Grand tour of the Apple retail palaces of Europe: Barcelona

Photo: Apple
The Hotel Colon before Franco had it torn down.

FORTUNE — The Apple Store on Barcelona’s Plaza de Catalonya — the final stop on my five-city tour — might have been more palatial if the Spanish Civil War hadn’t turned out the way it did.

In 1936, when the first shots were fired on La Rambla, just across the plaza, the art nouveau hotel that stood on this spot was draped with huge portraits of Lenin and Stalin. The Spanish Communist Party had made the 1902 Hotel Colon its headquarters. And when the war was over and the Nationalists — with military support from Hitler and Mussolini — had slaughtered the Loyalists, Generalissimo Franco tore the old hotel down and replaced it with a neoclassical bank building more to his taste.

Plaza de Catalonya and No. 1 Passeig de Gracia as it looks today.

The new building still has pride of place: No. 1 Passeig de Gracia, the first building on one of Barcelona’s showpiece shopping and tourist destinations. The wide boulevard is home to both the big names in fashion (Gucci, Chanel, Armani, Cartier, Lacoste, etc.) and some of the best work of Barcelona’s world famous architects. Two of Gaudi’s masterpieces (La Pedrera and Casa Batlló) are just down the street.

Source: Kantar.

Apple has its work cut out for it in Spain. In the iOS/Android smartphone heat-map of Europe, Spain is Android country — the most resistant to Apple’s charms of any EU member. In the last three months of 2013, Android’s share of smartphone shipments in Spain was 86.2%, according to Kantar World Media, compared with 6.7% for iOS. In Great Britain, by contrast, the split was 55% to 32%.

[UPDATE: New Kantar data released Monday show iOS’s share in Spain increasing to 7.6% in the March quarter from 4.5% a year ago, making Spain the second-most improved country in the survey after Japan. Its market share, however, still trails the rest of Europe.]

The fiercely independent Catalans of Barcelona lean the other way, as they have on most issues (including the language they speak) for much of Spanish history. And at the new store built to serve them, Apple retail has put its best foot forward.

The store, which opened on July 28, 2012, is spacious, well-lit and all-modern, with Italian sandstone walls, Italian slate floors, a rectangular glass staircase, aluminum columns, an all-aluminum elevator and spotless public restrooms.

The second-level balcony is perfect for people watching.

With 43 tables on two levels and a basement, it’s big enough to handle the heavy traffic it draws. I clocked 9.2 visitors per minute at noon — better even than Covent Garden’s midday crowd. It claims to have the biggest accessory department in Europe, with seven double-sided display cases and wall units that line all four basement walls.

The place seemed more packed when I walked in just before noon, but it was still pretty busy when I took a 12:30 snapshot. I counted 137 visitors, nearly half of them on the 2nd level, where there’s a 360-degree balcony, a 16-stool genius bar and a dozen general purpose tables. On the ground floor, The Mac displays were the most popular (23 visitors), followed by the iPhone (8), iPad (8, including a woman dancing and singing out loud to the tune in her earphones) and iPod (1).

Pati, the store manager who greeted me, knew that the previous tenants included Radio Nacional (the Spanish NPR) and Banco de Crédito, now called Banesto.

Did she know what building used to occupy this corner? “No,” she said with a smile. “I’m too young.”

One more mid afternoon body count, and then it’s back to Paris — and, two days later, the U.S.

UPDATE: The 4:30 p.m traffic was a bit lighter: 8.7 visitors per minute. It picked up at 6:30 to 10 visitors per minute, neck and neck with London.

See also AmsterdamBerlin and Paris.

Thanks to ifoapplestore‘s Gary Allen and The Guardian‘s Stephen Burgen for their research assistance. For a first-hand account of the Spanish Civil War, you can’t do better than George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia.

Below: An iPhone panorama of the largest accessory department in Europe, and Apple staffers working the crowd on the boulevard.

Photo: PED

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