Art manager

Australian general manager reopens iconic 120-year-old Spanish hotel after huge refurbishment

Even in a city as historic as Madrid, it’s not common to be over 120 and still be considered a junior partner. Then again, few properties beyond the Mandarin Oriental Ritz Madrid have the mighty Prado Museum as a neighbor. Founded in 1819, the museum predates the hotel by 90 years, but today their relationship is symbiotic. They’ve grown close enough in their century-plus partnership that it’s hard not to wonder if the grand museum missed out on the swanky hotel when it was closed for an extended renovation.

Work began in 2018, three years after Mandarin Oriental officially took this doyen of glamorous tourism under its wing. The physical changes were necessarily profound and subtle – it had to be a clear relaunch under new ownership, without ruining over 100 years of hard-earned loyalty around Madrid and beyond.

“The company was very respectful of the hotel’s DNA, its essence and its link with the local community,” explains Inma Casado, who has been at the hotel for 15 years, long before the takeover. “It was an upgrade in terms of service – we had training in everything from language, including non-verbal communication, to service. wasn’t prepared for Madrid these days.”

One of the management’s objectives was to obtain a Michelin star for the renovated restaurant Deesa. When the legendary guide immediately awarded one of their cherished stars, management was as relieved as expected. Although it’s their upscale dining option, El Jardin has long attracted more laid-back guests — the Ritz is a grand, old hotel, but those behind the scenes are keen to keep it from becoming not a fully-fledged museum.

“You come here around six in the evening, you’ll see Madrid life, alive and breathing, here in the lobby – it’s fabulous for someone coming from abroad,” says general manager Greg Liddell. “You see Madrid here, and we are very focused on that.”

Or see it if you wish. Presumably, many of the names on the hotel’s August guest list chose privacy and seclusion, rather than mingling in the lobby with hoi polloi. Thatcher, Castro and Mandela probably didn’t talk to hunters when they visited. It’s perhaps easier to imagine Welles, Sinatra or Dali supporting the bar at their various times at the Ritz.

Sydney-born Liddell arrived in Madrid in August 2020 as the winds of COVID-19 still howled through the streets of the Spanish capital. About eight months later, he was able to reopen the hotel, perhaps the most famous in the country, after its biggest renovation ever. It must have been terrifying.

“I guess it was a little intimidating,” says the Australian. “But we had the advantage of making sure we could open without an immediate rush because of the pandemic.”

The renovation wasn’t sloppy, but it wasn’t smooth either. There were complications with materials and craftsmen skilled enough to do the complicated work, even before the pandemic hit, but the nadir came in September 2018 when part of the grand hotel collapsed, killing a worker and injuring 11 others. Even with the firm hand of the Mandarin Oriental Group company on its shoulder, the former hotel’s revival was proving to be troubled.

And yet, for a luxury hotel that has always welcomed elite travelers, the Ritz Madrid has a surprisingly storied history. During the Spanish Civil War, the Palm Court lobby restaurant — now resplendent in white with artwork adorning the walls and a judicious amount of gilding throughout — was a field hospital. As high-end customers ordered room service above, blood spattered the white marble below. Somehow this hotel has always been in the center of Madrid.

Today, the hotel presents rather an unreality, remote not only from the horrors of war, but from almost everything else. From the new glass roof above the lobby, which took a year to build, to the exceptional portraits of Spanish artists in the Pictura bar, there is a sense of immaculateness and a sense that this property will count for a long time to come.

THE DETAILS

STAY

Double rooms at the Mandarin Oriental Ritz Madrid start from $985 bed and breakfast. See mandarinoriental.com

FLY

Gulf carriers Emirates, Etihad and Qatar all fly to Madrid through their respective hubs from Melbourne and Sydney. emirates.com etihad.com qatarairways.com

AFTER

traveller.com.au/spain

Jamie Lafferty was a guest at the Mandarin Oriental Ritz Madrid.