You haven’t been to Barcelona recently? Odd. This year everybody on a boat, a plane, or a running tour was in Barcelona. It is the happening city in Europe. Its soaring success is the result of a work ethic combined with encouraged creativity; Spain is hungry and Barcelona is a shining example of what it is offering visitors who come to see it. It has some of the most exciting modern design in the hotel and restaurant world, and va-va-voom beaches with hip places to lunch and cool chatty bars where you can listen to music day and night. Art is booming all over town — some of it pops up in surprise spots like the big golden fish Frank Gehry beached outside the Hotel Arts, or Jean Nouvel’s startling but unashamed phallic tower for the water company. (It changes color throughout the day.) Barcelona is about serious enterprise combined with serious partying — it loves the new, it’s young again, it’s in love again, it feels good.
It is now so popular that you can find dozens of travel books recommending hotels and restaurants, but those books are in the travel business so they have to be kind. I don’t. I was there six weeks and checked most of it out. Here is the best, as seen through the eyes of a woman born in Ohio who had a successful career in New York — you can identify with that!
One of the two big whoopdeedoo hotels is the Arts, built for the Olympics in a style that is wild and all over the place, but still charming; it’s what you would expect to check into on Mars. It sits — well, it climbs around and over the beach, all of its girders and armature criss-cross its masses of glass and its great views, including Frank’s big fish. The hotel has attractive restaurants, but there are also really good independent restaurants below on the long stretch of beach, especially the smart Agua and the equally smart Bestial. Rooms at the Arts are comfortably minimalist but I wouldn’t stay at the hotel. It is just too big.
Any hotel that big loses romance and it is hard, no matter how you try, and the Arts does try, to keep a mammoth dazzling. One big exception, if you are very rich — the apartment-duplex suites on the top of the Arts are as good as hotel suites can get. Wow duplexes. Wow design. Wow views in all directions. Wow rates for them too. And those suites do dazzle.
The other whoopdeedoo hotel is the pretty Gran Hotel La Florida, but it’s on Mount Tibidabo — to me that’s out of town and for Hollywood love affairs.
I want to be in the middle of the fun and the buzz. My first choice is the Hotel Omm, two steps off the Passeig de Gracia (avenues of choice). The façade looks as if it has been coolly peeled back to give sexy privacy to balconies that are tucked in. Or as if waves from the Med had rushed up and splashed it. There is a calm spaciousness and sophisticated comfort about this hotel — it made me think of a good space-age movie set and it made me feel beautiful, as most of the guests are. The lobby becomes a bar that eventually becomes an exciting restaurant called Moo. Yes, Moo. Moo is full of wonders including plates designed by a lot of Barcelona’s leading artists, and it takes serious discipline not to steal one.
Moo had a Michelin star but it has something even better; it has Ommsession, the hotel’s late evening basement club. Barcelona’s artists must love Moo because their work is filmed all over the walls of the club. It is the mecca for executives and beautiful women who are going somewhere fast.
Everything about the Omm Hotel is smart including the owner, Rosa Esteva Grewe. This is a woman to know. She radiates for her business. She told me her family was wealthy and her brothers were well educated but she, a woman, was ignored as unimportant. Born with will to spare, she moved on and built what is now the respected Grupo Tragaluz. And I promise you will like everything she has done for the Grupo — the Tragaluz restaurant; the Cuines Santa Caterina restaurant attached to a famous food market that wears a rainbow rollercoaster hat; and the Bar Lobo, a snack and great coffee café with walls that might have been painted by Takashi Murakami. The Bar Lobo is the place to go after you have been up and down all the Gaudi stairs you will want to go up and down.
You may have trouble getting a room at the Omm. So here are a few other choice hotels: The Majestic Hotel, like the Omm, is not big in size but it is in class. And it has a very highly regarded chef and restaurant called the Drolma. Another choice for your hotel list is the Claris in the same area. It has a balmy outdoor rooftop restaurant for quick lunches. Many of Barcelona’s best hotels have rooftop pools and sun lounges and casual snack restaurants. It’s a city thing — rooftop pools are showing up everywhere. The Claris rooftop also has many DJ evenings, too, that liven you up after a busy-busy day.
Buy a book to learn all about the busy-busy days you can have in Barcelona. Keep in mind that this is the land of Zara and Almodovar. Barcelona lives in today. It is modern; it is not still on vinyl like some of the old-world towns you run into in Europe. Even its historical areas are irreverent and colorful. You are greeted warmly. People are eager to talk to you, to tell you what they think of Zapatero’s taking Spain into Iraq — or what the separatists really want. They all seem to agree that the Basques would never really have blown up Jeff Koons’s Puppy, the forty-three-foot-high flower sculpture at the entrance to Frank Gehry’s masterpiece Bilbao! Oh no. And every day I was in Barcelona someone would kindly remind me that I was in Spain and dinner would be late so I should have tapas. It’s true; you eat late in Spain. If you want to see the beautiful people slink to dinner — eat late. You won’t suffer because in visitor areas they still practice The Nap in Spain. You can’t do much between 3 and 5. You do The Nap and you feel fine and frisky late in Barcelona.
You will be told to go see the town Girona, a short distance away. Do nothing until you hear from me. But further on, Dali country (Figueres and Portlligat) is beautiful and, considering it is a coastal area on the Med, still has its virginity. (We should buy property there while we can before private equity firms get around to it.)
I once hired Dali to make a commercial for Alka Seltzer. He came to a meeting with my clients and he brought his wife Gala. They were in their later, odder years. In fact she was mad. During the meeting Gala insisted on kicking my creative director in the leg so hard he bled badly and we had to cancel the meeting.
On her way out of my office, she took much of what was on the top of my desk and I had to tussle with her to keep my work papers. She got away with my pens. So I really wanted to see where they lived and how they lived and if my pens were in their house.
I’ll tell you all about it soon. I’ll also tell you about the restaurant in the area that is rated the greatest on earth by most journals — El Bulli. And, most important, I will tell you about the most wonderful vacation in the world — the back-to-back Gaudi-Gehry-Guggenheim trip that ends in Gehry’s sexy new hotel, the Marques se Riscal, outside Bilbao.
In the meantime, big tip: before you go — and you must go — read Ghosts of Spain by Giles Tremlett. And read Barcelona the Great Enchantress by Robert Hughes. These are not travel books; this is delicious reading. You’ll thank me.