This is only the first month of my jaunt around the world’s top hotels, but already the snob in me is champing at the bit: god help whoever features in the final furlong of this journey if my gold-leaf pillow isn’t hand-sewn by fairies.
Staying in different hotels, in such close succession, it’s easy to compare and contrast from the moment my judgmental foot’s in the door. Sometimes even sooner. I’ve clutched my pearls on more than one occasion at the smallest details: own-brand toothpaste; crumbly grouting; manual curtains. But on the plus side, the best bits jump out too – like the lift in the Urso Hotel and Spa in Madrid. But I’ll come back to that in a moment.
Amid the InterContinentals, Melias and Sheratons, five-star boutique boltholes are a rarity in Madrid, so the Urso’s neoclassical cream and black façade looming up on the border of the Chueca district, looking like The Grand Budapest’s little sister, is pretty exciting. And on cue, Zero’s bellboy cousins appear in high-necked jackets to open the wrought-iron door. But that’s where 1915 ends and 2015 begins.
Architect and interior designer Antonio Obrador has kept the historical shell of this old palace, and brought the interiors up to modern day: cool wooden floors; high-backed cushioned armchairs; tweed headboards. Open-plan, and held up by three ceiling-height bookshelves fitted with lights in every shelf, the ground floor is so bright and breezy it feels much like the windows are thrown open all day.
Each set of bookshelves is painted with Japanese-style vines hung with birdcages and dotted with pink flowers that curl up the walls, adding to the sense of space and air – a welcome relief from the steam and dust of Madrid.
The centrepiece is the breakfast area, up a set of glass stairs that trigger a distinct sense of vertigo on the descent, fitted with a glass roof and grass patches. The cream walls are again painted with vines and flowers that force even the most miserable to start the day with a sense of wellbeing.
But what about that lift? I am not ashamed to admit that I spent as often as possible playing in that lift. Hauling back the grill with a satisfying clang, I pushed open the wooden doors and took a seat on the velvet chair, watching the cords and mechanics roll away as I rose through two (yes, just the two) floors and arrived with a jolt.
The lift is one part of the palace that remains intact and is not for the faint-hearted, who were often to be seen eyeing the old beauty with suspicion before opting for the new lifts around the corner. A grand shame, as it was the highlight of my day.
There’s not much to say about the bedroom. It had a nice bed and I slept well. But I do have to tell you about Jorge. Side-parting, glasses and tiny bow tie flopping at the edges, Jorge had more genuinely useful information than any concierge I’ve ever come across.
I hovered around waiting for him to start his shift just so I could drain him of insights on the best cervejaria for croquetas, the best bar for ibérico de bellota and how to secure tickets for a last-minute bullfight at Las Ventas. My inner snob may be able to home in on the bad bits, but it also singles out the good, and Jorge is that rare member of staff who can make or break a hotel stay. Jorge alone would make me go back to Urso.