The gain in Spain
A new hotel hybrid offers good value and considerable style, writes Suzanne Wales
THE idea of a budget hotel or hostel in Spain is unlikely to make travellers quiver in anticipation. But things are changing and a new hybrid of hostel-hotel is sweeping Spain; hip little hostelries that match the bigger four-star hotels in style and amenities, but where double rooms hover about the ($195) mark.
The trend started in Barcelona, Spain’s vibrant capital of cool and counterculture. El Raval is the city’s largest neighbourhood, an edgy, multicultural network of streets and alleys just off La Rambla that has seen the most aggressive of the city’s urban renewal schemes.
Four years ago, the siblings of an established hotelier opened two branches of Gat Accommodation in El Raval, at that time considered a slightly risque area for tourists. The hotels were among the first in the city to feature seamless minimalism in their decor, with apple green and black walls, crisp white bedding and slate grey bathrooms.
The 35-room Gat Xino, more upmarket than its shared-bathroom sister the Gat Raval, is located in a pretty 19thcentury building with a rooftop terrace. During Barcelona’s seemingly endless calendar of music festivals, it buzzes.
We have a lot of DJs staying here . . . creative types,’’ hotel manager Belen Mas says. Spencer Tunick, the American photographer who became famous by taking photographs of undressed crowds, stays here when he visits the city. (Perhaps he likes the hotel’s striking lightbox bedheads featuring classic views of Barcelona.)
Mas points out what the rooms have (plasma-screen televisions, free wi-fi access) and what they haven’t (wardrobes and abundant floor space). Gat is not for people who like to spend a lot of time in their rooms,’’ she says. With a host of galleries, bars and cafes at the hotel’s doorstep and helpful desk staff, there’s plenty of impetus to get out and about.
Across the old city is El Born, a medieval portside pocket that contains two must-see sights: the Picasso museum and the soaring Santa Maria del Mar church. It’s also the city’s best shopping precinct, with quirky designer start-ups dotted amid terrace cafes and gourmet food shops.
On the quarter’s boundary, near Ciutadella Park, Chic & Basic, another mini hip-hotel chain, has opened its flagship property. You enter the hotel via a sweeping creamy marble staircase, typical of the 19th-century mansions that dot this old merchant neighbourhood near the sea. The hotel was once a school and its rooms and suites, while not overly large, have been cleverly slotted into the old layout with soundproof partitions that do not block the natural light, which pours in from the plentiful windows of the original edifice.
Stephan Hansmann meets me in the common area, an uplifting, luxurious space with oversized Regency furniture, large and plump pillows in bold abstract patterns and gilt-edged mirrors. Here, there is self-serve tea, coffee and soft drinks (replacing the traditional in-room bar fridge and electric kettle) and computer access. (There is also free wi-fi throughout the hotel.)
Hansmann leads me down a darkened hallway draped with circular cascades of crystals that enclose the doors to the guestrooms. These are draped in white from floor to ceiling, their hospital-like sparseness softened by architectural vestiges such as floral floor tiles and ornate friezes. A hi-tech illumination system allows guests to change the colour of the spotlights at the flick of a designer switch.
All beds in Chic & Basic El Born are double (twin rooms are available in the cheaper and pared down Chic & Basic Tallers) and their pod-like bathrooms, often placed in the middle of the rooms, are enclosed in transparent perspex walls (definitely for guests sharing a room on very intimate terms). Front rooms have balconies looking out to a tree-lined street, but unless you are fascinated by the dirge of rubbish trucks at midnight and the rumble of mopeds, it’s best to book a room overlooking the typical Barcelonese interior patio. Best of all is room No 25, the only mid-price room with a private terrace.
Like Gat Accommodation, which plans to open in Morocco and other European destinations, Chic & Basic is expanding; Amsterdam and Madrid have opened, and Lisbon and Berlin will follow. But neither matches the speed of Room Mate, a phenomenal chain of design hotels that in the past five years has grown from a modest 30-room pensione in Madrid to 14 hotels in Europe and the Americas.
Room Mate is the Zara of hotels,’’ says Room Mate’s president Enrique Sarasola, comparing his empire with that of the famous Spanish clothing chain that reproduces cutting-edge trends at bargain prices. Like his hotels, Sarasola is an unconventional hotelier. A former professional horseman and Olympic medallist, he spent most of his life travelling.
I have lived half my life in hotels,’’ he tells me. So I approach each of my new hotels as I would a client.’’
Each Room Mate is unique, a bricksand-mortar incarnation of an imaginary roommate and your host to the city. There’s Room Mate Marina in Valencia, Mario in Madrid and Migueletes in Granada. In Madrid’s Chueca, an innercity neighbourhood where clients from dozens of bars spill on to the tiny streets, Room Mate Oscar sits loud and proud on a square that hosts gay pride events.
Oscar is an extroverted, cosmopolitan night owl’’ who likes frequenting the cocktail bars along the Gran Via, the city’s epicentre of speakeasy glam. Oscar, the hotel, is his base, featuring modular, 1970s-inspired furniture in acid colours, murals executed by local graffiti artists and pop art details. Across the Gran Via in the old theatre district is Room Mate Laura, a more cultured slightly bo-ho soul who counts Spanish actor Leonor Watling among her best friends.
One can just imagine the pair of them sitting on the lovely, plant-filled terrace of Room Mate Alicia’s suite until the early hours discussing the subtext of the latest Pedro Almodovar film.
In the past, hotels in Spain adhered to a strict star rating system. The number of stars bestowed on an establishment generally denoted the level of service and amenities guests could expect. Room Mate’s strategy is to rent existing hotels, renovate and install the same facilities in them all, regardless of the rating.
Sarasola’s high style, low-cost concept has proved to be highly exportable; there are Room Mates in Miami and Buenos Aries; and Bogota and Mexico City are about to join the tribe. Grace recently opened near Times Square in New York City and Sarasola is apparently on the prowl for a 100-room hotel to take over in inner-city Sydney.
When I first started out people told me this would only be a hobby,’’ Sarasola says. What did I know about the hotel business? But what does it mean to be an hotelier? It’s not like you are born one.’’
In many ways, Spain’s new breed of up-market budget hotels encapsulates the values of this still-fledgling democracy, where the concepts of old money and class are being progressively eradicated and egalitarian values are an overriding goal.
I ask Sarasola if, given a climate of globalisation, he wants Room Mates to be known as a Spanish company. Of course,’’ he replies. I am proud to be Spanish. This is something we do well.’’
Gat Accommodation in Barcelona: average tariff, ($176) a double; www.gataccommodation.com. Chic & Basic in Barcelona and Madrid: average tariff, a double; www.chicandbasic.com. Room Mate in Madrid, Salamanca, Valencia, Granada, Oviedo and Malaga: average tariff, a double; www.room-matehotels.com.