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Beautiful Barcelona's "Old Glory"
The Avenida Palace Hotel

“The Avenida Palace?” said a friend when we told her of our Barcelona destination. “Ah, that’s one of the old glories.”

An “old glory” indeed. Located at Barcelona’s very heart where the Gran Via meets the Passeig de Gràcia, virtually around the corner from a pair of Gaudi architectural masterpieces: Casa Batlló and Casa Milà, and but a few blocks from the Plaça de Catalunya, the Gothic Quarter and the Rambla, the Avenida Palace stands at the very heart of twentieth century Barcelona history as well. For more than fifty years, the “old glory” has been witness to and participant in the emergence of this graceful Catalan capital from its secluded post World-War II status into the major metropolis and primary tourist destination it is today.

Beautiful Barcelona's "Old Glory"  - The Avenida Palace Hotel When hotelier Juan Gaspart Bulbena acquired the property that became the Avenida Palace in 1949, the Casa Llibra came along as part of the deal.

This was the elegant salon where, in the years before the Spanish Civil War (1936-1940), the city’s upper bourgeoisie would gather for tea and coffee, pastries and chocolate and dance to music provided by a little orchestra, while their chauffeurs patiently waited behind the wheels of Rolls Royces parked in a row along the Gran Via.

Instead of tearing down the café, Gaspart opted to incorporate it into his new hotel. And to this day, the public spaces of the Avenida Palace – its lobby and dining room, conference halls and dramatic circular stairway with gilded banister that swirls up to the mezzanine and down to a subterranean level where, looking very much like a miniature of the grand staircase at the Paris Opera, it splits in two -- create an aura of old world opulence and grandeur.

Beautiful Barcelona's "Old Glory"  - The Avenida Palace Hotel Beautiful Barcelona's "Old Glory"  - The Avenida Palace Hotel
Beautiful Barcelona's "Old Glory"  - The Avenida Palace Hotel Beautiful Barcelona's "Old Glory"  - The Avenida Palace Hotel

Gaspart added seven stories and two penthouse towers atop the Casa Llibra, opening the deluxe 151-room hotel in 1952, the year the Pope visited Barcelona for a Eucharistic congress. It was a good time for a new hotel, and the Avenida Palace was immediately recognized as one of the city’s premier destinations.

But overall it was not a good time for Barcelona or the larger Catalan region. As Roser Giner, the hotel’s director of sales, told us “The mid-century years were the heyday of Franco’s rule and since Catalonia had fought against Franco in the Civil War, the entire region was oppressed by his government. It was a struggle to maintain our culture, to fight for our freedom. To even speak our native Catalan language was against the law.”

Roser Giner at home in the luxurious environs of the Avenida Palace - Click to Enlarge
Roser Giner at home in the luxurious environs of the Avenida Palace

We were having coffee with Roser in the regal yet comfortable lobby of the Avenida Palace, an interior of marble floors and pillars, antique sculptures, and sofas covered in a silky blue and gold damask. At home in this luxurious setting as she is in her executive position, this Barcelona-born woman epitomizes the first generation of Catalans who came of age during the last years of Franco’s rule and was subsequently able to move into a world of enlarged opportunity.

“My mother began working at the age of 9 plucking feathers in a chicken farm,” she told us. “Then she learned how to sew shirts; I can still picture her at the sewing machine. My father worked on the piers. Every so often, he would bring things home from the docks. Some time in the 1950s, he came in with a white radio from America. It was the first radio we ever had.

“Although they didn’t have money, my parents managed to send me to a Swiss school in Barcelona where I studied German, French, and English. They were motivated for my brother and me to move up.

“In 1962 when I was 16 years old,” she continued, “I heard about an opening in a travel agency. I went in and asked for a job. Since I knew so many languages, I was hired.”

Thus started a career in the tourist industry that at first brought the young woman to Malaga in the south, then to various parts of Spain, and ultimately back to Barcelona and the Avenida Palace. “Tourist promotion in Spain in the early 1960’s was Madrid, Toledo, and Andalusia. Flamenco and bullfights. That was it,” Roser said. “No Catalonia, no Basque country, no Asturia, Estramadura, Baeleric Islands.  Nevertheless, tourists from America and Europe were beginning to discover these parts of Spain. The Costa Brava  (the strip of Catalonia along the Mediterranean) became popular, and it led people to Barcelona. The Avenida Palace was able to benefit from this change.”

The big change, however, would not occur until after Franco’s death in 1975 when Catalonians at last could cast off the yoke of the fascist government. By the time Rosa Griner began working at the Avenida Palace in 1986, Barcelona was secure in its identity as a modern city in a democratic nation.

It was Carlos Rojas who witnessed the transformation of his city first-hand from behind the Avenida Palace’s front desk. He started as a fourteen year-old bellhop. More than 48 years later, he is still there. “I spent more time with Joan Gaspart Bonet (the son of the founder who took over the property and managed it until his death) than with my own mother,” the amiable front desk manager told us. “I can remember when guests came with chauffeurs and servants who had their own small rooms, when we had a strict dress code. People would arrive with trunks and stay for a season. Today they come with backpacks as often as luggage and stay for a couple of days.”

Carlos Rojas has been working at the Avenida Palace since he was a 14-year old bellhop - click to enlarge
Carlos Rojas has been working at the Avenida Palace since he was a 14-year old bellhop
How did he happen to begin work at such a young age, we wondered. “In 1952, my father died suddenly, and I had to leave my studies and come to Barcelona to help my mother,” Carlos explained. “I did some odd jobs around the hotel and in 1954 began working officially.

“Even back then, the Avenida Palace was known all over Spain, and I felt fortunate to have a job in such a place,” he added. “Salary was minimal, but seventy-five percent of the guests were Americans, and they were generous tippers. We bell boys would make twice as much as the assistant manager of a bank.” 

He continued, “One night a guest had a telephone call. I spotted him in the restaurant and went directly over to him. Mrs. Gaspart happened to be there and noticed that I knew the guest’s name. As a result, I became her favorite. That is the kind of place the Avenida Palace has always been. Mr. Gaspart would say, ‘Attention to the clients is the most important part of the job. The clients are our kings and queens.’”

One could almost take that remark literally, we realized, when we examined a gigantic autograph album the staff presented to the Gaspart family on the hotel’s first anniversary that has become a 50 year record of its famous guests. We sat on either side of Carlos while he slowly and fondly turned the pages  and pointed to the message from American Ambassador John Lodge in 1955 and to the one from King Hussein of Jordan in 1957. The autograph of Ernest Hemingway dated June 29, 1959 was follow by that of his close friend, the bullfighter Antonio Oreoñez. “Every time Oreoñez was in a bullfight in the area, Hemingway would stay at the Avenida Palace,” Carlos told us.

There followed inscriptions from the president of Nicaragua in 1966, Margot Fonteyn and Rudolph Nureyev in 1968, Christian Barnard in 1970 with a drawing of a little heart. In 1981, Andre Previn, visiting Barcelona with the London Symphony Orchestra, wrote “with warm thanks for your wonderful hospitality.” In 1984, the Count of Barcelona, father of King Juan Carlos and a frequent guest, signed his name. Willie Brandt did so in 1988, Octavio Paz in 1991. In between were regards from such as Marlene Deitrich, Liza Minelli, Salvador Dali, and Bishop Fulton Sheen who wrote: “God love you.”  

“I remember them all,” Carlos sighed as he carefully closed the huge tome. “But the guests I remember best were the Beatles. I can even remember their rooms: 103, 105, 107, 109.

“They were very young, very cheerful, full of life. The crowd outside the hotel was so huge, it was impossible to go out the front door. So I took them through the kitchen and out the service door to a waiting car which brought them to the bull ring, the biggest place in all of Barcelona, where they performed.

“At that time, I had never heard of the Beatles,” he added. “It was 1967, still the era of Franco, and here in Catalonia we were so isolated. Their music was so different. It was like a message from the outside world.”

It would take another 25 years before the outside world would come to Barcelona and the dream-like spires of the Sagrada Família, the flower-filled walkways of the Rambla, the glittering waterfront, and the fabulous fountain of the Plaça d’Espanya at the base of Montjuic would become familiar images around the globe. The 1992 Olympics was a great spur to the city. But beyond all the new construction, publicity, and excitement of the Games, for patriots like Roser Giner, there was ultimate vindication when Catalan was chosen to be one of the four official languages.

Barcelona images, familiar around the globe - click to enlarge Barcelona images, familiar around the globe - click to enlarge
Barcelona images, familiar around the globe - click to enlarge Barcelona images, familiar around the globe - click to enlarge
Barcelona images, familiar around the globe

After the Olympics, tourism shot up. “A major cardiology congress was held here followed by other medical congresses,” Roser told us. “Renault made a huge marketing presentation in the Olympic area and other auto manufacturers came in their wake. Barcelona has many unique venues for conferences: the Gaudi buildings, palaces, the main railway station; the opera house which can be converted into a big banqueting hall.”

Roser arranges the stays of the many congresses held at the Avenida Palace. We shared space with an international coterie of General Electric people followed by a group of field engineers. She met with the representative of a delegation of swimmers from Australia and Canada who would be arriving in a few months (“They don’t like walking, and insist on rooms on the lower floors,” Roser said.) She books business and leisure travelers at the start and end of cruises --  Barcelona has become the biggest cruise port in the Mediterranean, and a yearly group of skiers direct from the Alps. The wealth of the city’s architectural treasures -- from gothic to baroque, to the distinctive Catalan “Modernista,” to contemporary -- insures regular bookings of architects’ conferences.

A sampling of Barcelona’s architectural treasures - click to enlarge A sampling of Barcelona’s architectural treasures - click to enlarge
A sampling of Barcelona’s architectural treasures - click to enlarge A sampling of Barcelona’s architectural treasures - click to enlarge
A sampling of Barcelona’s architectural treasures - click to enlarge

“And then there are the more unusual groups,” she told us, “like the parapsychology congress that met here not long ago. I went down to the meeting, and one of the organizers said to me, ‘You know you have an angel who is always with you, taking care of you.’

“’Who is this?’ I asked.   

“’A man who uses a cane,’ she said. And she then described my father who had died two years earlier. It was very strange. I don’t believe in these things, but. . .”

In the spring of 2002, with Barcelona well into a new golden age, the Avenida Palace prepared to celebrate its golden anniversary. Sadly Mr. Gaspart, a beloved figure whose portrait hangs prominently in the lobby,  died just before the planned gala. When it was held at a later date, some 200 staff members, past and present, were reunited. It was a joyful event, Carlos told us, but the absence of Mr. Gaspart was deeply felt.

“He viewed the staff as his family; he was paternalistic to us,” said Carlos. “There is a family sense here that is that is truly unique. Our staff is known for its longevity, and that is unusual in the hotel industry. We have lived through a lot together, the Franco period, the liberation, the pride in being able to use the Catalan language once again.”

In a place where employee longevity is commonplace, general manager Javier Gener is an anomaly. Young, classically handsome, and on the job for only a year, he does not share the collective memory of much of the staff. Focused on the future of this family-owned property, he told us of  plans to convert it into a boutique hotel, to renovate public spaces without sacrificing traditional details and proportions, to restore the old ballroom of the Casa Llibra painted white ages ago to its gilded origins.

Yet the past intrigues him. He opened an inconspicuous door on the lower level where a stairway led to a subterranean room.  “Lola Flores, one of the greatest of the Flamenco dancers, used to come here with friends,” he told us. “It was during Franco’s regime when elaborate parties were forbidden. But down here in this secret place, they would party and dance Flamenco all night long.”

A youthful general mananger: Janiver Gener has big plans for the Avenida Palace - click to enlarge
Janiver Gener has big plans for the Avenida Palace - click to enlarge
Despite the young manager’s plans for change, he aims to preserve the family spirit that permeates the Avenida Palace. “There are few hotels in Barcelona who have kept their staff the way we have,” he said. “We believe in retaining people who have worked here for a long time, and we do so by treating them well, feeding them well, making them feel secure.”

One of the pleasures of a stay at the Avenida Palace is experiencing the exceptional warmth and graciousness of the staff. From bellman to housekeeper to concierge, everyone goes out of his and her way to make the visitor feel at home. And this includes Chef Arturio Perez whom we met the last night of our visit when we joined Carlos for dinner at El Candelabro, the Avenida Palace’s gastronomic restaurant.

The youthful-looking Arturio comes from Galicia, the northwest region of Spain, and the monkfish paupiettes we started with are examples of the Galician touches he infuses into the Catalan/Mediterranean cuisine. They were part of a tapas-like sampling which also included irresistible foie gras, salty Spanish ham –which Carlos assured us is impossible to find outside of Spain, and miniature portions of fried chicken and codfish. There followed an excellent soup, made at the last minute from a stock on hand and an assortment of fresh vegetables. The main course was Beef Wellington, a dish we had not tasted in many a year, the crisp, delicate pastry enclosing tender and flavorful beef in an aromatic sauce; the dessert a gorgeous pink and white strawberry cake served with pineapple and crème Catalonia.

We are great fans of Spanish wines and were delighted with the two Carlos selected to accompany this dinner: Albariño/Maior de Mondoze, a white from Galicea which was smooth and dry with a wonderful bouquet; and Loriñon/Crianza, a full bodied, deep ruby rioja, bottled in 1995– an excellent year for riojas, we were told.

Lingering over coffee was bittersweet. We had been guests at the Avenida Palace for nearly a week, and from the first moments after check-in to this evening before our departure, we felt so surrounded by its warm ambience that the prospect of leaving caused some pangs of regret. It was then that Carlos related the following story:

“Not long ago I was behind the front desk when a fax came in from New York,” he began. “It was from a man asking for a reservation for himself and his wife for Room 455. ‘I know the price has changed,’ he wrote, ‘but here is what we paid for this room when we came for our honeymoon in December 1962.’ And then came a fax of the original bill. It was for 385 pesatas for four days. That would be about $2 or $3. Imagine, all these years they had saved the bill.

“Well,” Carlos continued, “we hosted them for four days in Room 455 with breakfast and a special dinner and room service at the same rate they had paid more than forty years ago. They arrived on a  Thursday which is my day off. But I came into work anyway and greeted them just as I had in 1962 when I was the receptionist. And we created the room to make it look just the way it had then.”

This little anecdote seemed emblematic of the entire Avenida Palace/Barcelona experience. Implicit in our farewell would be a promise to return. Like the one-time honeymooning couple, we too will plan on coming back again to beautiful Barcelona and its “Old Glory.”

Beautiful Barcelona's "Old Glory"  - The Avenida Palace Hotel

Beautiful Barcelona's "Old Glory"  - The Avenida Palace Hotel

Avenida Palace Hotel
SRS-World Hotels Deluxe Collections
Gran Via de les Corts Catalanes, 605
08007 Barcelona, Spain

Phone: 34 93 301 96 00


Photos by Harvey Frommer

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About the Authors:  Myrna Katz Frommer and Harvey Frommer are a wife and husband team who successfully bridge the worlds of popular culture and traditional scholarship. Co-authors of the critically acclaimed interactive oral histories It Happened in the Catskills, It Happened in Brooklyn, Growing Up Jewish in America, It Happened on Broadway, It Happened in Manhattan, It Happened in Miami. They teach what they practice as professors at Dartmouth College.

They are also travel writers who specialize in luxury properties and fine dining as well as cultural history and Jewish history and heritage in the United States, Europe, and the Caribbean. More about these authors.

You can contact the Frommers at: 

Email: myrna.frommer@Dartmouth.EDU
Email: harvey.frommer@Dartmouth.EDU

This Article is Copyright © 1995 - 2012 by Harvey and Myrna Frommer.  All rights reserved worldwide.


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