In Barcelona, on Passeig de Gràcia, there are three spectacularly designed houses. Sitting side by side in the Eixample district, the trio stand out not only for their unique facades, but also because each property stands in stark contrast to the next, despite being built around the same time. The story goes that in the late 1800s, three of Barcelona’s leading architects were commissioned by different aristocratic families to redesign their homes, which meant that each designer’s creation threatened to take the eyes off others.
What followed was what can only be described as architectural showboating. Lluis Domènech i Montaner appealed to Barcelona’s most experienced artists, creating Casa Lleó i Morera as a shining gem with intricate ornamentation on the outside and stained glass windows and mosaics on the inside. Next door, Josep Puig i Cadafalch got to work on Casa Amatller, his vision of a traditional Catalan mansion with Germanic influences. The neighboring property was overseen by Antoni Gaudí, who brought color to the streets with Casa Batlló, a marine-inspired design reminiscent of his rainbow-colored Park Güell.
Each property is striking in itself, but none of the architects achieved what they set out to do: to have their design crowned the prettiest of all. Instead, the exact opposite has happened; opinion was divided, and today the terrace is known as Illa de la Discòrdia: the block of discord.
It might not be quite the nickname the architects were hoping for, but the street presents a pretty picture to say the least. Hidden on my balcony at the Mandarin Oriental Barcelona, I have an excellent view of the entire terrace. Located in the former headquarters of Banco Hispano Americano, the hotel sits diagonally across from Illa de la Discòrdia but, unlike its neighbors, it is less concerned with drawing attention to itself. Indeed, in comparison, the facade is sober, an elegant limestone building that one could almost go unnoticed. Of course, this is the Mandarin Oriental, so any illusion of secrecy is entirely artificial – but nonetheless, when you step inside the hotel, it feels like you’ve discovered a hidden treasure.
We must thank the Spanish architects Carlos Ferrater and Juan Trias de Bes for this. When they began renovations in 2004 (the hotel opened in 2009), the designers kept the original facade relatively intact, instead focusing their efforts on the rest of the building, creating a large and vibrant hotel on one of the busiest streets in Barcelona. The attraction begins with the entrance gates, which are offset from the street and accessed by a sloping bridge. As you walk through an ivory skylight to the lobby beyond, the first impression is to discover something very special.
Inside, there are 120 rooms, each the vision of Spanish interior designer Patricia Urquiola, whose eye for clean lines and a neutral color palette, mixed with occasional touches of blinky Chinoiserie. Eye to the hotel’s Far Eastern roots, makes the suites more like luxury apartments than hotel rooms. Champagne on ice welcomes me to my Terrace Suite, where paneled walls and monochrome upholstery are offset by the vibrant lemon yellow of the armchair, stool and Aqua di Parma toiletries. The majority of the rooms have a balcony overlooking Passeig de Gràcia (mine had an outdoor bathtub) or a terrace overlooking the resident Mimosa garden, where a menu of light Mediterranean dishes and cocktails is served .
This is one of the hotel’s many dining options, the best of all being Moments. Decorated in white and gold, the restaurant is run by seven Michelin starred chef Carme Ruscalla and his son Raül Balam, and received two stars for his new approach to Catalan cuisine. The chef also runs the more informal Blanc menu, an all-day restaurant where a buffet is served for breakfast and a a à la carte menu for lunch and dinner. The TARTA rooftop terrace serves Peruvian food and drinks, while night drinks can be enjoyed in the basement Banker’s Bar, a nod to the building’s old life, with a ceiling fashioned from ‘old safety deposit boxes.
The basement houses the spa, which, being a Mandarin Oriental hotel, is a highlight. There are seven treatment rooms, including a couples suite, where guests can enjoy a selection of spa experiences, from aromatherapy massages to caviar-infused facials. There’s also a fitness center, hair salon, and 25m swimming pool, though those who prefer a gentle dip on regimented laps should venture out to the rooftop terrace, where a plunge pool is bathed instead. of sun is installed against the backdrop of the Barcelona skyline.
From here you feel both in the heart of one of Spain’s busiest cities and away from the crowds. Just peek over the balcony to spot shoppers juggling bags, locals sipping café con leche in roadside cafes, and lines of tourists winding past Casa Batlló (maybe. was Gaudí the real winner after all). Relax on your lounge chair, however, and the hustle and bustle of Barcelona is forgotten. This is, I think, what makes the hotel so special. Cleverly designed to be so central and yet so private, the Mandarin Oriental Barcelona manages to strike the balance between city break and quiet retreat; a welcoming space to come back to after a day exploring the city’s sights, the majority of which are within walking distance of the hotel. It may not be the most flamboyant building on Passeig de Gràcia, but that only adds to its charm. On this side of the street, at least, it’s what’s inside that counts.
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