The olives are brought to the table first, closely followed by Manchego cheese and potato croquettes, filled with bechamel sauce and ham. A plate of wafer-thin sliced “jamón iberico” comes next, sourced from acorn-fed pigs. A tower of grilled vegetables and sweet, lukewarm peppers completes the meal. But here, that’s just for starters. Now onto the main course... a tender lamb shank, salt-seasoned and cooked for hours. It is shortly after 3 pm and one of the oldest inns in Madrid’s city centre, la Posada de la Villa, slowly fills with guests.
“The Spanish siesta is a myth,” explains David Noack Perez, while the waiter brings dessert. What the director of Madrid's Convention Bureau means, is that Spaniards in the capital work at least as hard as employees in other capital cities.
But when the “Madrileños” aren't eating a quick sandwich at midday but are instead sitting down to a business lunch, then they take their time. A lot of time. “Food is very important to us, it’s part of our culture”, says Noack Perez. And this culture of relishing mealtimes has survived every crisis so far – including the most recent. The city’s inhabitants haven't ever stopped eating out, although perhaps more expensive options were avoided.
Millions spent on hotel renovations
But after years of decline and drastic measures for the Spaniards, the economy is beginning to recover. In the last two years, the high rate of unemployment fell below twenty percent, which is low for the country. The first signs of recovery emerged in Madrid, where large companies are once again investing millions into their hotels. “The change happened when the NH Collection Hotel on the Paseo del Prado was renovated,” explains Noack Perez. In 2014, it was the first five-star hotel to reopen following full renovation on the famed museum mile.
Since then, a great deal has been invested in the four and five-star hotel bracket. There is substantial demand. Finally, in a business sense, everything is coming together for the landlocked capital city. Three-quarters of the 2000 largest Spanish companies house their headquarters here and approximately another 2000 multinationals have representative offices. Currently, Madrid has 743 hotels boasting over 80,000 beds. And soon there will be even more.
The lack of free space means that in the old city centre, listed historic palaces, former banks and monasteries are to be converted into high-level hotels. An example of this is the Meliá Group, one of Spain’s largest hotel corporations, who have transformed an old hotel into the Gran Meliá Palacio de los Duques, at a cost of around 19 million Euro. To do so, a palace and the neighbouring cloisters were combined.
The Barceló Torre de Madrid is also new to the city and is housed in the Plaza de España in a building of archaeological interest dating from the 1950s. The only high-rise building in the city centre, the hotel will occupy the first nine floors and was transformed by the designer Jaime Hayo. Both hotels skilfully combine the respective historical peculiarities of the architecture with modern elements.
The Plaza de España is one of the few downtown locations where space remains for new hotel developments. In 2017, the Spanish chain VP Hoteles is also planning to open a hotel offering 214 rooms on this square.
In view of the desire of Spanish hoteliers to make these investments, international premium chains have also joined in the fray. Until recently, for such a metropolis with over three million inhabitants, they were somewhat under-represented. That is soon set to change. In the old town, in the vicinity of constantly teeming plaza Puerta de Sol, several blocks are currently undergoing renovation as part of the Canalejas project. Four Seasons is set to inaugurate a hotel here this year and virtually opposite, the competition, Starwood, has announced their presence with a W Hotel.
Furthermore, the somewhat dated classic Ritz on the Paseo del Prado is also due a facelift, and not before time. After its sale to Mandarin Oriental and the Saudi Arabian Olayan Group, the hotel is set to undergo a total renovation in 2017. With the ambition of returning to its former glory as the best hotel on the plaza, an investment of some eighty million euros is planned.
“Madrid is somewhat unknown”
The new hotels are competing not only for the favour of a rapidly growing tourist industry, but also for business travellers and congress attendees. This is where not only David Noack Perez, but the entire sector, always comes up against comparisons with Barcelona. The Catalan capital has been successfully marketing itself since the Olympic Games in 1992. So successfully, in fact, that the city of 1.6 million inhabitants was almost overrun by over thirty million visitors last year, of which a good half are day trippers and cruise travellers.
With nine million guests each year, Madrid doesn't yet have this problem. Quite the contrary. “We still need to work on getting Madrid recognised in the first place,” says Noack Perez. And Barceló Manager Maria Gudiel summarises it succinctly: “Madrid is a somewhat unknown city, given that it is the capital city of Spain.”
This is perhaps due to the fact that the metropolis is convincing enough in itself and doesn't try to cause a stir. At the end of the day, the country has been ruled from this city since the 16th century. Foreign visitors, Spaniards from every province and emissaries from all over the world – “Madrileños” have always been used to this melting pot, even though it is a long time since Spain was a colonial power. On the Plaza Mayor, the centre of the old town, bullfights once took place celebrated by King and people. Today the whole world still meets here, enjoying a refreshment in the numerous cafés, listening to open-air concerts or celebrating the football victories of Real Madrid or Atlético.
But even Spain’s capital cannot remain quietly in the past. The city has relied on its history for a long time. The Royal Palace, Prado and Velazquez – that sums it up. Yet if the financial crisis has resulted in something positive, then this is it. It did not only make its inhabitants suffer, but has also driven them forward – “Necessity is the mother of invention”. And that’s how the city centre has come to reinvent itself since the noughties. Affordable living costs and rent, combined with the fact that Spaniards are paid two years’ unemployment allowance in one go, has resulted in numerous small businesses.
New trendy neighbourhoods
Bars, cafés, ice cream shops, sandwich delis, designer shops and many mini breweries have sprung up. Small craft and speciality shops were founded. This is how Madrid has become a paradise for those happy to explore. This development is particularly noticeable north of the elegant avenue of Grand Vía, in an area which consisted of rather dismal residential districts 15 years ago. But now, the neighbourhoods of Malasaña and Chueca are hip hotspots.
While Malasaña is somewhat alternative, luring visitors in with inexpensive restaurants, old handicrafts and hip fashion, Chueca scores highly with tapas and chic designer venues. Chueca is above all the darling of the gay scene, but the best thing is that pubs, tapas bars, shops and pubs are open to all. No one is excluded. The residents of Madrid are liberal and tolerant. At all times of year, residents and visitors can be found ambling through avenues in the afternoons, with children and dogs playing in the plazas, and pavement cafés have tables and chairs set up outside. And everyone, absolutely everyone, can be found wandering the early evenings in the pedestrian Fuencarral.
Thanks to new hotels, up-and-coming districts and excellent infrastructure within the compact city centre – the metro connects the modern airport with the city in just half an hour – Madrid is successfully sliding into focus as a travel destination. As a result, the World ATM Congress, the most important flight management event, is taking place for the fifth time in Madrid this year, and 20,000 oncologists will be attending ESMO (European Congress of Medical Oncology). In the meantime, Madrid has deliberately begun to compete on the exhibition and trade fair market with Berlin, London, Paris and Vienna. David Noack Perez therefore no longer needs to say, “we’re one of the largest cities in Europe, but nobody knows it.”