ISitges: Continental Cafe heaven down the coast from Barcelona

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Pension Can Julian: Avgda. Artur Carbonell, Sitges, Spain (circa 1950)

RIP Pension Can Julian is a favourite haunt of ours in Sitges - an enduringly pleasant resort just down the coast from Barcelona. (Found out May 2005 that the owners plan to sell the building over the next year - the whole site will be torn down for redevelopment.)

Can Julian is almost invisible at the top of Avgda. Artur Carbonell, but you'll spot it by the small part-Deco chrome doorway.

Nearby, just down the street is the oldest cafe/bar in Sitges, Bar Xatet on Carrer St Francesc which dates from the 1920s.

Here the walls are thick with sketches, photo-memorabilia, staff portraits and paintings. The ceiling bursts with thick, hanging hams; the small floorspace is packed with dainty black lacquered chairs and zinc-top marble tables.

"Café Can Xatet, fundado en 1925, pido un trago de malvasía, el vino dulce cuyas cepas proceden de Grecia. Es un vino anestésico que inmediatamente nubla la vista. Por algo el duque de Clarence, hermano del rey Eduardo IV de Inglaterra, eligió en el año 1478 ser ahogado en una bota de este adormecedor mosto antes que ser ahorcado con la soga áspera de esparto. El malvasía sale de los viñedos del hospital de San Juan con las bendiciones de la patrona de Sitges, Nuestra Señora del Viñet, que por cierto es una virgen manca."

- Pension Can Julian: Sitges #1
- Bar Xatet: Sitges #2
- Bar Roy: Sitges #3
- Bar Port Alegre: Sitges #4

Unlike many other Catalan coastal resorts, Sitges retains a strong sense of history, and the legacy of the artists who discovered the town in the mid-19th Century is still much in evidence.

Situated about 40 km southwest of Barcelona, Sitges is stunning: a breathtaking landscape, a full and varied cultural life, a busy Festival calendar, and seventeen magnificent beaches that stretch for four kilometres and feel as if they belong in the south of France.

Neatly sandwiched between the glistening Mediterranean and the rough, dry peaks of the Garraf mountains, it was Los Americanos (Spaniards who made fortunes in trade routes with Cuba) who began building lavish summer homes here in the 18th century.

Nearly 100 of these Art Nouveau mansions remain in the town.

The town is interlaced with maze-like narrow streets that give it a charming, old-world aura. Sitges' Old Quarter (which used to be a medieval fortified enclosure) retains its original style and fin-de-siècle atmosphere of the 19th century.

Sitges started out as primarily a fishing village and slowly evolved into a haven for artists who arrived at the end of the 19th century, thanks in part to Santiago Rusiñol, a painter and writer who was part of the Catalan Modernism (Art Nouveau) movement.

Rusiñol, an outstanding painter and a renowned satirical writer, novelist and dramatist, had lived in Paris when Impressionism emerged. He arrived in Sitges at the end of 1891 and the town's group of Luminist painters welcomed him.

The leading figures of this Sitges School were Joan Roig i Soler and Arcadi Mas i Fontdevila, around whom other notable painters were to be found, including Joaquim de Miró, Joan Batlle Amell and Antoni Almirall.

All shared an interest in the vibrant light and climate of the town. During Rusiñol's life his home was a meeting place for modernist artists, including Picasso and Joan Mirò.

Rusiñol considered painting to be a spiritual language that transmitted his poetry rather than a medium that reflected the real world.

On returning from a trip to Italy in 1892, he bought a couple of terraced fishermen's cottages that had been built on the edge of a rocky coastline.

He then commissioned he architect Francesc Rogent to build a new house on the ground where the cottages once stood using the remains of Sitges' old medieval castle.

Called Cau Ferrat, the house was transformed into a centre for art and poetry lovers. Rusiñol installed paintings, wood-carvings, ceramics, archaeological pieces, drawings, forged ironwork and Catalan floor tiles dating from the 15th to the 20th century.

Cau Ferrat houses works by the most outstanding artists of the Modernista period can be seen here. Artist such as Ramos Casas, Aleix Clapés, Pere Ferran, Joan Llimona, Arcadi Mas i Fontdevila, Joaquim Miró, Isidre Nonell, Darío de Rogoyos, Miquel Utrillo and Ignacio Zuloaga. Rusiñol's own work is represented in a wide range of styles, from Realism to Symbolism.

Sitges also attracted other artists such as Salvador Dalí and poet Federico García Lorca. It was in Sitges that Dali signed and published the Manifest Groc (Yellow Manifesto) with Lluís Montañyá and Sebastià Gasch.

Rusiñol bequeathed his home to the town. But the Spanish Civil War (1936-39) erased what has come to be called the 'golden age' of Sitges. Although other artists and writers arrived in the decades to follow, none had the impact of those who had gone before.

Other fine Sitges buildings include...

The Palau Maricel, commissioned by the American Charles Deering (1852-1927). Deering had the Maricel built to house his art collection in an attempt to copy Cau Ferrat.

Built by Miquel Utrillo, the palace is ornately decorated with magnificent tiles and beautiful terraces. In 1921 Deering returned to the U.S. and the palace was emptied. In 1969, however, the building welcomed a major private collection of medieval art from Dr. Pérez Rosales. The donation includes Romanesque wall paintings, altarpieces and Renaissance wood-carvings.

The mirador (a window overlooking the sea) at the heart of the building contains excellent exhibits of modern Catalan sculpture which include works by Joan Rebull (Aurora, Repòs and Gitana ) and Josep Llimona (Desconsol). What used to be the vestibule now contains original canvas panels painted by Josep Maria Sert in 1917 representing allegories of World War One.

The Maricel also includes a collection of paintings by artists connected with Sitges: Romantic 20th century painters such as Pere Pruna and Artur Carbonell), the pioneers of the Luminist school, and the grand masters of Modernisme.

The Museu Romàntic Can Llopis at the other end of the town, is a perfectly preserved 19th century house. Built at the end of the 18th century in a neo-classical style with sober, elegant lines and little decoration, it is a triumph of bourgeois Romanticism.

The house was donated to the Autonomous Government of Catalonia in 1935 by the last member of the Llopis family, Manuel Llopis i de Casades,

Can Llopis was opened in 1949. It contains a series of dioramas which illustrate the different periods of life of the 19th century and traditional Catalan folklore. It also houses a collection of dolls by the artist Lola Anglada.

The 17th century church of Sant Bartomeu i Santa Tecla overlooks all of Sitges, perched on a rocky cliff "as though daring some summer storm to knock it over."

Known locally as 'La Punta', this 300 year old building is the focus of many of the town's religious festivals and a backdrop to the frequent spectacular fireworks displays.

Though the steps leading up to the church have been washed away more than once, the building itself has never been touched. Locals say that fishermen's wives used to climb the bell tower to watch the horizon for their husbands' return...

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