The Spanish Beach Town That Keeps Calling You Back
Coming out of the pretty little train station in Sitges on a sunny Sunday morning, I took a deep breath and started laughing. Ever since I first visited this Spanish seaside town a half-hour south of Barcelona by train 40 years ago, it’s a destination that’s unfailingly made me happy.
After almost two and a half years away because of the pandemic, it was an ecstatic relief to be back. Fortunately, almost nothing had changed in my absence. Fuchsia blazes of bougainvillea tumbled over the fencing along the train tracks, and the square in front of the station was still shaded by fat palms and wispy tamarind trees. Across the street, pigeons pecked at the breakfast crumbs on the sidewalk around the cafes and bars, and yellow-and-red Catalan flags fluttered in the breeze from the railings of balconies overhead.
Pulling our clattering roller bags behind us, Bruno, my French spouse, and I stopped once or twice on our way to our rental apartment to gape anew at the spectacular Modernismo mansions along the Carrer de Illa de Cuba, as we’ve been doing for 25 years. These are joyous eruptions of Catalan art nouveau architecture — the houses are lavishly decorated with mosaics, tiles, wrought iron and molding, often with floral motifs, and many of them have towers, turrets and other fanciful features.
They were mostly built by the Americanos, as the locals called the Sitgean emigrants who made their fortunes in Cuba or Puerto Rico and then returned home, many of them at the end of the Spanish-American War. The 69 mansions that survive are landmarked and protected today, and several of them have become hotels.
For me they’ve always epitomized the admirable way Catalan culture is receptive to creative anarchy as seen in the works of an architect like Antoni Gaudí, an artist like Salvadore Dalí, or even a chef like Ferran Adrià. And in Sitges, they also signal the town’s longstanding tolerance of human differences, including its acceptance of gay travelers, which might be branded as eccentric, or worse, elsewhere.
I’d booked a table at Costa Dorada, a restaurant on the esplanade overlooking the crescent-shaped wave-lapped Platja de Sant Sebastià, one of the most popular beaches in Sitges. We wouldn’t even need a menu when we arrived, because we both craved the red-shrimp carpaccio and squid ink fideuà, stubby vermicelli noodles cooked in seafood bouillon with squid ink and garnished with chunks of cuttlefish, baby clams and peeled white shrimp, served with a side of aioli.
I’d been thinking about this dish ever since the alarm had gone off early that morning, and so it was disappointing when the maître d’hotel told us to join the line of people waiting to be seated. Standing behind a tall Dutch couple and their towheaded children; two Japanese women in long-sleeved T-shirts; a pair of heavily tattooed English guys; and an elegant older couple whom I guessed were from Madrid when they called their Dachshund “Prado,” I found myself thinking that I’m not the only one who appreciates Sitges.
If there’s a one-size-fits-all Mediterranean beach resort, it’s Sitges, and its long-running egalitarianism and inclusiveness is one of the reasons I first fell for it.
In my 20s, I loved the bars and clubs of this lively resort and would stay up late dancing, smoking harsh black-tobacco Ducados cigarettes and drinking Spanish brandy on the rocks, finally heading home alone or accompanied on the pearled gray edge of dawn to sleep for a few hours. Now half of a married couple, I’ve discovered that the shaded sun beds for rent on the beach of Saint Sebastian are a perfect perch for reading punctuated by people-watching and swimming in the Mediterranean.
Rainy days are almost welcome, too. I love revisiting the Museu Cau Ferrat, which was once the atelier of Santiago Rusiñol, one of Spain’s best-loved Impressionist painters, and the adjacent Palau de Maricel, the extravagant home of the American industrialist Charles Deering, heir to the International Harvester Company and Rusiñol’s patron. The Maricel Museum is the third museum in this perched seaside cluster, and it displays a large collection of Rusiñol’s paintings.
I’ve come to Sitges as part of a pair flush with the excitement of a new romance, and also to mourn a breakup and lick my wounds. I’ve been here with a whole alphabet of friends, and I’ve been here alone.
On one solo trip, on a hot, lonely summer afternoon, I’d bought a small tortilla (a potato-filled omelet) instead of the usual large one from the old woman who made them fresh every morning and sold them across the wide stone windowsill of her living room on Carrer de Santiago Rusiñol. She’d looked me in the eye, patted me on the back of my hand and gave me a fragile sugar tart topped with pine nuts along with my tortilla. “La vida és dolça,” she said — “life is sweet.”
Petals of shrimp
At Costa Dorada, about two minutes later, we watched a waiter spread and smooth a clean white tablecloth, then weigh it down in the breeze with two thick-stemmed wine glasses, plates, silverware and a ramekin of small bitter Arbequina olives. He gestured to us to take our seats with a broad smile.
We waved away the menus the maître d’ brought and ordered immediately.
“Un déjeuner parfait,” he commended us, proud of his French — “a perfect lunch.”
We’d just finished singing happy birthday after a candle-covered cake had been placed in front of the silver-haired patriarch of the large Catalan family at the table next to us, when our first course arrived. The shrimp from nearby Vilanova had been sliced into nearly transparent overlapping pink petals that were almost poignantly succulent and sweet.
Sitges as a watering hole was born from a script similar to many of Europe’s other most charming seaside resorts. It was originally a fishing village that was discovered by artists at the end of the 19th century, and then taken up by the Barcelonan bourgeoisie, who built fanciful mock-Tudor villas that expressed their Anglophilia in the woodsy Vinyet neighborhood. It thrived as a liberal bolthole during the years that the dictator Francisco Franco was in power. But after the initial tourist boom of the ’60s, everything sort of stopped. Sitges never became a convention town like Cannes or a millionaires’ playground like St.-Tropez, which means unlike so many other seaside resorts, it still remains affordable today.
Tourism may be its largest industry, but Sitges hasn’t lost its authenticity. The tone of the town is found in its side streets, where you come across businesses that have vanished in most other places — notions shops for knitters and home sewers, stationery stores, toy shops, along with neighborhood tapas bars where everyone knows each other.
When the glossy black fideuà arrived, the waiter served us tableside with a charming theatricality, wielding two stainless steel spoons with a nearly mechanical speed and precision. It was delicious in a perfectly primal way — it’s the Mediterranean on a plate, and we nodded eagerly when asked if we wanted to be served a second time.
After the table had been cleared, we declined dessert and ordered espressos, so it was puzzling when the waiter arrived with two Champagne flutes and an open bottle of Cava. When I held up my hand to stop him, he explained the pour was being offered by the family at the table next to us. I turned to thank them and a smiling woman said, “Enjoy! We weren’t going to finish it.”
I thanked her and told her how much I’d missed Sitges. “Welcome back!” she replied, reminding me that beyond its beautiful beaches, architecture, restaurants and nightlife, the best thing about Sitges is the Sitgeans.
If you go:
Many regular visitors to Sitges chose to rent furnished apartments. Two well-run rental agencies are the Sitges Group and Stay Sitges.
In addition to large, mostly Spanish-brand chain hotels on the edges of town, Sitges also has a variety of small, charming independent hotels. If you need an elevator, be sure to confirm that one is available before making a reservation, since many Sitges hotels are in converted villas.
Hotel Capri: This is a small, charming hotel with a pool in the heart of Sitges. They also have a few private parking places, which should be booked in advance, and bicycles for rent. No elevator. Three-day minimum stay during high season. (Doubles from 180 euros, or about $180.)
Casa Vilella: At this casually elegant hotel in an old villa overlooking the beach, the friendly staff are exceptionally attentive. There’s a swimming pool behind the villa, and a bar and very good restaurant, both of which are popular with the locals as well as hotel guests, on the terrace in front of the property. Elevator. (Doubles from 290 euros.)
Hotel Liberty Sitges: Within a short walk of the train station, this good-value 14-room hotel with an obliging staff occupies an art nouveau villa and has a pretty private garden. Breakfast is served until noon, beach towels are offered and beach umbrellas are available to rent. No elevator. (Doubles from 100 euros.)
Costa Dorada: Family owned since 1968, this seafront restaurant is a good choice for paella and fideuà, a Catalan take on paella made with stubby vermicelli pasta. Book in advance for a place on the terrace, which overlooks the Platja de Sant Sebastiá. (Entrees from about 14 euros to 44 euros.)
Karmela: Good light lunch spot with an appealing menu of tapas like pimientos de Padrón, grilled sardines and shrimp in garlic sauce. Friendly service and a pleasant shaded seaside terrace. (Entrees from 7 euros to 22 euros.)
La Punta: Located on a quiet street a few steps from the Platja de Sant Sebastiá, this stylish and low-key small-plates restaurant with a courtyard patio is a favorite among locals, who would rather keep it for themselves. Delicious contemporary Catalan cooking, including dishes like glazed suckling pig with mango cream, smoked salmon tartare with nori, wasabi and a fried egg, and lobster ravioli with Parmesan cream. (Entrees from 13 euros to 25 euros.)
La Salseta: This gracious restaurant in the center of town has been owned by the same family for three generations. It’s a popular special-occasion night out for Sitgeans and serves a delicious locavore menu made with produce from the surrounding Garraf region. Don’t miss the chicken croquettes; the steak tartare and boned free-range chicken in prune sauce are delicious, too. (Entrees from 15 euros to 24 euros.)
Sitges has 17 sandy beaches, each with its own personality.
Platja de la Fragata is popular for sports lovers, with volleyball nets and a nautical club where you can hire paddle boards or take a sailing class.
Platja de la Ribera is one of the longest beaches in Sitges and draws a mixed crowd of families with small children and teenagers; available facilities include bathrooms, showers, a restaurant and umbrella and sun bed rentals.
Platja de la Bassa Rotonda is the most popular gay beach and one of Sitges’s busiest; facilities include bathrooms, showers and sun bed and umbrella rental.
Platja de Sant Sebastiá is a popular family beach with showers, a beach bar, and umbrella and sun beds for rent.
Platja dels Balmins is the town’s main nudist beach and is found just north of the Platja de Sant Sebastiá; facilities include bathrooms, showers, a restaurant, beach bars, rental of umbrellas and sun beds.
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