It’s fascinating to me how differently travelers can perceive the same place.
For Americans, Barcelona — Europe in general, for that matter — is a cultural destination. We come to tour the architecture of Gaudi, see the museums of Dali and Miro, walk through Catalonia’s ancient Jewish ghettos, and sample the molecular gastronomy for which the region is lately famous.
For most Europeans, Barcelona is a beach, pure and simple. Every summer, as Americans sweat through walking tours of Roman ruins, Germans and Italians and Brits descend en masse on the wide, golden stretches of beach from Tarragona to the French border.
Woody Allen captured the culture-versus-hedonism dichotomy quite aptly in “Vicky Cristina Barcelona,” though you notice the characters still jetted off to Oviedo for the serious fun. I blame guidebooks; we earnest Americans, eager to soak up all of Europe’s vaunted culture, dutifully head to all the recommended sights – and beaches, in Spanish guidebooks, are a distinct afterthought.
But it’s August, and I can think of no better destination for those in search of sun, sand and general sybaritic relaxation than the beaches of the Costas Brava and Dorada (north and south of Barcelona, respectively). The vast, oiled-and-bronzed masses on the urban beaches may be enough to scare many tourists back into cool, uncrowded museums.
But within an hour or so of the city center lie gorgeous, relatively peaceful spots with plenty of soft sand to lay a towel out on, as well as gentle, lapping turquoise waters and stunning mountain scenery.
As a general rule of thumb, the beaches just north of Barcelona retain an urban feel for quite a ways up the coast; once out of the metro area, a car comes in handy for lovely mountain towns and coves that trains can’t reach. Beach towns to the south are generally more accessible, lying along the state’s Renfe rail line all the way to Tarragona.
Ocata, a pretty beach just 15 minutes north of Barcelona’s central Plaza Catalunya, is in El Masnou, a posh-yet-rustic suburb. (It’s home to many players on Barcelona’s vaunted soccer team.) To get here, catch the suburban commuter rail line called Rodalies in Catalan and Cercanias in Spanish.
The beach is wide, sandy and popular with families — not least because the train station is just steps from where you’ll lay your towel. Ocata’s surf is gentle and its water very clean, and there are far fewer urban hassles (rowdy bars, strolling trinket vendors) than you’ll find on beaches nearby. And the boardwalk, just across the train tracks from the beach, has everything you might want during a day at the shore: an ice cream shop, a wine bar, and a handful of inexpensive cafés.
Head south of the city along another Rodalies line, and you’ll come to two of Catalonia’s most popular beach towns: Castelldefels and Sitges. The former is a beach suburb with a youthful commuter scene, but go one stop past the main Castelldefels station, to Platja Castelldefels (platja is beach in Catalan), and you have the perfect place for a day — or a week — on the waterfront.
Distinctly untrendy, working-class in feel, Castelldefels beach is summer distilled to its most basic elements: a huge, white-sand beach that stretches for miles, decent surf with no rough currents, swing sets for the kids, and a handful of pizzerias. Even on a summer Sunday, you can always find a good bit of sand to call your own. And just across the tracks lies a huge national forest, a park whose unspoiled dark-green mountains give the area a dramatic natural backdrop. It gets quite spectacular around 7:30 in the evening, when the sun sets over those mountains and the sky turns pink.
About 10 minutes down the coast — still a mere half-hour from Barcelona’s Sants station — is Sitges, for 100 years a popular summer resort. Unlike Castelldefels, Sitges is a destination in itself; it has a charming, historic center to wander, and a sprawling modern town full of hotels.
Sitges is billed as a gay resort, but that scene strikes me as fairly subtle. In high season, the broad boardwalks and cafés spill over with British families pushing strollers, honeymooning couples, and Catalan families who’ve summered here for generations. The old town features a picturesque cathedral, a small museum and a plaza balcony that overlooks crashing waves below. Tapas cafés curve around the old town’s moon-shaped beach, whose shallow waters are ideal for children; the new town’s wider, straighter beaches are better for serious swimmers and windsurfers. Even on cloudy days — of which Sitges has few — there’s plenty of action in the winding, picturesque lanes, home to artisanal boutiques and whitewashed hotels with flowering gardens.
If you’ve got an hour to spend on the train, keep going until you come to Reus, a pretty medieval town near Tarragona. You can spend days on the beach at Platja Larga, which is as spacious as it sounds, and its nice camping facilities. Then head to the quiet, shady streets of Reus’s castle-crowned old quarter, where you can still see remains of the Middle Ages Jewish district along Carrer dels Jueus (street of the Jews) — a little culture if all that sun has gone to your head.