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David Cicconi Lobby, El Born's answer to Paris's Colette.

Photo: David Cicconi

To accomplish this, we have only to stick our heads outside of our hotel's revolving doors. Hotel Omm is located in L'Eixample, an area renowned for its concentration of turn-of-the- 20th-century Modernist architecture; just a half-block from the hotel is the Passeig de Gràcia, a boulevard as wide as La Rambla, where many of these historic buildings house Barcelona's finest shops. We skip Vuitton and Chanel (yes, we still love them, but they're not exactly Spanish) and dip instead into Custo Barcelona, where we find an abundance of the stretchy, wildly printed tops that have become a worldwide draw for people who like their shirts cheap and cheerful. The less well-known Agatha Ruiz de la Prada (no relation to Miuccia) also appeals to giddy high spirits: we linger over a sweater decorated with huge polka dots, snapping it up when we see it's a mere $76.

And then there is Zara. This phenomenal international chain, which frequently manages to get runway trends into its stores before the high-end stuff hits boutique racks, has a huge, multistory flagship on the Passeig de Gràcia. K. and I pass it every day on our long walks from the Hotel Omm to the Barri Gòtic, and we can't resist stopping in, despite the tumultuous atmosphere and utter lack of customer service. This place blows our homegrown Zaras out of the water: it's 10 times bigger, has tons more merchandise, and it has a housewares department. K. picks up a bikini for around $38 (she wants to try out the Omm's rooftop pool); I buy a deconstructed tutu with the air of Comme des Garçons for $63; both of us spend an entire afternoon in the home department, ogling tweed Birkenstock-style slippers and deadly chic black bedspreads.

We love L'Eixample all the more when we realize that even after 2 p.m., plenty of the shops here are still open. Thrilled not to have to waste four precious hours snacking and sleeping, we fairly skip over to the hushed Santa Eulalia, which has been accoutring the local haute bourgeoisie since 1843. A mammoth curved wooden staircase leads to international high-end labels—Lanvin, Marc Jacobs—along with a cache of those coveted fringed Balenciaga bags. We get a big kick out of seeing Balenciaga, Spain's most significant contribution to haute couture, reemerging as a fashion force in its homeland.

A half-block off the Passeig de Gràcia, we discover Majoral, a literal jewel box showcasing the extraordinary creations of Enric Majoral, who, according to the shop manager, "started designing during the hippie movement in Formentera." Decades later, this artist's refined, oddly organic offerings include earrings vaguely reminiscent of pea pods (gold pods, coral peas) and an austere, glamorous 18-karat ring with a pearl set oddly askew for $1,438.

It dawns on us that we have not yet been inside a single Antoni Gaudí edifice, so the next morning we tour two astonishing examples, both originally intended as residential buildings— La Pedrera and Casa Battló—by the master of Spanish Art Nouveau, conveniently located near our hotel (and no, we didn't just go to the gift shops). These odd creations, with their sinuous walls and dripping concrete, are so riveting that we consider spending the entire day visiting museums. This plan, however, dissolves as soon as we dip into the spectacularly designed Carolina Herrera store. Carolina may be Venezuelan, but her daughter is married to the dashing Spanish former bullfighter Miguel Báez, and her shop, with a stock of ruffly dresses and city sneakers embellished with the CH logo, is a big hit with the locals. Unlike Herrera, Adolfo Dominguez, whose big, busy boutique is a full-service depot for upper-middle-class Barcelonese, is an authentic native son, having grown up in Galicia. Conservative styles (office-ready trousers, dinner-worthy pleated skirts) are enlivened with slight twists and bursts of color, and the tony patrons are lapping it up. But suddenly all of this well-bred elegance induces a sharp longing for a splash of bohemia—say, a patchwork mini frock or a ring as spiky as a crown of thorns. For this, we need to go to El Born, a district that was until recently better known for derelict warehouses than for artisanal studios.

At night, El Born pulsates with white-hot energy from a hundred bistros and bars, but this morning it is so peaceful you can hear a sewing machine whirring or a jewelry hammer dinging faintly in the background as you traverse the vest-pocket boutiques. It doesn't take long for us to locate a nutty corduroy and brocade dress at Agua del Carmen, and two minutes later, a pale gray-green hunting bag at Beatriz Furest. The retail star of the neighborhood is Lobby, Barcelona's answer to Colette, the famously eclectic shop on the Rue Faubourg St.-Honoré. Lobby, which is spare and cool in both senses of the word, sells vinyl LP's (remember them?) that have been shaped into candy dishes, and deliberately outré clothes from ambitious hometown labels like Roca and Who.

Unable to decide whether either of us really needs a skirt constructed, albeit beautifully, from a pair of upside-down trousers, we stroll over to the harborfront and up La Rambla to think it over. But then suddenly—shutters down!—so it's back to L'Eixample double-quick, to continue shopping uninterrupted.


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