William Cook

Sitges: the idyllic beach town down the road from Barcelona

Sitges: the idyllic beach town down the road from Barcelona
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About sixty years ago, before my wife was born, her parents set off on a driving holiday to the Continent. They drove down through France and into Spain and ended up in Sitges. They went no further. They’d found the perfect holiday resort, a historic town with a sandy beach and a few bars and cafes, somewhere to sit back and enjoy the sunshine, with a bit of local culture thrown in.

Sixty years later, Sitges is a lot busier, but British tourists are still relatively rare. Most visitors are Spaniards, mainly daytrippers from Barcelona. There are some modern buildings, and a lot more bars and cafes, but the town still looks much the same. Compared to most Spanish beach resorts, it’s remarkably unchanged. My wife Sophie and I first went to Sitges in 1999. She was pregnant with our first child (our son Edward, as it turned out). She wanted to go somewhere hot but not too hot, lively but not too lively, somewhere with a nice beach and a pleasant hotel and a few quaint, authentic restaurants. That’s all most of us want when we go on holiday, but, as we all know, these simple requirements can prove remarkably elusive. In Sitges we found the full set.

Sitges is to Barcelona what Brighton is to London

I’ve lost count of how many times we’ve been back since then. We went back when Edward was a toddler: up at dawn every day, traipsing along the promenade, bleary-eyed; already yawning when he went to bed at dusk. We went back and did the same thing when our daughter Thea came along. We went when they were teenagers. Now they’re both grown-up and far too cool to tag along, it’s just the two of us again, like it was in the beginning.

All the memories we’ve shared there give the place a deeper meaning. For Sophie it’s especially poignant, now her parents are no longer around. I guess it could have been somewhere else - I realise it was a coincidence. Lots of people have a place, all sorts of places, they return to every year. But if you’re looking for a Spanish beach resort, I still think Sitges takes some beating. I’ve travelled all over Spain and I’ve never found anywhere quite like it.

So what makes it so special? And how did it end up that way? Sitges is only 25 miles south of Barcelona, and this proximity gives it the same sort of relationship with Barcelona that Brighton has with London. Like Brighton, Sitges feels metropolitan, but it hasn’t been subsumed by the big city. There’s a lot of traffic between this seaside town and the Catalan capital, in both directions, but like Brighton, Sitges has managed to maintain its own identity, rather than becoming just another dull commuter town.

This close proximity to Barcelona makes Sitges an ideal destination for British visitors. You can fly into Barcelona on a scheduled flight with BA or Iberia, and get a taxi from the airport – no need to bother with pesky budget flights or interminable transfers. Once you’re here, it’s easy to do day trips into town - Barca is only half an hour away by train. Sitges has something else in common with Brighton, and that’s its thriving Gay scene. There are lots of gay clubs and bars, and even in regular cafés and restaurants gay visitors aren’t an exception but the norm. When I first started coming here, it seemed like most of the Britons who came here were gay. Now I reckon there are just as many straight Brits, but the tourist hotspots on the main drag still have a resoundingly gay vibe. The Pink Pound has been good for Sitges, generating a lot of business, and creating a groovy, inclusive ambience which has attracted a lot of straight tourists too. Gay nightlife gives the town an upbeat buzz, and the atmosphere is never malevolent. My teenage daughter feels at ease here, a lot more comfortable than she often feels in straighter resorts. Yet Sitges has never become a gay ghetto. There are plenty of places along the seafront where the clientele is straight and Spanish, and if you venture a few blocks inland you’d never know you were in a holiday resort.

Surf's up in Sitges (Alamy)

With a population of about 30,000, there’s always been a critical mass of locals who live and work here and raise their families here, doing regular jobs, not just pandering to the tourist trade. Another thing that makes Sitges special is its ornate architecture. Its archaic core dates back to the Middle Ages, but most of the town was erected in the 19th Century, and the most flamboyant buildings were built by colonialists returning from the New World. During the 19th Century there wasn’t a lot of money to be made in Sitges, and so a lot of young men went to Cuba to seek their fortunes (including Don Facundo Bacardi Masso, creator of the eponymous rum). When they returned home, they flaunted their newfound wealth by building flamboyant palacios with the money they’d made in the Caribbean. When the Spanish tourist boom began, the seafront was already built up. There was no room for high-rise hotels, so the developers went elsewhere.

Today, Sitges is a convivial blend of locals, foreign tourists and Catalonian daytrippers and weekenders, and it’s this eclectic mix which has kept it alive. Tourism is a destructive force, which obliterates what it covets, but, through good luck as much as good judgement, Sitges has escaped the homogenous mass tourism which has blighted so much of coastal Spain. There are a few museums, and various carnivals and festivals but in the end nothing beats that sandy beach. Like all the best beach resorts, this is ultimately a place for doing nothing.

I’ve stayed in various places over the years and there are two I’d recommend. The Antemare is my favourite hotel, a smart four star with a communal pool, on a quiet sidestreet a few blocks back from the beach. Since I last stayed there with my children, they’ve made it adults only. I wonder if it was due to something we did? Since my children are now 22 and 18, I guess we could go back there, but maybe I shouldn’t risk it. If you’d rather go self-catering, Apollo Apartments is a practical option in a great location, with simple pleasant rooms and basic kitchenettes, overlooking a spacious pool and garden. However the most iconic hotel in Sitges is Hotel Romantic, a beautiful antique building in the heart of the old town which opened its doors to Gay travellers back when such tolerance was far from typical. The word spread, more gay travellers arrived, because this hotel isn’t the biggest it became hard to get a bed, and so other hotels followed suit. As the Pink Pound worked its magic, Sitges grew and prospered. No one is quite sure how or why Sitges became a gay resort, and then Spain's nicest beach resort, but I have a hunch it all started here.