Cinema Week: Astoria7, Swiss Centre Nil

Spank The Monkey visits an old cinema come back from the grave

Click for room spoilers

What happens to old cinemas when they die? I’ve lived in London for over a quarter of a century, and I’ve seen a few go in my time. As discussed on this very site recently, the Scala has been a music venue for twelve years now (which, terrifyingly, is the same length of time for which it used to be a cinema). The EMD Walthamstow is in a state of limbo, as a battle rages between local cineastes and a church that prefers half-arsed property speculation to something that the community might actually enjoy. And God knows what the Curzon Millbank is now: most people were barely aware it opened in February of this year, and the company which co-owned it went bust just four months later.

If two instances count as a trend, then we could suggest that the next big thing will be the conversion of cinemas into luxury hotels. You could argue that this is what’s happened in the case of the newly opened W in Leicester Square, which is technically on the site of the old Odeon Swiss Centre. Except in this case, “site” is a euphemism for the entire city block that was demolished to make room for the hotel. There’s another example in San Sebastián in Spain, but at least that one is a little more respectful of its origins.

For The Belated Birthday Girl and me, I suspect the rot set in upon the publication of the first Mr and Mrs Smith guidebook. Up until then, we’d had maybe one or two experiences in hotels that were a little more swanky than we deserved. What the Smiths taught us was that it was all right to make the niceness of your accommodation an integral part of your holiday. Inspired by their books, we spent the next few years spending a couple of nights apiece in miscellaneous glamour palaces – Straf in Milan, Blanch House in Brighton, Pousada de Sao Tiago in Macau. By the time it got to our tenth anniversary, we were at the supremely decadent stage where we were prepared to choose the hotel first, and let that decide where we went on holiday. And from an afternoon spent randomly trawling through the Smith site, we ended up finding out about Astoria7.

I’d never been to Spain before, and The BBG had only been once – and it would be the first visit to San Sebastián for both of us. We’re movie-loving people, and San Sebastián was obviously a movie-loving town, with a major film festival at the centre of its cultural life. Now add to all of that a hotel built on the location of a former septiplex cinema (hence the name), with each room dedicated to a different movie star who’d visited that film festival at one time or another. How could we resist?

In keeping with our previous travels across Europe, we decided to do the whole thing by train. It wasn’t too difficult, thanks to our internet pal The Man In Seat 61: Eurostar to Paris, TGV to Hendaye right at the southern end of France, and then a suburban Euskotren puffer to take you over the border and into San Sebastián. It’s a relatively small city, and an easy one to negotiate on foot – the hotel is closer to the bus station than the railway, but even then it’s only a brisk ten minute walk from the train to Astoria7.

You don’t get to pick which room you stay in. Well, maybe you can if you ask nicely, but if you’re booking over the internet you just pick your room type, and they give you a key when you arrive. Theoretically you don’t know who the star of your room is until you get there, unless you spot the huge list of room numbers and associated people on the wall in the lobby. I did, but The BBG didn’t, so it made me sound cool when I casually asked in the lift, “do you remember if we asked for a shower or not?”

Warning: article contains spoilers for Psycho from this point onwards

As The BBG’s picture above shows, we were in 308: the Anthony Perkins room. Which meant that the detailed text biography above our bed described one of cinema’s most notorious murderers, and how the actor who played him died of AIDS. Happy anniversary!

That quibble aside, Astoria7’s design strategy cunningly ensures that no two rooms in the hotel are the same. Each one is dedicated to a legend of cinema – predominantly Hollywood actors and directors, although both European and Asian cinema get a few representatives apiece, and the biggest suite is named after Leytonstone’s most famous son. (Hitchcock is also lurking in the foyer, in a prime position for anyone who wants to have their picture taken with him.) The main focus of each room is a large panel describing the life of the person in question, positioned both over the bed and outside your door. There are a few smaller pictures of your chosen star scattered throughout the room, in a strangely homely touch; where you’d have a picture of your gran by the bed, instead you’ve got Anthony Perkins posing with a dog.

As hotel rooms go, 308 was a very nice one indeed, and presumably representative of the others in the building. Astoria7 appears to be a fairly new bit of construction, and the rooms still have that new hotel smell. The view from our room wasn’t all that, but you’re not really in a part of town where you’d get a view anyway. The beds are big and comfy, the shower controls do everything you ask them to, and the telly has a good selection of pan-European channels (including a few bilingual ones, if you can get that facility to work).

The TV also has a DVD player attached, which seems like a suitably good idea for a movie-themed hotel. But what if you haven’t brought any DVDs with you? Well, in that case you’ll probably need to head downstairs.

Quick! See if you can guess which was the other Anthony Perkins film in their DVD collection. Answer in the next paragraph.

There are a few delights to be found in the ground floor public areas of Astoria7, but I think their library has to be one of my favourites. At its centre is a hefty collection of DVDs, all available for free loan for the duration of your stay. The approach to their collection has been to try and get two representative films from every person who has a room dedicated to them in the hotel. (Psycho and The Trial for us, if you were wondering.) The strong English-language bias means that pretty much everything that’s on display in the DVD library is available for non-Spanish speakers to watch, unless you want to get picky and ask the staff who this “Johnny Deep” fellow mentioned on the DVD list in the room is.

You’d rather read? That’s okay as well. The library has a plethora of movie-related magazines and books in multiple languages, with an interesting bias towards the more academic end of the spectrum. (Think Cahiers rather than Empire.) Best of all, as far as I’m concerned, is a collection of programmes from San Sebastián’s film festivals over the years, which may have you already planning your next visit to the city. (But if you’d rather just goof around on the internet, there are a couple of freely accessible kiosk PCs here too, to complement the in-room free wi-fi.)

As for food … well, things appear to have changed in the two months since we visited the hotel. Astoria7 has a perfectly fine buffet breakfast available (although you may need to ask about the egg options, which on some days seem to be a carefully guarded secret). Back in June, the only other meal option you had was at lunchtime, when they had a short menu with a few interesting options: since then, they appear to have introduced an evening menu as well, from Thursday to Saturday.

But to be honest, anyone who’s spent any time in San Sebastián will know that you’re not looking for a full sit-down meal most of the time: you’re going for pintxos, moving from bar to bar grabbing a couple of tapas in each one before moving on to the next. And the Astoria’s own bar is pretty damn good for that sort of thing. We used it a couple of times to top and tail a night of bar-hopping: starting out the evening there with tortilla and salt cod and a glass of wine, and then calling back in just before they closed for a late-night cup of fruity tea. (We are English, and old, and they understood.)

All in all, Astoria7 is a fine place for a film fan to visit: it’s a perfectly lovely hotel in its own right, but it’s the attention to detail that makes it particularly great for lovers of cinema. Little touches like the row of old cinema seats in the foyer and the strips of film used as decorations; even the abstract-looking rectangle that’s the hotel’s logo turns out to have an ingenious explanation. Sure, it’s a little pricey, and a little distant from the action at the centre of town. But that’s all right in my book.*

Hotel Astoria7 is located at Calle de la Sagrade Familia 1, 20010 San Sebastián, Spain. Visit http://www.astoria7hotel.com for further information.

*Spank The Monkey’s book, Monkey Round The World: Travel Writing 1993-2009, can be purchased for £12.09 plus postage from http://www.lulu.com/spanktm

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About Spank The Monkey

Spank The Monkey has been talking nonsense about popular culture on the internet since 1998. He can be found doing that in long form on his blog, and in short form on Twitter. He is a regular contributor to Mostly Film, where his specialist subjects are Asian cinema, cult movies and TV, and watching foreign films without the benefit of subtitles. He lives in London with somebody else.

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