place because while all restaurants in Madrid serve fish, there are not many seafood restaurants.  So we are very special.

“Fish is more expensive,” he added by way of explanation. “It can’t be stored, and it is more difficult to cook. And Madrid is in the middle of the country so we have to get our fish from elsewhere -- the lobster and oysters, hake and turbot from the north, and our red mullet, sea bass and tuna from the south. But the Spanish people love fish, and now with the threat of the mad cow disease, I think more attention will be given to seafood.”

As big-time seafood fans, we were happily in our element. With Juan’s advice, we decided on our main courses and bided our time with land-based, but nevertheless delicious appetizers: a terrain of foie gras crusted with sesame seeds and flavored with dill, and eggplant baked with cheese and tomato, served on a giant taco and surrounded by black olives. Next the soup lover among us was treated to a rich brown broth with scallops and shrimps, while his partner indulged in a salad of crisp red and bibb lettuce dressed with aliole, the garlic-flavored mayonnaise from Valencia.

Juan Castro, Matre d' Le Divellee - Photo by Harvey Frommer - Click to Enlargees)
Juan Castro, Matre d' Le Divellee
Photo by Harvey Frommer
Click to Enlarge

We left the wine selection to Juan Castro who doubles as sommelier where he indulges his passion for Spanish wines. Juan was not surprised when we told him how their popularity in the United States has increased since we first began buying them after our initial visit to Spain in 1993.  “The same quality of Spanish wine compared to French is half the price or maybe less,” he said. “Five years ago Spain produced few white wines, but now there are many excellent ones.” He served what he considers the best white wine in Spain at the moment: Bodega Julian Chivite ‘98, a Chardonnay from Navarre, the province adjacent to Rioja famous for the Spanish reds. Dry and pure with a woodsy flavor, it was superb.

As were our main courses: turbot grilled with mushrooms and wine served on a square white plate, and red mullet on a bed of shredded fried sweet onions with a touch of lime and caraway seeds served on a round white plate with blue trim. Hardly your typical oyster bar. 

Desserts were suitably sinful: a chocolate cup filled with currants, sherbet in the shape of a cupcake, a foamy coconut mousse filled with mango and strawberries, and a lemon mousse in a bittersweet chocolate shell. And the traditional conclusion to a Spanish dinner: the platter of irresistible miniature chocolates, marzipans, and halvahs.

Service at Le Divellec was in line with everything else we experienced at the Villa Magna. Dishes, flatware, glasses appeared and were removed smoothly, silently. Our waiter, Alexander Santosemer, was well informed and courteous, unobtrusive yet at our table at the moment he was needed.

When we first arrived at the Villa Magna, Marta had taken us on a tour of the hotel, from the health club facilities and the ballroom below the ground floor to the conference rooms on the ninth floor overlooking the rooftops of Madrid.  She told us that the Villa Magna actually began life in 1972 as a private hotel for titled people. The beautiful centuries’ old palace on the property was destroyed and in its place, a typical example of 1970’s modernism arose. Huge apartments were created for the counts and countesses, some came to visit, others were permanent residents. After about seven years, the Villa Magna was sold to an English holding company who turned it into an 182-room hotel that was open to the public.  Later it became part of the Bass group.  Then the Park Hyatt chain took over the hotel and refurbished it entirely.

The only physical remnant of  the Villa Magna’s palatial past is an elaborate circular stairway that begins at the base of the hotel.  Yet for an entire week, whether relaxing in our luxurious suite, dining at the incomparable Le Divellec, using the state of the art health club facilities, having coffee in the Champagne Bar, even being driven from and to the airport in the hotel’s limo, we were treated like royalty.  Being a guest at the Villa Magna was like being a guest at one of those proverbial “castles in Spain.” Maybe better.

Hotel Villa Magna

182 rooms including 8 junior, 8 executive, and 2 presidential suites underground 350-space secured parking with direct access to hotel

Address: 

Paseo de la Castellana 22
28046 Madrid, Spain

Phone: (34) 915-871-234
Fax: (34) 915-871-243
Web: http://madrid.hyatt.com
Email: hotel@villamagna.es

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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