On the beach in Vilanova i la Geltrú, 40 kilometres southwest of Barcelona, Spain, stands a huge bronze statue of Pasiphae, mother of the Minotaur in the Greek myth. Cursed by the god Poseidon, she lies naked inside the stomach of a cow, gazing out to sea, waiting for an enormous white bull to arise from the water and impregnate her. It’s a disarmingly sensual symbol of a people’s relationship with the sea.

For the inhabitants of Catalonia’s Garraf region – of which Vilanova is the capital – the Mediterranean has been a source of food, work and trade since antiquity. The Iberians traded wine around the Mediterranean 2,000 years ago. Between the 6th and 1st centuries BC, ceramics were exported from the seaport of Adarró, the ruins of which can be seen in Vilanova.

Three thousand years ago, Greek sailors spoke of the Iberian town of Blanca Subur, present-day Sitges, just 10 kilometres up the coast from Vilanova. But for those who dwelt on its shores, the sea also represented a gateway to new worlds and fresh starts.

In the 1870s, with a series of civil wars finally over, Catalonia had begun to experience a period of great economic and cultural progress, driven by trade with the colonies in the New World.

In 1862, Sitges’ most famous son, Facundo Bacardi, typified the entrepreneurial spirit when he founded his distillery in Cuba, transforming rum from a fiery local grog to an internationally renowned beverage. Others made their fortune trading textiles or guano – fertiliser made from the excrement of sea birds.

However, the good times were cut short in 1879 by a disastrous plague of phylloxera, aphid-like bugs that devastated half a million acres of the region’s vineyards; merchants were ruined, workers made jobless.

Just as they had done for hundreds of years, the townsfolk of Garraf looked to the sea for a solution. Thousands of young men from along the Catalan coast undertook the perilous journey across the Atlantic to seek their fortune in the Americas, principally Cuba.

Far from all succeeded, but a handful made it rich and later returned home. The extraordinary impact they had on their hometowns can still be felt.

They were dubbed Indianos, or Americanos: nouveaux riches who came back to Spain and celebrated their newfound wealth by building themselves lavish mansions in a melange of styles inspired by the architectural fashions of the day – moderniste (Catalan art nouveau), neoclassical, noucentista – and adorned with elements from the Caribbean paradise they had left behind. Their return heralded the dawn of the Garraf’s golden age, for they did not just beautify their hometowns with their sumptuous villas, the Indianos were also known for their philanthropy – financing and promoting railways, schools, electricity and other infrastructure that would propel the area into the modern age.

“The Barcelona-Sitges line was only the second railway line built in Spain,” says Enric Bartra, who produces Malvasia wine – a Sitges speciality – at the Vega de Ribes vineyard, where his family have worked the land since 1540. “Prior to that, Sitges was only accessible via a tortuous road that followed the craggy coastline.”

The railway arrived thanks to the efforts of Francesc Guma, a Vilanovaborn Indiano who also helped bring electricity, was involved in urban design projects, had a public park built in Vilanova and commissioned the façade of the Sant Antoni Abad parish church. Unsurprisingly, he has streets named after him in Vilanova and Sitges.

For today’s visitor, the Indianos’ legacy is immediately apparent. Strolling down the ramblas in Vilanova, you can’t help but be struck by the number of moderniste buildings, in particular the sinuous curves and stained glass of the Can Pahissa and the ornate façade of the Casa Renard – now a pizzeria – both of which were designed by Vilanovan Gaudi disciple Miro i Guibernau.

In Sitges, more than 60 Indiano houses are still standing. Just a five-minute walk from Sitges’ station lies the erstwhile Indiano neighbourhood, centred around the aptly named Carrer Illa de Cuba (“island of Cuba street”), where Indiano villas abound.

Many of them are now bars, hotels and restaurants, all proffering an irresistible invitation to step inside, sip a glass of cava in a shady courtyard and appreciate the incredible attention to architectural detail, such as the striking black-andwhite- tiled watchtower of Hotel El Xalet, with its mulberry-shaded garden; Hotel Noucentista’s voluptuous bay windows; and the honeysuckle-scented interior patio of the Hotel Romantic.

In Carrer Francesc Guma, you can’t miss the palatial corner building with Roman-style murals on the outside. This is the Casino Prado Suburense, a culturalrecreational centre – evidence that the Indianos also promoted leisure activities for the local population. The gorgeous old cinema is one of the venues for the Sitges International Fantastic Film Festival.

Between 1892 and 1899 Barcelona-born artist and writer Santiago Rusinol held his moderniste festivals at the Casino. Rusinol helped turn Sitges into a haven for artists and intellectuals. Picasso, Dali and Miro hung out at his house, today the Cau Ferrat Museum.

In the middle of downtown Sitges, in the Plaza Cap de Vila, lies the town’s most emblematic moderniste house: La Casa del Reloj (“house of the clock”). With its minaret-like spire and fantastical clock tower, it is a moderniste masterpiece.

Down in the Old Town, you can learn how to make your own rum cocktails in the Casa Bacardi museum, housed in the moderniste Old Market building, dating from 1890.

So where does all this modernisme come from? And what is it anyway? Elsewhere in Europe, art nouveau started as a reaction to the purely functional dictates of the Industrial Revolution. Catalan modernisme embraced art nouveau and other contemporary styles, but added a resurgent sense of Catalan identity, to create a unique movement, most famously symbolised by Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia church in Barcelona.

According to Lluis Bosch Pascual, vicechairman of the Réseau Art Nouveau Network, modernisme wasn’t merely a style, “but a new way of understanding the world; a new synthesis of contemporary urban life in which tradition and innovation, craftsmanship and industry, nationalism and internationalism were not incompatible opposites but productive dialogues which could produce a better and more beautiful life”.

And the Indiano returnees were natural champions of this new style, in part through their desire to show off their newfound wealth in ostentatious projects, but also because their travels had awakened a taste for new ideas in business and art.

“If you see a house with a palm tree in the garden, you can be sure it’s an Indiano house,” explains Bartra. “They liked to surround themselves with reminders of their tropical home.”

Walk through the palm-tree patio and into an Indiano house and you’re likely to see big frescoes depicting scenes of Cuba.

So palpable is the Cuban influence in Vilanova that it is even nicknamed Havana Xica (“little Havana”) and its prevalence is especially apparent in the Plaça de la Vila, or town square, where Vilanovans love to while away the evening at one of the many cafe terraces.

In the middle of this porticoed plaza, with its colonial-style town hall buildings, stands a statue of Josep Tomas Ventosa i Soler (1797-1874), the Vilanovan who had the square built.

A similar square with an identical monument can be seen in Matanzas, in Cuba, a town where many Vilanovans settled and with which Vilanova is now twinned. Ventosa was an archetypal Indiano, making a fortune from textiles, entering politics, becoming mayor of Matanzas, but also devoting himself to public works in both countries.

The Cuban influence can be perceived in local customs, too. On cold winter evenings, peek into a bar and you’ll spy the unmistakable glow of a blue flame dancing on a cremat: a generous jigger of rum flambéed with cinnamon, lemon peel, coffee beans and brown sugar.

Come summer, in fiesta time, people throng to contests of habaneras, melancholic folk songs that sing of separation and homesickness. And alongside other Catalan fiesta traditions like the famous castellers (human towers) and sardana dances, you will see a parade of gegants, giant figures in period costumes. Among them, “there’s always a group of gegants representing the Indianos”, says Bartra.

“People remember them very fondly.”

Small wonder – more than 100 years after the moderniste vision faded, the legacy of the Indianos is still helping to make “a better and more beautiful life” for their hometowns.


Getting there: Qatar Airways (www.qatarairways.com) flies daily from Hong Kong to Doha, and from there on to Barcelona’s El Prat Airport. Trains to Vilanova i la Geltrú leave El Prat station every 30 minutes.