Asking two semi-professional beach bums to review a hotel in a city centre on one of the hottest weekends of the year could have backfired. When the sun’s shining, culture comes pretty low on our agenda. But, as it happened, we discovered a city and a hotel as beguiling as any beach.
The weekend began with an early flight. The idea of the same two beach bums getting to the airport super-early on a Saturday is beyond a joke; luckily, it was remarkably easy. With nothing but hand luggage, we were in a cab on our way to Hotel Neri by 11h. Located in a back street in Barrí Gotic (the Gothic Quarter, the oldest, most picturesque part of Barcelona) it’s a little difficult to find, but that’s a good thing. As we were to learn, this is a city that never sleeps, so our location proved a bonus when we wanted some kip; there’s no chance of a hedonistic rabble partying below your window.
Too early to check into our room, we dumped our bags and found our first of many bottles of rosado waiting conveniently round the corner at a tiny café. After a lunch of some delicious garlicky prawns and a prowl around the neighbourhood streets, we got back about 15h, and were very pleasantly surprised by what the Neri had to offer. When you stumble in from the sun and heat, it’s really very startling. You certainly appreciate its darkness and austerity as a welcome respite from Barcelona’s busy streets.
The hotel is housed in an 18th-century palace, with an extremely dramatic interior that combines striking Gothic architecture with super-modern features. It is contemporary – not in a minimalist way, but with the original features preserved and presented in a cutting-edge context. The front door is made of enormous sheets of glass and ornate metalwork, there are mad pieces of art dotted about on exposed brickwork, and gilded mirrors hang on stone walls. It all works beautifully.
Even better, the rooms are a reason to shut the door on the rest of the world. Our bedroom was sultry, spacious and sumptuously sexy. A huge bed, lots of velvet and dark silks and stacks of cushions made it hard to leave. It’s the perfect place for a cheeky weekend. All you want to do is draw the drapes, sink into the dark-grey slate bath and sip champagne, or stretch out on the enormous bed and ignore whatever’s on the large plasma screen in front of you. Eventually we prised ourselves out, headed up to the hotel’s pretty private rooftop, and rang down to the bar for an aperitif before dinner. Below, it might have been busy all around, but cosied up on cushions, alone on a terrace nestled among age-old rooftops, we couldn’t have enjoyed a more peaceful sunset.
Adjacent to the hotel is La Ribera, another of the city’s oldest areas; judging by all the bright young things, it is also where the hip folk hang out. We weren’t massively hungry, and wandered around until we found a fantastic tapas restaurant in a little square, where we joined bohemian thirty-something senyors i senyores picking at olives and manchego cheese. With a pop of another cava cork, this Mr Smith, who lives in Africa, and Mrs Smith from south London, decided to meet in Zanzibar for another week of pleasure. But even that would be hard pushed to beat the romance of Barcelona. Everywhere you stroll, the air is alive with the sounds of buskers: opera singers, string quartets, a girl playing the harp. Sitting under the moonlight with someone you love, listening to haunting melodies picked out on a Spanish guitar, is a real life-is-sweet moment.
We weren’t in the mood for anything too intrepid, so we were happy to discover how easy it is to explore Barcelona on foot. In the centre of the action, close to tourist-packed Las Ramblas, behind Avenue de Catedral, we sneaked a look at La Seu. Even Mr Smith, who had declared right at the start that he wasn’t being dragged into any churches, had to concede it blew him away.
You can’t help but soak up Barcelona’s culture – it’s all around you. There are the eccentric buildings designed by Gaudí, and countless galleries and museums, many of which are within walking distance of the Neri, such as the inspirational Museu Picasso. But we suggest avoiding the best-known landmarks when the mercury is at its highest. It is worth seeing the mind-boggling craftsmanship of La Sagrada Família close up, but eschewing the queues to go up to the top we spent the rest of our morning wandering around town, eyes open to the stunning architecture.
Barcelona offers romance, decadence, heritage, a chance to party and the option of chilling. But the crowning glory for this pair? The beach. A 45-minute train ride took us to the seaside town of Sitges. The carriage was packed, but even listening to the rhythms of the Spanish chatter was fun. Serendipity had coincided our visit with a religious festival, and as we wandered down the hill, we joined a crazy procession of stilt-walkers with papier-mâché heads and voluminous costumes, all heading towards the clifftop church. We revelled in the carnival atmosphere and the sounds of accordions, guitars and windpipes, and pondered whether Tim Burton had helped out with this particular interpretation of the nativity. We then found a spot on the sand among friendly preeners and posers. An afternoon spent lying in the sun, buying beers and snacks from the good-looking young Spaniards patrolling the beach – who could complain?
But you don’t need to leave town to feel sand under your feet or frolic in the sea. A ten-minute cab ride from the hotel brings you to Barceloneta, the city’s own man-made beach, flanked by lots of restaurants and bars. This discovery had us changing our return flights, booking into the Neri for another night, and extending our long weekend by another day. Our last afternoon entailed dawdling over a long, boozy seafood lunch in Port Olímpic, and more beach-based relaxation. This is a city where you can find delicious wine and tapas whatever the time, wander around or hang out until the wee hours, and finally retire to your immaculately serviced room at the Hotel Neri to get some rest before you start all over again.