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 2-1/2 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 Gaudi, an artist like Salvador Dali, or even a chef like Ferran Adria. And in Sitges, they also signal the town’s long-standing tolerance of human differences, including its acceptance of gay travelers, which might be branded as eccentric, or worse, elsewhere.
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 Rusinol, 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 Rusinol’s patron. The Maricel Museum is the third museum in this perched seaside cluster, and it displays a large collection of Rusinol’s paintings.
Sitges as a watering hole was born from a script similar to many of Europe’s other 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 fideua (a seafood dish similar to paella) arrived, the waiter at Costa Dorada 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.