A few minutes’ walk from Mandarin Oriental, Barcelona, you’ll find a wealth of architectural gems from the gilded era of Catalan modernisme – Gaudí’s fantastical works among them

Casa Batlló’s trencadís chimneys

Casa Batlló’s trencadís chimneys

Dramatic spaces, smooth, curved lines, beautiful use of natural light, fascinating glasswork, interesting and innovative materials, shapes and forms, and an obsession with detail. From the scaly dragon’s-back rooftop of Antoni Gaudí’s Casa Batlló on Barcelona’s Passeig de Gràcia, I can’t help thinking that all these traits of the architect’s work could also be applied to the interior of the property I am looking at across the street: Mandarin Oriental, Barcelona, number 38-40.

Buildings leave an impression on you in this city, and Mandarin Oriental Hotel Group’s newest European addition – and its first in Spain – is no exception. Its dramatic limestone façade, quite different to the neighbouring architecture, can stop passersby in their tracks: watch for a while and you’ll see. It’s no mean feat in this glamorous Barcelona street, often compared to the rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré in Paris or the Via Veneto in Rome, where every other building seems to vie for your attention with its ornate balconies, intricate marquetry or elaborate plasterwork.

Glass and ceramics on Casa Batlló’s façade

Glass and ceramics on Casa Batlló’s façade

Casa Batlló's ground-floor staircase

Casa Batlló's ground-floor staircase

Four huge geometric pillars, carved with scenes of men and women labouring in fields, factories and docks, dominate the entrance to the hotel and draw one’s eye. Originally constructed in 1955 as the head office of Banco Hispano Americano, the imposing building was designed by Basque architect Manuel Galíndez. It replaced an earlier one, destroyed during the Spanish Civil War, which dated from the late-19th century, the time when this entire area of Barcelona’s city ‘extension’, the Eixample, was taking shape.

Inside, the building’s dramatically remodelled interior is even more captivating. Beyond the façade, a gently sloping catwalk draws you across an open-air quadrangle, where nine floors rise up around you on all sides. Each white-washed wall is punctuated with rectangular windows like portholes. At the top of the slope, glass doors glide open to transport you into the hotel interior conceived by the acclaimed Spanish designer, Patricia Urquiola.

In the lobby, mirrored ceilings reflect the sculptural carpets and golden-hued furniture. An exquisite occasional table with legs and feet like that of a flamingo stands proudly next to an inviting sofa. At the centre of the hotel, in what was once the bank’s trading floor, is Blanc – Urquiola’s spacious lounge – with skylights spanning the entire space. Breakfasts, lunches and suppers are served here below a huge, metal, geometric, sculptured screen that embraces the entire space, filtering the light and casting interesting reflections onto the windows.

The effect is thoroughly modern and distinctly European, but also distinctly Mandarin Oriental, with folding screens covered in delicately woven fabric and Eastern-inspired wicker chairs like something you might find yourself sitting in at the Authors’ Lounge at Mandarin Oriental, Bangkok. Alluring textures and materials cry out for you to run your fingers over them. In the bedrooms, black patent tiles in relief reflect in them the smooth bath and bathroom counter. The undulating surface has been moulded from one smooth sheet of Corian, an innovative material beloved by interior designers and architects for its ability to mould into durable but smooth shapes.

Casa Batlló's parquet-floor entrance

Casa Batlló's parquet-floor entrance

Admire the city from MO’s pool

Admire the city from MO’s pool

Innovation is the lifeblood of the hotel and of Barcelona’s Eixample district, which was conceived 150 years ago by Catalan town planner Ildefons Cerdà in response to rising overcrowding in the old, walled city.  The emblematic octagonal blocks that make up the massive grid system he devised were originally designed to encircle courtyards, while their chamfered corners made it possible for carriages (and the occasional car) to see around them to oncoming traffic.

Stepping out of the hotel onto the busy Passeig de Gràcia, the excitement that this glamorous boulevard provoked during the late-19th and early-20th centuries – when the upwardly mobile bourgeoisie unveiled their grand modernisme homes here – is evident today. Stylish men and women wearing shades sit with friends in pavement cafes sipping café solo and basking in the sunshine; others are busy accumulating armfuls of purchases from the designer stores – Bulgari, Chopard, Hermès, Louis Vuitton – that pack the strip.

But upstaging them all is the architecture. The Passeig de Gràcia and surrounding streets are a treasure trove of modernisme gems, a uniquely Catalan applied-arts movement that coincided with art nouveau in Europe. All around here you will come across old-fashioned bakeries whose swirling wooden shopfronts are announced in golden art deco lettering; grocers and pastisseries transformed into artworks by master glazers and sculptors, but where you can still pick up a croissant or a bar of torró (almond nougat). And, wonderfully, all over the place, modernista chemists whose oak and mosaic façades and, in some cases, original modernista furnishings have survived the past one and a half centuries. This area is easily and best explored on foot, with many of the gems within 10 to 15 minutes’ walk of Mandarin Oriental, Barcelona.

Casa Milà’s rooftop sculptures and views of Sagrada Família

Casa Milà’s rooftop sculptures and views of Sagrada Família

Look down at your feet: the honeycomb of hexagonal street tiles embossed with the shapes of a sea snail, a starfish and seaweed are copied from originals designed by Gaudí. Look up at the wrought-iron street lamps; designed by Pere Falqués in 1906, they feel suitably decorative for this extravagant street. The benches that double as the base of each lamp are decorated with white ceramic collage known in Catalan as trencadís, a technique made famous by Gaudí and of which you will see much more.

MO’s airy, skylight-lit lounge, Blanc

MO’s airy, skylight-lit lounge, Blanc

Across the tree-lined boulevard, the rainbow of ceramic and glass encrusted on the façade of Casa Batlló glistens in the intense sunshine. Gaudí’s building, quite literally, outshines its neighbours – as was the architect’s intention. On the so-called ‘Block of Discord’, Gaudí had entered into a battle with two of his contemporaries, renowned modernista architects Josep Puig i Cadafalch and Lluís Domènech i Montaner, over which of them could produce the most original building. Venture inside Cadafalch’s Gothic-style Casa Amatller next door to Casa Batlló, or observe the female sculptures on the balconies of Montaner’s Casa Lleó Morera located a few doors down, to decide who gets your vote.

From the number of visitors arriving at Casa Batlló, it looks like Gaudí won unanimously. Stepping inside the property – which was created for Josep Batlló, a textile tycoon – is like falling down the rabbit hole or journeying 20,000 leagues under the sea. It is the realisation of a fairy tale. Everything inside is flowing, smooth and tactile, without a right angle in sight.

On the piano nobile (the principal floor), a swirling whirlpool ceiling draws the visitor into the main room where oak door frames set with circles of stained glass cast pools of colour onto the parquet floor. Every detail is considered, from the ergonomic brass window latches to the helicoidal spirals carved into the doors. A series of large windows allows the inhabitants to look out onto the Passeig de Gràcia but, more importantly, would have allowed the public below to look up in wonder at the new status of the upwardly mobile Batlló family.

The open-air stairwell in Casa Milà

The open-air stairwell in Casa Milà

In the centre of the house, Gaudí reveals a structural and functional masterpiece around which everything else in Casa Batlló revolves. Scaling 26 metres, the building’s central patio well cuts through the structure, allowing natural light to stream in through a vast skylight, bathing every floor. Ceramic tiles in graduated shades of blue cover the walls from top to bottom, magically balancing the light intensity all the way down. Looking into the well through the mottled glass balconies, the effect is one of a rippling ocean, carrying visitors along on the tide.

At the top of the house, walk through the cavernous white-washed attic, created by a series of catenary arches that evoke the uncanny feeling of being inside a giant ribcage. Above is the roof terrace where scores of trencadís chimneys, decorated in waves of colour, flowers and naturalist motifs, sprout like clusters of mushrooms. From the terrace, you can look along the spine of what appears to be a dragon and over at the tower, which resembles a garlic bulb and is crowned with a four-armed cross. Stop and ponder whether this iconography might, as many people claim, refer to the legend of St George, the patron saint of Catalonia.

Enchanted – as one can’t fail to be – by Casa Batlló, one Pere Milà, a property developer, commissioned Gaudí in 1906 to build his own home three blocks further up the Passeig de Gràcia on the corner with Carrer de Provença. The result was Casa Milà – better (and originally, pejoratively) known as La Pedrera or ‘The Quarry’. This apartment block-cum-sculpture is one of Barcelona’s most emblematic buildings.

Stand below the rocky massif as it looms over the Passeig de Gràcia. Cast your eye along the flowing lines that outline each floor of the apartment block. Set into the structure like caves, its balconies and galleries are decorated with intricate twisted-iron railings made from recycled sheets of metal, mesh, chains and tubes. Look closely and you’ll see motifs such as a dove, a theatrical mask, or the four bars of the Catalan coat of arms. Below, a window looks in on Mosella, a well-known Barcelonan tailor housed in the basement, whose clients once included Salvador Dalí.

Enter La Pedrera through a doorway of stone, wrought iron and glass that resembles a replicating cell. This leads into one of two interior open-air patios encircled by apartments and awash with natural light. The view skywards is quite wonderful. Winding around the patio is one of two main staircases, marked out with columns and potted plants and decorated with ebullient ceiling and wall paintings. This leads exclusively to the Milàs’ spacious, open-plan family home on the first floor, which they chose to decorate in the neoclassical style.

Inside the Sagrada Família, a work in progress

Inside the Sagrada Família, a work in progress

Above the Milàs’ residence, 15 generous rental apartments were crafted throughout the building, five of which are still rented and one of which has been recreated in a style contemporary with the exterior and is open to visitors. Note the striking green relief tiles with marine designs in the games room: they are the originals from which those on the Passeig de Gràcia pavement are taken.

Take time to explore the attic exhibition, revealing the construction of La Pedrera, then head onto the terrace: surely the most exciting area of the building. Here you can follow a trail of staircases – ascending and descending across steps of varying sizes – through archways and around sentry-like chimneys and ventilation towers disguised as sculptures, around the roof, taking in aerial views of the city from every direction. You can look at the scale of the Eixample, as the octagonal blocks stretch into the distance; to the north-east, you’ll see the project to which Gaudí would dedicate the rest of his life after the completion of La Pedrera: the Temple Expiatori de la Sagrada Família.

Back at street level, continue a few metres further up the Passeig de Gràcia from La Pedrera. A red circular tile embedded in the pavement, inscribed ‘Ruta del Modernisme’, signals another building of interest, the Casa Casas-Carbó. The former home of Catalan artist Ramón Casas, it now houses one of Barcelona’s best-loved contemporary design stores, Vinçon. While browsing for the latest chrome kitchen gadget or a sleek pouch for your iPhone, look out for the original features: an ornate fireplace dating from 1902 and an elegant garden.

Exit through the rear of the shop onto Carrer de Pau Claris; listen and you will hear schoolchildren playing just out of view in the courtyard park in the centre of the block opposite. Walk south-east one block, crossing Carrer de Provença and turn left into Carrer de Mallorca. Two blocks further you will see the neo-Gothic Casa Thomas, designed by the same architect as Casa Lleó Morera and now home to purveyors of designer furniture Cubiñá. Here you can pick up modern classics as well as period pieces. If you continue on this street for a further 15 minutes, you will arrive at the Glory façade of the Sagrada Família. Make time for a separate, early-morning visit to this remarkable monument-in-progress: it’s the best time of day to really enjoy and appreciate the awe-inspiring majesty – and surprising serenity – of this giant building site.

The hotel’s guest-only panoramic roof terrace

The hotel’s guest-only panoramic roof terrace

From Casa Thomas, walk down Carrer de Roger de Llúria. On the corner with Carrer de València is Queviures Murria, an elegant modernista grocery store. On the central panel of the curving façade you’ll see an original advertisement for Anís del Mono liqueur, designed by Casas; step inside, and you’ll have your pick of some fine bottles of bubbly. You’ll see other works and prints by local artist Casas around the city, such as inside the Els Quatre Gats, a rustic cafe in the Barri Gòtic district, built by Cadafalch. Here, Casas hung out with other artists of the day, including Picasso who held his first exhibition there, aged just 19.

There are many hidden gardens and courtyards, and alleyways known as passatges that cut through the Eixample blocks. Often, as you walk, you will see people disappear behind imposing doorways or stepping out from shady passageways. Pass through the entrance marked ‘Manantial del agua’ at 56 de Carrer Roger de Llúria into one such space: a small public quadrangle planted with palm trees and enclosed by apartments. In the centre of the courtyard is a tall red-brick water tower surrounded by an inviting turquoise dipping pool popular with young Barcelonans in summer. Opposite here is the Passatge de Permanyer, a cut-through flanked by pretty, pastel townhouses with manicured square gardens encircled by railings, like something out of Regency London.

Continue to the bottom of tree-lined Carrer de Roger de Llúria and you will arrive at Casa Calvet, a surprisingly understated, grey-stone Gaudí building that is a top-flight restaurant. Inside, you can admire Gaudí’s designs for the ground-floor furnishings – marvellous carpentry, stained glass and ceramic tiles – while dining on roast beef with apple sauce and truffled potatoes.

Alternatively, stroll along the Passatge de Permanyer; you will come out just one block behind Mandarin Oriental, Barcelona. Head for the hotel’s own hidden courtyard, the Mimosa Garden, a charming 600sq m oasis that is the perfect place to stop for a light alfresco lunch. Or head up to the ninth floor to the guest-only rooftop terrace where you can cool off in the dipping pool, which has an unrivalled view of the Passeig de Gràcia and Gaudí’s playground.

The Sagrada’s 100-metre-high spires

The Sagrada’s 100-metre-high spires

From the top of the hotel, I turn my gaze back across to Casa Batlló. From here, it seems wholly appropriate that the newest addition to this architectural city should be the design-led Mandarin Oriental, Barcelona. No doubt Gaudí would have approved of the wonderful use of light, the primacy afforded to the construction materials and the artistic innovation. In Barcelona, this hotel has found its perfect home – as have I.

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