In any other city, the neoclassic facade of this former royal palace would stop you like a heart attack. But this is Barcelona, where buildings by Antoni Gaudí seem to dot every third corner, and the Hotel Claris is just another noble structure, beautiful but boilerplate. The lobby, however, is an eyeful.
A melange of the futuristic, the modern and the ancient, the lobby makes you wonder if you've stepped into a museum. Fourth-century mosaics of some unnamed mythological creatures gaze out over its cold, white marble floors. An elevator slithers silently through a weird portholed shaft. Just as you expect to see a maze of red velvet ropes meandering toward the next exhibit, a lounge in the corner grabs your eye. Its beige furniture looks inviting. Its soft lighting and red carpet inject the lobby with warmth, slowly melting away your cool first impression. By the time you reach the reception desk you know this is a first-rate hotel where comfort is every bit as important as beauty.
The Claris is the jewel of the Derby Hotels, a six-property group owned by Jordi Clos, a Barcelona businessman and art collector. After a five-year construction project that rivaled Gaudí's epic--and unfinished--Templo Expiatori de le Sagrada Familia 10 blocks to the east, the Claris opened in 1992.
Form is Clos' passion, but nowhere does it supersede function. Rooms--there are 80 doubles, four singles and 36 suites of varying size--are large and plush, with parqueted wood cabinetry, leather couches and chairs, and deep purple bedding and drapes. Each space is decorated with unique pieces from Clos' collection and furnished with first-rate electronic equipment. One corner may be dominated by a piece of fifth-century sculpture from Burma, the other by a Bang & Olufsen hi-fi with CD player. Bathrooms are enormous and ultramodern; many have whirlpools.
Barcelona is home to eight Michelin-starred restaurants, but if you don't feel like venturing out the Claris offers three dining options. On the first floor is a traditional grand restaurant that specializes in country cuisine from Ampurda, a region in northwest Catalonia. On a recent night the chef was serving griddled skate with leeks and tomato jam, marinated quail with vegetables and dried nuts, and stewed rabbit with pearl onions, among other rich and rural fare. If you're in the mood for something more intimate--and decidedly more decadent--try Beluga, a tiny eatery that serves caviar, foie gras, salmon tartare and sirloin carpaccio. The Barbacoa Claris, a casual restaurant on the seventh-floor terrace, is open from June to September.
If the sun shines during your stay, a rooftop pool will tempt you; if the weather's nasty, an Egyptian museum on the second floor may beckon. Resist. Barcelona is its own museum, and the Claris' location in the Eixample district puts you amidst the crowning achievements of Modernism, the city's golden architectural age of the late nineteenth century. Treasures by Gaudí, Domenech i Montaner and Puig i Cadafalch are within walking distance.
So are treasures by Cohiba and Montecristo. Tabacs Crivillé, a small tobacconist owned by a charming woman named Mireia Pajes, is a five-minute stroll away. In addition to the usual array of Spanish favorites (the brands above, Fonseca and Sancho Panza, to name a few), you may be able to snag some Vegas Robainas, the new Cuban brand launched in Madrid in June and available exclusively in Spain through the end of the year. Try the Unicos, a brawny torpedo that earned a 91 rating in the August Marvin Shanken's Cigar Insider, the monthly newsletter published by M. Shanken Communications Inc.
The details of the Hotel Claris are no exception to the Barcelonan rule that everything be designed, not simply made. Lighting a smoke in the lobby bar--the hotel keeps a humidor stocked with Cohibas, Partagas and Montecristos--you can't help but notice that even the matchbox was subjected to the same keen design eye that surveyed the rest of the Claris. There seems to be no detail too minor to escape Jordi Clos' aesthetic obsession.
Brendan Vaughan is the manager of Cigar Aficionado Online and the assistant editor of Marvin Shanken's Cigar Insider.
Pau Claris, 150
Phone (34-3) 487 62 62; fax (34-3) 215 79 70
Rates Single, US$176 (27,300 pesetas). Double, US$220 (34,100
pesetas). Junior suite, US$252 (39,000 pesetas). Duplex, US$271
(41,950 pesetas). Duplex suites, US$485 (75,000 pesetas)