Round The World and other travels

A frequent flyer's collection of trip diaries

This is: Northern Spain 2015


Hotel 1: Barceló Bilbao Nervión
Saturday 28 February to Sunday 01 March (1 night)
Room 438 (Twin Superior)
We chose this hotel based on a combination of location (next to the Town Hall and ten minutes from the Guggenheim) and cost (EUR60 between two people!) We weren't sure what to expect, but we both walked into the lobby for the first time wide-eyed at how it just seemed to ooze a sense of style. Confidently modern and even a little flamboyant - what a wonderful public space!

The room itself was small and plainly furnished, but it was comfortable enough for a one-night stop and still managed to exude a sense of (minimalist) stylishness. The hotel was busy during our short stay, yet there was no sign of this in terms of extraneous noise while in the room. The only negative note was the buffet breakfast, which neither of us found particularly inspiring. Overall, however, this stay represented excellent value for money and was much more civilised than suggested by the price.
Hotel 2: Maria Cristina, San Sebastian
Sunday 01 March to Tuesday 03 March (2 nights)
Room 404 (Twin, River View)
This grand, palatial structure stands on the left bank of the Urumea river in San Sebastian, a short walk from the city's historic Old Town area (home of the pintxo bars) and a slightly longer stroll from the main beach at La Concha Bay. The building dates from 1912 and in many ways typifies the final years of the Belle Époque. A recent makeover has updated the interior with the intention that, while still respecting the building's heritage, it should be made more appealing to a new generation of aspiring clients. This must have been a delicate balancing act, but it's definitely one with a successful outcome: the public areas are awe-inspiring, yet not in the least staid, stuffy or inhibiting. With such a background, it should come as no surprise that this five-star Starwood property has been allocated to the chain's exclusive Luxury Collection portfolio.

Our allocated room was beautifully furnished and very comfortable. In a property of this calibre, however, the soundproofing between our room and the adjacent one was disappointingly poor. The lobby bar, which rejoiced in the name Dry but was reassuringly anything but, provided an agreeable venue for cocktails, while Café Saigon served a superb Asian dinner on our second night. On a purely practical (and unintentionally alliterative) note, plentiful public parking is available in an adjacent underground garage.

Altogether, this was a most enjoyable and memorable stay, let down only by inadequate soundproofing between our room and the one next-door.
Hotel 3: Marqués de Riscal, Elciego
Tuesday 03 March to Thursday 05 March (2 nights)
Room 22 (Twin Grand Deluxe, Town View)
From one Starwood Luxury Collection property to another, yet this latest apparent extravagance (in reality, like the previous stay, funded by SPG points) could hardly have been more different. As though living the five-star life weren't enough, we were now based at a unique and genuinely stunning architectural landmark, dropped into the beautiful and tranquil rural setting of a Rioja winery. Marqués de Riscal is the oldest wine producer in the Rioja region. A project set up to consider how it could update itself for the 21st century envisaged the creation of a so-called 'City of Wine', which would encompass the existing vineyards and winery together with a range of new facilities, the centrepiece of which was to be a boldly modern luxury hotel. Internationally renowned Canadian-American architect Frank Gehry (already responsible for the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao) was commissioned, and the new hotel was opened by the King of Spain in 2006.

The main hotel building certainly achieves the "bold and modern" objectives set by the project committee: its jaw-dropping design seems to have been inspired by a mantra that curves are good, while symmetry is the work of the Devil. The roof is covered in spectacular broad ribbons of titanium and stainless steel, in the wine-inspired colours of pink, gold and silver. The guestrooms are located in two somewhat more conventional wings, connected to the main structure by a striking footbridge.

Our room was comfortable and featured top-of-the-range electronics. The main attraction, however, was the picture-perfect view northwards across the winery grounds to the village of Elciego and the Basque Mountains beyond. We enjoyed being able to open the windows wide, allowing the fresh air and gentle peal of the village church bells to enter the room, while feasting our eyes on that view. We sampled both the Wine Bar (obviously, in a location such as this!) and the superb, Michelin-starred Restaurante Marqués de Riscal.

Quite simply, this was one of the most memorable hotel stays of my life.
Hotel 4: NH Ciudad de Zaragoza, Zaragoza  
Thursday 05 March to Friday 06 March (1 night)
Room 310 (Standard Twin, 'New Style')
This booking came about as a result of a change of mind the day before the start of the trip! We were originally booked in a Marriott AC property some 4km outside the city centre. The NH alternative promised easy access to the main attractions on foot and, in a similar fashion to the Bilbao hotel above, represented excellent value at EUR70 for two people. It certainly delivered on location, being situated on a prime site at the corner of the riverbank and a tram route, but more importantly, just 250m from the Basílica de Nuestra Señora del Pilar, the closest of the Old Town attractions. The riverside location, incidentally, was not necessarily an unqualified advantage: we were warned to stick to Level -1 when parking the car in the underground private garage, as Level -2 had flooded within the last week! (The river was alarmingly high and fast-flowing during our visit.)

The room was small, but featured that most desirable (but rarely found) of things in any hotel room: an inner, secondary door. There is no better way of cutting out corridor noise! We used the hotel for breakfast and found this to be very well done, with a comprehensive and nicely presented buffet supplemented by the ability to order freshly cooked eggs, all in a bright, airy room.
Hotel 5: Hilton, Barcelona
Friday 06 March to Sunday 08 March (2 nights)
Room 409 (Twin)
First of all, a few words of clarification. In 2009, I stayed at the Hilton Diagonal Mar, situated at the eastern end of Barcelona's Avenida Diagonal, overlooking the coast. This is not it. This is the other Hilton, the Hilton Barcelona. It is also situated on the Avenida Diagonal, but 8km further west, near the FC Barcelona football stadium.

We decided to accept a standard room rather than an executive room as this meant getting immediate access at around 12 noon instead of waiting until later in the day. It was a fairly normal room for a modern Hilton, but suffered from one or two cleaning issues. The Executive Lounge also had problems: we felt that the selection of food and drink was altogether uninspiring. We quickly relocated to the beautiful lobby bar (Vibe), which in contrast proved to be excellent (but of course chargeable). The breakfast buffet in the Mosaic restaurant was a fairly comprehensive international offering and was very busy indeed.

In summary, an outwardly impressive hotel where high standards were evident in some areas, but not consistently applied.