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Madrid with Carolina Herrera

Richard Phibbs Carolina Herrera in her favorite Hotel Ritz suite.

Photo: Richard Phibbs

Las Herreras concur on the wonders of Madrid's children's clothing shops. In fact, it's a topic of conversation that crops up often in the family. "We make lots of babies," the designer says, explaining that one of her daughters seems to be pregnant every time there's a group photo shoot. "Chez Pois is one of the best," declares Carolina. This pink-and-green-painted boutique features clothes embroidered with non-cloying patterns of ladybugs and flowers. Patricia chimes in to suggest Papo d'Anjo, just a few blocks away, where, in her opinion, the outfits are a bit more graphically adventurous, using retro printed fabrics that recall the sort of tablecloths used at a picnic on the Costa del Sol in the 1960's.

When Carolina wants cut flowers, a minimalist glass vase, or a woven basket for her apartment, she heads to Casa Florida, an industrial space of glass and steel tucked behind a glowering 19th-century apartment-house façade. Today, she has brought her mother and sister by for a visit. "It's fantastic, no?" Herrera says, stepping into the sunny, double-height space and heading straight for a galvanized tin pail overflowing with lush green viburnum blossoms, the kind of countrified flowers the designer prefers over hothouse varieties. Carolina is also a fan of the Showroom, a design shop run by interior architect Isabel López-Quesada. Here, chrome stools and linen-upholstered sofas cozy up to antique Queen Anne chairs and Chinese lacquerwork. "Have you seen the market?" Carolina asks, referring to Mercado San Miguel, a glass-and–cast iron pavilion next door to Plaza Mayor. Even if you don't need to pick up fresh vegetables and fruits, she adds, it's worth a visit, just to take a look at the fanciful edifice, designed in 1915. One thing the women don't agree on is El Rastro, a Sunday-morning ritual for many Madrileños, thanks to the flea market's plethora of regional curiosities, including curvaceous furniture in the Isabelino style (an Iberian variant of  Victorian) and Spanish Art Deco pieces. Carolina makes periodic visits, but her sister and mother aren't flea market types.

They all appreciate the beauty of Madrid, however. The strength of the city's considerable charms is that they are "less obviously beautiful" than those of other European capitals, Carolina says. Parts of the city were redesigned in the early 20th century, during the reign of the Francophile king Alfonso XIII, resulting in grand avenues lined with eclectic Beaux-Arts–style buildings so white and so exuberantly ornamented that some boulevards resemble allées of snow-white wedding cakes. Flamboyant fountains fringed with greenery and topped with statues punctuate the traffic circles, and in warmer months women of all ages cool off while waiting for the next bus by snapping open delicate fans—some of them CH creations—and fluttering them like modern majas. "Opening a fan is one of the most elegant gestures in the world," Herrera says.

Madrid also possesses a majestic train station, Atocha, a red-brick, iron, and glass relic. The structure was unharmed in the 2004 terrorist bombing that contributed to the downfall of the government of Prime Minister José María Aznar. It rises above Plaza del Emperador Carlos V, its heart a glass-topped indoor garden planted with towering palm trees. Close by is the Parque del Buen Retiro and several renowned museums—the Prado, Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, and the Reina Sofía. Across town is the Palacio Real. "You must go see the armor," Herrera says of the royal palace that anchors Campo del Moro, a Versailles-style park. "You've never seen anything so beautifully made."

Herrera is also smitten with the scent of Madrid. "Cities have a certain smell," she asserts. Seville, she declares, is redolent of carnations, while Jerez de la Frontera, in the heart of sherry country, is perfumed with orange blossoms. Madrid's particular fragrance, however, momentarily eludes her. After asking her daughters' opinion, the designer claps her hands for attention. "Madrid," she says, "smells like honey and white locust trees in bloom."

MITCHELL OWENS is an editor at Traditional Home and writes for the New York Times.

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