Barcelona was under siege. Wild winds roared across the rooftops, hurricanes of leaves attacked pedestrians and the streets ran with rain. From our warm, dry and sumptuous suite at the Mandarin Oriental we stared at the tempest outside and tried to find excuses to stay in. But we were only in town for a few days so we summoned the courage, rugged up and braved the elements.
The Mandarin Oriental is in the L'Eixample district, home to several famous buildings by local modernist architect, Antoni Gaudí, whose facades and balconies appear to be melting. That night, however, Gaudí’s unique architecture was lost in the wild darkness and we were blown across the wide Passeig de Gràcia boulevard and down a side street.
The rain peppered our jacket hoods as we sprinted, hand-in-hand, between doorways. We ducked into an alcove to shelter and realised we were at the entrance to a small restaurant called Toto, which had tiled floors and walls, and a long, elegant bar. The place was deserted apart from two waiters who were restocking the shelves with wine bottles when they caught sight of us peering through the glass; we must have looked like a couple of half-drowned kittens.
They said they were not yet open for dinner but we could have a drink, and as we removed our sodden jackets, they delivered two glasses of rich, fruity rioja – just what we needed to warm up. The waiters’ genuine welcome set the scene for four days of unfailingly friendly service and warmth everywhere, and left us wondering how spectacular the world would be if everyone was as pleasant and well-mannered as the people of Barcelona. We lingered at Toto late into the evening and dined on slow-cooked lamb with pumpkin puree and lentils.
The next day, as Barcelona was mopping up and waiting for the sun to return, we wound our way through the ancient streets of the El Born neighbourhood, which overlaps with the medieval Barri Gòtic (Gothic Quarter).
There are so many great areas of this fascinating city to visit – La Rambla, the wonders of Gaudí’s Parc Güell, Montjuïc with its fortress and cable-car, the Olympic marina, the promenade at La Barceloneta and many more – but El Born has a unique charm and romance that is hard to beat.
The area is popular with local fashion and jewellery designers and full of small boutiques, making it ideal for wandering and window-shopping. New shops are cleverly fitted into spaces within the old sandstone brick superstructure, offering a neat contrast between medieval and modern; two good examples are JS Heritage (women’s clothing) on Carrer Flassaders and Iriarte Iriarte (leather bags) on Carrer dels Cotoners.
We dropped into Barcelona-Reykjavik, an organic bakery on Carrer de la Princesa to grab some healthy snacks, which we ate on a bench in a peaceful square. We then wandered down Carrer Flassaders, where we found a small women’s fashion label called Colmillo De Morsa, where my wife and another customer from Madrid both fell in love with the same pair of bright red shoes. They did not quite fit my wife, which was just as well; if they had, an international shopping incident may well have ensued.
We cut through the alleyways to Carrer de Montcada, near to the Picasso Museum, where we found a brand new bar called La Puntual serving good Catalan dishes, wines and smooth local Estrella beer on tap. Last time we were in Barcelona we spent far too much time sipping cava in the famous champaneria bars (first-timers should definitely try El Xampanyet on Carrer de Montcada) so this time we wanted something a bit different.
La Punctual had a front bar near the street with a collection of delicious hams hanging up, and a larger bistro area with high ceilings supported by white-painted pillars. This is bar food, not fine-dining (although we did get addicted to the excellent cod fritters) but we went back a couple of times during our stay mainly ecause the waiters treated us like friends rather than customers.
One waitress recommended another good fashion shop called Visual Poetry (Carrer del Rec) and run by a graphic designer who specialises in t-shirts. We found it just as he was closing up and hopping on his motorbike but – because this is Barcelona – he willingly re-opened just for us.
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Visual Poetry is near Passeig de Born, the area’s main square, which has a couple of good bars on its southern edge. It is also near the El Born Cultural Centre, a heritage site that reveals the preserved remains of an early 18th century neighbourhood that was the scene of the final attack during the siege of Catalan Barcelona by King Phillip V of Spain in 1714.
In the gloom of early evening and as a light winter mist descended, we wandered alone through the quiet streets and alleyways of El Born and the Barri Gòtic. We passed the mighty 14th century walls of the Basilica de Santa Maria del Mar, making our way back to the soft cosy armchairs of the Banker’s Bar at the Mandarin Oriental for a well-deserved cocktail. An Indochine Francaise for me (Calvados, citrus, maple and apple) and a Geisha for my wife (sake, elderflower, cranberry, ginger).
Barcelona is one of the most romantic cities in Europe so it’s worthwhile saving up to stay in an equally romantic hotel. Two standouts are the Mandarin Oriental and the Hotel Arts, which are roughly equidistant from El Born.
The Mandarin Oriental is a glamorous luxury five-star housed in a former bank and fronted by four impressive carved stone columns, beyond which is a walkway ramp on which you really do feel a million dollars as it leads you into the arms of the serene lobby.
The hotel is on Passeig de Gràcia in the L'Eixample district downtown so it’s ideal for shopping and exploring Gaudí’s amazing buildings, including an easy walk to his masterpiece, La Sagrada Familia.
If it’s a special occasion, go for broke and book one of the 18 new suites, opened in April 2014. Our 78m2 Deluxe Suite had a king bed, a separate dining area and dressing area, bathtub, tiled rainforest shower, dual sinks, Acqua Di Parma toiletries and furniture by Spanish designer Patricia Urquiola... oh, and a private butler.
Bistreau, the glass-ceilinged dining room, serves breakfast (don’t miss the air-dried hams and the amazing Pastoret fruit yoghurts) and turns into a seafood restaurant for lunch and supper, if you can’t afford the two Michelin star eatery, Moments. In summer you can also have lunch outside in the Mimosa Garden and dine under the stars at the poolside rooftop Terrat restaurant.
The Hotel Arts occupies a modernist tower next to the Olympic harbour, with fabulous views down La Barceloneta’s promenade and out across the azure Mediterranean. Rooms facing south and east offer dramatic seascape views while those facing north and west present a 180o city panorama. The hotel has an excellent spa (even the sauna has an ocean-view) and a two Michelin star restaurant called Enoteca. We spent most of one day in our dressing gowns watching the last wisps of the storm clear out to sea, and the light changing the Mediterranean from molten silver to deep blue.
The hotel is a Ritz-Carlton and so it has one of the brand’s legendary Club Lounges, a large, quiet and relaxing space serving complimentary food and drinks throughout the day. Check if you can upgrade to a room with Club access because there is no more romantic event in Barcelona than sipping champagne in the lounge as you gaze out over the lights of the city and the harbour. If money is no object, find out about renting one of their duplex apartments, which are shrines to Art Deco and contain some original pieces.
Need to Know
More info: Barcelona Tourism
Photos by iStockphoto unless otherwise stated.