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Covering everything from the major news of the week and burning social issues, to expat living and la vida local, EL PAÍS’ team of English-language bloggers offers its opinions, observations and analysis on Spain and beyond.

Sitges is Brighton on a pin head and all the better for it

Por: | 03 de septiembre de 2014

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The first time I heard about Sitges was when my one-time girlfriend told me about a club she’d visited there showing Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange - then unavailable in the UK - on a large screen above the dance floor.

Thus, the town entered into my thoughts as a place of improbable glamour, excess and mystery, a kind of bohemian hedonists’ paradise on sea.

Fast forward 15 years to the present day and Sitges is the town where my parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles in law all live, a friendly, welcoming collection of people who wouldn’t know hedonism if they found it in the shower.

Strangely, though, this has only made the town all the more interesting for me. Sitges is a town of immense contrasts, where the public and private lives, tourist and local experiences, summer and winter are almost unrecognisable to each other, a place where Catalan tolerance and general skill for bumping along happily enough resonate. And if you don’t necessarily have to have grandparents-in-law there to realise that, it does at least help.

Sitges is ‘the Jewel of the Mediterranean’, a small seaside town built on fishing and wine; it stages one of Europe’s most famous film festivals; it is also, famously, “the gay city of Spain”, home to a wealth of gay and gay-friendly bars, home to Mr. Bear Sitges and a resplendent Gay Pride, including - why not? - a High Heels race.

For British people what Sitges most closely resembles is Brighton - an unorthodox seaside resort where people form the nearby capital go to escape the day to day. But while Brighton has some 273,000 residents, sprawling over a reasonably large portion of coast and hills, Sitges is tiny, home to just 30,000 people and 5,000 hotel beds, as well as the thousands of day trippers who arrive on the train from Barcelona, all packed into claustrophobically small streets. 

Sitges is like Brighton, then, but amplified and condensed, packed into a needle’s eye but no less exuberant for that. It’s a weird place, really, but whenever I mention this to my girlfriend, who grew up in Sitges, she just shrugs and says its was the perfect place to be young.

This shrugging seems typical of local’s responses to Sitges and its endearing strangeness and I find it very admirable. 

“Doesn’t it bother you that Sitges is always packed with tourists?” Shrug. “How can you drive a car here?” More shrugs. “And the noise from the clubs?” Shrug shrug shrug.

This happy shrugging also pretty much sums up local residents’ response to their town’s fabulously gay fame. Sitges was home to Spain’s first gay club, Trailer, in the 1980s and also plays host to the country’s oldest gay nude beach. Today it is known as one of Europe’s premier gay resorts, with 35 gay clubs, saunas and hotels listed on sitges.nighttours.com.

The locals - some of whom are gay too, of course - know all this. And their response is sanguine, barely batting an eyelid as muscled gay couples walk arm in arm down the street, stopping for a quick nuzzle.

Of course, in an ideal world, this should be nothing of note. No one should ever be judged on their sexual preferences and we should all be free to give affection as we see fit. 

But we don’t live in an ideal world and it is telling that stuffy insitutionalist British newspaper The Telegraph in its generally very positive review of Sitges warns readers who are troubled by “public displays of same-sex affection” to stay outside of the centre of town. Put it this way: I can imagine my own grandmother’s response to staying in Sitges and it wouldn’t be that happy.

My girlfriend’s grandmother, on the other hand, is delighted to call Sitges home. She’s lived there since the 50s and wouldn’t want to go anywhere else.

“Has Sitges always been similarly bohemian?” I ask, rather skirting around the issue.

She shrugs (of course). Yes, she replies, it started with the artists who came here in the 19th century.

And the gay visitors?

She shrugs again. It’s none of her business.

Perhaps I shouldn’t be so surprised by this: Spain is, according to the Pew Research Centre, the country that is most accepting of homosexuality, with some 88% of Spaniards saying it should be accepted by society (versus 60% in the US and 76% in the UK).

But for many British people Spain is still seen as still being a deeply religious place (rightly or not) and - as Pew points out - there is “far less acceptance of homosexuality in countries where religion is central to people’s lives”.

Sitges is the counter to this idea: a gloriously liberated little town, where grandmothers push shopping baskets down the Calle del Pecado (disappointingly not its real name) and the Corpus Christi Flower Festival joins Gay Pride in the municipal calendar.

Yes, it is expensive, jam packed with people and often impossible to find towel space on the beach. But in a world where only 1% of Nigerians think that homosexuality is acceptable, then Sitges’ famous shrugging might be a lesson to us all.

 

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Authors (Bloggers)

Chris Finnigan is a freelance journalist based in Barcelona. He writes for Barcelona Metropolitan and is a book reviewer and reader for The Barcelona Review. He is a graduate of the London School of Economics. You can find him on twitter @chrisjfinnigan

Ben Cardew is a freelance journalist, translator and teacher, now resident in Barcelona after growing up gracefully in Scotland via Norwich. He writes for The Guardian, the NME and The Quietus, among others, on everything from music to digital media. You can find him on Twitter @bencardew

Fiona Flores Watson is a freelance journalist, guide and translator who has lived in Seville since 2003, and has been a writer and editor for more than 20 years. She writes for the Guardian, Telegraph and Sunday Times Travel Magazine. Originally from Essex, Fiona is also Consulting Editor of Andalucia.com and has her own blog, Scribbler in Seville. She has been contributing to Trans-Iberian since 2014 and tweets at @Seville_Writer

Jeff Brodsky is a freelance writer. He arrived in Barcelona in 2013 via an admittedly indirect route, living in Chicago, Arizona, Seville, Amsterdam, North Carolina and Madrid. Despite not having stepped foot in Seville for over five years, he still speaks Spanish with an Andalusian accent. Jeff’s writing has been published in newspapers and magazines in America and Europe.

Koren Helbig is an Australian freelance journalist and blogger enjoying a life of near-eternal sunshine in Alicante. She writes for publications in Australia, the United States and the United Kingdom, focusing on stories exploring smart and positive approaches to social issues. She hangs out on Twitter at @KorenHelbig and keeps a selection of her favourite stories at korenhelbig.com.

Julie Pybus lives in a small off-grid house on a hillside in Catalunya. She usually focuses on helping charities and social enterprises with their publications and websites, but has also written for The Guardian, Country Living and The Observer. Julie launched and runs a hyperlocal website which endeavors to increase understanding between the different nationalities in her area perelloplus.com. @JuliePybus

Paul Louis Archer is a freelance photographer, multimedia storyteller and artist educator. A cross-disciplinary worker, who endeavors to encompass the mediums of photography, audio design and writing. Born in Hertfordshire of an English father and Spanish mother. Based in the United Kingdom. @PaulLouisArcher

Vicki McLeod is a freelance writer and photographer. She has lived in Mallorca since 2004. Vicki writes about her beloved island for The Majorca Daily Bulletin, the only daily English language paper in Spain; produces regular columns for the Euro Weekly News, and articles for Spain-Holiday.com. Vicki runs PR strategies for several businesses in Mallorca and London as well as working on her own blogs and projects. She and her husband, Oliver Neilson, supply photo and text content for private clients via @phoenixmediamlr. She tweets at @mcleod_vicki.

Born in Newcastle upon Tyne and based in Barcelona, Alx Phillips writes about contemporary art, dance and theatre in a way that human beings can understand. For more previews, reviews, interviews and extras, check: www.lookingfordrama.com.

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