Two women are sitting under a palm tree at a café in Barcelona's Plaça Reial, nibbling listlessly at a shared boule of ice cream and waiting desperately for the Barri Gòtic to reopen for business. One (me) is checking the time every few minutes on a vintage Rolex; the other (my friend K., the creative director of a luxury fashion house in New York) is staring at her Cartier Baignoire. The Plaça Reial, with its fading Neoclassical façades and Antoni Gaudí lampposts, is a lovely oasis, just a few steps from bustling La Rambla. But quite frankly, we've been nursing dessert for more than an hour and enough is enough.
It's our first day of a long weekend dedicated to a whirlwind shopping tour of Barcelona, and K. and I had not realized just how seriously the locals take their four-hour lunch breaks. This sort of old-world tradition, a survivor from a sleepy, gentler time, seems distinctly at odds with Barcelona's present position as a way station on the international hipster-fashion trail, drawing hordes of pilgrims with fat Fendi purses and Marni coats.
At last it is 4:30, and we rush into the gray medieval streets of the Barri Gòtic, heading straight for La Manual Alpargatera, the famous espadrille store. Though the place reopened a mere 10 minutes before we got there, it's already so crowded we have to take a number. La Manual Alpargatera is the quintessential Barcelona outpost: it's steeped in history (there's a photo on the wall of faithful customer Salvador Dalí, who wore his espadrilles with his summer suits) but boasts unimpeachable street cred (Jean Paul Gaultier is currently a client). Our number finally comes up, and we are rapidly half-buried beneath stacks of ribbon-tied espadrilles, T-strapped espadrilles, platform-wedge espadrilles, and even pancake-flat espadrilles.
Exhausted—we have, after all, only arrived this morning—and struggling under the weight of shoeboxes, we taxi back to the Hotel Omm, an ultramodern, designed-to-death hotel with an undulating façade, pitch-black corridors, and a lobby full of lithe blondes with stick-straight hair and tiny skirts, who lurk around the entrance of the Moo Restaurant, the place to eat in town. Alas, the two of us are far too beat to sit at a restaurant table. We decide on long naps and room service.
The next day we are up early for the Thursday-only antiques market in the Plaça de la Seu at the base of the massive 15th-century Catedral de Barcelona, whose spires soar over the Barri Gòtic. Despite the disheartening presence of a mime balanced on a cardboard box at the entrance to the square (shopping rule of thumb: where there's a mime, there are usually no bargains), this is a wonderful market. I instantly spend $38 on a pair of hammered-silver hairbrushes that bear the elaborate monogram of their long-forgotten owner; K. is audibly longing for a horn-shaped coral Victorian pendant. (I bargain in French—without enormous success, I might add—since Catalan is as close to that language as it is to Spanish, which neither K. nor I speak.)
Our time-management skills improving, we linger sufficiently at the market to hit the Barri Gòtic just as the gates are going up. We are fascinated by Cereria Subirà, a centuries-old candle store in business at this location since 1761, with its tapers shaped like mountains, like mushrooms, like Mickey Mouse. The district is thronged with tourists and far too many T-shirt shops, but no matter; on the Banys Nous, we find Heritage, the town's best vintage-clothing store, where a mannequin clad in Yves Saint Laurent couture stands just inside the door and a slubby silk 1950's jacket bears a label from Pertegaz, a famous mid-20th-century Spanish fashion house.
The Barri Gòtic's mysterious alleyways seduce me so thoroughly that I would probably be content to spend the entire weekend under its arches, but K. has other ideas. She's anxious to explore the retail equivalent of the Omm—places that reflect Barcelona's much-vaunted vibrant design sense and justify the town's reputation as a hot dining, clubbing, and—not least—shopping destination.