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.
Is there anyone who doesn't know the Parador de Granada?Until Casa Morisca redrew the hotelscape in this medieval Moorish kingdom crowned by the Alhambra, the Parador was the only game in town. The reason so many people want to stay there is that it's actually part of the 13th-century palace complex. The downside is that almost everything else of interest in Granada—shops, restaurants, other monuments—is 10 minutes away by taxi.
But at Casa Morisca you can have it both ways. The hotel faces a sun-soaked street in the Albaicín, the ancient Arab quarter, at the bottom of the hill on which the Alhambra stands. The location pays off in views of the palace gardens, towers, and colonnades that cannot be oversold. Indeed, no one back home will believe you when you tell them that for $206 you took your evening bath while gazing out at some of the most renowned battlements in history. Casa Morisca is also within easy striking distance of fiery flamenco, garlicky tapas, and the city's crop of funky new teterías—lounges offering Moroccan mint tea and a drag on a narghile.
An unimpeachable location and jaw-dropping views aren't the only things the hotel has going for it. If Casa Morisca could figure out a way to charge for tranquillity, it would make a fortune.Sealing the hotel's success are 14 lean but comfortable guest rooms sensitively inserted into a house built between 1492, when Ferdinand and Isabella reestablished Christian rule over the city, and the mid 16th century. (A Morisco was a Muslim who remained after the conquest.)
"What makes the house unusual is the confluence of Renaissance, Gothic, and Islamic styles," says Carlos Sánchez, the architect who restored the hotel and owns it. "At Casa Morisca there are scrolled squinches, circular corbels, and a polychrome wood ceiling with a frieze of Arabic calligraphy. Another feature is the gallery that spirals around the atrium, like the ramp at New York's Guggenheim Museum. Part of my work was opening up this gallery, which had been enclosed and now provides access to many of the accommodations."
Some are better than others. Avoid rooms that have windows only on the courtyard. Number 10 has a proper sitting area, making it an especially good value. Numbers 14 and 15 look out on the Alhambra. At these prices, you could even go crazy and treat yourself to the lone suite—just $236—which has a painted ceiling original to the hotel, a six-foot-long, wheat-colored silk sofa, and a romantic sleeping alcove. Drawing on the grammar of Moorish ornament, Sánchez created many of Casa Morisca's furnishings. Headboards suggest keyhole arches. Bedside tables reference the curves of Islamic design.
Sánchez's informed design is a long way from the rather cookie-cutter feel of the rooms at the Parador, where there's a waiting list to get on the waiting list. Word is still trickling out about Casa Morisca, but I wouldn't wait to go. The best moment to catch a great hotel is when it's still catching on, cruising beneath the radar.
9 Cuesta de la Victoria, Granada; 34/958-221-100; www.hotelcasamorisca.com; doubles from $135.
It's amazing the way Trasierra keeps reinventing itself. Just when you think you know it, the inn does a quarter-turn, inviting you to think of it in a new, fresh way. The 16th-century olive oil estate, in Cazalla de la Sierra, first made a name for itself offering plein air watercolor classes. Its success led to a famously inventive menu of entertainments, including cooking demos, wildflower walks, and visits to bodegas and bull ranches. Currently in the works are detox weekends, scenes from Carmen staged in the courtyard, even tap dancing instruction. Anything goes.
"When you are as open as we are, and have only seven guest rooms and a cottage, all sorts of things are possible," says Charlotte Scott, Trasierra's mistress. "If someone is interested in something we don't already offer, I'll do everything I can to make it happen."
Exactly a quarter of a century ago, Scott threw in the swatch book as one of those hands-on, can-do decorators in which London seems to specialize. She deserted the city to restore Trasierra and raise a family on 3,000 acres of olive, orange, chestnut, and cork trees. Later, friends talked Scott into making the patchwork beauty and languid atmosphere she had created pay for themselves by turning part of the house into an inn. This was before Cazalla de la Sierra was even a twinkle in the eye of Manuel Morales de Jódar, the owner of Palacio de San Benito down the road. The two hoteliers enjoy a playful rivalry. Well, maybe not so playful. "I'm very fond of Manuel Carlos," Scott told me. "But he must stop hijacking my guests!"
Scott and de Jódar's styles are as different as brocade and burlap. Her melting pot stirs together bits and bobs from India, the Maghreb, England (the petticoat lampshades are a scream), and, naturally, Spain. The look is sentimental, serendipitous, and what used to be known as bohemian. To experience it at its best, book the Studio or Blue Room. The latter has lacy straw mats and fluffy Flokati rugs tossed over a glossy white floor; a snowy hand-crocheted bedcover; and whitewashed masonry banquettes with cushions wrapped in rag rugs. A kaleidoscope of printed fabrics mixes Souleiado and John Stefanidis with budget remnants from the Cazalla market. The bath mat is a vintage Hermès beach towel.
The generous laissez-faire policies that shape a stay at Trasierra are of a piece with the inn's design. Scott's governing motto is Feel free. In a note left in the guest rooms, she says that her four children, ages 18 to 24, are friendly and bilingual, so "feel free to call on them." Breakfast is served in the breakfast room, where "dressing gowns are welcome," but "if you are anti-social, feel free to take a tray to a quiet place." At dinner, "feel free to look fabulous." The note adds that there is no such thing as being over- or underdressed, just badly dressed. (Amen.)
This spring Trasierra celebrates the return to its stoves of Scott's daughter Gioconda, the host last year of a British food program filmed at the estate. "My goal is to bring the quality of the cooking up to the level of the house," she says. On the docket are herb-wrapped loin of tuna, pot-roasted quail with mustard-dressed beets, and fig tart with tobacco sirop. Whole suckling pig is cooked on a grill made to Gioconda's specifications.
Since her mother had made such a point about the pastime possibilities at Trasierra, I thought it would be fun to put Scott to the test. On my next visit, I told her, I wanted to spend an hour every morning with a Sufi. In the afternoons, I hoped to learn to tame lavender into topiary. And since I've always wanted to learn beekeeping, I asked her to line up a visit to a honey farm.
She didn't flinch.
Cazalla de la Sierra; 34/954-884-324; doubles from $311.
"He's more English than the English."
People never tire of saying it of Gonzalo del Río y González-Gordon, and he never tires of hearing it. The description refers to the Spaniard's plummy British accent, his Jack Russell terrier, and the bed-and-breakfast he owns on a narrow street adjacent to the Barrio Santa Cruz, Seville's loveliest, most desirable neighborhood.
Folded into a severely handsome four-story town house built in 1847, Casa No. 7 has just six rooms. If that doesn't send up a red flag, it should. Reservations aren't scarce; they're beyond scarce. Of course, that's all I needed to hear.
Right on cue, the B&B was full for the dates I requested, and for the dates on either side of the dates I requested. I have a sophisticated network of contacts on the ground in Spain, and not one of them could do anything for me.
Hotels are there to accommodate me, I was raised to believe, not the other way around. But consumed with curiosity, I made an exception and shuffled my itinerary. Twenty-three phone calls and three dozen e-mails later, my room was confirmed.
Despite a pretty but disabled courtyard fountain and the disappearance for hours at a time of the only person able to make a restaurant reservation, the struggle definitely paid off. Certainly it takes a stronger man than I to resist the drawing room del Río y González-Gordon has lovingly decorated for his guests, with its Staffordshire dogs and breezily displayed pictures of Prince Philip and the Prince of Kent in silver frames. Euro for euro, No. 7 is probably the best lodging value in Seville.
The pictures of royals are easily explained. Del Río y González-Gordon is nobody less than the scion of the Tio Pepe sherry dynasty; another branch of his tree includes the Gordons of gin fame. As his pedigree makes all but obvious, he did not open No. 7 to fatten his portfolio. He did it as a diversion. His name connotes such wealth in this part of Spain (Jerez de la Frontera, the center of sherry production, lies south of Seville), most people assume he inherited a piece of family property and decided to do it up. But del Río y González-Gordon actually had to go shopping for his B&B, suffering real estate agents and disappointments, just like you and me.
"I was out with a broker," he remembers, "and to explain how the market in old restored houses had dried up, he gestured to a near-ruin, saying that places like this were all that was left. We were in front of number seven Calle Vírgenes, and it turned out the building was for sale. I hadn't wanted to undertake a full restoration, but its bones and location were too good to pass up."
Del Río y González-Gordon glassed over the courtyard, furnishing it with just a few gutsy architectural antiques. They make a nice antidote to the Anglophilia of the breakfast rooms, where a persuasive case is made for polished mahogany, willowware, and crustless toast. To summon the butler for more, you lift your pinkie, then ring a little bell. And did I mention that the butler wears white jersey gloves?
There are two categories of rooms at No. 7: the Yellow Room and Everything Else. The former is the B&B's biggest and most charismatic, with a fresh mix of checks and farm-scene toile de Jouy, a Juliet balcony, and both a tub and stall shower. The nestlike room No. 2, a good second choice for lovebirds, is the only one with en suite access to the rooftop terrace. Pull up a chair, phone down for a sherry, and take in the Giralda, the 12th-century bell tower of Seville's cathedral.
You have to admire a B&B that is honest enough to admit its flaws. The reservationist is always careful to point out the Green Room's lack of privacy. Then again, maybe Casa No. 7 is otherwise full, and you're even more crazed to stay there than I was. In which case, grab it.
7 Calle Vírgenes, Seville; 34/954-221-581; www.casanumero7.com; doubles from $216.
This sprawling country-house hotel 20 minutes west of Seville puttered along for years before its owners hit on an idea that increased not just their own fortunes but Andalusia's in general. In 1999, Benazuza brokered a deal with Ferran Adrià to take over its food operations. In a doubtful bit of gimmickry, the hotel's main restaurant is a museum-like showcase for what Adrià pedantically considers his greatest hits. The menu even trumpets the date each dish was created. Viva el márketing. Such is Adrià's pulling power, Benazuza's name was lengthened to include that of El Bulli, Adrià's mythic restaurant northeast of Barcelona, and come they do. In an age of dignitary chefs, destination restaurants, and people who travel to eat, the arrival in Andalusia of this restless agitator hasn't hurt.
I was prepared for the 44 guest rooms (and everything else) to be upstaged by Adrià, but I am happy to report that Benazuza holds its own purely as a hotel, muchas gracias. It would take more than powdered foie gras to steal the thunder of a hacienda that, in the 1500's, was a self-sufficient village. Still having trouble picturing the scale of the estate?Think 246-foot-high palm trees and a 4,000-square-foot courtyard.
Of the dozens of hotels I visited in Andalusia, Benazuza is the only one I think really earns the designation "luxury." Grand, self-aware, and imperious, it's the hotel as infanta. "I know I'm great," you can imagine her saying. "And I know you think I'm great. Now what are you going to do about it?"
If words like posh, tasteful, and refined had any currency left, they'd go a long way toward describing Benazuza's aesthetic MO. Brawny antiques, sisal carpets in fashion colors, ceramic pinecone lamps—you know the look. I've never been inside the house of an old, upper-class family in southern Spain, but this is how I imagine it might look. Hotels these days are always going on about how their rooms don't feel like hotel rooms, yet it's rarely true. It is here.
Tradition is only a slice of the story at Benazuza: there's also a strong fantasy element. Lawn beds are sheltered by tarpaulins and hung with sheer curtains. The pool turns so many corners—disappearing behind ocher walls and eruptions of lush vegetation—you lose count. La Alberca, the poolside restaurant, is a tented dream of Morocco. In La Abacería, a tapas bar, the dado is faced with the woven grass panels used throughout Andalusia as window blinds. Muy, muy chic.
Less chic is the way Benazuza crowds its calendar with private events. I was always caught in the jaws of some huge group disembarking for lunch; very unpleasant. On the other hand, the hotel's big-deal restaurant, La Alquería, was less than half full the night I was there, which surprised me, given the hype.
Dozens of little dishes make up a typical Adrià meal, so I'll just mention the palette of gelatin squares—imprisoned essence of carrot, turnip, and other vegetables. In their deconstructivist way, they were signature Adrià. But I found that a little deconstructivism goes a long way. My banquet was more interesting than delicious, and exhausting.
Benazuza is just one of a proposed collection of El Bulli hotels. Before long, people all over the world may be eating pulverized popcorn reformed into kernels.
Calle Vírgen de las Nieves, Sanlúcar la Mayor; 34/955-703-344; www.elbullihotel.com; doubles from $380.
What to do and see if you're staying at Palacio de San Benitoor Trasierra.
CUADRAS AL PASO ANGEL CONDE (Km. 0.700, Carretera Ermita del Monte; 34/689-944-451; two-hour guided ride $44) If, like me, you haven't been on a horse in 35 years, you may need to be talked into mounting one for a ride through the Parque Natural Sierra Norte. But be brave—the fauna and landscapes are unlike anything you see on foot.
RIVERO (41 Virgen del Monte; 34/954-884-342) As much for townies as for tourists, this small, unpretentious shop sells pottery, straw hats, and local cheeses and olive oil.
LA CHURRERIA (5 Calle Egido; 34/954-884-015) Line up for some of the best churros—golden snakes of deep-fried dough—in Andalusia.
ANIS MIURA Cazalla is famed for its anise liqueurs. Having sampled them all, Charlotte Scott chooses this one to serve at Trasierra.
BAR LOS MELLIS (Calle La Plazuela; 34/954-884-295) Learn the complicated culture of tapas—how, what, and the quantity to order—with Gioconda Scott, Trasierra's chef, at her favorite Cazalla tapas bar.
PLAZA MAYOR Long before it became home to two spectacular hotels, Cazalla was a must-stop for travelers in pursuit of great architecture. Presiding over the town's main square, Plaza Mayor, are the Iglesia Parroquial de Nuestra Señora de la Consolación, its Mudéjar tower pierced with trefoil windows; a Baroque courthouse and cloisters; a Renaissance mansion; and a string of vernacular 16th-century Andalusian houses.
RESTAURANTE HOTEL POSADA DEL MORO (Paseo del Moro; 34/954-884-858; dinner for two $37) Whole fish, steaks, chops, and sausages are grilled, simply and perfectly, at this sidewalk restaurant popular with local families, who dine at sidewalk or terrace tables in summer.
What to do if you're staying at Hotel Casa Morisca.
WHERE (ELSE) TO STAY
CASA DEL CAPITEL NAZARÍ (6 Cuesta Aceituneros; 34/958-215 260, fax 34/958-215806; www.hotelcasacapitel.com; doubles from $104) A 17-room hotel in a 16th-century house, the Nazarí is a good alternative if Casa Morisca is full.
PARADOR DE GRANADA (Calle Real de la Alhambra; 34/958-221-4401, fax 34/958-222-264; doubles from $260) The Parador is one of those mythic, maddening hotels that turns making a reservation into an extreme sport. Training required.
WHERE TO GO
Granada is full of shrill souvenir shops. For home furnishings, as well as jewelry, tiles, and other crafts, cut to the chase at Bazar Pazouki (15 Carrera del Darro; 34/958-221-371) and El Zoco Nazarí (50 Calle Reyes Católicos, 34/958-225-977).
AL-ANDALUS (4 Calle Calderería Vieja, 34/958-224-641) As Granada rediscovers its Islamic roots, laid-back lounges like this one are serving up mint tea and traditional Arab pastries—and passing the water pipe.
BAR LOS DIAMANTES (26 Calle Navas; 958-227-070; lunch for two $30) At lunchtime, when this proto-tapas bar is jammed with shopkeepers and office workers, it's every man for himself. Diamantes's specialty is battered and fried fish and vegetables.
What to do if you're staying at Casa Numero 7.
WHERE TO GO
Del Rìo y González-Gordon has made a systematic survey of Seville's tapas bars. His top two are El Rincón del Arroz (19 Avda. Ramón Carande; 34/954-628-172), which has especially good seafood, and El Giralda (1 Calle Mateos Gago; 34/954-563-702).
MONTANO PIRANESI (52 Calle Trajano; 34/954-381-703) Spanish antiques don't get any grander than at the shop of Manuel Morales de Jódar, owner of the hotel Palacio de San Benito in Cazalla de la Sierra.
CASA DE LA MEMORIA DE AL-ANDALUS (28 Calle Ximénez de Enciso; 34/954-560-670) You can lose a lot of time (and see a lot of bad castanet-clacking) sorting through the dozens of flamenco venues in the city. Sevillians who are aficionados of the dance attend performances here.
EL MERCADILLO DEL JUEVES FLEA MARKET (Calle Feria) As the saying goes, if you snooze, you lose. So get here early—about eight o'clock on Thursday mornings.
FÉLIX CARTELISMO (26 Avda. de la Constitución; 34/954-218-026) Is there a visitor to Seville who hasn't coveted a vintage feria poster?Start your collection at Felix.
What to do and see if you're staying at El Bulli Hotel Hacienda Benazuza.
CASA DE CARMONA (1 Plaza de Lasso, Carmona; 34/954-191-000, fax 34/954-191-189; www.casadecarmona.com, doubles from $198) If Benazuza can be said to have stolen another hotel's thunder, it's Casa de Carmona's. Opened in 1992, this authentically Andalusian Relais & Châteaux property is Benazuza minus the scale, heavy application of resources, and attitude. Anyone interested in the evolution of top-of-the-heap provincial hotels in Spain will want to stay at both. In any case, it would be reckless to visit Seville and not take at least a day trip to the prosperous town of Carmona. It's a painless 40-minute bus ride away and offers a lovely window on provincial life.
FINCA LA MIRANDILLA (Albaserrada; 34/955-783-332) Learn everything you always wanted to know (and then some) about the raising of fighting bulls at a ranch that supplies many of the region's plazas de toros.
GUARNICIONERIA VELAZQUEZ PEREJON (21 Calle Juan Delgado; 34/955-700-495) World-class riding boots, saddles, and other leather items are handmade on-site.
CERAMICAS LA MAYOR (26 Calle Cristóbal Colón; 34/955-700-495) Andalusia is flooded with shops selling industrial ceramics. Save your tile, plate, and vase purchases for this artisanal, limited-production boutique.
Guests at Benazuza book at Restaurante Alhucemas (4 Calle de Polideportivo; 34/955-700-929; dinner for two $85) or Casa Rufino (1 Calle Traspalacios, Umbrete; 34/955-716-272, dinner for two $37) when they want a break from Ferran AdriÀ's inventiveness. Both serve straightforward Andalusian classics.