5 Cultural Itineraries In China & Japan


The bustling metropolis of Shanghai

Travel around the twin countries of China and Japan, both rich in heritage and culture. We’ve lined up some of the highlights that will suit discerning travellers wanting multifaceted experiences

By Kimberly Tan [Read more…]

Barcelona at its Finest


Featuring the best of the city, with its architectural gems, Michelin-starred dining, sumptuous accommodation and immersive experiences.
By Angela Miller

A classically European city, Barcelona offers what most have – a plethora of outdoor markets, restaurants, churches, museums and shops. Yet, this is a mere catalogue that barely scratches the surface of the true Barcelona. It’s a thriving metropolis merging the best of Gaudi architecture, Michelin-starred dining, glorious vineyards and amazingly luxurious accommodation.

Classic Motifs

2014-03-25_175031Together with my local guide from Abercrombie and Kent (www.abercrombiekent.com), my partner and I set out to find the masterpieces of Catalonia’s most famous architect Antoni Gaudí i Cornet. His work was revolutionary at the time, where new techniques were evoked for treating materials, such as the trencadis, a mosaic created from broken tile shards. Rather than drawing detailed plans of his works, he preferred to create them organically, building three-dimensional scale models and then adding the details as he went along.

One such example of his masterpiece is the Casa Milà or La Pedrera (www.lapedrera.com), which showcases both ideals and classified a UNESCO Heritage Site in 1984. It was built to house two apartment blocks with separate entrances. These were linked by two large inner courtyards, distinguished by a sinuous façade and the unique mosaics used on the domes and turrets of the building. Its moniker was derived by its appearance, which resembles an open quarry. I opted for The Secret Pedrera tour (about US$67) which brought us into the nooks and crannies not normally available for visitors. The evening tour took us through the same sections as the morning tour did, but the projections and holograms that the guides used really illuminated the building’s history, with accounts of the lives, customs and every day stories of the residents who had lived 100 years ago. It was rather magical to see the building and its history brought to life in such a simple yet effective manner. This unique experience was followed by a glass of cava and dinner at the building’s cafe. The highlight of our meal was the Iberian pork shortribs cooked precisely at 70°C and paired with honey, mustard and soy sauce.

Not just limited to the incredible works of Gaudi, the city has also been awarded the 1999 Royal Institute of British Architects Royal Gold Medal, the first and possibly only time a city has been given such a prestigious accolade. Notable buildings include the Barcelona Pavilion (www.miesbcn.com), designed by the great Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and the UNESCO World Heritage Site Palau de la Música (www.palaumusica.cat) by Lluís Domènech i Montaner.

Curiosity piqued, I sought the expert advice of the pavilion’s guide on the scheduled tour (about US$112 per person including entrance fee) to learn more about its history. It was first built to be the German Pavilion for the 1929 International Exposition in Barcelona, and is renowned for its simple form yet grandiose in its use of marble, red onyx and travertine. Within its interiors is a range of furniture that has been designed especially for the building, including the iconic Barcelona chair. The flat roof and floor-to-ceiling glass windows might be a familiar design concept to us today, yet revolutionary for its creation some 80 years ago. Since then, the building has also hosted the 2013 European Union Prize for Contemporary Architecture – Mies van der Rohe Award.

I found the minimalist architecture of the Barcelona Pavilion to be in great contrast to the Palau de la Música Catalana. The Palau was built between 1905 and 1908, and is considered to be an architectural jewel of Catalan Art Nouveau. It’s designed around a central metal structure that is covered in glass and decorated with various mediums including ironwork, sculpture, mosaic and stained glass. The Palau houses the Concert Auditorium, Petit Palau, the Sala d’Assaig de l’Orfeó Català and the Sala Lluís Millet.

Of all these, I was most amazed by the Concert Auditorium, which is a magnificent spectacle embodying grandeur and Art Nouveau. First off, its very size is staggering, spanning a total of 189sqm and able to accommodate up to 2,015 seats. Its main highlights are the inverted dome skylight, designed by Atoni Rigalt, in shades of blue that narrow to gold in the middle of the dome, reminiscent of the sky and the sun. The concert hall’s imagery brings to life the theme of choral music, with two female choirs depicted in the hall, the first surrounding the ‘sun’ and the second to the left side of the stage. Inspiring the musical performances are the 18 muses at the back of the stage. Guests can subscribe to musical programmes (price upon request) during the season, which begins in early May. Groups of up to 50 persons can have a private tour of the Palau (about US$1,398) that includes a welcome drink and a cocktail. 

Glorious Stays

2014-03-25_175122For one of the most luxurious accommodations in the city, stay at the W Barcelona (www.w-barcelona.com) in the three bedroom 295sqm Extreme Wow Suite (about US$14,800 per night) that is located on the penthouse floor for ultimate privacy with the most spectacular views. The suite, designed by renowned Spanish architect Ricardo Bofill, includes a dining table for six, with an extensive 59sqm private terrace that has sun beds and a Jacuzzi. Interestingly, Bofill has also put his own touches in the room, such as his personal book selection. The three-bedroom penthouse suite looks over the famous Barcelona Plaça de la Rosa del Vents and out to the Mediterranean sea. Television presenter Phil Spencer is a fan of this hotel’s location as it’s right on the beach.

El Palauet (www.elpalauet.com) has the distinction of having the most expensive starting priced rooms (at about US$700) in the city. It’s clear why; the hotel has just six two-bedroom suites over a five-storey property. The top floor suite, the Àtico Paseo de Gracia (about US$953 per night) has amazing views of Passeig de Gràcia from its three balconies, with its furnishings designed by top names like Philippe Starck, Knoll International, Eero Saarinen, Warren Platner, Antonio Citterio and Established & Sons in the living, dining area and kitchen. The highlight of this suite is its floral stucco designed ceiling that is so gorgeous and precious that it’s protected from destruction by the Town Hall of Barcelona. A personal assistant will also be at your service to organise your meals, every day shopping, arrange for a personal shopper or trainer and even purchase tickets for shows.

Gourmet Eats

2014-03-25_175155Aside from its local delicacies, the city is also home to some of the greatest cuisine that has won the prestigious accolades of two Michelin stars. First on this list is Enoteca at Hotel Arts Barcelona (www.ritzcarlton.com/en/properties/Barcelona), which is helmed by Chef Paco Perez. Dine on the Chef’s Menu (about US$196 without wine), with interesting dishes such as spinach dim sum, Wagyu beef, braised juice and contrasts as well as a lemon and violet tart. Celebrity guests like Melanie Griffith, Mick Jagger, Cindy Crawford and Phil Collins may have dined here during their stay.

The second two-Michelin dining establishment that we visited was the ABaC Restaurant (www.abacbarcelona.com), renowned for pioneering the avant-garde dining route. Try the Grand ABaC menu (about US$211) which offers 13 courses of Chef Jordi Cruz’s standout cuisine, with signature dishes like the smoked steak tartare with seasoned, snow-like beef, a cooked egg yolk, veil of mustard and pepper bread brittle, or Mediterranean tuna belly served with macaroni in ponzu sauce, kumquat skin, mizuna, crispy artichokes and a spicy roots puree.

Last on the list is Moments at Mandarin Oriental Barcelona (www.mandarinoriental.com/barcelona), the first restaurant in the city to not only provide stellar cuisine, but also anti-ageing lunch menus devised by Chef Carme Ruscalleda and Dr. Manuel Sanchez, the head of the Anti-Ageing Unit Clinic Planas. This menu uses seasonal ingredients proven to have the greatest benefits on the body. The tasting menu (about US$184 with wine pairing) include Prawn Tails, cooked with black garlic, pumpkin and espigall (a locally grown vegetable from the cabbage family) and Deer Steak with stew, artichokes and calçots (a type of scallion or green onion). For the ultimate healthful experience, book the 360° Anti-Ageing package (price up to US$1,294) for a HealthSmart breakfast at Blanc Brasserie & Gastrobar followed by lunch at Moments and three pampering spa treatments.

To learn more about the local cuisine, we travelled with Gourmand Breaks (www.gourmandbreaks.com) on a whirlwind trip around Barcelona’s best (about US$304 per person), starting with the largest marketplace in Spain that’s reportedly about 800 years old. This market was a foodie’s wonderland with its smorgasbord of fruits, vegetables, seafood, meats, baked goods and sweets. The different smells filled the market, the spicy smoky smell of chorizos mixing with the freshly baked breads. Our guide expertly wove through the crowds, allowing us to sample the best of seasonal local produce including chocolate, vinegars and marmalades. We dropped by the Pinotxo (pinotxobar.com) next, one of the most famous bars in La Boqueria, for a tapas dish of chanterelle mushrooms, which smelled rather fruity and had a slightly peppery taste, accompanied by a glass of brut cava. The tour continued to the oldest venue in Barcelona, where I tried a range of fruits and dried nuts. It was fascinating to me that the local store which has been roasting coffee beans and nuts for more than 150 years was still decorated with its original furniture and even more amazing a wood-burning stove.

Other stops on this gourmet tour included visiting a chocolate boutique with recipes created by the three-Michelin star restaurant El Bulli’s dessert chef, Albert Adria, brother to Ferran Adria, the most famous chef in Spain. However, the undisputed highlight of my trip was the visit to the Penedès vineyard. This small but illustrious winery has cultivated a strong reputation for growing excellent varieties of xarello, syrah and chardonnay grapes, all handpicked to ensure the preciseness of harvest. The in-house oenologists gave me a number of wines to try and I attempted to identify the differences between the ecological and organic varieties of the wines and cavas. I was drawn to the modernist style cellar that had been designed by famous architect Puig Cadafalch, with barrels of quality sparkling wines that were the product of the Penedès regional grape varieties and the traditional Champagne-making method.

Local Immersion

2014-03-25_175207One of the must-do activities I felt I had to do was watch the graceful flamenco dance at the Tablao de Carmen (www.flamencotickets.com), which got its name from the famous flamenco dancer Carmen Amaya, who made her debut performing for the King of Spain, Alfonso XIII. The venue is divided into three distinct spaces, the tablao or performance area, the patio cordobés and the Freiduría Tio Pepe. We were first ushered into the Freiduría Tio Pepe for our pre-performance VIP dinner (about US$116), featuring delectable dishes like the Cordoba-style salmorejo soup containing slices of Iberian ham and quail’s egg, a hake cooked in cava with langoustines and an apple tarte tatin served with warm cream. It was all delicious, but the main event was yet to occur.

Our anticipation mounting, we took our seats at the tablao and waited for the magic to happen. With a capacity for 150 people, this area was designed with multiple levels of seating to ensure that each guest had unblocked views of the stage. On the night we were there, the dance was performed with a single dancer, twirling to the beat provided by the wooden box drum cajon and the hand claps of the three singers who simultaneously sang the melody to accompany the guitarist. It was mesmerising to see the dancer’s swift feet swirl around the stage, with her frilly, tiered skirt swishing around her as she moved. Her proud carriage and graceful movements enraptured the audience, culminating in a series of rapid rhythmic taps that form a counterpoint to the main beat for a truly impressive performance.

My partner did not find the same delight in my cultural exploits as I did, and my many stops on the trip made him rather resignedly subdued. However, the one thing that got him super excited was the Premier Soccer Trips (www.premiersoccertrips.co.uk) that brought him to Barcelona (about US$898 per trip). He had the chance to play two competition matches against the local opposition clubs and receive the best coaching from the world renowned Academy Coaches at the Nou Camp. Bristling with anticipation, he thoroughly enjoyed the thrilling tour around the stadium and the museum, where the FC Barcelona team played their matches and trained. The quintessential soccer experience also allowed this fan to watch his favourite team, La Liga champions, with a long list of accolades to boot, play in a match fixture as the highlight of the tour. Implicit in this tour is a chance to meet sporting legends like Lionel Messi, Alexandre Song and Carles Puyol Saforcada as well.

Barcelona, I felt, was truly a vibrant city, not just in the carefully preserved architectural styles that hearkened back to decades before, but also in the rich tapestry of design that wove its way not only into the grand accommodation that we stayed in, but also into the very lifestyle of the people, manifested in their culinary greatness and cultural perfection.

The itinerary was partially based on the four-day trip offered by Abercrombie and Kent and prices start from US$3,395.