The History of Sitges
Sitges was put on the map toward the end of the 19th century when it became a hip enclave of bohemian cool, attracting writers, artists and intellectuals. They fell in love with and were inspired by what was then a small and attractive fishing village. Among the leading cultural figures who made their way to the northeast coast of Spain was Santiago Rusiñol, a Spanish poet, painter and playwright and a leading light of Catalan modernism.
The art and literature movement flourished here and in nearby Barcelona, finding expression in architecture, painting, design and decorative arts. Its legacy can be glimpsed in some of the buildings that grace the town such as Cau Ferrrat, Rusiñol’s former home now a museum, and the magnificent Maricel Palace.
Long before the artistic set moved in, Sitges was the seaside home of numerous cultures and civilizations spanning thousands of years. Excavations in the 1950s revealed a 53,000-year-old mandible tooth and in 2012, scientists identified a Neanderthal incisor tooth that’s believed to be just as old. It was found in the nearby Gegant cave. These are among the oldest human remains found in this part of Spain.
Turn the clock back to the sixth century BC and there is a clutch of small settlements in the area. Toga-wearing Romans came into town a few centuries later and evidence of a third century AD Roman villa has been found in the Vinyet area. During the Roman era, Sitges was an important port trading products with other towns and cities along the Roman Mediterranean.
One of the earliest mentions of Sitges comes from parchments dating back to the 10th century. It was during this time that many silos were discovered, cavities gouged out of the ground to store grain and preserve food. They gave the town its name as the Catalan word for silo is “sitja”.
By the eleventh century AD there was a castle, but today no visible remains of the defensive stronghold exist. The current town hall building was constructed over its ancient foundations on La Punta Hill at the end of the 19th century.
Bombs and Bullets
Life has not always been genteel for the good folk of Sitges. During the Franco-Spain War (1635-1659) Neapolitan soldiers from Felipe IV of Spain’s army looted the place and in 1649 Sitges was attacked by the Viceroy of Catalonia’s troops. Two days of heavy bombardment from land and sea caused extensive damage, including the collapse of part of the town’s defensive wall. Sitges was also ravaged by pirate attacks, the War of the Spanish Succession (1701-1714), the Peninsula War (1808-1814) and a series of civil wars in the 19th century. However, the town is made of stern stuff and survived the onslaughts to grow and prosper.
For many years Sitges traded on agriculture, fishing and the wines produced in its vineyards, its fortunes waxing and waning with harvests and the state of the economy. The 19th century was a period of great prosperity as trade routes opened up with America. Along with the exports, many Sitgetans also left Spanish shores. Some returned, once they had made their fortunes overseas.
They invested a lot of money in the area and built sumptuous villas, some of which are still standing.
Every year during the Festa Major of Sitges two giant figures with painted papier maché heads and arms represent these “Americanos” who did so much for the town by pouring money into banking, industries, railways and the vineyards.
The good times continued to roll and by the end of the century new industries had sprung up such as shoe manufacturing. More than 20 factories across several industries employed most of the population, including a gas factory that produced gas for street lamps. Tourists also started to make a beeline for Sitges, attracted by its landscape, medicinal bath waters and cultured and cosmopolitan vibe. By now, the poets, intellectuals and artists were in residence.
During the 1960s, Sitges was the epicentre of Spain’s counterculture movement, a liberal antidote to the ultra-conservative strictures of Franco’s dictatorship. Today, this forward-looking and easy-going town cherishes its historic roots which are seen in the museums, buildings, artworks and colourful festivals that are celebrated throughout the year.
The town is a thriving community and popular tourism destination attracting hundreds of thousands of visitors each year from nearby Barcelona and across the world. The town is now well known for its international gay scene and hugely popular annual carnival held in February, as well as the annual Sitges International Film Festival held in October.