by Pádraic Gilligan, Managing Partner, SoolNua
Travelling but not visiting
“Sounds of Silence” kept playing on my mental jukebox. I thought how powerful it is as a portrayal of our contemporary culture, plunging headlong into a sort of individualist nihilism:
People talking without speaking
People hearing without listening
People writing songs that voices never share
I wasn’t at all depressed, however, as one might be with terms like nihilism or, indeed, any in-depth reflection on this magnificent but profoundly sad song. I was simply remarking to myself that those of us whose work involves travel often find themselves in places we don’t actual visit. We’re people travelling without visiting. We find ourselves in wonderful, sometimes exotic places, usually not with our loved ones, and often with insufficient time there to get truly connected.
That’s what I was feeling following a short stay with the Sleeping Beauty in Barcelona, a city I must have been to at least 20 times for work. This time, over a mere 48 hours, I achieved a deeper destination immersion than on any previous visit. Here’s how 4 aspects of a typical destination experience – a hotel, an art gallery, a visitor attraction and a restaurant – impacted on us when we visited – really visited – this past weekend.
Mandarin Oriental, Barcelona
20 years as a meeting and incentive professional has somewhat attuned my otherwise deaf sensibilities to product and service standards in hospitality that might be categorised as luxury. Familiarity with high end luxury often fosters fatigue and you can easily find yourself adopting that teenage “whatever” approach. However, Mandarin Oriental manages to vary the luxury tune sufficiently to keep you surprised and delighted no matter how entitled or complacent you may have become. Like the way the housekeeper leaves a beautiful fan shaped book-mark in your paperback on the night stand. Or the nice yoga mat in the wardrobe. Or the extra box of bathroom amenities with a razor and comb.
Around the property, too, there’s a high design ethos. Mandarin Oriental eschews the cookie-cutter consistency favoured by other chain properties, seeking, instead, to reflect across its properties the unique identity of the destination. Thus this property takes its inspiration from Barcelona as a design innovator, achieving a truly satisfying contemporary hospitality experience that’s both luxurious and light, design-led but truly functional.
Carved from a space previously occupied by a bank, some guest rooms are long and narrow yet clever interior design creates the impression of light filled spaciousness. A magnolia / cream / beige colour palette reinforces the sense of light as does the airy openness of the bathrooms which use sliding glass doors and lots of mirrors. While this is a boutique property with only 120 guest rooms (of which 30 are suites), it is perfect for up-scale incentives and high end C-level meetings. Nicolás Verdú takes care of all group enquiries and also shared this beautiful e-book with me, highlighting the design features of this magnificent property.
MACBA – Museum of Contemporary Art, Barcelona
About 15 minutes walk from the Mandarin Oriental in El Raval, one of Barcelona’s oldest neighbourhoods, you’ll find MACBA aka The Barcelona Museum of Contemporary Art. Designed by US based octogenarian, Richard Meier, the museum building sits in audacious modernist contrast to the ancient buildings and narrow laneways that surround it.
We spent two hours there immersed in the fascinating but sometimes disturbing works of Carol Rama, an Italian artist ignored for most of her career by the contemporary art community. This major retrospective entitled “The Passion according to Carol Rama” features 200 works by Rama and runs until February 2015, giving final due prominence to an artist who has marched steadfastly to her own tune throughout her 7 decades of service to her art.
Rama’s work employs extensive bricolage and draws on a narrow colour palette – mainly shades of brown – and, at least for me, couldn’t be described as awe-inspiring, inspirational or beautiful. It is, however, powerfully expressive of that twentieth century angst that pervades much modernist poetry and finds its way into contemporary music too from Jim Morrison to Paul Simon.
La Sagrada Familia
It stands in dramatic juxtaposition to Gaudi’s sublime Sagrada Familia which we visited next day, a bright December Sunday morning. Started during his lifetime in the 1880s, Gaudi’s masterpiece remains a work in progress with completion expected somewhere between 2026 and 2028. The interior, however, is finished and was consecrated in 2010 by Pope Benedict XVI.
Although only two exterior elevations are now complete, you need at least an hour to visit them. The Nativity facade was actually done during the architect’s lifetime and is an extraordinary portrayal of the story of the birth of Jesus, taking elements from all 4 gospels. The Nativity scene of Joseph, Mary and the child Jesus is front and centre surrounded by the vast array of figures – magi, shepherds, angels – all set amidst a natural backdrop of flora and fauna, beautifully frozen in a single moment of time. The expressions on the magi and shepherds are of wonder and awe and mirror our expressions as we behold the sheer magnificence of the work.
When we entered the basilica I thought of Dante, in the Paradiso, when he is finally rendered dumb by the mysteries and beauty of God, his imagination incapable of finding words to describe the immensity of the experience:
all’alta fantasia qui manco possa
[Here high fantasy lost its power]
Gaudi has created an interior of stone that stretches skywards like towering redwoods in a dense forest. It’s simply astonishing. The massive interior is also flooded with beautifully filtered light shining through the stain glass panes of Joan Vila-Grau, installed as recently as 1999. It’s a transcendent experience that lifts the soul and the spirit and convinces you of the transformative power of art.
But a man and a woman cannot live on high art alone. We also needed to eat. Barcelona has more than its share of great places to eat but, regrettably, the good ones don’t do Saturday night walk-ins and many are closed on a Sunday. We exited the Mandarin Oriental on Paseo de Gracia and noticed some people heading down a lane, into a period building called El Nacional. Curious, we followed and discovered a wonderful, newly opened “multispacio gastronómico” specialising in ultra-fresh foods from all over Spain – artisan cheeses, seafood, cold meats; in fact, 4 restaurants, 4 speciality bars and over 1000 different food and beverage items.
We sat up at a bar counter and enjoyed some wonderful cheese along with a Ribera del Duero. Surrounded by locals who were doing likewise we felt we’d crossed that boundary and were experiencing this amazing city as insiders, as true visitors who don’t merely skate across the surface of the destination.
Padraic Gilligan is Managing Partner at SoolNua, a marketing and PR consultancy working with destinations, tourist boards, CVBs and hotels on their strategy for MICE.