It's described as Spain's St Tropez, but Sitges – half an hour from Barcelona – is richer culturally. With its museums, churches, modern art and Catalan cuisine, it's ideal for a quality short break
Situated on the coast about 35km south-west of Barcelona, Sitges simply oozes Catalunyan style. The celebrated Catalan modernist artist Santiago Rusinol lived here for a while during the late 19th century and was instrumental in giving the town its long-enjoyed reputation for art and culture. In the 1960s, while Franco was still in power, Sitges became a focal point for the hippy generation and today it is a popular resort with the gay community.
Despite the narrow, cramped streets of the old quarter, there is an openness about Sitges born more from freedom of thought and freedom of expression than architectural design. Walking around the place, I sensed an obvious pride. Pride not only in its immaculately maintained streets and modernist buildings, but also in its reputation for non-conformism. This is a place where being different encourages debate rather than condemnation and suspicion.
Sitges is undeniably a quality resort, and a complete contrast to many of the other holiday hotspots scattered along Spain’s Mediterranean coast. The local economy is founded on tourism and, with around half of its 4,500-bed capacity in hotels rated four-star and above, Sitges has a clear idea of the type of tourist it wishes to attract.
I stayed at the Melia Sitges, a large four-star hotel situated slightly away from the town centre above the marina. The rooms and facilities were as you would expect from a good four-star hotel. I found the service in the bar a little slow on occasions but maybe that was just me failing to adapt to a gentler pace of life. Most large international hotels come up short on personality and the Melia is no exception, but sometimes I quite enjoy fading into the background and just losing myself for a while. The hotel is a popular convention centre, so if you do visit, be prepared to out-manoeuvre the occasional group of badge-toting delegates. It’s a 15-minute walk to the centre of Sitges from the hotel. Some may find this inconvenient, but I enjoyed the exercise, and the peaceful location was a bonus.
The 17th-century church of Sant Bartomeu i Santa Tecla is set directly on the shoreline and is the main coastal focal point of the town. It boasts a fine Gothic-Renaissance altarpiece, different Baroque altars and an impressive late-17th-century organ. The church is only open when Holy Eucharist is being celebrated.
Close by, the Museu Maricel houses a good collection of Romanesque and Gothic paintings and late-19th-century Catalan sculpture. It also houses the Municipal Art Gallery with works from the Illuminist school of modern art, plus a maritime collection. Other places of artistic significance nearby include Palau Maricel, built in 1910 by American Charles Deering to house his extensive art collection, and the Museu Cau Ferrat, the home-studio belonging to Santiago Rusinol and meeting place for the Catalan Modernists. The Museu Cau Ferrat exhibits an eclectic mix of wrought iron, glass, ceramics and drawings including work by Rusinol, Picasso, El Greco, Zuloaga and Ramon Casas among others.
The town is descibed as having 16 sandy beaches but I have to admit I only managed to find 11. Three were located in the east, near the Melia hotel, including a small naturist beach; the remaining eight combined to form an extended bathing facility fronting the mainly residential area west of the town centre.
Sitges is noted for its excellent cuisine, particularly fish dishes. Xato is a local speciality and dates back to a meal prepared for Santiago Rusinol and other notable artists and intellectuals at the end of the 19th century. The dish is based around cod, tuna and escarole salad but its signature lies in the sauce made with scalded chillies, toasted almonds, garlic, olive oil, salt, vinegar and hot peppers.
If you are allergic to fish, as I am, then your choice will be limited just about everywhere in Sitges. However, if you enjoy your seafood, try the Can Marti restaurant in Carrer España or La Niña in Paseo de la Ribera. For a quiet evening meal away from the town centre, take a look at some of the restaurants fronting the marina, immediately below the hotel. This is a very pleasant area on an evening and the perfect place to chill out after a hard day's sightseeing.
Apart from the museums and the various artisitc and cultural venues, there is a limited amount to see and do – but you don’t really come here to cram your days full of activities. To my mind, this is more a place for fine wine and conversation than jet-skis and adrenaline.
For anyone seeking a quiet, restful break in the sun, in a civilised environment, Sitges is well worth considering. Combine it with a few days in Barcelona and it could be just about perfect. It’s worth noting that the summer months can be quite hectic and the beaches crowded. I visited in late September; by then, the crowds had gone but the weather was still superb.
If you are staying in Barcelona, then Sitges is the perfect day trip. Trains run regularly from Sants Station or Passeig de Gracia: journey time is about 30 minutes.