I can’t take my eyes off Xavi Hernández. I’m at Barcelona’s Camp Nou, a mecca for football fans. It’s a blustery spring night in the Catalan capital, and I’m finally watching an FC Barcelona home match. Everyone else, of course, is watching Lionel Messi – considered by many The Best Player In The World. Xavi is quietly efficient, graceful, making the hard things look easy… streamlined. (Bear with me, I am getting to the part where I talk about our hip hotel.) In many ways, the footballer’s movements are akin to our hotel: Ohla Hotel puts the ugly things out of sight, does the whole five-star thing without a song or dance, and retains effortless calm throughout.
Riffing on the footie analogy, Ohla has relegated the reception to the first floor. There are no luggage-laden, airport-weary tourists cluttering up this lobby. Sidle into the softly lit entrance through the discreet glass doors of this boutique Barcelona hotel, and you instantly sense the low-key buzz from the ground-floor restaurant and bar, where even the locals want a piece of the action. Built on the site of the first Count of Barcelona’s palace, this refurbished former department store and police office has dispensed with its civic duties to concern itself solely with the pursuit of pleasure.
Inside the bedrooms, cupboards and WC unsightliness has been done away with, eliminating the more scruffy elements of the room (they’ve, confusingly at first, been hidden behind the bathroom’s sleek black walls). The lighting is behind architectural cut-outs in the ceiling, and there are absolutely no furnishings that needn’t be there. It’s minimalist, but with a distinctly braver space-age feel rather than your typical Scandi style.
Fans of the flamboyant, fear not, it’s not all slick understated refinement. Our room’s centerpiece is the shower: more than a nod to the showy artistry of Messi. Standing on the edge of where our open-plan bathroom meets the bedroom – an enclosed ensuite with three clear-glass sides – it shouts proudly that not everything should be hidden. This isn’t form over function either, the soaking from the ginormous rainfall head is a near-religious experience, and while it might not be wholly appropriate for friends travelling together, who cares? This is a romantic trip. And you can easily fit two in here.
Surprisingly it’s outside where the splendour is at its strongest. The hotel’s entire façade is dominated by Mur d’ulls, 2011 a work by artist Frederic Amat, in which hundreds of ceramic eyeballs dramatically peer out at us. They’re curiously dotted around the neoclassical front exterior, and litter the modern façade at the rear. You can get up close and personal with these peculiar little pupils from the chill-out terrace, which is a perfect mixture of the hotel’s extravagance and refinement. It’s very New York, but with views of the mesmeric architectural chaos of Gothic Barcelona instead of skyscrapers. You can spend an age here – and we do – ogling the near-perfect vistas. By summer, this must be one of Barcelona’s most splendid spots.
Then there’s the location. We’d arrived the day earlier, Mrs Smith and I giving each other a knowingly smug grin as the taxi pulled up outside the hotel. We know Barcelona well and were more than a little pleased with its locale; Ohla Ciutat Vella is steps away from the best of the Gothic Quarter and just a short walk from El Born, a fashionable area with some fine eateries and nightspots (the internationally renowned tapas of El Xampanyet and Cal Pep, and the undeniably pretty new hotspot, Café Kafka are just some favourites).
Gastrobar is a light, airy space where the divine breakfast is also held. It’s a voyeurs’ dream with huge windows looking out onto the bustling streets outside. If you’re smart you’ll perch at the sleek bar and watch the chefs busily preparing tapas and platillos like Iberian pork cheek with sweet potato and charcoal-grilled mussels with fresh tomato sauce. The biggest hitters for us? The Marennes-Oléron oysters with green apple and kaffir lime: utterly sublime, we immediately ordered more; this is the sort of forward-thinking execution of Catalan cuisine that will see you back again, and again.
Finally we stray from the arms of luxury, and spend a day snooping around the streets around the hotel – boutiques interspersed with tapas and caña. (Bar Pinotxo, just inside Boqueria Market, is a must, with prodigious el Bulli icon Ferran Adrià agreeing on this.) Then, soon enough, we are on to see another of the chef’s great loves: FC Barcelona. It’s a masterclass, and they run out easy 4–0 winners. There’s a period in the second half, where the opposition don’t touch the ball for nearly 20 minutes; it was that moment where I started thinking of the Ohla analogy… It too is a well-oiled machine, and for large periods, the competition doesn’t come close.