Monday, August 6, 2007

Sitges getaway, sans tourists

Last weekend I had the good fortune to escape the oppressive, intense, competitive atmosphere of Bcn and enjoy a relaxing wknd in Sitges (pronounced SIT-jess). My lovely roommate B’s family owns a great flat in a quiet, modern part of town--one of those tastefully designed "Mediterranean" developments on a hillside that keeps things simple and white and makes the most of its views. In addition to a terraza with ocean view, they have a rooftop with an even better 360* panorama. Pictured above are B, T, C, E and E, various of the 14 people who crashed that wknd. Things were kept simple: we ate, drank, slept, and swam, all in prodigious quantities. Some of the participants, who will remain nameless, were so content with the rooftop (which comes with lawn furniture, shower, bbq, and perpetual breeze) that they never actually set foot on the beach. A memorable highlight was the majestic full moon, which some of us watched rise like a specter over the ocean from the beach as it got dark. We tracked the moon’s arc from the horizon as it got higher and brighter, all the way till 4am, when it started to get blurry for some reason. Then I passed out.

Sitges, whose central church can be seen rising in the background, became an important town in the 18th century when Spaniards built nice houses there upon returning from the New World, where they’d become wealthy. Then, toward the end of the 19th century, Sitges hit the big time, becoming a center of the modernist movement in Catalunya. A century later, the town had become known for its pretty cobblestoned streets, lovely beaches, and massive influx of gay vacationers and accompanying party scene. The central beaches during the wknd are disgracefully packed—to the point where I can’t fathom how those people actually enjoy being on the beach: it’s just skin, umbrellas and a couple of patches of sand. (It reminded me of some of the worst parts of the Costa del Sol, the difference being that at least this town has a genuinely Spanish old town and culture, whereas the latter in parts feels more like a British (or German) colony. I get queezy just thinking about it.)

It’s a bit sad to see a town with a distinct personality just get taken over by tourism and turn into a more generic coastal destination. I got the same feeling during the highest part of high season in Tarifa (Cadiz, Andalucia) when we were living down there. Tourists bring money, development, and prestige, but can absolutely kill the unique feeling of a town. Or change it, at least. The problem with Spain's ever-developing tourism industry is that there's no end in sight to an approach that privileges quantity over quality. Sitges seemed much more exciting when I was there 9 years ago, possibly because the beaches were less crowded, but more likely because I didn't think about these sorts of things. It's certainly a bad sign that places like Tarifa--which is much harder to get to--are also being overwhelmed. Even in 2002, when we lived there, locals were predicting the end of the charm and the beginning of the phase of the "guay kite-surfero," or the cool kite surfer type. Prices were already going up, because wealthy extreme sports-types and Northern Europeans were installing boutique hotels and pretentious bars. For a while it's great, I suppose, because one feels a sleepy town waking up and becoming cool. It was a mark of pride for a Spaniard to have one of these famous bright Tarifa t-shirts, with a wispy kite-surfer mascot breezing along. Now it's passe-- you see a dozen of them every day in Barcelona and Madrid. In short, the slippery slope effect in beach tourism can be an ugly phenomenon (here's a useful look at the impact of tourism on Sitges). Many in Spain still fear a double crash of the housing market and the tourism market as cheaper destinations appear (Northern Africa?), a scenario that would leave Spain blighted with ugly concrete developments, too many golf courses, and a collective memory of simpler, better times.

If you’re working in the industry, you probably don’t care; but I’m sure the Sitges locals are pretty fed up with the summer deluge. The smart ones probably find some other beach to go to, and rent out their flats to some pasty Englishman! Luckily for us, B’s apartment was by the port, because our “local” beach, the northernmost, was the finest in town. We couldn't complain. And oh, how that moon had us transfixed!

1 comment:

Zach said...

wow, wish i had been there. welcome to new jersey!