Sitges and Sex: A Practical Guide
Spain is a predominantly Catholic country, with about 80 percent of Spaniards identifying as Catholic, but only one-third actually attending church. In spite of these high - but downward-trending - numbers, this second largest European Union member state recently legalized gay marriage. They also recently banned poppers. It's not hard to figure out where the vanishing art of cruising fits into this very Spanish paradigm.
General Francisco Franco was firmly installed in power by the time the Spanish Civil War concluded in 1939, but his dictatorship's virulently homophobic Vagrancy Act remained on the books until four years after his death in 1979. Furtive, same sex-hookups boomed during Franco's repressive, four-decade regime, but with his demise, and the rise of the hedonistic countercultural movement La Movida, the stage was set for Spanish gays to come out and "normalize."
By July 11, 2005, when Emilio Menendez and Carlos Baturin, a couple for more than 30 years, became the first legal same-sex marriage in Spain, it was a triumph for civil rights in the Europe Union, but a veritable death knell for amigos con derechos, or those boys who like to "get back to nature," as George Michael sings. Sex in Spain's great outdoors was officially out the window.
Thankfully, Sitges--that little sin city by-the-sea--is one of the few places left on the Iberian Peninsula that stands in direct opposition to this trend. If one had a mind to, every single waking moment here could be spent having some sort of public sex--from a daytime hump in the Mediterranean Sea to an evening spent stumbling through Sitges' myriad back rooms--and if one dozes off on the wrong beach, public sex could fill your non-waking moments too. Sitges is a world-class destination for sexual tourism on par with Phuket or Amsterdam.
The population is around 26,000, and even when that number swells during the summer season and its nearly 5,000 hotel beds are filled, it’s still just a village, smaller in size than West Hollywood, let alone Manhattan. But it’s an international village, more than a third of its population are ex-pats, meaning a command of the language isn’t very necessary. In fact, one of the first mistakes I made was to confess to a local that I didn’t speak Spanish. "Neither do I," he corrected, "I speak Catalan."
Indeed, Sitges’ 20-mile proximity to Catalonia’s capital city Barcelona is one of its selling points. Sitges is a quick, 3.20 Euro hop from Barcelona’s El Prat airport on the RENFE intercity rail. Sit atop the double-decker cars on the left for the ocean view and emerge at the top of the old town with the Garraf Massif mountain range behind and the sparkling Mediterranean stretching out before you. The chalky cliffs give this valley weather independent of Barcelona, an almost rain-free ecosystem locals like to boast is 300 days of sunshine a year.
The most important bit of cartographical information you’ll need during your time in Sitges is how to get from the center of town, usually denoted by the 17th-century Sant Bartomeu and Santa Tecla Church perched on a rocky bluff above the sea, to the cruisey woods between Sitges and its south-western neighbor Vilanova i la Geltrú.
It’s a 45-minute walk, but there are three distinct coaches: a sporty convertible bus, an open-air trolley train and the plain, old public bus. I’ve also seen people taking taxicabs to the furthest drivable point, L’Atlántida disco’s beachside parking lot, but I’ve always found the wide, gently curved and palm-lined Passeig Maritim, Sitges’ answer to Cannes’ Croisette, too irresistible not to stroll.
When you reach the Southwestern end of Sitges, demarcated by the large, white Hotel Terramar, branch right for an easy, but longer trek, following signs for the golf course and L’Atlántida, or bear left and tough it out over a tiny stretch of rocky beach before reconnecting with the road to L’Atlántida. Once you arrive in the disco’s parking lot, walk to its furthest end and you’ll see a trail that leads up into the cliffs with the ocean on your left and the railroad tracks on your right. Here’s where the stroll becomes a hike and flip-flops become inadvisable.
Walk up and over the first train tunnel. If you divert into the woods as soon as you leave L’Atlántida’s parking lot, you will find cruising, but it’s of the working variety. I made this mistake a few times before I found the larger, non-transactional zone. The going rate for a fuck was 20 Euros, which sounds inexpensive, but you can get a full-hour on a proper massage table on the gay beach back in town for the same price.
If you forge past hustler wood, you’ll eventually come to a cliff-top walk that’s either visually spectacular or like the last reel of a Hitchcock film, depending on how you feel about heights. As you make your final descent, you’ll see a large cove with a tented snack bar at the far end. This is the first of two nude beaches. It was once mixed, but is now pretty much exclusively gay.
If this first beach is your destination, there are two ways to descend, a shorter, but more perilous climb down a cliff trail on your left, or branch right and walk along the railroad tracks for about a hundred yards until you see an easier trail closer to the snack bar. Be cautious when walking alongside the tracks as those yellow signs reading 140 are the train speed limits in kilometers so you could be right next to a train zipping by at more than 80 miles per hour.
The entrance to the second beach, Playa del Muerto, is just beyond the entrance to the first. Both shorelines are hard stones and pebbles, which make them uncomfortable to walk, but naturists prancing painfully to and from the water with big floppy penises makes for hours of hilarity. There’s also a sharp drop-off which makes getting in and out of the water less than graceful, but this natural cove, unencumbered by the many jetties that dice up the beaches in town, packs a lot more fun wave-wise with no shrill-whistling lifeguards to spoil the fun.
During the late afternoon siesta time, crowds on both beaches slowly drift back to the many-acred cruising area on the other side of the railroad tracks. If you’re on the first beach, there’s actually a small tunnel under the train tracks that will take you to a less populated, but still fun cruising spot.
If you want the whole enchilada, walk back up to the tracks from either beach then walk toward the second train tunnel. When you come to a trio of yellow speed limit signs ranging from 120 to 140, this is where you want to cross the tracks. Follow the dirt road all the way back and once you start to notice condoms and tissues littering the forest, you’ll know you’ve arrived.
In addition to the two, gay nude beaches described above, Sitges has fifteen other beaches. Eleven of them run along the crescent from the church to the Hotel Terramar, while four of them, including another gay nude beach, Balmins, lie on the north side of town’s center. All of them are considerably closer than Playa del Muerto, but not quite as much fun.
The main beach of interest in town is Bossa Rodona, Sitges’ only clothed gay beach, located in front of the Hotel Calipolis. This beach, marked by a bright orange lifeguard trailer on its east end and Picnic Restaurant on its west, is just a five-minute walk from the center of town and although the clothed part sounds somewhat boring, this is the beach I found myself at most often.
The men are very good-looking and in season towels are laid down with puzzle piece precision packing out every square inch of beach. Beach lounges are available for rent at 6 Euros for the day. The water has a "cock soup" quality and the beach has a compulsive, telenovela feel with clusters of Speedoed men along the shoreline in super-serious conference clusters that seem intent on solving national debt.
There’s the mobile bartender, a local lothario who roams the beach barking, "agüita, cervezita, Coca-Cola" while flirting with men and women alike. The poor, elderly Spanish masajista always seems on the verge of a massive coronary with an endless procession of topless young females in his chair. And the overly excitable lifeguards whistle-blow the errant pedalos, brightly colored paddleboats shaped like Volkswagen Bugs with sliding boards on top, which always seem to stray past the yellow buoys into the swimming zone.
The beach just above Bossa Rodona is L’Estanyol, the locus for after-dark cruising once the bars shut down. To get there, walk from the center of town toward Bossa Rodona, then walk past Picnic restaurant, the Sitges’ Beach Club and another restaurant called Kansas and you’ll come to stairs down to the beach. Take them and you’ve arrived.
Cruising goes on until sun up under the cabanas that butt up against the street above. Though you’ll receive many stern warnings from the locals about police and pickpockets, I never saw any cops and only encountered one filcher the entire summer, and he made himself quite obvious by feeling up my pockets instead of my crotch so I just walked away.
The second gay beach in town is Playa De Las Balmins and it’s a picturesque, ten-minute walk from the center of town headed east past the Baroque church, down to another beach called San Sebastia and then up a hill past Cementari San Sebastia, the local graveyard ringed by a high, white stuccoed wall that’s definitely worth a peek.
The hill down from the cemetery leads to Balmins’ Beach. It’s quicker to descend the rocky trail on the beach’s west end, but easier to get to by taking the paved road on the beach’s far side. Oddly, the east side of this beach is populated by families while the other end is gay, but both are nude. It won’t be hard to figure out which side of the beach you’re on and the surf off this beach is one of the best cruising spots in town, at times resembling a flash mob acting out the hot tub scene in Showgirls.
There are any number of restaurants in Sitges--tripadvisor.com lists 143--and while most favor the traditional Catalan cuisine of xató salads, seafood paellas and tapas, you can find everything from sushi to vegan Indian here. It’s hard to find a meal for less than ten Euros, but most include two courses and a desert and many menus will even throw in a free drink.
You can dine for about half that price from the two local supermarkets: the larger, less-expensive Mercadona located right next to the train station and the more boutique-like Bonpreu just down the hill on Calle San Gaudenci. Both close at 9pm and are shuttered on Sundays, but the après-beach cruising at Mercadona will rival anything you’ll find of Sitges’ beaches.
Two high-end splurges I allowed myself were a Friday night dinner at Parrots Restaurant (Calle Joan Tarrida, 16) for the Lady Diamond’s supper show and a poolside dinner on the patio of the Hotel El Xalet (Calle Illa de Cuba, 35). Both meals required an advance reservation, but featured three courses for less than 25 Euros. The splurge came on the nice bottle of wine that each venue seemed to necessitate.
The biggest selling point of the raucously pastel Parrots restaurant is the dinner show courtesy of Lady Diamond, which kicks off around 9:30pm and has patrons pounding their tables for more well past midnight. Somewhat akin to dining on a cruise ship (a very gay cruise ship), this former "trolley dolly" walks up and down the aisles both inside and outside the restaurant making patrons feel as welcome as she must have while flying the friendly skies.
Before she’s done, this love child of Harvey Fierstein and Dame Shirley Bassey is chatting with different tables in several different tongues, has the tiny street in front of the restaurant clogged with gawkers, and diners on the edge of their seat, as she cycles through Broadway-based classics like "A Spoonful of Sugar"--recycled here as a tip for swallowing ejaculate--and a medley from "Grease" which the blonde bombshell retools as a primer on lubricants, confessing, "These days, I just grab a handful of sand from the beach."
The Hotel El Xalet also relies on a grand dame to bring its dinner home, this one being the gem of a building designed by architect Gaiet Buigas i Monrov. This stunning, old pile was once a private home and has all the dilapidated charm of the Chateau Marmont in Los Angeles. Dinner is served in the lush gardens around the pool in front of a brightly lit, open kitchen, which provides its own type of dinner theater.
From high-end to low, two of my favorite ’dive’ restaurants in Sitges were Restaurant La Granja (Calle San Pablo, 2) and Wok Palacio Oriente (Calle Santa Tecla, 8-10). La Granja has a ten Euro, three-course menu with a drink that includes Spain’s 8% value-added tax (IVA). It’s as close as you’ll come to a dinner in Spain, boasting a large menu that held up to multiple visits. Wok Palacio Oriente is Sitges Chinese buffet and a relative lunchtime bargain at 8.95 Euros, but the plancha bar, a protein-fest consisting of various fish and meat that’s grilled to order, is almost enough to bring Dr. Atkins back from the grave.
Two other special menus deserve honorable mention. Restaurante Can Marti (Calle Espana, 10) has a three-course lunch with wine for 12 Euros including IVA and linen napkins. The lunch menu was different each time I visited. The lasagna starter, typical of Catalonia, was served in a cream sauce, but also contained bits of the ever-present jamón serrano, shanks of which also hung from the wood-beam ceiling as highlights to the homey lemon stucco walls and terra cotta floors.
The Beach House (Calle San Pablo, 34), opened ten years ago by Aussie chefs Brad Downes and Michael Hutton, offers a very reasonably priced après-beach menu that rotates daily and includes three courses for 14.90 Euros running until 8pm.
The rustic, farmhouse decor is perfectly offset by the reality show antics of the cute, tank-topped staff that lives above the restaurant and are fixtures at the Bossa Rodona beach in the afternoon. A three Euro cocktail special complements the meal nicely and the only false move I noticed while dining there was a staff member cooing over a remix of Whitney Houston’s "Million Dollar Bill."
It should be noted that dining this early is anathema to most Catalans. Dinner at midnight is not out of the ordinary. I had to learn this the hard way when I went through all the angst of being stood-up, only to have my date ring me up at 11pm to start hashing out the "what do you feel like eating?" preliminaries.
Another aspect of Catalan dining is the absence of the idea of tipping for good service. I only found one restaurant (Parrots, natch) that even offered a tip line on the credit card receipt, but as an American, this idea took some getting used to and I found myself throwing down a couple Euros after a meal to the consternation of my Spanish dining companions.
At first blush, the more than three dozen gay nightspots in Sitges seem a bit intimidating, but nights on the town soon fall into an all-too-familiar bar trail that starts off after dinner at a quieter cocktail lounge like El Piano (Calle San Bonaventura, 37) and can take you well into the next morning.
I stumbled into this tiny, but lively piano bar one night when Alison Jiear was performing. This Aussie has an Olivier nod for her pole-dancing turn in "Jerry Springer: The Opera," but at El Piano, she turned in a set of cabaret standards before sighing, "Let me sing this fucking song before I’m lynched." She then launched into her anthem "I Just Wanna Fucking Dance," but what impressed me most about this cabaret was the staff’s low-key attitude about what would have been a two-drink minimum nightmare in most other towns.
From midnight on, the local bars heat up and go until about 3:30 in the morning, when the discos take over. And while their numbers might seem overwhelming, it soon becomes clear that Sitges is like a big Monopoly board, with a few key players owning three or four bars each, which makes it easier to find a favorite.
If you like Rom Kramer’s cruisy, two-floor dance bar XXL (Calle Joan Tarrida, 7), you might wander across the street to try the former bakery a Dutch ex-pat turned into Sitges’ first leather bar in 1984 called El Horno Pub (Calle Joan Tarrida, 7) or give one of the perpetual underwear parties at his Man Bar (Calle San Bonaventura, 19) around the corner from El Piano a spin.
Another way to organize your evening crawl is by Sitges ever-present street gossip. On Thursday nights, you might want to check out up-and-coming drag queen Kelly Di’s night at Queenz Bar (Calle Bonaire, 17) or walk down the street and check in on the Lady Diamond performing at Privilege Music Bar (Calle Bonaire, 24).
Kelly, a raven-haired, very Spanish drag queen, snatched her night at Queenz from Lady Diamond, but her opening number, Björk’s "It’s Oh So Quiet," with her aggressive crowd-shushing, is something to see. Also, not to be missed is Brit ex-pat Lady Diamond, who has scads of free underwear from the ES Collection--one of three brands, along with Abercrombie and G-Star that seem like mandatory dress for the Sitges’ gay--to give away; but first, she’ll lure budding fashionistas onstage so they can try on their new knickers publicly.
On the weekend, you may want to make the pilgrimage/schlep out to the very first Pacha (San Didac, Vallpineda), the uber-club that pre-dates even its Ibiza cousin, which owner Ricardo Urgell started almost 50 years ago at his home on Sitges’ "Sin Street" Calle Primer de Maig. Or perhaps you want to side with the international, gay party promoters Energy Bears ( who claim they were bounced out of their Pacha residency this summer in a flurry of unpaid contracts) and check out Sitges’ first gay disco Trailer (Calle Àngel Vidal, 36) with its notorious foam parties, live sex shows, and mysterious new management team.
When booking my accommodation in Sitges, I went for quantity over quality and snatched up a cheap room over a restaurant on airbnb.com. It lacked certain things I never thought of as amenities before, such as toilet paper, but the low monthly rate allowed me to stay on for the entire summer whereas the same funds would have only gone a couple of weeks in one of Sitges many four-star hotels. That’s not to say I don’t have a bead on the local hotel market. As you might suspect by what you’ve read so far, I slept around. A lot. And so have included a few of the favorite hotels I visited.
The Hotel Terramar (Paseo Maritímo, 80) is a four-star property on the Southwestern end of Sitges with a pool that’s perfectly situated if you plan on making a daily trek to Playa del Muerto, but the poor guy I visited here was miserable. He complained of noise from the downstairs "indoor beach" and said even though he was moved to a higher room with a balcony and commanding view of the Mediterranean, it was really hard to lure guys that far from the beaten path.
The guy I met with a triple sea view room at the Hotel Calipolis (Avenida Sofia 2-6) was living large. His room was newly refurbished with a light, hardwood floor and modern furniture, but the real selling point was his private balcony overlooking the gay beach. And because his room was located on the curve of this mostly glass behemoth, he was afforded an almost panoramic view of Sitges.
Parrots Sitges Hotel (Calle Joan Tarrida, 16) is a three-star hotel that’s about as close as you can get to staying in a sauna, without actually staying in the sauna, which is an option at both of Sitges’ bathhouses. Late night visits to this hotel found the front desk cluttered with boys in their underwear, which made for an interesting lobby, but the rooms were much more unassuming. Still, if your aim is to roll out of bed and be steps from the nightlife, this is your option.
The friendly family that’s been running the Hotel Montserrat (Calle Espalter, 27), a very serviceable two-star hotel in the middle of town, for the last 50 years tends to frown on late-night guests, but my date managed to squirrel me past the front desk anyway. The rooms are fairly Spartan, but the street-facing room I visited had a charming balcony with a table and two chairs.
The Meliá Sitges Hotel is the last four-star hotel I visited and it’s well situated on the hill just above the Alguadolc Marina, making it a perfect spot for someone planning to spend a lot of time on Balmins Beach or someone just interested in observing Balmins Beach, as the binoculars indiscreetly lying out on the balcony suggested my date must have been. This property’s huge outdoor pool, dozen restaurants and spa bump it up into the resort level. There’s really no reason to leave, particularly if you remembered to pack the binocs.
I was only too happy to pass the entirety of the summer in a haze of sangria and suntan oil, but most of the other visitors I talked to started itching for something to do after about a week of beach, bars, and repeat. There are a handful of museums in town, the best being the Cau Ferrat Museum (Calle Fonollar, 8) housed in the former studio of one of Sitges’ boho founders, Santiago Rusiñol, who often played summer host to Picasso and Miró.
While walking around this painter’s perfectly preserved dining room and bedroom, it’s hard not to wonder why you didn’t just plunk down your museum admission on a RENFE ticket to take in some of Barcelona’s world-class art treasures, which include both Picasso and Miró, not to mention Antoni Gaudí’s amazing cathedral and UNESCO World Heritage site La Sagrada Família.
If you’re hankering for more day trips away from the sun and sand, I would also recommend a visit to the 9th-century Benedictine abbey of Santa Maria de Montserrat. Take the RENFE train from Sitges to the Barcelona-Sants station, then walk to the Placa Espanya station. It’s a quick, hour-long FGC train ride from there to Montserrat, but upon arrival you’ll have to decide on a funicular up the mountain or a cable car across it. Atop Monsterrat, there are hours of good hiking trails and a visit to the "Black Madonna" inside the abbey is always a good photo op, not to mention a great punch line for the rest of your time in Sitges.
One of my favorite things about Spain is cava: the Spanish answer to Champagne and one of the few cocktails I’ve seen served before lunch. I had no problem aimlessly wandering the Penedés region, Spain’s wine country, but the best cava tour I took was at Caves Freixenet in Sant Sadurní d’Anoia. The winery is a quick, 45-minute RENFE train ride from the Barcelona-Sants station to the Sant Sadurni d’Anoia station. You can’t miss the winery as it’s only 150 feet from the station. And if you’re not already drunk, by the end of the 6.10 Euros tour, you will be. It’s open every day, but closes early at 1pm on Sundays.
By far, the best day out of Sitges that I spent was at the PortAventura theme park in Salou. The park has been open since 1995, but in 2000 two hotels and the Costa Caribe aquatic park were added making this Spain’s most-visited theme park. It consists of six themed lands: Mediterrània, Far West, México, China, Polynesia and SésamoAventura. The first themed land contains only two rides, but one of them is Furious Baco: a barrel-car coaster that hits speeds over 80 mph making this wine-themed, haywire grape collector the fastest in Europe.
Luckily, PortAventura has its own RENFE station and it’s possible to reach it from Sitges without back-tracking to Barcelona first. You may have to switch trains one stop out of Sitges at the Vilanova i la Geltrú station for Tarragona bound trains, but other than that, it’s a simple, one-hour train ride. During the summer months RENFE was running a special where if you bought your 44 Euro park ticket at the station, they added free rail fare.
There’s really not an off-season in Sitges for fiestas. In fact, February marks one of their biggest parties: Carnival. Even after Franco banned the holiday in 1938, Sitges defied him and kept the party going, so although it’s not as big as the ones in Gran Canaria or Cadiz, it is Spain’s longest running debauch, having run consecutively for more than a century.
There’s a vintage car rally along the old coastal road from Barcelona that ends up in Sitges in March while the end of April hosts an International Bears Meeting and May brings the Corpus Christi Flower Festival which turns all of Sitges into a floral, outdoor greenhouse. In July there’s a Tango Festival with lessons during the day and a dance floor on the beach for all-night tangoing.
October brings Sitges’ International Fantastic Film Festival of Catalonia, which bills itself as the number one fantasy film festival in the world, drawing such celebrities as Jodie Foster, Quentin Tarantino and Cameron Diaz in the past.
Last year, festival director Ángel Sala was arrested and charged with exhibiting child pornography after showing Sr?an Spasojevi?’s controversial debut "A Serbian Film" in which a porn star gets lured into a kiddie snuff film. This year’s October 6-16th edition is playing it either safe or tongue-in-cheek by feting artificial intelligence with a tenth anniversary celebration of Steven Spielberg’s "A.I.".
Summer is when Sitges truly becomes fiesta central. July hosts the town’s gay pride celebration, which just kicked off in 2010, but drew 60,000 folks to that inaugural event. This year’s edition featured an hour-long, all-male fashion show on the beach, a high heel race through town and, of course, the gay pride parade.
The beginning of August brings the week-long Circuit Festival, which plays out mainly in Barcelona, but hits Sitges for a raucous beach party. The month concludes with Festa Major, a weeklong debauch that celebrates Saint Bartholomew, one of the lesser apostles and the town’s patron saint.
While Bart may not have gotten many good lines in the Bible, he makes up for it here with a holiday wherein residents parade up and down the streets holding fire breathing dragons that toss firecrackers and shower down sparks intended to burn the sin off the streets.
The fireworks proper, which use town’s landmark church as a backdrop, are spectacular, but after days of explosions and outfits catching fire, this holiday seems better suited to fledgling war photographers than common tourists.
The big finish to summer is Sitges’ Bear Week, a week-long party that ends with the coronation of Mr. Bear Sitges. The September 5-11 ten-year anniversary includes bar crawls, beach picnics, a paint ball road trip and plenty of late nights at the Organic Dance Club (Calle Bonaire, 15).
While this article contains much practical information that might make a trip to Sitges seem off-putting, the best thing to do is just pack a bag and go. A lot of the details can be worked out on the ground.
The people are quite friendly, English is easily understood, and this entire article could just as easily be picked up loitering on the tiny Calle Joan Tarrida, the locus of Sitges’ street gossip, connecting the gay clubs lining Calle Bonaire with their straight counterparts on Calle Primer de Maig.
In short, there’s never a bad time to be in Sitges. Its unique microclimate blesses it with one of the longest beach seasons in Spain, with people dipping into the sea from April well through the end of October. On the day I finished the bulk of this article, I grabbed my towel and headed to Balmins Beach to celebrate.
Bobbing up and down in the sea, eavesdropping on a newly arrived banker from Ireland chatting with a Sitges veteran, I heard a decent week-long plan imparted in about five minutes. Soon they were making out in the water. I can’t be sure because I forgot my swimming goggles, but I think the Irish lad even got a hand job in the bargain.