Javier was keen to show us around. Neatly tailored in black, goofy in a good-looking way and ‘with a touch of the Nicolas Cages about him’ according to Mrs Smith, he whisks us about the building. Like first-time buyers we trail in his wake, across smooth granite and dark floorboards, admiring the library, smoking room and courtyard patio. Eventually he opens the door to our room. It is celestial white, spacious and serene, the daylight luminous behind negligée drapes. A stage-set screen conceals twin marble basins and the elegant scoop of a bath. Outside are sun-dappled trees and the grand arches of the historic Puerta de Alcalá, upon which burly cherubim affect indifference to the cars below. I glance at Mrs Smith, and she nods: we’ll take it.
Javier’s smile droops for a moment. ‘You may,’ he says, choosing his words carefully, ‘hear a little noise tonight…’
‘You see, Real Madrid are playing this evening, and if they win the championship the whole city will be on the streets.’
In the event, we decide to join the hordes, in spirit at least, and even the nocturnal honk of roaming vehicles much later on doesn’t disturb our sleep, cosseted as we are by numerous cocktails and a bed not that much smaller than a football pitch. Our evening starts with vodka and tonics in the cool Hospes Puerta de Alcalá courtyard, where golden lions spout water into a stone trough and the cry of tropical birds erupts from a hidden speaker. We join in, making wah-wah chimpanzee noises before heading out into the evening. Mrs Smith once lived in Madrid, and is impatient to see how her old haunts have survived; we graze Hemingway-style on jamon and manchego in tiled bars and pavement cafes, and end up at the Penthouse, an open-air bar high above Plaza de Santa Ana with a floodlit minaret that acts as a beacon against the night sky. Clutching our black mojitos, we gaze down at the crowded square below. We’re home by 3am – early by Madrileño standards, but we don’t want to entirely miss out on the morning.
I had neglected to tell Mrs Smith, but the next day I was hoping to see the Madrid of early Pedro Almodóvar films: that shady demi-mondaine populated by wayward nuns, impassioned mothers, mascara-smeared queens and other flamboyant characters – voluptuous, raven-haired women a little like Penelope Cruz, for instance, although I wasn’t fussy. Instead, after breakfast, we go for a bicycle ride in the park.
Spain is, I’ve noticed, one of the few places where it’s socially acceptable to drink beer for breakfast, even for those without a park bench to call their own. A little cana or two with your bocadillo is, I think, a most civilised way to start the day. At Hospes Puerta de Alcalá, though, I stick to fresh coffee, and gather an eccentric plateful of cheese, chocolate pastries and smoked salmon from the breakfast buffet – I’ll save the scrambled eggs and pan con tomate for tomorrow. We pick up our bikes – sturdy upright steeds with baskets and helmets – from outside the lobby and push off. Across the road is the Retiro park, which makes staying at the Hospes the equivalent of staying in Knightsbridge or Manhattan’s Upper West Side. It is, Mrs Smith decides as we pedal past coiffured old ladies on benches and babies in prams, a very Mary Poppins sort of park. A fortune teller sets up stall at one entrance; in the distance an accordion player wheezes away. All that’s missing are a man selling balloons and a boy with a wooden hoop. We could ride down to the Prado or Reina Sofia galleries, which aren’t far; but we haven’t had sun on our skins like this for months, so we skim past fountains and through wooded copses, branching off diagonally along clipped hedges and ornamental borders.
Back at the Hospes Puerta de Alcalá, we catch our breath in the library. It has the right sort of library-ish gravitas, with liquorice-black chesterfields and wood-lined panels, as well as modern touches in the art and the tall, bowl-headed floorlights, which peer over as if curious to see what you’re reading. This 19th-century townhouse has kept its best original features, such as the ornate iron balconies and staircase; the rest is pure black and white simplicity, broken by firework bursts of fresh flowers, silver-grey Louis XV furniture, and chandeliers glowing inside metallic lampshades.
We have massages booked in the spa, but first we relax in the warm, subterranean pool, which is too small for swimming but great for bobbing. It has two special buttons: one for the Jacuzzi and another that, if you time it right, will send a sheet of water cascading over your unsuspecting partner’s head. After I get duly soaked in return we cloak ourselves in towels and head for our treatment and then a late lunch upstairs; the gourmet restaurant was closed last night, a Sunday, and we want to treat ourselves. We’re led into part of the building we’d missed before, tucked behind the courtyard (Hospes Puerta de Alcalá is small but holds its secrets well) and suddenly the spell is broken: we no longer have the hotel to ourselves – here are attentive waiters, and other people dining. Over tender slices of sea bass and veal we plan our evening: a flamenco concert at Casa Patas, then maybe jazz at Café Central.
That’s what we like about this hotel, it provides you with an immaculate thinking space. No one comes to Madrid to lie around a hotel all day – there are so many distractions – but the Hospes Puerta de Alcalá is so peaceful and calm we had to pinch ourselves that there was a big, loud city out there. We didn’t feel we were missing out by whiling away an hour in the courtyard, or sprawled on the chaise longue in our room. And even several thousand Real Madrid fans couldn’t shift us.