"Isn't that a gay resort?" people asked us in 1999, when we booked our first trip to Sitges. We didn't know and we didn't care. My wife was pregnant and I'd left a steady job at the BBC to write a book but it wasn't working out. Nightlife, gay or straight, was the last thing on our minds.
When we got there, we realised our friends were right. Gay men, trim and tanned, dressed in Speedos and crisp white T-shirts, paraded up and down the promenade in pairs (just as people grow to look like their pets, gay couples grow to look like one another) or sat at pavement cafés, sipping coffee and watching other gay couples parade past. As we awaited the birth of our first child, lurching between dread and ecstasy, it all felt strangely reassuring. You go on holiday to try to find a place where domestic cares become irrelevant. To us, weighed down with the worries of impending parenthood, here was a world elsewhere.
Like most British tourists, we had arrived knowing next to nothing about our destination. Someone said it was where Barcelonians go for the weekend, the way Londoners go to Brighton. In fact Sitges is a lot closer - just 20 miles from Barcelona - but it still feels like a place apart. As we shuffled along the polished prom, my wife's belly bulging, my head spinning at the thought of how our lives would change when that bulge became a human being, the gay couples around us became the backdrop to our private drama - on holiday in the same town at the same time, living out very different lives.
Two years later, we returned to Sitges with our son, now a robust toddler. He woke at dawn and went to bed at dusk, and so did we. The only times we saw the gay clubbers in our hotel were 6am and 9pm. At 9pm we met them as we were coming in and they were going out. At 6am we met them again, on our way out and their way in. We felt like shift workers, clocking on just as they were clocking off. And yet, as we made our early-morning trek to the municipal playground, we found the usual nightclub detritus conspi cuous by its absence. There were no drunken shrieks or shouts, no puke or broken glass in the gutter. Gay clubbers ambled home in twos and threes in silence, like amiable ghosts. We felt comforted and protected by these friendly apparitions, in a way we never would have done at a straight resort, full of lads in Burberry baseball caps and England shirts.
Last summer, we went back to Sitges with our son and daughter, only to find that something odd had happened. The gay clubbers were still there, but now the town seemed to be teeming with families. Had they done what we'd done, and followed the pink pound to Sitges? Or had they always been there? Either way, I'd never noticed them before. Confined to the climbing frame and paddling pool, I found I missed the presence of those fun-seekers who had ushered us so politely and discreetly into parenthood.
"I've lived here for five years and there's certainly a lot more families here than when I first arrived," said Terry, an Englishman who works at Hotel Liberty, a handsome gay- (and straight-) friendly establishment on the Carrer Illa de Cuba. As its name suggests, this street was built by locals who went to Cuba to make their fortunes (from tobacco, sugar, slaves and rum - the bloke who invented Bacardi came from Sitges) and returned home to build these mansions to show off how much money they'd made. Outside Hotel Liberty, a gay rainbow advertises a more modern economic motor. From Sydney to San Francisco, bourgeois families tend to follow where gay travellers boldly go. Gay tourists know how to have fun without smashing up the town centre, and the mums and dads who follow them are far too knackered to make mischief. No wonder the local council is so accommodating. For any resort, an influx of gay tourists is a sign that you've hit the jackpot.
How Sitges became a gay resort is a bit of a mystery. None of the people to whom I spoke seemed to know how it had all begun. In the end, everyone ends up resorting to the same old cliché (and, like most clichés, there's some truth in it): gay people tend to have better taste, that's all. Sitges has a sandy beach, a historic old town, no high rises and hardly any chain stores. There are even a few decent art galleries. It hasn't become a tourist ghetto, as it surely would have done if it had been colonised by straight clubbers. In most of the bars and restaurants, most of the customers are still Catalans. It's inclusive, not exclusive; here, homosexuality is a metaphor for difference of every kind.
This is just a hunch, but I reckon it might have begun with one hotel. The Hotel Romàntic is a beautiful art-nouveau building in a quiet backstreet, just around the corner from Hotel Liberty, and since the 1960s it's become a favourite spot for gay tourists and every other sort of liberal, cultural visitor. The walls are covered in fine art. The floors are covered in fine tiles. "Sitges at that time was a little town with pretentious airs, hoping to be the vacationing spot of the Catalan elite," wrote the author and academic Josep Miquel Sobrer in his evocative memoir of this exquisite hideaway, founded by his brother Gonçal. Instead, Sitges has become the gay holiday capital of Europe.
But how much longer can this last? Gay tourism put the town on the map. Lively but never boisterous, gay tourists made it the sort of place where straight couples on the edge of middle age could bring their young children without feeling completely menopausal. But tourism is a destructive force, corrupting what it covets. "There are fewer gay people and more families," says Terry the émigré, without the slightest rancour, over an early-evening drink at Hotel Liberty. Young families and gay clubbers coexist comfortably here in Sitges, but as this smart yet unpretentious place fills up with prams and buggies, gay travellers will surely start to look elsewhere, in search of the next resort.