08 27 2009 785

Ritz Madrid: birth of a hotel

dividerBirth of A Modern City

(chapter 2. of the book HOTEL RITZ MADRID)

coverWhile César Ritz was busy constructing his hospitality empire, Spain’s own empire was in the process of disintegrating. In 1898 the country went to war with the United States over tensions stemming from its handling of the Cuban struggle for independence. Just 109 days after the Spanish-American War broke out, the Treaty of Paris granted ownership of Spain’s colonies in Puerto Rico, the Philippines and Guam to the United States. The Americans also occupied Cuba until 1902. The conflict had been so catastrophic that it became known simply as ‘El Desastre’.
These were difficult years for Spain, at the time ruled by a queen regent, Maria Christina of Austria, who was keeping the throne warm until her eldest son Alfonso reached the age of 16. His father, Alfonso XII, had died of tuberculosis in 1885, ten years after the Bourbons were restored to the monarchy in a coup d’état against the First Spanish Republic. Antonio Cánovas Del Castillo, the head of the Spanish government and one of the dominant political figures behind the restoration, had been shot dead by an anarchist in 1897. The policies of this arch-conservative and monarchist had proved controversial –the repression of the Cuban nationalists abroad and the repression of the working classes at home- and in the end he paid the ultimate price. He would not live to witness the disaster of 1898, which led to a political, social and moral crisis in Spanish society. It notably created the ‘Generation of ’98,’ a body of intellectuals and politicians who demanded constitutional change.
It was thus a rather unstable Spain that Alfonso XIII inherited when he was finally old enough to assume power in 1902. But the new king had big plans for his capital city Madrid. After acceding to the throne, he travelled around Europe and was impressed by what he saw in the continent’s great cities. Upon his return to Madrid, he was determined to transform the Spanish capital into a modern European metropolis. Plans for a grand thoroughfare through the heart of the city had been talked about since the mid-nineteenth century but never quite materialised. La prensa madrileña, the press of Madrid poked fun at the project by dubbing it the ‘Gran Vía’ (‘Great Road’). In 1904, the plans were finally approved. Within the next couple of years, buildings were demolished to make way for the boulevard and gas and electricity were put in. In fact, at first the Gran Vía was not one but three adjoining boulevards, named Eduardo Dato, after the Mayor, Pi y Margall, in honour of the first president of the First Republic, and Conde de Peñalver, another mayor of the early twentieth century. The new road would give architects the opportunity to create grand new buildings along it, the most famous of which is the so-called Edificio Metrópolis, starting from today’s Calle de Alcalá, designed by Jules & Raymond Février in 1907.
The Gran Vía was the most famous aspect of the ‘Europeanisation’ of Madrid. There was a lot of work to be done to propel Madrid into the premier league of great European cities. In 1906 the eyes of the world focused on the Spanish capital when Alfonso XIII married Victoria Eugenie, a niece of King Edward VII of England and a granddaughter of Queen Victoria, in whose household she had grown up.
Victoria Eugenie was something of a hot commodity. A year earlier she had turned down a marriage proposal from the smitten Grand Duke Boris Vladimirovich of Russia, a cousin to Nicholas II. She first attracted the admiration of Alfonso XIII on a state visit to England in 1905, during a dinner at Buckingham Palace hosted by Edward VII in honour of his Spanish guest. Sitting in the middle of Queen Alexandra and Princess Helena, King Edward’s sister, Alfonso could not help but be struck by the radiance of the princess. Who was this beauty with hair so blonde it looked like white? It was no secret that Alfonso was looking for a bride and so the courtship began. On his return to Spain, he began sending postcards to Victoria Eugenia, who in spite of her beauty was a controversial candidate in Madrid. Maria Christina, Alfonso’s mother, took issue with her son’s choice because she didn’t consider the Battenburgs to be a fully-fledged royal family. She wanted Alfonso to marry within her own family. There was also the fact that Victoria Eugenia was a potential carrier of haemophilia, which Queen Victoria had transmitted to some of her descendants.
Ultimately, Maria Christina’s opposition was overcome. In January 1906 Alfonso proposed to Victoria Eugenie and the wedding date was set for May. When the time came, a flurry of royals descended on Madrid. The ceremony itself passed without problems but afterwards, as the royal procession was heading back to the Palacio Real, drama struck. An anarchist militant, a certain Mateu Morral, hurled a bomb towards the newlyweds from a nearby balcony. If Ena, as the new queen became known, hadn’t turned her head at the last moment to catch a glimpse of the Santa María Church, she would have been blown to kingdom come. Fortunately, a few specks of blood on her pristine wedding dress were the only damage done.
Aside from the failed assassination attempt, the royal wedding presented King Alfonso with another dilemma. There was a glaring lack of prestigious accommodation in Madrid.
Paris, and now London, had a Ritz, while Berlin, Rome, Vienna and others had the sort of exquisite hotels fit to host kings and queens and princes and princesses. But Madrid? Nothing of the sort. Alfonso had to put up his royal guests in palaces offered by the nobility.
Moreover, this was a time when wealthy travellers from Northern Europe and America were flocking to the warmer climes and bluer skies of southern Europe. With its Prado Museum, its Asturias quarter, its medieval and baroque landmarks and the close proximity of attractions such as the Escorial, Madrid was becoming an attractive destination for the rich new tourists. But there wasn’t a hotel in the city up to their discerning standards.
In truth, it was rather embarrassing when one considered the sort of luxury and service these people were used to in their home cities. Something had to be done.


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