A short break in ... Sitges

With mouth-watering Catalan delicacies, an international film festival and a thriving gay nightclub scene, Sitges has much to rival its bigger and better-known neighbour, Barcelona, says Kelly Shimmin
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The Independent Travel
Why go there?

Well-to-do Barcelonans, bohemian artists and an international gay community have all made Sitges what it is today - a cosmopolitan and stylish seaside resort replete with chic boutiques, antique shops, art galleries and first- class restaurants together with almost two miles of soft sandy beach, an immaculately kept promenade and a white-washed, cobble-streeted old town.

When to go?

The choice is yours, although bear in mind that in July and August both flight seats and hotel beds are at a premium. Spring and autumn are the best bets, with Sitges's unique microclimate provided by the Garraf mountain range making sunbathing a possibility even in March or October. Unlike other Spanish destinations which exist merely as resorts, Sitges does not close down over the winter and is inhabited by Spaniards year round.

There's always something going on: the town's major fiestas take place on 24 August and 23 September with spectacular firework displays and the traditional correfoc, when teams of youths dressed in sackcloth take to the streets with several tons of gunpowder, accompanied by flame-spitting dragons and dancing giants. On 6 June, the streets are carpeted with millions of flower-petals to celebrate Corpus Christi. The Sitges International Film Festival is in October and in mid-February the most outrageous carnival in Spain takes place. Not to mention a continuous programme of sardanas (the Catalan national dance), castellers (human tower building), art exhibitions and music and culinary festivals.

Getting there

Couldn't be easier. British Airways (tel: 0345 222111), Iberia (tel: 0171-830 0011), Debonair (tel: 0541 500300) and easyJet (tel: 0870 600000) fly daily from several UK airports to Barcelona's El Prat. The cheapest deal at the moment is with easyJet from Luton airport at pounds 68 return including tax. On arrival, a taxi into town will take 20 minutes and cost around pounds 30; alternatively, take the train from the airport, changing at El Prat station, for a mere pounds 1.50. Local cabs are available at Sitges station, although most accommodation can be reached on foot.

Getting around

One of the beauties of Sitges is that everything is within walking distance. The town is predominantly flat, apart from a small headland presided over by a faded pink church, and the wide promenade just begs for a bike or in-line skates, both of which can be hired at Rollershow, Carrer Espanya 4. Trains leave for Barcelona approximately every 15 minutes. For inland excursions, car hire is recommended, available either on arrival at the airport or from Carex Motors in Sitges, Carrer San Pere 18 (tel: 00 34 93 894 8986) who offer all-inclusive weekend rates.

Where to stay

The Romantic, Sant Isidre 33 (tel: 00 34 93 894 8375) lives up to its name. Three 19th-century villas converted into one rambling hotel with a beautiful leafy garden. Rooms are simple but charming and in the public areas every available surface is covered with a colourful mass of art and ceramics. Twin rooms pounds 47 per night, closed during winter months.

Estela, Port d'Alguadolc (tel: 00 34 93 894 7918). Set slightly out of town next to the Marina, the owner is an art connoisseur who has accumulated an eclectic collection of contemporary art and sculpture on display throughout the hotel. Ask to see the first-floor rooms where six artists were let loose with their imagination. Twin room from pounds 82 per night, open all year round.

La Santa Maria, Passeig de la Ribera, 52 (tel: 00 34 93 894 0909) faces the main promenade on top of the busiest restaurant in town. Ask for the rooms with terrace on the top floor. Twin from pounds 47 per night. Closed from Christmas to Carnival.

San Sebastian Playa, Port Alegre 53 (tel: 00 34 93 894 8676) has modern and comfortable rooms facing a sandy, protected beach of the same name. Twin from pounds 70 per night, open all year.

Hotel Lido, Bonaire 26 (tel: 00 34 93 894 4848) offers one-star accommodation in a high-ceilinged, ceramic-tiled townhouse in the very centre of town. Twin from pounds 27 per night, closed winter months.

What to do and see

Sitges boasts three museums, though "museum" is too dry and dusty a word to describe such warm and vibrant spaces. One reduced-price ticket (pounds 3.50) gives entrance to all three.

Cau Ferrat was the home and studio of Santiago Rusinol, Sitges's most famous adopted son and one of the leading exponents of the Catalan Modernist art movement. The main rooms, facing south over the sea, are flooded with the Mediterranean light that so characterised Rusinol's paintings. Among his own works and treasured collections of glass, ceramics and wrought iron are two El Grecos and several Picassos.

The Maricel, next door, houses a superb display of Romanesque and Gothic art and statues as well as an important collection dedicated to the Catalan naval and fishing fleets, set against a vast arched window overlooking the sea.

In the Romantic, a local merchant's house dating from 1793, 19th-century middle-class Catalan life is recreated in minute detail together with a collection of about 400 dolls.

Take a walk on the Americanos architectural trail. Sitges's wealth originated from several entrepreneurial families who set up in the West Indies, particularly in Cuba, during the 19th century. Styles vary from Neoclassical to Modernist to downright kitsch. The tourist board supplies a leaflet - la Ruta dels Americans - outlining four suggested routes.

Wine tasting: just a 45-minute drive inland from Sitges lies the vast Penedes wine belt whose capital, Villafranca, houses hundreds of wine producers. The biggest of these, and the most well known worldwide, is the Torres winery; a little further on towards Barcelona are the rolling vineyards of San Sadurni d'Anoia, famed for the production of cava, made in exactly the same way as champagne. Both Torres and Codorniu (considered to be the best amongst the hundreds of cava producers) offer guided tours followed by a tasting and the opportunity to buy at cost. You can simply turn up on spec, but at weekends it's best to call ahead. Torres (93 817 7487), Codomiu (93 818 3232).

Food and drink

Cuisine is predominantly Catalan with the emphasis on seafood (fresh daily from the nearby port of Villanueva). Rice dishes are particularly good, from traditional paella to any of its variations: marinera - seafood only; parrellada - with all the shells and "bits" removed for the squeamish; negre - tinted black by squid ink. Look out too for fideua, made in the same way as a paella but with tiny noodles cooked in rich fish stock, often with a crunchy-topped finish. Xato is a local speciality - a distinctive salad involving curly endive, salt cod, anchovies and a hearty Romesco dressing whose authentic recipe is hotly disputed by chefs at the annual xato competition. As elsewhere in Catalunya, grilled meats, cured hams and sausages are available everywhere, along with pa amb tomaquet - slices of toasted farmhouse bread, rubbed with garlic and ripe tomatoes and drizzled with olive oil.

Penedes wines are - naturally - ubiquitous, although other Spanish regions, such as Rioja, are well represented. Sangria and sangria de cava should not be sneered at as "touristy" drinks; they are much appreciated locally.

Calitja, Marques de Montroig, 5 (tel: 93 894 6225). Simple Catalan grills with daily specialities (such as xato or scrambled eggs with wild mushrooms and cured ham). Large portions and reasonable prices; set menu pounds 7.00.

Can Pages, Carrer Sant Pere (tel: 93 894 1195). Rustic home cooking, good seasonal dishes such as favas a la catalana (baby broad beans with cured ham). Watch out you don't fill up on the rather robust taster of pa amb tomaquet, pate, sausage and olives. Set menus from pounds 8.00.

Cal Pinxo, Passeig de la Ribera (tel: 93 894 7464). With two well-known sister restaurants in Barcelona and a favourite of local politicians, reservations are essential at the weekend, especially for the terrace, but check out the gorgeous sea-inspired decor inside. Renowned for its rice dishes and seafood in general; sardinas en escabeche (pickled sardines) are superb. Expect to pay from pounds 20.

La Oca, Carrer Parellades. A no-frills cheap'n'cheerful eatery serving delicious spit-roasted chicken whose aroma wafting down the street defies you to walk past. Try the house allioli, a pungent garlic mayonnaise. From pounds 6.00, no reservations.

Al Fresco, Carrer Pau Barrabeitg (tel: 93 894 0600). For a complete change from Catalan cuisine, the romantic garden setting, colour-washed walls and flickering candles make this a must for a special night out. Faultless Pacific Rim and Mediterranean cuisine (soy-marinated magret with Japanese noodles and shitake mushrooms, couscous with roasted vegetables) and attentive service. Desserts are outstanding: reservations essential. Allow from pounds 20 per head.

Fancy some tapas? Strictly speaking, tapas are not part of Catalan culture; however, two Basque-owned bars have filled the gap by providing a huge range of pinchos and montadits - small and original combinations of fish, meat, tortillas or sausage on a bread base. Don't ask the price, they all cost 100 pesetas. And don't be shy, just help yourself and keep a count of how many you've eaten when it comes to paying up. Izarra is on Carrer Mayor and Eguzki on Carrer Sant Pau.

Entertainment.

Evenings begin as a laid-back affair, centering on strolling, people- watching and bar-hopping. Nightlife doesn't really get under way until after dinner, and even then is less frenetic than one might expect in a resort town. Mont Roig hums with activity as the evening progresses and is a good place to take an after-dinner coffee and cognac. (Try the local brand Mascaro.) Further on down the street (known locally as the street of sin) are at least two dozen bars all blaring out different soundtracks whose decibels increase as the night progresses. For something more tranquil, try Casablanca (Carrer Pau Barrabeitg 5), a small and exquisitely decorated bar with the friendliest proprietors in Sitges, Juan and Brandon, who make a mean cocktail. Los Arcos (Avinguda Vinyet 12) is a rambling turn- of-the century mansion converted into a chic bar. Most nightclubs are predominantly gay - although straight friendly - and one of the best is Mediterraneo on Carrer Bonaventura. The super-trendy should head for Atlantida, on the edge of town by the golf club, a vast, semi-open-air club reminiscent of Ibiza, open during summer months only.

Deals and packages

Due to a fairly limited number of hotel beds available, Sitges has been mercifully ignored by mass charter tourism although some operators, notably Thomson (tel: 0181-210 4500), Magic of Spain (tel: 0181-748 4220) and Mundi Color (tel: 0171-834 3492), offer packages. However, these are generally available only during the summer months and may require a minimum one-week stay.

Magic of Spain has short breaks to Sitges running throughout the winter. Travelling in December, a three-night stay in a three-star hotel with B&B accommodation is pounds 293 per person, based on two sharing and including return flights with British Airways or Iberia and transfers.

Further information

Contact the Sitges Tourist Board (tel: 00 34 93 894 5004; fax: 00 34 93 894 4251) on Carrer Sinia Morera. They issue information in English: maps, accommodation listings and a monthly calendar of events.

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