Madrid: The Palace and The Ritz
In 1910, king Alphonse XIII wanted Madrid to have a high standards hotel to fairly represent the city and its growth, and hence the Ritz Hotel was built. Almost immediately, George Marquet, owner of the Palace chain of hotels, tried to establish his business in the city by means of acquiring the Ritz, but the owners refused the offer and Mr Marquet decided to build his own hotel, the Palace, which was completed in 1912.
Since then, both hotels sit one in front of the other, like chess players or gladiators, around Neptune Square, so called after the statue of the Roman god of the seas, who plays referee between the two, ensuring both obtain the same amount of limelight, the Ritz just by the Goya door to Prado Museum, and the Palace a few doors down from the Congress building.
Since the day they exist, these two hotels have been rivals, never really calling each other out in a duel for fame and fortune, but rather letting their hospitality ways, dress code and approach to fame demonstrate their different personalities –all in the exclusive taste and impeccable environment of luxury and, sometimes, decadence.
Two or three historic facts about the Palace
The Palace was the first structure to be fully built with reinforced concrete in Madrid. Upon its grand opening, it immediately went to the top of the list of the most exclusive hotels in Europe, such as the Ritz in Paris or the Savoy in London. Its great innovation for its time was to provide private bathroom and telephone in every single room in the hotel. Its advertisement at the time read: "800 rooms, 800 bathrooms".
It served as hospital during the civil war, and its glass dome over the central ballroom permitted doctors to operate even when the bombs had destroyed the power supply infrastructures. Those years, it also served as Soviet Embassy.
Being as close as it is to the Congress, the Palace became the communications center for all papers and TV stations during the attempted coup d'état on February 23 1981. During the dramatic hours between mid afternoon to midnight that day, it also housed democratic Government officials and the military brass that were desperately trying to get some control on the situation.
The last great reform of the hotel to bring it up to standards was in 1997.
One or two historic facts about the Ritz
Cesar Ritz, the Swiss creator of the most famous chain of hotels in the world, took the daring initiative to create the Ritz brand of lodging to host luxury travelers, icons of society, be it royalty or rich entrepreneurs, with the premise that these people also traveled and needed accommodation, too. One of his big innovations was to have a bathroom for every three rooms – which we already know the Palace overdid.
Among many curious anecdotes related to Ritz, we find that the establishment imported the British habit of tea at five. Up to that point, tea was something for eccentric souls or sick people, Madrid was in the healthy habit of having hot chocolate as refreshment in the afternoon.
Ironically, Mr Marquez who wanted to acquire the Ritz upon its opening but couldn't achieve the feat, and proceeded then to build the Palace, ended up becoming a member of the board of directors at the Ritz Development Company, and in 1932 his son, Marquet Jr, gained control over the hotel's operations. This way, the two greatest hotels at the time in Madrid started being managed in a coordinated manner.
The Palace guest book
I will begin this with a wonderful anecdote: Octavio Paz, Literature Nobel Prize in 1990, stayed in the Palace and upon leaving he left behind his Fontana fountain pen. Years later, when he returned for another stay, he found the pen on top of his pillow. Aside from this charming true story, it's difficult to summarize, or to pick from, the hundreds of guest curiosities in the history of Palace hotel.
It may be apt to mention that during the 50s and 60s the Palace was the hotel where artists and actors "chose" to stay, since the Ritz wouldn't host them because they were too frivolous, tacky and generally not classy enough. It's said, however, that the ban imposed by the Ritz on these celebrities was really not for tackiness, but because the celebrity status caused worldwide journalists and fans to be royal nuisances for other classier and a lot more discrete hotel guests.
Pablo Picasso and Salvador Dalí were guests of the Palace. Both of them, young and still not famous, together with other members of the Generation of '27 such as Lorca, sent a letter to the Palace to request a loan to buy a train ticket to Paris. During those young years, Dalí also took it upon himself to "redecorate" the walls of his room in a moment of inspiration. Needless to say, next morning the "mess" was fully and efficiently cleaned up by the hotel maids. Little did they know that a few years later the room could be worth millions –a Dalí decorated room!
Dalí didn't take offense though, and continued patronizing the Palace after he became a world-renowned figure. A Maitre d' at the time still has a Dali original that Dali painted for him while having lunch with his wife Gala.
Mata Hari was also a guest in the Palace. The story goes that the most famous female spy of all times was seen in the hotel, even though her name can't be found in the registry book. This, hotel protocol indicates, is probably due to concierges and receptionists never registering ladies' names to preserve their good standing. They always noted the name of the gentleman, escort or whatever it was, "with a lady".
Be that as it may, Mata Hari's visit to Madrid was the beginning of her end. French authorities discovered her meeting with the German military aggregate in Madrid and this was the trigger to detain and later judge and condemn her. Maybe it was because she also patronized the Ritz, where her name is actually registered with all the letters.
The list of guests goes on an on. Blasco Ibañez, Buster Keaton, Federico García Lorca, Luis Buñuel, Dolores del Río, María Félix, Orson Welles and Rita Hayworth, Hemingway and his famous dry martinis, telling bullfighting stories while bullfighters like Belmonte, El Gallo or Manolete enjoyed a drink and a smoke in the Cigar Lounge, sometimes in his tight bullfighter's costumes. I remember the day I took my nephews to that very lounge to buy them a cigar of their choosing, after a family event celebrated in one of the Palace lounges.
Anecdotes at the Ritz
In the spring of 56', Prince Rainiero and Grace Kelly spent part of their honey-moon in the Ritz. They were deserving guests: George Marquet, its sole proprietor at the time, had a strong opinion that not everyone deserved to sleep in one of the hotel's king sizes, under all that grandeur. The Ritz had a secret code to choose its clientele: NTR (Spanish acronym for Non Ritz Type) tagged inappropriate guests for the Ritz. At the time, it was enough for a gentleman not to wear a tie to be tagged NTR on the spot.
I explained above that the Palace became the hot stop for celebrities and artistes of all kinds –the Ritz simply wouldn't take them, in general with the excuse of being full for the night.
In the 50s, Jimmy Steward got away with not wearing a tie alleging he was a Colonel with the US Air Forces, with more than 20 missions during WWII. Right. Victor Mature also secured a room by taking some newpaper scraps out of his pocket that read "he is a bad actor", "he's got a fish face", "he's got the worst screen presence", etc. Today, no one can state unequivocally that Mature's anectode is for real but as they say, "Si non è vero è ben trovato."
In the 70s, Herbert von Karajan was on his way to the dining room when a waiter cut into his path and shyly forbade him entry because Karajan wasn't wearing a tie. A half angry half ashamed Karajan left without making a scene. The next day he left the hotel.
When famous actors phoned the hotel to book a room, Mr Marquez was said to "deliver bad news with excellent excuses": the hotel was full. Some actors were excepted as Mr Marquez considered them true gentlemen: Leslie Howard, Henry Fonda –who spoke in perfect Spanish to the staff, Sir Lawrence Oliver, or Cary Grant, who always dressed to the nines and could carry it.
My personal romance with these hotels
In a word, these grandiose and very well kept buildings so full of history simply fascinate me. I live close by both (evidently, if one lives close to one, then necessarily one lives close to the other), and I don't tire to look at them nor do I stop wondering what must be going on behind the doors.
I've never been to the Ritz, I keep meaning to but I guess it's just as Mr Marquez expected it to be –too far removed from my comfort zone. It's a funny feeling indeed, the building is in front of the Palace, yet it seems to be simply too far away, on a place where not many can reach. I simply love to observe it from this insurmountable virtual distance.
The Palace is a different story, I can't say as I'm a regular, not by any stretch, but I've been there a number of times --family events, drinks with friends in the Cigar Lounge, business meetings, picking up visitors. Once I stopped by the door when a huge group of passer-bys surrounded the main entry, around a line of Mercedes and a bunch of secret service type men. Turns out Warren Christopher, at the time US Secretary of State, was in residence over Middle East peace talks. I sure hope he enjoyed the tapas in Madrid...
If you ever visit Madrid, it's a pretty safe bet that you will walk by these hotels, since the Ritz is next door to Prado Museum, and the Palace is just in front (and besides it's located in the outer limits of the food and drink area of Huertas), so it's difficult to miss them. If you're lucky to stay in the Palace, snap a photo of your room and mail it to me! If you are so terribly lucky as to stay in the Ritz... I'm not sure I want to know about it!