Inside La Cova Fumada restaurant in La Barceloneta, the floors are scattered with sawdust, barrels of wine line the walls, grandmothers in bright aprons man the grill and men in shirt sleeves wait patiently at the bar for the day's no-frills seafood: fresh sardines, tender squid and succulent shrimp. La Cova Fumada, run by the grandchildren of its founders, is a local place where life rolls on as it has for generations in this seaside neighbourhood of Barcelona.
This tiny barrio is sandwiched between the cobblestone wharves of Barcelona's Old Port and the ritzy discos of the Olympic Port area. To enter La Barceloneta's narrow streets, once filled with sailors and fishermen, is to be transported to simpler times. While the fishing fleets are gone, the barrio still enjoys a profound connection to the sea - and is booming thanks to its beachfront location. This week's opening of W Hotel Barcelona, dubbed the Hotel Vela because of architect Ricardo Bofill's whimsical sail-shaped design, will be the latest step toward situating the neighbourhood as a centre of chic.
For now, it's the extreme contrast between the old and the new that makes the barrio so unique: amas de casa in flowered house dresses still shout the days gossip between the closely spaced balconies while scantily clad foreigners flock to the fashionably minimal bars and restaurants on the beach.
The area offers excellent seafood restaurants, the bustle of the ports, neighbourhood parties like this week's Festa Major, and film and concert screenings in the summer months. But, to residents and visitors who take the time to stroll its streets, the barrio's true charm is in its spirit: "The best thing about La Barceloneta is the atmosphere, the people," says Josep Maria Solé, co-proprietor of La Cova Fumada. "[It's]how proud we are and how cheerful our way of life is."
This spirit is primarily nestled in the interior of the barrio, while tourism is booming on the outskirts. Bookending the zone to the east is the luxury Hotel Arts, opened in 1994, and to the west the new W Hotel at the end of the newly extended Passeig Marítim walkway.
The hotel has been controversial among locals in La Barceloneta: Because of a zoning loophole, it's enviably positioned right on the shoreline, and so it will be the only one in Barcelona whose guests can go straight from lobby to sand.
The W is expected to anchor development of the outer harbour lands that surround it. "We want this hotel to be a destination within a destination," marketing director George Fleck says. He says the hotel is betting that discerning locals, as well as tourists, will sample the W's restaurants, bars and beachfront life.
Recent development has already attracted visitors to La Barceloneta's busy beach. The beach and boardwalk were thoroughly revamped for the 1992 Olympics, which also brought about the creation of the Olympic Port and new beachfront on former industrial lands to the east.
Today, the area is studded with palm trees, chiringuitos (beachfront bars) and some impressive public art, including sculpture by Frank Gehry (the sparkling Fish) and Juan Muñoz ( Room Where It Always Rains).
Not far away, the newly built W - whose glass walls reflect the Mediterranean and whose interiors blend coral red accents with the stone and pale blue colours of a seascape - will be a significant addition to Barcelona's already extensive lineup of hotels. All of its 473 rooms (which include a suite for 10,000 euros a night) are already booked for the opening weekend.
In addition to standard W offerings like the Bliss spa and the pool, the hotel features a destination restaurant under Michelin-starred Barcelona chef Carles Abellan.
On the port side of the W, the Rosa dels Vents plaza, a stripped-down public square designed by Bofill, promises a unique vantage point on the waves and the elements. Bathed by the sun and battered by gusting winds, it's there that one most intimately feels that which binds both the old and the new worlds of La Barceloneta, the lure of the sea.
Special to The Globe and Mail
* * * WHERE TO STAY W Barcelona 34 (93) 295 2800; www.w-barcelona.com. On Sant Sebastia beach. Hotel Arts 34 (93) 221 1000; www.hotelartsbarcelona.com. Part of the Ritz Carlton group and the preferred residence of stars such as Madonna and Bono, this luxury high-rise hotel looms over the Olympic Port. Chic & Basic Born www.chicandbasic.com. Just outside La Barceloneta, in the Born neighbourhood, this small boutique hotel offers funky rooms on a quiet street.
* * * BITES OF LA BARCELONETA
La Cova Fumada Baluard 56; 34 (93) 221 4061. This neighbourhood stalwart, complete with sawdust on the floor, gives a glimpse into the real Barceloneta. It claims to have invented the bomba, a fried ball of potato and minced meat, now a tapas classic. Try it with the hot sauce at your own risk. Bar Jai-Ca Ginebra 13; 34 (93) 319 5002. A traditional tapas bar that attracts a young clientele. Go for the large plates of simply prepared, fresh seafood.
MODERATELY EXPENSIVE Set Portes 34 (93) 319 3033; www.7portes.com. One of Barcelona's oldest restaurants, Set Portes serves excellent paella and traditional seafood dishes in vast, elegant dining rooms. Agua 34 (93) 225 1272; www.aguadeltragaluz.com. A trendy spot near the Olympic Port with a beautiful terrace overlooking Barceloneta beach. It serves contemporary Mediterranean cuisine with a blend of seafood and meat dishes. Reserve in advance, especially for a terrace table.