Sitting by the rooftop infinity pool at Grand Hotel Central, Barcelona, watching the evening light disappear, we feel serene and just a little smug. Surely no one else in this crowded city can be watching the pink sun sink into water on this particular evening? The evening in question, just a few days before Valentine’s Day, is on the chilly side for Barcelona, which explains why we have the rooftop, and seemingly the whole city, entirely to ourselves.
The Grand Hotel Central is, as its name suggests, right at the heart of Barcelona. But while the streets outside thrum with office workers, tourists idling past shops and cars dodging bikes, the hotel feels like an isolated retreat. A very high-end, minimalist retreat that is – all low-level mahogany furniture and candles flickering in glass holders. Designers Sandra Tarruella and Isabel López have incorporated original features, such as an old-fashioned lift shaft and marble staircase, from the 1920s apartment block the hotel was hewn from into their modern scheme of muted greys and browns, and sleek, dark furniture.
Stylish rather than opulent, our city suite with its bare walls and large, empty surfaces feels like an elegant backdrop for the real feature: huge windows facing directly onto the city’s fairytale cathedral, floodlit in the evening light. Reclining on the king-size bed, complimentary cava in one hand and chocolate in the other, I feel like a princess. My prince, however, is busy checking out the massaging power shower and ‘amazing lighting solutions’ in our en suite (we have just finished decorating our bathroom at home, so no detail escapes his designer’s eye), and delights in the fact he is able to operate each individual light, window blind, and the MP3, CD and DVD players from the comfort of bed. In fact, leaving this super-convenient, soothing environment at any point during the weekend is invariably a shock to the system; and so, we resolve sagely, we should stay in the room as much as possible. This is, after all, a romantic weekend.
Eventually, though, hunger drives us down to the hotel’s restaurant, Ávalon, a secluded spot in the basement with equally soft and seductive lighting. Here, we indulge in three courses of award-winning chef Ramón Freixa’s twist on traditional Catalan food. Mr Smith is dubious about his Catalan sausage, which comes parcelled in filo pastry and tastes ‘a bit like haggis’. But this is a man who generally turns his nose up at fish, seafood and any meat that isn’t chicken, and rejects tapas on the basis that he ‘likes to have his own dinner on his own plate’. He won’t even try my heavenly sea bass.
After dinner, we feel in need of a stroll. Having only visited Barcelona in the humid, tourist-packed summer months, we discover a winter-evening vibe that is quieter, more authentically Spanish and certainly more romantic. I had been advised by friends who know the city that the Born district is the place to be seen, so we head straight for the main street, Passeig del Born, and some expertly mixed mojitos at bustling Pitin. The bar staff seem impressed by our cocktail-drinking abilities – Spanish revellers are, we note, infinitely more civilised than their English counterparts, and seem able to make one drink last an entire evening. ‘We’re just doing our bit for queen and country,’ says Mr Smith plaintively.
The next day, after breakfast in bed (you just mark your choices on the menu hanging on your door), we meander towards the seafront, taking in craft markets, an outdoor ballet performance in Plaça Real and even a full-blown saint’s day carnival. And then, with only a short detour to the shops on Las Ramblas, we head for the beach in Barceloneta. It’s easy to forget that Barcelona is a beach city, but even in February, the combination of winter sun, die-hard surfers and fresh seafood in one of Barceloneta’s outdoor cafés, immediately gets us into that two-week-beach-holiday kind of mood. Mr Smith, predictably, does not share my enthusiasm for seafood tapas, and as I tuck into wonderfully tender calamari, sardines and cuttlefish, he joyfully takes delivery of an omelette – which, at least, comes on its own plate.
Since I’ve had my choice of lunch venue, Mr Smith insists, with a glint in his eye, on taking a cable-car trip across the port to Montjuïc, a scenic hilly area rejuvenated for the 1992 Olympics. A vertigo sufferer, I start to feel faint in the queue, and the German teenagers who find it hilarious to wobble the car as we set off are silenced by my look of unadulterated terror (Mr Smith, unfortunately, has photographic evidence). But by the time I am kissing the ground at the other end, I have to agree that it has been worth facing my fear for the stunning views over the city.
After another early evening of stargazing back at the hotel, we head out for dinner at a typically British hour. However, by the time we agree on a restaurant, it is approaching the more local mealtime of 10pm. Mr Smith’s ‘anything-but-tapas’ edict is limiting to say the least, but we finally find a pizza restaurant that fits his requirements and my ‘authentic-atmosphere’ criteria. Any disagreements are soon forgotten over pizza and a carafe of wine and, by the time we head back, we are more than ready for another night in that enormous bed.
I often find that city breaks don’t give me enough time to wind down; too much marching around with guidebooks, Mr Smith trailing petulantly in my wake. But with the rooftop pool, luxurious suite and the beach just a 20-minute wander away, our weekend at the Grand Hotel Central feels like more like a mini-holiday. We may not have packed in many sights, but we’ve absorbed Barcelona’s laid-back atmosphere. We’ll just have to come back to take in the rest of the city, perhaps when it’s warm enough to make full use of that infinity pool.