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.
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.
Momentarily tired of clothes, we descend upon Vinçon, a gigantic, sometimes surprisingly kooky design store, where you can purchase a miniature Mies van der Rohe Barcelona chair, along with far larger pieces. Witty interpretations of classic rattan porch furniture, shaped like 1930's club chairs and sofas, are a must-have but for two small problems—they will have to be shipped home by container, and I don't have a veranda. Better to confine myself to Vinçon's many clever lamps, which appear to have been inspired by everything from life rafts to salt rocks.
Saturday begins with a surprise. We've been so busy running all over town that we missed Corium, the superb shop connected to the Omm itself. The shrewdly edited stock—stone necklaces from Italy, Paul Smith satchels from England—proves that we have only scratched the city's retail surface , despite our nonstop shopping. Nonetheless, it's our last day in Barcelona (no point including Sunday in a Spanish shopping weekend), and we spend it in Gràcia, a low-key quarter that is experiencing, in common with so many other traditional Barcelona neighborhoods, an explosion of innovative shops. The anchor of the neighborhood is a huge covered food market, the Mercat de la Llibertat. We are equally taken by the glorious produce and the fact that Barcelona's matrons still do their grocery shopping in gabardine suits and polished pumps.
Traffic in the quarter has been barred from many of the smaller streets, and quirky businesses are nestled next to more conventional venues. And so we do what has become our habit every day since we arrived—we wander, we share a boule of ice cream, we poke our heads into small shops, and, of course, we buy: ridiculously cheap woven palm bangle bracelets at Sare: Artesanías de Africa, whose owner arrived five years ago from Cameroon, and toile cushions at Atram, which feels like an Iberian Shabby Chic.
But it is at La Cova del Col.leccionis-me, a rigorously curated ephemera shop, that we realize the city's credentials as a stylish metropolis are anything but new: a collection of issues of a 1920's magazine called La Doña Catalana offers breathtaking Art Deco fashions on every page. We stock up on vintage postcards depicting scenes of early-20th-century Barcelona, perfect souvenirs for friends who aren't getting espadrilles, palm bracelets, or salt-rock lamps. Then we repair for the last time to the Hotel Omm, drop our packages at the desk, order a couple of well-earned cocktails at Moo Restaurant, and try to figure out how we are going to get everything home.
Where to Stay
265 Rosselló; 34/93-445-4000; doubles from $250.
Where to Eat
265 Rosselló; 34/93-445-4000; dinner for two $192.
Where to Shop
89 Passeig de Gràcia; 34/93-215-1339.
Agatha Ruiz de la Prada
314-16 Consell de Cent; 34/93-487-1667.
Agua del Carmen
5 Carrer Bonaire; 34/93-268-7799.
19 Rambla del Prat; 34/93-237-5297.
1 Esparteria; 34/93-268-3796.
87 Passeig de Gràcia; 34/93-272-1584.
7 Baixada Llibreteria;34/93-315-2606.
106 Passeig de Gràcia; 34/93-217-5575.
La Cova del Col.leccionisme
15 Carrer Sta. Eugénia; 34/93-500-8505.
7 Plaça de les Olles; 34/93-268-7893.
14 Banys Nous; 34/93-317-8515.
5 Ribera; 34/93-319-3855.
66 Carrer Argenteria; 34/93-310-1373.
La Manual Alpargatera
7 Carrer Avinyó; 34/93-301-0172.
93 Passeig de Gràcia; 34/93-215-0674.
Sare: Artesanías de Africa
16 Carrer Sta. Eugénia; 34/93-217-8942.
96 Passeig de Gràcia; 34/93-215-6050.
16 Passeig de Gràcia; 34/93-302-6967.