Garraf is Catalunya’s second smallest comarca but packs a lot into its 184 square kilometres. Situated on the Costa Garraf, just south of Barcelona, the region’s beautiful coastline includes 25 kilometres of large sandy beaches and tiny secluded bays almost hidden beneath rocky cliffs.
The Parc Natural de Garraf in the east covers an area of almost 13,000 hectares, which are shared with the neighbouring comarques of Baix Llobregat and Alt Penedès. The low limestone peaks of the Garraf massif create a wild landscape and habitat for a number of rare and protected species like the European fan palm and Mediterranean tortoise.
The region’s historical monuments include seven castles that date from the 10th to 17th centuries as well as many old masies (Catalan country houses) surrounded by vineyards and orchards. The sea has always been an important source of income for the people of Garraf, and during the 18th and 19th centuries many travelled to the Spanish colonies to sell local produce such as Penedès wine. These newly rich traders were dubbed Americanos or Indianos, and their return to Garraf signalled the arrival of a golden age for the region, with the construction of large colonial-style houses and grand mansions, as well as significant investment in the comarca’s infrastructure. Today, Garraf is very well-connected and despite its growing popularity during the summer months, it remains refreshingly unspoilt.
Things to see
Vilanova i la Geltrú is the comarca’s capital, situated in the southwest of the region. It is one of Catalunya’s principal fishing ports and became known as ‘Havana Xica’ because of the number of buildings from the ‘Americanos’ period. The main town centre is concentrated around the Rambla Principal which is lined with café terraces, all the main shopping chains and the occasional Modernista building. Slightly further north is the arched Plaça de Vila, which leads off through narrow back streets and smaller squares to the old town centre of la Geltrú and its medieval castle. The Barri Marítim has many attractions such as Ibero-Roman ruins, a defence tower, a lighthouse and a fishermen’s market and harbour, where visitors can join locals to greet the fishermen as they return from their day at sea. The town also has five beaches and if you are looking for somewhere to cool off there are some pleasant parks and gardens such as the Jardins del Parc Gumà i Ferran with waterfalls, shady trees and elaborate stone benches.
Amongst Vilanova’s many museums are a couple dedicated to maritime activities. A must-see for rail enthusiasts is the Museu del Ferrocarril (Railway Museum), which boasts the largest collection of steam engines in Europe and other rail-related memorabilia. Also worth visiting is the Biblioteca-Museu Víctor Balaguer, named after and opened by the 19th-century writer, politician and proponent of the Romanticisme movement. The museum’s contents include around 40,000 books, many of them from Balaguer’s own extensive collection of Catalan literature, ceramics, archaeological artefacts and Catalan art from the 19th and 20th century.
Further up the coast is the old fishing town of Sitges. When Modernista artist Santiago Rusiñol moved there in the late 19th century he was instrumental in putting the town on the artistic and cultural map, by hosting festes modernistes in his home and studio, Cau Ferrat, which is now a museum and gallery. Cau Ferrat is situated in a lovely old quarter, Racó de la Calma (literally, ‘quiet corner’), just along from another important cultural site, the Museu de Maricel, housed in the Palau of the same name built in the early 20th century for an American millionaire. The museum also encompasses Rusiñol’s friend and fellow artist Ramon Casas’s house, and has collections of art and sculpture spanning many centuries and styles, as well as an interesting exhibition of maritime artifacts.
Sitges continues to be a magnet for creative minds and one of the favourite subjects for artists is the 17th-century Baroque church of Sant Bartomeu i Santa Tecla, which stands on a raised bastion looking out over the sea and main beaches. With a total of 18 kilometres of beaches in the municipality, there is plenty of room for everyone. The busiest and largest are those to the south of the church, backed by seafront hotels and restaurants and the wide palm-lined promenades of Passeig de la Ribera and Passeig Marítim. Most of the beaches are equipped with showers and sunbeds and there are also a few nudist beaches to the north and south of the town.
Like Vilanova and Sitges, the inland town of Sant Pere de Ribes at the south of the Garraf massif was also an important centre for the Americanos and still has a few buildings from that period, including a neo-Gothic church modelled on Barcelona’s Santa Maria del Mar as well as a good number of masies. Other interesting sites in the region include the Palau Novella in the Parc Natural de Garraf, a former Americano home, which is now a Buddhist monastery. Visitors are permitted to enter at weekends and by appointment to view the exhibitions on Tibetan art and culture as well as on the Romanticisme period in Garraf and the history of the building.
What to do
The tourist offices of Vilanova and Sitges offer themed walks around their towns. They both, along with the smaller coastal town of Cubelles in the south of the region, have good water sports, with various activities like diving, windsurfing and jet-skiing. Sailing is particularly popular on the Costa Garraf, with clubs catering for complete beginners and experienced sailors in Sitges and Vilanova.
There are also two golf clubs in Garraf: Club de Golf Terramar in Sitges is an 18-hole par 72 course situated on the coast with large practice areas, as well as tennis courts and a swimming pool, while Escola de Golf Portal del Roc in Vilanova has a par 54 pitch-and-putt course. The Parc Natural de Garraf is full of tracks for walking and cycling, as well as many caves just waiting to be explored; Jafra Natura based in Olivella runs guided activities at weekends. Other activities on offer in the park include group workshops and courses in astronomy at the Observatori Astronòmic del Parc del Garraf.
When to go
Garraf has a busy cultural calendar all year round. This month marks Sitges’s most important annual event, its star-studded Festival Internacional de Cinema de Catalunya. The Sitges Film Festival often showcases films that subsequently open to great success (or at least notoriety). And on October 20th-21st , Sant Pere de Ribes will hold its second Agromercat, a fair with stalls selling local produce.
What to eat
When it comes to gastronomy, Garraf’s signature dish is xató, a salad of salted cod, tuna and anchovies, on a bed of escarola (curly lettuce) and olives, topped with a generous dollop of romesco sauce. Local produce includes vegetables from the region’s orchards like espigalls and brotons and the sweet dessert wine Malvasia, made in Sitges.
Where to stay
The availability of accommodation in Garraf is mainly restricted to the coastal areas. Vilanova and Cubelles have a few hotels and campsites and Sitges has over 20 hotels, any of which can be booked through the town’s reservation centre (Tel. 902 103 428). The Hotel Subur, a ‘comfort’ class hotel on the Passeig de la Ribera, is in a great location overlooking the main beaches and promenade.
Club de Golf Terramar
Consell Comarcal del Garraf
Tel. 93 810 0400, www.ccgarraf.cat
Escola de Golf Portal del Roc
Tel. 93 894 0066, www.hotelsubur.com
Parc Natural del Garraf (Centre d'informació La Sala)
Tel. 93 896 8000, www.diba.es/parcs
Tel. 93 894 5004, www.sitgestour.com
Vilanova i la Geltrú municipal tourist office
Tel. 93 815 4517, www.vilanovaturisme.cat
First published in October 2007