Just half an hour away from Barcelona, Sitges is a renowned tourist destination with a strong community of English speaking residents that have chosen to make it their permanent home.
It's easy enough to see understand the attraction in the summer, with its miles of sandy beaches, active nightlife and lively gay scene, yet even during the winter this seaside town has a special charm.
A stillness hangs over the previously overcrowded beaches that now echo the sound of waves breaking on the shore. As the cocktail bars, sandals, souvenirs and sarong shops no longer take centre stage, this is the ideal season for discovering some of the town's more hidden charms. Its short distance from Barcelona and small size make it a perfect destination for a day trip, and the best way to discover the town is by just wandering round. Take a break for a meal by the seafront, since as a town whose main industry is tourism, it comes as no surprise that there are plenty excellent restaurants where you can enjoy the speciality dishes of rice and seafood.
The oldest monument in the town is the parish church, the Eglésia de Sant Bartomeu I Santa Tecla, with its strong stone foundations that have stood firm since the 10th Century. This is the heart of the old town, with narrow streets and medieval stone buildings. It was only towards the end of the 16th century that the castles, monasteries and settlements that were built and evolved along this stretch of the Costa Daurada became united and Sitges became a town.
The museum of Cau Ferrat was built in the 1890s, and helped establish Sitges as a trendy location for the art crowd to gather at the turn of the century. Commissioned by Santiago Rusiñol, who was renowned for the extravagant modernist style parties he used to throw here, this gave the town a bohemian flavour it still keeps today. The permanent collection includes paintings by renowned artists such as Picasso, El Greco, Miro and Ramon Casas.
Next to this stands the Maricel Palace, whose collection spans the epochs from the middle ages to the last century. This includes modernist pieces, Romantic and Gothic paintings and 19th Century Catalan sculptures. There is currently an exhibition entitled "Psicalíptics - Eroticism and Transgression in illustrated magazines at the beginning of the 20th century".
Sitges used to be an important port for ships sailing to America in the 18th and 19th century. Many sailors settled there and made a lot of money before returning to Sitges, and lavished this money on building impressive new houses in the Gothic style. Like neighbouring Barcelona, the modernist influences can easily be seen in many buildings.
February's carnival is of course an unmissable event! For carnival week, this year from the 23rd February to the 1st March, madness descends and over 250,000 visitors are expected to make their way to Sitges to join in the celebrations. Carnival is a rowdy affair in most of Spain, but Sitges is renowned the world over for throwing probably the campest and most outrageous party of all, which is quite an achievement for a small town of about 20,000 inhabitants. Feather boas, sparkly catsuits and killer stilettos come out of the closet in droves, and the glam queens, drag supremos and trannies vie to outdo each other all week long.
The festival begins when the Carnival King is brought back to life by the seafront, on the Thursday, followed by the first parade on Sunday 26th February. A huge procession of extravagantly ornate themed floats complete with sound systems and bars wind their way through the crowded streets in the evening. On Tuesday the 28th February there is another parade… which makes the previous one look like a warm-up. Enough said! Wednesday is the last day of Carnival, and here tradition takes a particular twist. The Carnival King and Queen act out a ritual battle against the Spirit of Lent, who invariably wins, and then the drag queens do a costume change and don black mourning gear and headdresses to wail and scream and let it all out for another year.
Processions also take place during the day on the 26th and 28th February, only this time the participants are children. The costumes are elaborate and most of the groups perform short choreographed routines for the cheering crowds of onlookers.
Museu Cau Ferrat and Museu Maricel C/ Fonollar, Open Tues- Fri 10am-1.30pm, 3pm-6.30pm, Sat: 10am - 7pm, Sun: 10am - 3pm
Getting to Sitges: By train: Trains run every 20 mins from Sants station. A return ticket is €4,60. By car: C-32 (pay toll motorway), or C-31 road.
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