Niamh Horan in Barcelona: 'A weekend just isn't enough to fully enjoy it'

There is a little-known story about the Irishman behind one the world’s most exclusive chains of luxury hotels.

Originally from the Clogher Valley, Tyrone, James Fair was born into poverty. With no prospects, and nothing to lose, he left for America, where he struck it rich at the silver mines in Nevada, becoming, for a time, one of the world’s wealthiest men.

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In his latter days, a beautiful mountain top caught his eye, and it was there he decided to live out his days. But he died, in 1894, before he finished the mansion of his dreams, so his daughters took over the task and turned it into a hotel in their father’s honour: the Fairmont hotel.

Over the 20th Century the hotel became a favourite of Hollywood stars and presidents as the place to ‘see and be seen’, before a chain of Fairmonts quickly expanded to some of the most desirable locations around the world.

And it is in the Fairmont Rey Juan Carlos in Barcelona that I escaped to experience the timeless elegance of the classic brand. A ten-minute taxi ride from the airport, it is the perfect stop-off point for a break in one of Europe’s most beautiful and romantic cities, which also has more cultural points than you can shake a selfie stick at.

Why is it the perfect resting point?

Because, as well as stunning rooms, you can enjoy all the sights, bars and restaurants that the city has to offer, before returning on the underground (fast, and costing less than a cup of tea) to a stop that is a stone’s throw from your hotel door and enjoying the evening sunset in the peaceful surrounds of a five-star haven away from the hustle and bustle. Best of both worlds.

Food at the hotel is second to none: I had the greatest steak I have ever tucked into. Vegans look away now.

Sitting outside at their exquisite ‘Terrace’ restaurant on a cool autumnal night, I wrapped myself in a courtesy blanket and sipped a bold rioja under the fairy lights while my dinner was put on the outdoor barbeque. From there it was brought on a hot plate, still sizzling away, to my table, where I had total control over how well I wanted it cooked.

I was hooked. We returned each evening to sample dish after dish: the grilled octopus, the artisan sausage and the suckling pig.

It was almost too much to peel ourselves away to visit the sites that we had come to see. But when you are in the home of one of the world’s greatest geniuses, it would be sacrilege not to.

First it was off to Barcelona’s most beautiful attraction – Park Guell, where the architect Gaudí’s plan was to create an English-style residential estate for the wealthy far from the smog and chaos of the city down below. It was never finished – and Gaudí was considered a failure by his peers, which must have broken the heart of a man so devoted to his work; but today millions visit each year to pay homage to this wonderland by the master of the mosaic.

His fascination with nature can be seen in the columns, which are inspired by the shape and structure of the surrounding trees, and such was his commitment to the natural environment, you won’t find one straight line in the park (including the long line for ticket sales – make sure to book in advance). You can also take a guided tour where an expert can point out the giant jungle animals such as elephants hidden in the technicolour mosaics.

Don’t forget to look up into the high trees that surround the park, where you will see hundreds of chattering parrots with coats of red, green and blue – a fitting piece of natural karma for a man whose life’s work celebrated both colour and nature.

From there I recommend a visit to Gaudí’s Casa Batlló, which has been likened to Claude Monet’s Water Lilies. Every aspect of this house has been inspired by the sea, so keep an eye out for the glass on each floor. Look through and you’ll feel as if you were deep in the ocean.

Upstairs, the catenary arches give the impression that you have been swallowed whole inside the belly of a whale, then step outside to see how the façade has waves that mirror a calm sea.

Pay particular attention to the detail in the balconies and undergo a kind of Gaudí-style ‘Rorschach test’. Different people see different creatures, from Venetian masks to eerie skulls and even sea turtles, depending where your head is at.

One man who wasn’t such a fan of Gaudí was Pablo Picasso. It could have been jealousy – or maybe the cubist simply saw reality in a different way – but he castigated Gaudí’s stunning church, the Sagrada Família.

Still he could be forgiven when you see his own work at Pablo Picasso museum. Set in five palaces in the El Born neighbourhood, this is where art lovers go to understand how the artist’s style evolved.

Those familiar with his work will be amused to come across a pencil drawing of his famous Gored Horse that he sketched decades before he painted his masterpiece. For many the dying creature is linked to the bullfight – which some critics say is a metaphor for his relationships with women, that led to their pain and suffering.

Other highlights include the paintings Picasso worked on when he was still in his early teens. The finished pieces are beyond the talents of most experienced gifted painters. Look at his etchings and you’ll see how he practised over and over and over again on his painstaking journey towards brilliance.

The problem with Barcelona is that there is just so much to see and do. If you have time to pack more in then check out the Sagrada Família, and take a stroll around La Rambla; sports lovers can visit Camp Nou; and then there’s the city’s four miles of beaches.

A weekend just isn’t enough to fully enjoy it or the wonderful Fairmont.

Thank you James Fair.

Getting there

Set in lush 19th-Century gardens with unparalleled views of the Barcelona skyline, Fairmont Rey Juan Carlos I provides guests with an exclusive, luxury retreat in the centre of Barcelona.

* Explore the timeless elegance of Fairmont Rey Juan Carlos I and welcome 2020 in style with a glamorous overnight experience specially created for New Year’s Eve.

* New Year celebrations at the hotel start from €679 per night based on double occupancy in a Fairmont Room, and include a unique New Year’s Eve dining experience.

* For more information visit: promotions/festive-season/

NB: This feature originally appeared in The Sunday Independent.

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