The gain in Spain

A new ho­tel hy­brid of­fers good value and con­sid­er­able style, writes Suzanne Wales

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel -

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.’’

Check­list

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.

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