The sounds of John Coltrane waft through the still sleepy Plaza Santa Ana as a grizzled jazz musician performs his own morning soundtrack. Waiters wash last night’s festivities into the gutters, pausing for a cigarette and a friendly wave as we arrive. The Hotel ME Madrid, a fantastical white eight-storey marvel, rises from the square, framing the centrally located plaza in its cool white gaze. Jetlagged from the transatlantic journey, Mrs Smith skips up the stairs holding my hand, through the rush of the spinning door, into the breezy lounge. Our vacation has officially begun.
‘Welcome to the ME Madrid,’ says the olive-skinned receptionist, resplendent in a white flowing dress. ‘Let’s get you right up to your room,’ she says with a mischievous smile. A few steps through the Eames-inspired lobby and we’re in the intimate elevators, heading to the first floor room overlooking the Plaza Santa Ana. The floor-to-ceiling windows open wide to the plaza. A soft wind billows against the gauzy curtains, hinting at a naughty sense of privacy when the thick blackout drapes aren’t pulled. There are six lighting options for the room, including one that’s just called ‘sexy’. The bathroom mirror is etched, ‘Oh, You Pretty Things’ channeling David Bower, circa 1972. We collapse into the bed, eyeing the purple martini bar and soundsystem.
The hotel stands at the precipice of the sights and sounds of Madrid. A short walk down to the Calle del Prado leads to one of the five great museums of the world, sparkling with the works of Velazquez, El Greco, Goya, Bosch, Dali, and Rubens. A short walk in another direction and you’re in Chueca, the backdrop of Pedro Almodovar’s films, a cousin to San Francisco’s Castro District, full of tapas, boutiques and gay culture. Turn another direction and you’re at the Mercado San Miguel, a collective marketplace where individual proprietors peddle their wines and tapas.
Mornings start slowly in Madrid. Most cities are bustling by six or seven, but at eight only the street sweepers and keg merchants are moving. Mercifully the ME’s breakfast stays open until 11am, and most of the guests seem to partake of it on the later end. To talk about any one culinary experience in Madrid is like choosing a favourite child; you might have one but you’d never say it out loud. Nonetheless, the morning breakfast at ME Madrid, a 30-foot-long table of delights beginning with champagne and ending in the perfect egg, would be in anyone’s contention for a favoured son. We give our room number and a carafe of freshly squeezed Spanish orange juice and the perfect cortado arrives. The cortado – a small shot of espresso and warm, rich milk – quickly prepares you for the mind-numbing morning questions that the breakfast provides. Which of the three salts should I choose, pink, blue or white? What is blue salt anyway? With which of the seven oils should I dress the little green salad I make for myself? How can so many different cuts of meat come from a pig? How do Spanish people stay so thin? Which of the 12 types of bread shall I choose to go with the five types of cheese? It is the fresh and tangy burgos cheese for us. Showing a bit of restraint is a challenge; but this is Madrid, and there is always another meal waiting.
And then we are off on our day, walking through the cobblestone streets, from the Sofia Reina museum to see Picasso’s Guernica to the rush of humanity in Puerto del Sol, where street magicians dress as aliens and prance for children as protestors demand higher wages for public service workers. This is Madrid, a city that drips with love, where people look you in the eye as you pass, where the economic predominance of the past is distilled into a tranquil quality of life for today, and there is always another bar, another museum, another corner.
Finally, we retreat to the ME Madrid and indulge in a massage at the Spa Metropolitan in the adjacent Plaza del Angel. We walk past pilates-toned locals, peddling off last night’s patatas bravas. We descend a flight of stairs to a candlelit room. We take a brief respite before our final evening begins.
Locals point us to the private elevator on Plaza Santa Ana that leads to the roof-lounge at the ME. We’re there early, so it’s empty, and we curl up outside on a downy white sofa. Mrs Smith has her Tinto de Verano – red wine with a little bit of soda and fruit – and I drink a Cruzcampos beer and stare out at the city before us. The conversations grow louder; joyful men in skinny jeans and long-haired brunettes in wedge heels begin to fill the roof and the beats start to get louder. The moon rises through the roof’s columns. For centuries others have enjoyed this view of Madrid, and we smile softly at each other, feeling like the luckiest people in the world.