Barcelona is full-on kink haven. It’s a city where boundaries are pushed, borders dissolved. The openness to experimentation is a large part of its seductive charm. There are love hotels that serve naughty extras – mirrors, sex-toy menus, bondage gear on hire. There are hotels that until recently stocked rosaries and prayer books as take-home-proof for guests who claimed they were going to church but actually dropped in for a quick roll in the hay! In this city that’s carved out spaces for every kind of persuasion, I check into the gay Axel hotel.
FIT FOR A QUEEN
Now, a gay hotel is not to be confused with a sex hotel, and a sex hotel is not to be confused with a sleazy brothel in the red-light district of a city. Axel is the vision of the flamboyant Juan P Julia Blanch, who dreamed of hotels for the gay community, spaces that had no qualms about who you wanted to sleep with, and a business that valued the diversity of both guests and staff. The purpose of my visit was to explore the hetero-friendly philosophy of this out-and-out “out” hotel.
Coming from a world where much of life is inscribed with ideas of heterosexuality, I found this shift refreshing. Axel is boutique without being pretentious, cozy but not suffocating. The lobby is elegant – queen-sized chairs, velvet sofas, a bar brimming over with well-dressed gay men. Clinging to the lift walls are bodacious, up-for-it blokes advertising fetish nightclubs and swinging hotspots. Dress codes vary from rubber, military, industrial and punk to nothing at all.
I encounter a man in the lift. “In this place, the longer the ride, the more likely you are to meet potential mates,” he tells me with a twinkle in his eye. I’ve never looked at lifts quite like that. But here, meanings open up and an lift becomes a meeting place, a discussion point, an information kiosk.
The door next to my room is ajar. As I fumble with my key, I notice a ‘Do Disturb’ sign on the doorknob. I look again to make sure I’ve seen right. Then, from next door, a head attached to a cashmere sweater pops out and tells me that there’s little in life that can’t be improved by a frothy Freudian squirt. But the head pops back in when it realises I’m not an elfin boy, just an elfin girl with short hair.
The room has all the ingredients that push my personal buttons. It has a view of the city, sensuous towels and tiny slippers. It’s in-your-face with its porn channels. It doesn’t layer itself in make-up, but is straightforward, announcing in its pamphlets the timings for breakfast and the fact that rooms are soundproof.
The bathrooms remind me of the words of Morticia Addams: “Normal is an illusion. What is normal for a spider is chaos for the fly.” I look for toilet paper but find an abundance of condoms instead. The bathroom walls, when I look closely, remind me of tiny puckered backsides. The room has me paying attention to minute nuances, adding precision to my vision.
My phone rings. Surprising, as I don’t know a soul in these parts. It is the man who was checking in alongside me. Would I like to have dinner, breakfast and everything-in-between with him? There’s straightforwardness to the approach, which in some ways reflects my bedroom. Downstairs, by the bars, are permutations and combinations of couples playing tonsil hockey, displaying performative variations of the verb “to love.” Alone in the bedroom, I settle down with a bowl of nuts and wine to contemplate the pictures on the wall – men holding happy-looking men. It’s a projection of eternal bliss as lovely and perhaps as mythical as those of happy families in other hotels.
THE MORNING AFTER
Next morning, breakfast is an egalitarian affair. You can talk to a gay couple or a straight one, discover a bisexual side to yourself or get a bowl of cornflakes. A mother and her 14-year-old daughter plot their day on a map. A crowd of she-males stride in, hungry for Eggs Benedict after a night of partying.
And this inclusivity and elegant unselfconsciousness is what makes the Axel most attractive. It’s what makes spaces like this an essential piece of an unfolding saga. In a world shifting towards the globalised, sanitised and cling-wrapped, many generations hence will probably look back and find, in the remarkable capacity of Barcelona to encourage diversity, the beginnings of a fairytale.
From HT Brunch, March 10
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