A hotel, like a book, should not be judged by its cover. Especially not the Villa Magna in Madrid, a five-star grand luxe hotel that does an excellent job of concealing its many charms behind a bland façade. Perhaps the politest thing to say about its pink marble exterior is that it captures the joylessness of Franco's Spain, circa 1973.
But just as Spain has experienced a renaissance since those dark days, so too has the Villa Magna. In January it emerged from an 18-month, $86-million makeover to claim the mantle of Madrid's most contemporary - and most expensive - accommodation. In July it received the ultimate celebrity endorsement when Madonna, in town to perform as part of her Sticky & Sweet world tour, chose to sleep here over any of the city's breathtaking Art Nouveau hotels. Penélope Cruz and Leo DiCaprio joined her post-concert for a nightcap in her ninth floor Real Suite, Spain's most expensive hotel room at $26,000 a night (butler and Maserati inclusive).
Set in upscale Salamanca on the grand Paseo de la Castellana boulevard, midway between the city's corporate heart and its retail soul (Giorgio, Louis et al are a mere handbag's toss from the foyer), Villa Magna's location is ideal for work or play or exploring the city's blockbuster art galleries and museums. The Prado, Reina Sofia and Thyssen-Bornemisza are a stroll or short taxi ride away.
Its 150 rooms include 50 suites, the highest ratio in the capital, decorated in an appealing classic-meets-modern style by local architect Thomas Urquijo. His bespoke drapes, carpets and fabrics and hand-picked art lend a distinct, individual character to the rooms. The hard furnishings are a studied blend of Louis XVI, Chinese and Portuguese inspired screens and rosewood consoles complemented by the latest technology - WiFi, DVD, CD, iPod docks and striking "magic mirror" televisions. These vast flat-screen TVs are so cunningly disguised as wall mirrors that Villa Magna's reception desk frequently fields calls from bewildered guests wondering where to point the remote.
The beds are, in a word, superb, while the grey marble bathrooms feature rain-showers that feel more like monsoons, and luscious toiletries custom-made by French perfume house Blaise Mautin.
The public areas include a lobby café and terrace where Madrileño magnates like to wheel and deal, the casual but hip Magnum bar, and a basement spa and salon where hairdresser Carlos has been styling the city's elite since the hotel opened in 1973. He has become so indispensable to the beauty regimens of Salamanca senõras that when the hotel closed for renovations he had to be relocated up the road to the Intercontinental.
There is a Cantonese fine diner, Tse Yang, favoured by the Spanish royal family, but the real draw is the hotel's eponymous flagship restaurant where 32-year-old Michelin-starred Basque chef Eneko Atxa experiments with "olfactory sensations" as well as exquisite tastes. His amuse-bouche of jellied ham, potato foam and spring flowers was the best start to a meal I've had in ages. Despite its technical wizardry, honed in Atxa's Basque laboratory, it amused my bouche immensely and had me fawning over the rest of his "Evolution" dégustation menu. Highlights included the deliciously pretty and poetic squab on a cherry branch, and roast lobster caged in a glass cloche with smoked tea and a "hash of refreshing herbs" that had a nose suspiciously like marijuana. But appearances can be deceiving, as Villa Magna knows well.