Saving a Euro or Two in Madrid

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By Lisa Abend
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, January 11, 2004

In the 20 years I've been visiting Madrid, I've had only one major gripe with the city: It's hard to find a good, relatively affordable place to stay. There are several swank luxury hotels, and plenty of those cheapo pensiones with rickety furniture and bathrooms down the hall. But a charming, midrange place -- the kind that travelers like me dream about -- have always been elusive.

Or so I thought, until a recent experience sent me searching again. Could I possibly find a centrally located room with character for under $100? Madrid is an expensive city, and rooms with personality typically top $300 a night in this Spanish city known for its austere architecture and extravagant nightlife. I wanted a room I'd be happy to come back to, but one that would leave me with enough euros to spend on the tapas and wine that are among Madrid's great pleasures. I didn't think it'd be possible.

To understand my doubt, you have to understand my history.

I spent my first night in Madrid, back in the early 1980s, in a small pensione still thoroughly stuck in the Franco era. The rooms were dark, the owners severe and the "private bath" turned out to be a raised platform with a drain right in the middle of the room. I took one shower and flooded the place. After that I went through a series of similarly depressing -- but inexpensive -- pensiones until, finally, I landed at another family-run place that was far better than the rest. The rooms were clean, the proprietors welcoming and the sunlight that streamed in through the balconies made the polyester bedspreads sort of shimmer. At about $25 a night, I figured I'd found my home. I stayed for the next 20 years -- whenever I was in Madrid, that is.

Then one night last summer I noticed that the sheets were somewhat threadbare. The particle-board desk and dresser, which had once struck me as clean and functional, seemed tacky. It was so hot without air conditioning I had to open the window, but the noise from the street kept me from sleeping. And that darn polyester bedspread kept slipping off the bed. Maybe, I thought to myself, it was time to move on.

But where to go? Whenever I had looked before, even $200 seemed to buy a squishy bed in a characterless hotel. I stepped out onto the room's balcony to ponder the dilemma.

And there, across Plaza Santa Cruz, I saw the lighted sign of the Hotel Plaza Mayor, which I'd never noticed before. The exterior walls were painted a pleasing apricot, the entryway looked well-tended. First thing next morning, I went to look at what turned out to be just what I'd been hoping for: a small, reasonably priced hotel with modern amenities and plenty of charm. I checked in that afternoon, paying $45 for a single room.

Since that time, I've discovered more options. While only one fits my under-$100 criterion, the rest -- ranging from $125 a night to several just shy of $200 -- represent relatively good values in this pricey capital. Madrid still doesn't have the quantity of midrange places with character that you find in other European capitals, but the numbers are growing.

• Hotel Plaza Mayor (Atocha 2, in Plaza Santa Cruz)

My new home in Madrid is a modest but charming place a few yards from Plaza Mayor. Built into the former residence of the Santa Cruz Church, the hotel is only a few years old. In the new wing, a winding corridor of pale blue walls hung with original art leads to larger, more modern rooms. In the older part, room size varies from rather tiny to quite ample. All 31 rooms, though, are comfortably if sparsely furnished and come with air conditioning, televisions and phones; many offer plaza views. The bar downstairs serves good breakfasts and tapas, and there's a public sitting room on the first floor.

Doubles from $88.50 a night. Metro: Sol. Info: 011-34-91-360- 0606, www.h-plazamayor.com.

• Hotel Miau (Principe, 26)


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