24-Hour Room Service: Mandarin Oriental, Barcelona
A taste of the Orient in the heart of Catalonia
Saturday 24 April 2010
How's this for service? Before setting out from the Mandarin Oriental for a day's sightseeing in Barcelona, I left the novel I was reading face down but open on the bed. When I came back, the book was closed with a bookmark at the appropriate page; and not just any bookmark, but one in the shape of a closed fan with a burgundy silk tassel dangling from it. In my book, hotels come no classier than those in which chambermaids are trained to mark your page with a burgundy tassel.
This new outpost of the swish Mandarin Oriental chain opened only last November, but judging by the number of elegant Catalans gliding in and out, it has already become established as a place for city slickers to see and be seen. Actually, Barcelona's beau monde has been visiting this building for decades. Until it was destroyed in the Spanish Civil War, it was the home of the Circulo Ecuestre, a members' club for the super-rich. Then it was rebuilt and in 1952, became a bank.
Cleverly, some of the features of the bank have been either retained, or evoked. Battered old safety deposit boxes, and matching ersatz new ones, adorn the exceedingly stylish if rather clumsily named Banker's Bar, and the no-nonsense bedroom doors look more like the entrances to strongrooms.
As befits a building that has catered for the city's social elite for so long, it stands handsomely but discreetly on Barcelona's ritziest shopping street, the Passeig de Gràcia. Indeed our taxi driver didn't even know it was there. Only a doorman, guarding a lavishly carpeted ramp up to the small but fabulous lobby, gives the game away.
Inside, the place is a study in highly stylised contemporary chic, the work of a celebrated Spanish interior Patricia Urquiola. True to Mandarin Oriental's origins, she has paid her respects to the Far East, putting screens in every bedroom, with black, grey and beige the predominant colour scheme. But she has also paid proper homage to Catalonia with some Gaudí-esque flourishes, especially in the main restaurant, Blanc, where low sofas stand cheek by jowl with high peacock chairs that reminded my wife, most incongruously, of the cane furniture she used to sell at Candlelight Cookware in Barnsley, circa 1978.
We ate at Blanc one night, a superb meal (and not madly expensive, at €12 for all starters and €24 for all main courses) served by attentive staff in grey trousers and tunics, which made them look a little disconcertingly like medical orderlies. Even the petits fours matched the grey-and-beige colour scheme. You can overdo these things.
After dinner we wandered up to the rooftop, where there is a small swimming pool, and also a fine view of the city, dominated even at night by Gaudí's bizarre masterpiece, the enormous Sagrada Familia church. In the basement is a gym and the obligatory spa, which can be accessed by a private elevator so that you don't have to stand in the main lifts in your white robe and slippers. At the best hotels they think of everything.
The Passeig de Gràcia is not so much Barcelona's Bond Street as its Champs-Elysées, a wide avenue of fancy shops and chain restaurants. It's about a 15-minute walk south from the Mandarin Oriental to the famous but rather tacky Ramblas, and the hotel is near some major bus routes, including the number 24 to the Parc Güell, the Gaudí-designed park overlooking the city, which we took on a Sunday morning and where I was relieved of the €150 I was brainlessly carrying in my back pocket.
Maybe it was that which put me right off Gaudí. At any rate the Modernisme style of architecture he made famous doesn't light my fire, but for those whose fire it does ignite, the hotel's location could not be better; it is just across the street from the Manzana de la Discordia, Barcelona's famous block of Modernisme buildings, including Gaudí's fantastical Casa Batlló.
For my money, the most important thing in a big-city hotel is the quality of its sound-proofing. The Mandarin Oriental's is miraculous. Our second-floor room overlooked the street yet with the window closed we could have heard a pin drop, and could also have relied on it being picked up by our superb chambermaid, who not only delighted us with the tasselled bookmark, but also left us a plate of goodies every afternoon: a slab of chocolate with olive oil and salt ("not chocolate, oil and salt again," said my wife, in her wry Yorkshire way); some meltingly delicious slices of jamón; some gorgeously sweet oranges.
Our room wasn't large but couldn't have been more comfortable, and we gave thanks that our children weren't with us to abuse the sleek remote-control unit with which we could operate the window blinds without having to leave the (sumptuous) bed.
Elsewhere, too, the hotel scored top marks for service and comfort. The concierges were charming and helpful, directing us off the beaten tourist track to a quite wonderful tapas bar full of animated locals. If it was the excellent pickpocketing to be had on the 24 bus that they were discussing over their patatas bravas, at least my money was being well spent.
Mandarin Oriental, Passeig de Gracia, 38-40 Barcelona, Catalonia, Spain (00 34 93 151 88 88; mandarinoriental.com/Barcelona )
Double rooms start at €379, including breakfast
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