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A Bargain Shopper’s Paradise

Usually, the last words that come to mind when you think “outlet-mall shopping” are chic, luxurious, and relaxed. But with the following European outlets, that’s just what you can expect.

IT WAS THE VERITABLE GODFATHER of Belgian design himself, Olivier Strelli, who first told me about a chic shopping outlet just an hour from Brussels. I was skeptical. Though I like a bargain as much as the next shopper, I detest the frenzied furor, the greedy grabbing, the ruthless rummaging that the word outlet usually evokes. I looked around Strelli’s elegant shop on Avenue Louise in Brussels and delighted in its minimalist splendor. His colorful trademark clothes hung like exquisite sculptures on the racks, and the salespeople, as enchanting as Strelli himself, made me want to buy out the shop. His store was everything an outlet isn’t: soothing, sleek, and textured -- like a private club with an exclusive membership.

And that was exactly the problem. I couldn’t afford anything in it. Strelli laughed when I mentioned that fact. Then he shrugged his shoulders, pursed his lips into his characteristic moue, and told me that there was an alternative, one he urged me to consider. “You will find my store at the outlet Maasmechelen Village exactly like this,” he said. “The designs are still beautiful -- just a few months old. The store is just like this, but everything costs much less. Trust me. Even some of my celebrity clients shop there.”

So I made the trek to Maasmechelen. And what I found was a gorgeous shopping mecca conveniently situated almost equidistant from Brussels, Antwerp, Maastricht, and Düsseldorf. I was so awed to discover a shopper’s paradise so sophisticated and alluring, I even forgot that it was an outlet. There were global brands (like Versace and Villeroy & Boch) and spectacular regional designers (like Strelli and other elite of Belgium’s esteemed fashion world), and though I desperately wanted to spend my way through the 100-plus boutiques, I ended up passing most of my limited time at Strelli’s avant-garde shop, which showcased all his innovative fashions, but at a discount of 60 percent. Converted, laden with shopping bags (and a much lighter pocketbook), I vowed to return sometime soon to spend equal time at the remaining shops.

UNFORTUNATELY (OR NOT), my next trip to Europe didn’t take me anywhere near Maasmechelen Village. That time, I descended on Barcelona, Milan, and Paris for a three-city research trip. I was with my friend Claude, a Lebanese journalist who dresses well but hates to shop. Though we had plenty of work to do and some sightseeing junkets planned to fill any voids, I had a secret agenda. I’d just discovered that there are nine members of the Chic Outlet Shopping Village family in Europe -- one of which is just a stone’s throw from Barcelona. What a coincidence.

After a few hours of mouth-dropping inspections of various Gaudí architectural hot spots around Barcelona, I begged Claude to join me at La Roca Village, a sister shopping outlet to Maasmechelen Village that just happened to be 30 minutes from the city. I explained that the short trip would take us along one of the most scenic beach roads of the Costa Brava, and Claude begrudgingly agreed. (Knowing I might be met with some resistance on Claude’s part, I planned my mode of attack ahead of time.) It was time for the shopping adventure to begin.

Architecturally reminiscent of Mediterranean Spain and fitted with an eatery that mimics the best Spanish wine cellar, La Roca Village has nearly a hundred boutiques. They are spread out in a pleasing format and include icons like Burberry and Ralph Lauren as well as hard-to-find local houses like Elena Mirò and El Caballo, both of which tickled my fancy. A fan of the wacky Spanish shoe brand Camper, I spent an hour in that store alone and bought four pairs of shoes.

After a few hours had passed, I, hauling a couple of well-filled bags, reconnected with Claude. He carried nothing. Guilt-ridden, I cried out, “Didn’t you buy anything?” “Yes,” he said. “Some shoes.” I frowned, wondering where they were, and he pointed to his feet. “I bought these,” he said gleefully, “and threw the others away.” When I looked perplexed, he explained, saying, “I only brought a small suitcase.”

It seemed that the chic outlet shopping bug had bitten Claude, too (my secret agenda and crafty handiwork had paid off -- I now had a partner in crime!), and we rejoiced that more outlets awaited us near Milan and Paris.

In each city, we worked and did a bit of sightseeing before hightailing it to the surrounding countryside for some shopping -- and for the chance to enjoy the road less traveled in terms of touristy attractions. Claude pretended to complain, but he didn’t fool me -- it was just to save face. We had both been to Milan and Paris many times before, so for us, these shopping excursions presented an opportunity to get out of town and see new places. In Italy, after shopping at Fidenza Village, we continued our exploration of the Parma region, tasting its famous ham and viewing the Teatro Magnani. A few days later, after enjoying hours at La Vallée Village, situated near Disneyland Paris, we indulged in Champagne tasting in the caves of Moët & Chandon.

Still, throughout, Claude maintained that it was the cultural forays that got him out of town and that the shopping was just a necessary evil. He’d endure it, he told me, as a means to an end, a way to step inside a beautiful cathedral or to have lunch in a rustic tavern. But, considering that he was buying a bit more at each stop, I knew he was just telling tales. He found himself another pair of shoes and a sweater at Fidenza Village and then bought so much at La Vallée Village that, as we passed the Samsonite store, he finally gave in to his yearning for a larger suitcase. A little while later, as I stepped out of Anne Fontaine (where I’d just nabbed a few new blouses), I saw Claude wheeling his new suitcase beside the manicured gardens that adorn La Vallée Village. When I caught up to him, he opened it to show me that it was full of shopping bags. He shrugged sheepishly and said, “Next time, I’ll bring a bigger suitcase.”

If you go combine the joys of travel and shopping at these nine outlet villages near some of europe’s most compelling cities. located in areas abounding with cultural attractions, each one evokes its region architecturally and conceptually.
time from citycity

shopping village

1 hr, 20 minslondonbicester villagewww.bicestervillage.com
30 mins parisla vallée villagewww.lavalleevillage.com
40 mins (from the airport)northwest madridla rozas villagewww.larozasvillage.com
30 mins barcelona la roca villagewww.larocavillage.com
1 hr milanfidenza village www.fidenzavillage.com
1 hrbrussels maasmechelen villagewww.maasmechelenvillage.com
1 hr frankfurt wertheim villagewww.wertheimvillage.com
45 mins munich ingolstadt villagewww.ingolstadtvillage.com
1 hr, 30 minsdublin kildare villagewww.kildarevillage.com
visit www.chicoutletshopping.com for more information.