If it is possible to fall in love with a boutique hotel before even crossing its threshold, then we do. The moment happens when a elegantly dressed middle-aged woman with the kindest face we've ever seen comes across the pavement towards my boyfriend and I, two bedraggled creatures staring quizzically up at an 18th-century apartment building across the road from Madrid’s Royal Opera House, getting wetter and wetter as an unexpected August downpour gains momentum, and says: ‘Are you Francesca?’ ‘Yes! Yes I am!’ I bellow a little too wildly, totally disregarding the fact that a complete stranger in a foreign city street appears to know my name.
‘Welcome! My name is Charo. I’m so sorry, the hotel is very hard to find. But yes, you’re in the right place. Follow me.’ With that, she leads us into the building through huge ornate wooden doors. I scan the bells on the way in and notice the only indication that our hotel is housed within is a postage stamp-sized plaque with 'Casa de Madrid' engraved on it next to the second-floor button. We ascend in a miniature lift, arriving on a tiny landing at the hotel’s oak front door.
‘I was wondering what had happened to you,’ says Charo, peering at us over her spectacles. (Our flight had been delayed by three hours.) ‘I’m here on my own this afternoon and have just returned from an errand. Your timing was perfect.’
We first heard about the seven-bedroom Casa de Madrid from friends whose taste I trust implicitly. ‘Great location, fabulous ambience: you’ll love it’. I had been too busy in the run-up to the trip to investigate further, which means that stepping into the shadowy, candle-lit hall provides a truly delightful surprise.
The hotel is a monument to unusual, elegant antiques, and every surface, whether flat (tabletops, shelves, wardrobe tops) or not so flat (clonky Victorian radiators across which Persian rugs have been thrown) is a platform for a Roman marble bust, an Asian porcelain vase or a great broken section of a stone frieze. The shady reception area looks like the study of an aristocratic academic – a huge ancient oak desk is framed by bookshelves heaving with literary tomes, including various works of local hero Cervantes in numerous languages. ‘Help yourself,’ says Charo, seeing me eye them hungrily.
‘I imagine you’ll want a glass of wine after your journey,’ continues our new mind-reading friend, leading us into a beautiful drawing room whose hand-painted walls depicting rural idylls in muted colours make us feel as though we’ve walked into a beautifully illustrated children’s fairy tale. There’s a huge day-bed, an antique piano, and Leonard Cohen emanating softly from a sound system in the corner. Charo gestures towards an elegant drinks trolley teetering with bottles of spirits and wines, bidding us to help ourselves (early-evening drinks are complimentary) before disappearing down the corridor.
That this feels disarmingly like the home of a fairy-tale grand aunt is less surprising when you learn that, as well as hotel, it is also the home of owner Doña Marta Medina, an aristocratic antiques dealer from Seville. She travels a lot, and when not scouring the planet for beautiful things, she lives here, in her own suite. When she bought it six years ago, the apartment had been empty for a long time and was in need of some serious attention. Two years ago, after four years of restoration and decoration, she opened it as an intimate hotel. Original ornate plasterwork, parquet and black and white tiled floors have been retained. Most bedrooms are off corridors lined with side tables covered by Indian blankets.
Each room is a whimsical take on a different culture, from Greece to Syria. Ours, the Indian Room, was once a small ballroom, and has two sets of French windows, which open out onto tiny balconies overlooking the Opera House. A huge bed dressed in a pretty cream bedspread takes centre stage. There’s a writing desk in one corner, with a giant coffee-table book on the Taj Mahal open to a page depicting the geometric motifs that adorn the walls of the room, hand-painted in black and terracotta. The room is designed to maximise comfort and tranquility. An ancient but surprisingly comfortable love seat, and a couple of pretty 19th-century armchairs have been upholstered in classic-contemporary fabrics. There’s a CD player with a stack of albums (including one of flamenco guitar), great candles dripping with wax, and incense burning by the bed. Breakfast (delicious fresh croissants and home-made jams, or traditional cooked fare) is served in the drawing room or on trays in-room. (We choose to break the fast in our room on the first day, and in the drawing room on the second day.)
The hotel could not be better located. While most of the major sites of Madrid are easily accessible by foot anyway, our boutique hotel is less than five minutes from the spectacular Royal Palace and just ten from the famous Plaza Major. During the day, we lunch at tapas bars we find en route and, at night, follow recommendations by Charo. On the first night we head to Casa Julian de Tolosa, an elegant, grown-up affair with white linen tablecloths. We are major steak fans, and we conclude that the chuleton T-bone steak for two is the best we’ve ever had. We also love the waitress who, seeing us trying very hard to speak Spanish, takes the time to ask us which language we would prefer and, when we tell her, guides us through the menu in patient, clear Spanish.
On the second evening, we head to El Botin. While we initially dismiss this restaurant as a tourist trap, it has been repeatedly recommended by so many people that we decided to risk it. Though not for vegetarians, it does the most spectacular variations on suckling pig and its old-school interior is a delight. ‘Doña Marta Medina wants people to feel they are coming home at the end of the day,’ Charo has told us. Indeed, letting ourselves into the apartment with our personal set of keys that night, we feel obediently, contentedly like we are coming home.