Whenever this Australian Ms Smith and her Mr have visited Barcelona, we’ve always plonked ourselves conveniently in the city centre. So all my memories of this colourful coastal hub are of bars in the Barri Gòtic and wobbling home with the locals when the sun comes up. This is the Catalan city, I know and love. Keen to get to know how the other half lives, Hotel Primero Primera appeared in our crosshairs after Mr Smith, a well-travelled musician, declared it one of his favourite hotels. He is not alone.
Sarrià-Sant Gervasi is a sleepy, well-to-do district. The neighbourhood of Les Tres Torres is a 10-minute cab ride north of the Gothic Quarter, or the same time from the centre to its Metro station – still, it's not an obvious spot if you’re after the famous Spanish nightlife and frenetic buzz. But if you want to dip your toe in the action, shake it about and then head home for some calm respite, Hotel Primero Primera’s co-ordinates are just what the doctor ordered.
A stylishly renovated 1950s apartment building, the foyer is accessed via a driveway that sparks childhood memories of pulling into roadside country motels which lead right into reception. Eexcept there’s not a flocked quilt or curtain combo in sight in this elegant sepia-toned lobby. Hotel Primero Primera has a midcentury aesthetic, but enough contemporary and classic touches to keep it from kitsch. A circular staircase towers to the top floor, lit by a skylight from above and across from here is the breakfast and bar area, where we were lured to for Continental-breakfast spreads of meats, breads, fruits and croissants. Mr Smith was taken with the slight masculine touch visible in cowhide bar stools and stainless steel.
The same family has owned the property since it was built, and they lived on the first floor, hence the hotel’s name, which translates as ‘first first’. Part of PP’s charm is that it’s like sitting in someone’s front room, surrounded by piles of magazines and much-thumbed beautifully bound books. Eight children grew up here and the hotel’s walls have the black-and-white photography to prove it; mother Monthse still has her own flat. This boutique B&B has aged gracefully, though: rooms are fresh and stylish – sister Nouria is responsible for the interior design.
If you drink like Don Draper (who’d love this place, I’m sure), I’ll bet they’d make an excellent Old Fashioned. It’s that kind of place. A thoughtfully curated selection of wines and spirits tempted us to enjoy a few local vintages by the glass (all excellent, on the recommendation of the bartender) and Spanish ales. Snacks are on offer all day in a second homey area (gracias, guys – although I probably shouldn’t have had those pains au chocolat before heading out to dinner), and boozy drinks are ever available care of an honesty system. Be sure to pause at the wall covered with a map of Barcelona. Great as an artwork it is also an innovative way to find out what’s on, and to see where you need to be – they even have arrows pointing to where the latest art exhibitions and enticing events are afoot.
Excellent intel is available from the front desk who kindly recommended a local restaurant, El Pescadito, which, going by the interior design, began trading around the same time as the hotel was originally built. Simple tapas included delicious calamari, croquettes, anchovies and cheeses – what this place lacks in glamour, it makes up for in first-class Catalan staples.
After our early tapas, we walked the few minutes to catch the train, and headed downtown to dine all over again – this time with friends back in our stomping ground, the Gothic Quarter. What’s the point of visiting Spain if you don’t seize every eating opportunity, I say. Legendary 19th-century watering hole, Bar Marsella lured us to El Raval for absinthe and more retro appreciation. Cobwebs hang from broken chandeliers, old liquor bottles covered in a century of dust sit on shelves behind the bar, paint peels from the roof: this is one of the oldest bars in Barcelona, which the decor corroborates. We ordered the bitter-green elixir the bar is famous for, and followed local tradition of heating sugar cubes on a spoon before mixing it in to the liquid. Things got a little hazy after that.
At an hour past my usual bedtime, we left the blue sugary flames of Bar Marsella and caught a cab back to the hotel. It was our room that really made the extra travel worthwhile. The junior suite is huge. The design is simple but meticulously thought out, more classic than statement, with pops of personality to elevate it above standard hotel propositions. The next day we nursed delicate heads by spreading ourselves around the room, moving from comfortable couch in the bedroom to chaise lounge in the living area to generous balcony, where we gazed out towards the hills of Barcelona. Who wouldn’t love the extremely large bathroom, complete with massive tub (the perfect tonic after a spirited Spanish night out) and Gilchrist & Soames products?
At 30 rooms, Primero Primera is small – so don’t expect extensive room service. And if that had been available, we might never have left, failing our task to see how the other neighbourhoods live. When dealing with a Barcelona hangover (I don’t bounce back like I used to), the complimentary beverages in the in-room fridge, self-medicating with enough sugar to get us back on track. So we headed out for a repeat performance of the night before, soothed by the knowledge that we had our chic family home on Doctor Carulla Street to return to – and the promise that we would never touch those fiery green drinks ever again.