Coming out of the beautiful little train station in Sitges on a sunny Sunday morning, I took a deep breath and began 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 pleased.
After almost two and a half years away due to pandemic, it was an ecstatic relief to be back. Fortunately, almost nothing had modified 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 road, pigeons pecked on the breakfast crumbs on the sidewalk across the cafes and bars, and yellow-and-red Catalan flags fluttered within the breeze from the railings of balconies overhead.
Pulling our clattering roller bags behind us, Bruno, my French spouse, and I ended a couple of times on our technique to our rental apartment to gape anew on 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 homes are lavishly decorated with mosaics, tiles, wrought iron and molding, often with floral motifs, and plenty of of them have towers, turrets and other fanciful features.
They were mostly built by the Americanos, because the locals called the Sitgean emigrants who made their fortunes in Cuba or Puerto Rico after which returned home, a lot of them at the tip of the Spanish-American War. The 69 mansions that survive are landmarked and guarded today, and several other of them have turn into hotels.
For me they’ve all the time epitomized the admirable way Catalan culture is receptive to creative anarchy as seen within the works of an architect like Antoni Gaudí, an artist like Salvadore Dalí, or perhaps a chef like Ferran Adrià. And in Sitges, additionally they signal the town’s longstanding tolerance of human differences, including its acceptance of gay travelers, which is perhaps 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, some of the popular beaches in Sitges. We wouldn’t even need a menu once we arrived, because we each 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 interested by this dish ever for the reason that alarm had gone off early that morning, and so it was disappointing when the maître d’hotel told us to hitch the road of individuals 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 a chic older couple whom I guessed were from Madrid once they called their Dachshund “Prado,” I discovered myself pondering that I’m not the just 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 considered one of the explanations I first fell for it.
In my 20s, I loved the bars and clubs of this energetic resort and would stay awake 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 fringe of dawn to sleep for a number of hours. Now half of a married couple, I’ve discovered that the shaded sun beds for rent on the beach of Saint Sebastian are an ideal perch for reading punctuated by people-watching and swimming within the Mediterranean.
Rainy days are almost welcome, too. I really like revisiting the Museu Cau Ferrat, which was once the atelier of Santiago Rusiñol, considered one of Spain’s best-loved Impressionist painters, and the adjoining 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 on this perched seaside cluster, and it displays a big collection of Rusiñol’s paintings.
I’ve come to Sitges as a part of a pair flush with the thrill of a recent romance, and likewise to mourn a breakup and lick my wounds. I’ve been here with an entire 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) as an alternative of the standard large one from the old woman who made them fresh every morning and sold them across the wide stone windowsill of her front room on Carrer de Santiago Rusiñol. She’d looked me in the attention, patted me on the back of my hand and gave me a fragile sugar tart topped with pine nuts together with my tortilla. “La vida és dolça,” she said — “life is good.”
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 within 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, pleased with his French — “an ideal lunch.”
We’d just finished singing pleased birthday after a candle-covered cake had been placed in front of the silver-haired patriarch of the massive Catalan family on 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 just like a lot of Europe’s other most charming seaside resorts. It was originally a fishing village that was discovered by artists at the tip of the nineteenth century, after which taken up by the Barcelonan bourgeoisie, who built fanciful mock-Tudor villas that expressed their Anglophilia within the woodsy Vinyet neighborhood. It thrived as a liberal bolthole through the years that the dictator Francisco Franco was in power. But after the initial tourist boom of the ’60s, all the things kind of stopped. Sitges never became a convention town like Cannes or a millionaires’ playground like St.-Tropez, which implies unlike so many other seaside resorts, it still stays inexpensive today.
Tourism could also be its largest industry, but Sitges hasn’t lost its authenticity. The tone of the town is present in its side streets, where you come across businesses which have vanished in most other places — notions shops for knitters and residential sewers, stationery stores, toy shops, together with neighborhood tapas bars where everyone knows one another.
When the glossy black fideuà arrived, the waiter served us tableside with an enthralling theatricality, wielding two stainless-steel spoons with an almost mechanical speed and precision. It was delicious in a superbly primal way — it’s the Mediterranean on a plate, and we nodded eagerly when asked if we desired 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. Once I held up my hand to stop him, he explained the pour was being offered by the family on the table next to us. I turned to thank them and a smiling woman said, “Enjoy! We weren’t going to complete 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 perfect thing about Sitges is the Sitgeans.
For those who go:
Along with large, mostly Spanish-brand chain hotels on the perimeters of town, Sitges also has a wide range of small, charming independent hotels. For those who need an elevator, you’ll want to confirm that one is offered before making a reservation, since many Sitges hotels are in converted villas.
Hotel Capri: It is a small, charming hotel with a pool in the center of Sitges. Additionally they have a number of private parking places, which ought to be booked prematurely, 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 superb restaurant, each of that are popular with the locals in addition to hotel guests, on the terrace in front of the property. Elevator. (Doubles from 290 euros.)
Hotel Liberty Sitges: Inside a brief walk of the train station, this good-value 14-room hotel with an obliging staff occupies an art nouveau villa and has a fairly private garden. Breakfast is served until noon, beach towels are offered and beach umbrellas can be found to rent. No elevator. (Doubles from 100 euros.)
Costa Dorada: Family owned since 1968, this seafront restaurant is a superb alternative for paella and fideuà, a Catalan tackle paella made with stubby vermicelli pasta. Book prematurely for a spot 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 pleasing shaded seaside terrace. (Entrees from 7 euros to 22 euros.)
La Punta: Situated on a quiet street a number of steps from the Platja de Sant Sebastiá, this stylish and low-key small-plates restaurant with a courtyard patio is a favourite amongst locals, who would quite 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 middle of town has been owned by the identical family for 3 generations. It’s a well-liked special-occasion night out for Sitgeans and serves a delicious locavore menu made with produce from the encompassing 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 possibly can hire paddle boards or take a sailing class.
Platja de la Ribera is considered one of the longest beaches in Sitges and draws a mixed crowd of families with babies and teenagers; available facilities include bathrooms, showers, a restaurant and umbrella and sun bed rentals.
Platja de la Bassa Rotonda is the preferred gay beach and considered one of Sitges’s busiest; facilities include bathrooms, showers and sun bed and umbrella rental.
Platja de Sant Sebastiá is a well-liked family beach with showers, a beach bar, and umbrella and sun beds for rent.
Platja dels Balmins is the town’s major 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.