The first Sitgetans
The name Sitges comes from “Sitja”, a pre-Roman word that means “deep hole or silo”. Even before the Neolithic period, the first Sitgetans lived in the area known as the “cave point” (past the Terramar golf course) and the La Punta Hill, where the church and Town Hall are today. Recently discovered archeological remains show the existence of an Iberian settlement in the 4th-3rd century B.C. Modern studies confirm that there were two small populated areas in Sitges back in the 1st century. One around La Punta hill and another surrounding the Vinyet chapel. Along with Roman Olèrdola, Sitges’ port was used to trade products from the Penedès region and other places from the Roman Mediterranean.
The castle, situated up on the La Punta hill and today the Town Hall that was built over the foundations of the ancient castle in 1889, was first owned by the Seu de Barcelona (the Catholic Church) that ceded it in fief to Count Mir Geribert (1041). In the 12th century, Sitges was under the castlania (the privilege of castle-guard) of the Sitges’, a family that adopted the village’s toponym as their last name. The Sitges family is documented from the year 1116 until 1308. The last family member, Agnès de Sitges, sold her castlania rights to Bernat de Fonollar who was its owner from 1306 to 1326. After the death of his second wife, Blanca of d’Abella, by testamentary decision Sitges was handed over to the Pia Almoina (Canon’s House) until 1814. Bernat de Fonollar was a knight directly related to court of King James II. The tombs of both this nobleman and his wife are in the Sant Bartomeu and Santa Tecla church, on the left-hand side as you enter. During these centuries, the lives of Sitgetans were organized around organized around the Baluard headland, where the parish church, hospital and cemetery were, as well as a small group of houses, all surrounded by a first enclosure and connected to the rest of the village by a bridge over Major or Main Street. The rest of the village consisted of Nou, Tacó and Carreta Streets that led down to the sea, and that were closed off with their respective gates, Aigua Street with another gate and Davallada Street. The presence of these gates shows that the entire village was surrounded by a second rampart. It is also known that there were 3 towers located at the Baluard (Bastion), behind the old hospital (today the Maricel Museum) and Bosc Street, possibly built in 1303. All 3 are depicted on the Sitges Coat of Arms.
Economic and trade activity
The village, despite its direct contact with the sea, had more peasant farmers than fishermen. The vineyard was their main economic and work-related activity and, traditionally, malvasia cultivation in particular. They also cultivated wheat, garden produce, carob trees and the European fan palm, the symbol of Garraf, used to make brooms and other household utensils. Since ancient times, Sitges was the departure port used to export products from the Penedès region. In 1345, Vilafranca asked the king for authorization to have its own port in Sitges, which it did until the 19th century when the Vilafranca-Barcelona railway was built.
Modern Age (16th-18th centuries)
This period in history was marked by constant attempts on behalf of the Universitat de Sitges (Town Council) to free itself from the Pia Almoina’s lordly dominion. In 1814, Sitges was permanently freed and became a part of the Crown. The village suffered the onslaughts of the different wars that were waged, and periods of famine and epidemics. Its economic endeavors continued to be farming, fishing and port activities. In the 18th century Catalonia obtained permission to trade directly with America. The Royal Decree strengthened maritime activity, which increased notably and from the late 18th century (1779) to the early 19th century continuous trade was established with American colonies. When trading opened up, the population was divided into: sailors, proprietors and traders.
Sitges from 1800 to present
At the very start of the 19th century -1813- the country lived through the French war, and afterwards the civil or Carlist wars. The liberally-spirited village walled itself in again and reinforced its militia, which held off the Carlists in one of the most tragic episodes in our history: the May 1st 1938 attack, a historic event that was commemorated by naming a street after this date (during Franco’s dictatorship it was renamed 2 de maig – May 2nd- and it is also called carrer del Pecat or Sin St.)
Economic prosperity, which began during the late 18th century, lasted until early 19th century. In 1833 more than 27% of the Catalans trading with America were Sitgetans. Trade was based on the exportation of clothes, wine, malvasia and eau-de-vie. Sitges, as before-mentioned, was the Penedés region’s trade port. Halfway through the century it dropped to 8% to later recover two-thirds of the way into the 19th century. Only now the economy was in the hands of those trading in America (the Americanos period), who would return with their fortunes and purchase or repair the village’s old houses. The town became a summer resort for the Sitgetan Americanos. Its economic activity continued to be based on farming, garden produce and, above all, the vineyards (today, only the Sant Joan Baptista Hospital’s malvasia is still cultivated). Fishing also continued, although it gradually dwindled until it was finally reduced to a just few boats that still fish and trawl in the Aiguadolç port.
With American capital, two spinning mills were opened in Sitges in the mid-19th century. In 1874, Sitges opened its first shoe factory -the Tarrida factory- also with American capital. By 1910, there were four important shoe factories, establishing a traditional Sitges industry. By 1936, Sitges had more than 20 factories where more than 80% of the population used to work. Today, there is only one left. Another industry settled into the outskirts of town in 1903: the Vallcarca cement factory. And in 1935 a “Sitges” automobile factory was up and running, connected to the Catalonian Racetrack, which was dedicated to producing war material in 1936.
As early as 1879, there are records showing that baths were already being used as medicinal therapy and spa enthusiasts directly became beach enthusiasts (1888). Sitges, situated near Barcelona, although still hard to access at the time, and a summer resort for many Sitgetan-Americanos, became a town for taking the waters. The arrival of the railway in 1881 favored communications with the Catalan capital. With the arrival of Santiago Rusiñol in 1891 -one of the architects of Modernisme- Sitges became the cultural center of the modernistes. In 1909, thanks to Ramon Casas and Miquel Utrillo, Sitges was visited by Charles Deering, a North American millionaire who converted Fonollar street, with its characteristic fishermen’s homes and the old hospital, into a palace. The Palau Maricel and Cau Ferrat (Rusiñol’s house-cum-studio) became two culturally-attracting poles and obviously launched Sitges to tourist fame. In 1918, industrialist Francesc Armengol designed the Terramar garden city and the Passeig Maritim or Esplanade. Atracción de Forasteros (Tourist Attraction Company) was created in 1928 and the Tourist Information Office in 1934. From then on, Sitges would become a European tourism standard setter. In the late 19th century, Sitges only had one hotel establishment, the Subur Guest House, which became its first hotel in 1902. The Milanesa Hotel and Hotel Sitges are from the early 20th century (1917) and the Terramar Park Hotel was built in 1920.
Extract from the chapter written by Àngels Parés: La Vila de Sitges en Quatre Pinzellades (The Town of Sitges in Four Strokes) from the book Història de Garraf (History of Garraf) by Rafael Mateos Ayza.