If you are cruising the Mediterranean, there is a good chance you may embark on your cruise from Barcelona: The second largest city in Spain has become the most popular cruise port in the Mediterranean. Since this wasn't our first visit to this magnificent city (which is some 40 square miles in area), my husband and I decided to book a two-night stay in the Gothic Quarter to explore that area and adjust to the time change before a cruise.
Barcelona is comprised of a series of districts and neighborhoods, each with unique character and charm. But inarguably, the Gothic Quarter (Barri Gòtec) is one of the most interesting parts of this city both historically and architecturally. Comprised of winding cobblestone streets, alleys, and squares that beckon to be discovered, this area houses an abundance of small shops, studios for artisans and craftsmen, bicycle shops, bars and restaurants, and several major cultural and religious attractions.
After a 25-minute ride from the airport, we checked into the four-star Neri Hotel, which is located on a narrow pedestrian street between Saint James Square (Placa Sant Jaume) and the Gothic Barcelona Cathedral (Catedral de la Santa Creu i Santa Eulàlia). We chose the hotel because it seemed like a good base from which to explore this and adjacent neighborhoods by foot, with easy access to taxis and public transportation.
The 22-room hotel is comprised of two buildings that were beautifully restored and joined together: a 12th century palace and an 18th century stone building. Like much of the Gothic quarter, old facades seamlessly blend with neo-Gothic restorations to give visitors the feel of what the neighborhood must have been like in medieval times.
Now a Relais & Chateaux property, the hotel has been beautifully decorated by contemporary designer Cristina Gabas, who exercised her sense of whimsy while respecting the history of the gracious building.
The property has the feel of a cozy, boutique hotel but offers a full-service restaurant serving fresh, Mediterranean-style cooking at lunch and dinner, a lounge-bar, library, and lovely rooftop garden terrace with seating for drinks or two hammocks for sunbathing. A small English-speaking reception desk is staffed to provide directions and information.
In the morning, breakfast (included in the price of our room) featured wonderful Catalan-style breakfasts with small dishes of pomme tomate (bread smeared with tomato), fruits, typical meats, cheeses, and breads, along with made-to-order eggs, pancakes, cereal and more.
The hotel has an exclusive contract with a local car service to pick up guests from the airport or port for an additional charge. Our driver, Armando Panedos, was so knowledgeable and pleasant that we engaged him for a separate half-day tour of Antonio Gaudí's Park Güell and other city sights.
Room 302 was a clean, spacious junior suite overlooking Plaça de San Felip Neri, a small square dominated by a fountain and three huge acacia trees that shed yellow blossoms during the spring. The courtyard played a cameo role in the Woody Allen movie, Vicky Cristina Barcelona (with Scarlett Johansson and Javier Bardem).
Quite large by European standards, our room had a king-sized bed,oversized desk with a large horizontal surface, serene taupe walls, a sitting area with a comfortable green velvet couch, gold and green throw pillows, and a large wood coffee table. Ample closets, shelf space, and a safe were tucked behind a curtained wall near the room's entry.
The room had every amenity including a pillow and sheet menu, minibar, free Wi-Fi, plasma TV, and CD and film menu. The bathroom sparkled with a large double-trough sink with shiny fittings that stood out against the quartzite stone walls and floor tiles. The shower had an open, glass panel (in lieu of a confining shower curtain). Homeopathic bath products were provided and a Lucite beauty box was stocked with toothbrushes and a small hairbrush for the forgetful traveler.
Built on the site of an old cemetery, the square (restored in the 1950s) is rich in history. Looking outside our room window over the square, a church convent was to the left. Across was the baroque San Felip Neri Church that Antonio Gaudí walked to each day while constructing the Sagrada Familia several miles away (the priest of the church was his good friend), and a private school. On the right was the Museu del Calcat, a unique footwear museum in a building that was once home to the municipal shoemaker's guild.
During the Spanish Civil War, the small square was bombed killing more than 20 children who were hiding there. The church façade shows the holes from bomb fragments. Now, young children from the school use the square as their playground by day, and young adults come there to talk and play music at night. The square is vibrant with a changing cast of partygoers until the street cleaners arrive in the early hours of the morning. The only drawback of the hotel is that the constant noise and chatter in the square might be disconcerting for light sleepers.
An outpost of the Barcelona Tourism Office is conveniently located off Saint James Square (less than a five-minute walk from the hotel). From there, visitors can arrange a two-hour guided tour of the Gothic Quarter for 15 Euros per person (10 percent less if ordered online, in advance). Our group was small (only 6 people in total) which allowed plenty of time to ask questions.
On the tour, we saw the Cathedral and its 15th century cloister; the Jewish quarter (called the Call), which is the site of the oldest synagogue in Spain; the City Hall with its ancient façade; the columns of a temple dedicated to Augustus (relics of Roman times) inside a building owned by the Catalan hiker's club; a frieze designed by Picasso on the exterior of a building belonging to the architect's association; the walls that were once the gateway to the old city of Barcino (Latin for Barcelona) and the courtyard of the Museu Feredric Mares (once a private courtyard to a king).
We spent the major portion of our time walking aimlessly for hours afterwards, enjoying the bustling street life set against the beautiful backdrop of Gothic architecture.
IF YOU GO