Famed for its lively beaches, the coastal town of Sitges, in north eastern Spain, was once a meeting point for Europe's greatest artists and intellectuals. Rebeca Vaisman explores its artistic history and bohemian spirit, evident throughout its charming crooked streets and historic buildings.
BY REBECA VAISMAN | SEPTEMBER 2023
Think of Spanish beaches and it's likely the golden sands of the Costa Brava or Balearics will first spring to mind. However, the Costa Dorada, which runs to the south of Barcelona, holds a Mediterranean and bohemian charm of its own.
The most delightful of its beach towns, and certainly one of the most popular and active, is Sitges. Every year, it hosts the Sitges Film Festival and one of the most important Pride Parades – Sitges is a big LGBTQ+ destination – amidst customary festivities, like the The Corpus Christi, a seven-century-old tradition, marked with beautiful flower carpets that cover the street. As well as its great disposition for celebration, Sitges' cultural and artistic history is of major importance in the region.
In the late 19th century, a group of Spanish painters settled in Sitges, attracted by the Mediterranean light reflected in the white façades of the modest seaside houses. Joan Roig i Soler, Arcadi Mas i Fontdevila and Joaquim de Miró were among the artists that formed the Luminist School of Sitges, determined to stop painting from memory and immerse themselves in the landscape and daily life of the town.
These scenes – which offer a glimpse into the luminous life of old Sitges – are currently on show in the Maricel Museum, part of a cultural complex comprising the personal collections that made Sitges such a vivid spot for artists and intellectuals.
Thanks to the donations made by enthusiastic collectors (or their families), the museum showcases the trajectory of Spanish art, from 10th century Romanesque and Gothic pieces to early 20th century realism, passing through the country's important Modernist period. A particular highlight is the viewpoint over the sea, sheltered by arches and three large novecentista sculptures by Joan Rebull.
Museo Maricel, Sitges © Rebeca Vaisman
By the end of the 19th century, a new generation of artists arrived on this golden coast. The most notorious was the painter and writer, Santiago Rusiñol, who bought a fisherman's cabin and established his house-atelier: the Cau Ferrar Museum, which opened its doors to the public in 1933, two years after the artist's death.
The museum shares his work, along with pieces by other modernists and Rusiñol's extensive collections of antique ceramics, forged iron, marquetry and architectural fixtures, including a marvellous 18th century fountain in glazed pottery.
The two museums are adjacent, connected from the inside and completed with the Maricel Palace, a few steps away. The Palau greets its visitors with a beautiful Mediterranean patio, completed with handmade Mexican tiles. The blue and white color palette, which dominates in the historic quarter, seems more intense here, due to the sun and abundant greenery.
Cau Ferrat Museum, Sitges © Rebeca Vaisman
Commissioned by American industrialist, Charles Deering, the palace was built between 1910 and 1918 by famed engineer and cultural manager, Miquel Utrillo, both to accommodate Deering’s rich art collection - which included El Grecos and Goyas, among other big Hispanic pieces - and become his home by the sea. While Deering left his Sitges residence in 1921, taking his art collection with him, the palace itself has become a landmark of Catalonian Modernism.
The Golden Salon, the terraces overlooking the coast and the internal patio known as the Cloister, are covered with ebullient murals, a painted roof and a splendid window to the Mediterranean. Hidden in its frills and corners, an attentive eye will note the Maricel Palace shield, conceived by Utrillo: a rising sun in red on blue waves. It's worth knowing that the Palau opens one day a week only, for three groups of 25 people, so advance tickets are essential.
Cau Ferrat Museum, Sitges © Rebeca Vaisman
Sitges' irresistible bohemian spirit is undoubtably also related to its historic wine production. The town lies in the wine region of Garraf, where the Penedés originates, and provides land for the malvasía, a white vine from Greece that arrived on Catalonia’s coast in the 14th century.
Four centuries later, malvasía crops occupied a quarter of the fields in Sitges. To prevent its decay, Manuel Llopis y de Casades – a Sitges local with a great love for its traditions – donated part of his vineyards to the Sant Joan Baptista Hospital, on the condition that it kept producing the malvasía sweet wine.
Today, the Interpretation Center of the Malvasía works within the old hospital, offering visitors a unique tour through the modernist building, the cellar and several tastings, ending any visit to Sitges on the sweetest note.