The most creative restaurants in the world these days are in Spain. (Okay, you knew that.) What you probably didn't know is that, in a sly trickle-down effect, Spain is also home now to some of the most exciting hotels in Europe, the highest concentration being in the sultry southern area of Andalusia. Thanks to this humbling development, Italy and France—especially France—are the ones watching their backs these days.
Andalusia's hotel hegemony has everything to do with variety and value. In Seville, the region's sighingly romantic capital, you can spend the night in an intimate 19th-century town house—owned and designed by a blue-blooded sherry producer—and get change back from your 200 euros. Granada, in the grip of a Moorish revival that has made it Spain's city on the rise, boasts a new boutique property that stands at the very foot of the Alhambra—and at the crossroads of Gothic, Renaissance, and Islamic architecture. Country establishments swing from a colossal yet homey olive oil estate run by a former London decorator to a slick hacienda with a Ferran Adrià restaurant. (For those who have been living under a rock, Adrià is the father of the current Spanish food revolution and the chef at El Bulli, on the Costa Brava.) If it's passementerie that quickens your pulse, consider the ancient church that's undergone a sumptuous metamorphosis by a Wildean Spanish aristocrat, a fabulous example of what happens when the Queer Eye looks inward.
As these five hotels demonstrate, France and Italy hardly have the lock on style in the Mediterranean (or, for that matter, on worldly travelers in three-figure flip-flops). Andalusia is making a big grab for the lead. Take that, Provence.
Manuel Morales de Jódar is always referred to as Seville's leading decorator. And while he has certainly filled a lot of houses with a lot of museum-quality furniture, he is actually too busy to work. Too busy living the high life. Too busy flitting around the globe. Though de Jódar does own what is probably Seville's most fashionable antiques shop, Montano Piranesi, it is hardly allowed to intrude on his train de vie. His agenda reads like a perfume bottle on your grandmother's dressing table: Paris, London, New York. To which de Jódar would quickly add Madrid, Lisbon, Rome, and Rio.
So why did a man who could light his Cohibas with 100-euro notes go to the trouble of transforming a 15th-century church into a nine-room hotel, Palacio de San Benito—in Cazalla de la Sierra, an hour north of Seville in the toughly beautiful Sierra Norte—where the average tab is a mere $149 per night?People are always going into the hospitality business for reasons that do not make wonderful sense on paper. But de Jódar, whose personality matches the decadence of his decorating style, tassel for tassel, may be the first to have opened a hotel simply because he had the furniture to fill it.
What furniture. From Baroque and Victorian to Art Nouveau and Arts and Crafts, San Benito has it all. Some of the pieces, de Jódar told me with an air of exhaustion, were designed for the royal visit Queen Isabella II paid his ancestors. These include, in the Del Rey guest room, a magnificently tufted wasp-waisted chairthat a zippy modern plaid turns on its ear.
"Ours has been the most important family in this part of Spain for centuries," bellows de Jódar, who holds antiques seminars for guests of the hotel. "When my parents died, my brother inherited all the houses, and I inherited everything else—the china and commodes, the silver and pictures. I have friends who are from the grandest families in Europe, and they don't have half what I have. The Spanish kings came to Cazalla for their summer holidays, and it's kings I want my guests to feel like."
Cazalla is not the most glamorous of the region's whitewashed hill towns. But a day spent wandering its immaculate, orange tree-lined streets and poking around its bars and bakeries and hardware shops offers a good slice of Andalusian life. Worries that the hotel would alter the complexion of the town have dissolved. Diandra Douglas, Michael's ex, generated gossip when she stayed at San Benito while shopping for a hacienda, but the people of Cazalla have not lost their priorities. Pass the jamón, por favor.
The contrast between the proudly unfrivolous town and the hotel's enshrinement of gracious living produces frissons that last from check-in to checkout. San Benito's courtyard has a raised swimming pool so decorative, most people mistake it for a fountain. The pool is banked against one of those typical Andalusian façades that seem more confectionary than structural, with stacked columns, finials, and a fanciful gable. In the restaurant, stuffed cardinals on brackets—a charming trompe-l'oeil conceit—eye diners savoring luscious cold almond soup with shards of cured ham. World-weary connoisseurs of hotel rooms who think they've seen it all admit surprise at the clothes brushes and pencil sharpeners.
San Benito has been acidly described as the kind of place where you expect to find a rock star floating facedown in the pool, which de Jódar has chosen to take as a compliment. Certainly he's heard worse.
"When my boyfriend Carlos and I first arrived here, we were seen as a couple of gay guys buying a church," he says. "You can imagine the jokes; they thought we were Martians. But when they saw how serious I was, they started to respect me. Now everyone respects me. Everyone loves me."
Calle San Benito, Cazalla de la Sierra; 34/954-883-336; www.palaciodesanbenito.com; doubles from $149.