The Pricey-Yet-Chill Resort Town of Sitges Is Luring American Buyers - Kanebridge News
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The Pricey-Yet-Chill Resort Town of Sitges Is Luring American Buyers

Interest in the coastal Spanish town is booming, thanks to the rise of remote work, the area’s LGBTQ-friendly atmosphere and its proximity to Barcelona

By J.S. MARCUS
Fri, May 10, 2024 10:11amGrey Clock 6 min

In their post pandemic search for a European second home, Florida’s Martin and Patricia Tantow had a lot of boxes to tick.

The couple, who confined their search to the mainland Mediterranean coast, wanted sea views, walkable beach and town access, and a unit that was easy to renovate—or, as they call it, a “liveable fixer-upper.”

They found what they were looking for in Sitges, a Spanish resort town that had been under the radar for U.S. buyers and vacationers.

Sitges, with around 30,000 year-round residents, is known for its sandy beaches, 19th-century villas, 21st-century mansions, quaint historic centre and thriving residential real-estate market. Only a 25-minute drive from Barcelona’s international airport, the community is one of three select resorts that compete for the title of mainland Spain’s most expensive.

Home prices in Sitges average $457 per square foot, up 7.3% in the past year and 21% in the past five years, according to Idealista, a Spanish real estate website. Jesús Encinar, CEO and chairman of Idealista, says that Cadaqués, up the Catalan coast from Sitges and near France, is now at the top, with average prices in March reaching $575 per square foot. Málaga in the south of Spain is now at $458 per square foot, edging past Sitges.

Of the three, Sitges is the most convenient for trans-Atlantic air connections—and, local homeowners say, year-round charm. Smaller and less glitzy than Marbella, Sitges has temperate winters and hot summers, and it’s bigger and more accessible than remote whitewashed Cadaqués, where life dies down in the chillier offseason.

The Tantows’ dining room is on the second floor. PHOTO: ANTHONY PEREZ FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
The Tantows renovated the deck area around the pool and redid the compact lot’s landscaping. PHOTO: ANTHONY PEREZ FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

The Tantows paid 1.3 million euros (about $1.39 million) in July 2023 for a compact 2,300-square-foot Sitges home on a steep 1/5th-acre lot, offering prized southern exposures and expansive sea views. They plan to divide their time about equally between their primary Sarasota, Fla., home and Spain, where they can work remotely.

Able to live in the 1990s property while wrapping up the renovation, the couple has spent about $270,000 on refurbishments, and they plan to spend around $50,000 more on the four-bedroom home before they’re done.

“We painted inside and outside, and we opened things up a bit by breaking down some walls,” says Patricia Tantow, a marketing executive at an IT company. Other structural improvements included new solar panels, energy-efficient doors and windows, and insulation upgrades. They also decided to convert a lower-level gym into a home office and gaming area.

The couple, both 50, view the investment as a vacation home for now and a potential retirement home later. Patricia Tantow still seems a bit surprised at where they ended up.

“My dream was to buy in the south of France,” she recalls. “But then I came to Sitges and there was something special here. It’s very cute, but very diverse as well—you feel like you belong here. So I changed my mind about France and said, ‘Let’s try to make this happen.’”

Long popular with the LGBTQ community, Sitges traditionally attracts second-home buyers from Northern Europe, as well as elsewhere in Spain. Now the number of American buyers is rising, says the Tantows’ agency, Lucas Fox, where in-house sales to Americans doubled in 2023 compared with the year before. The rise of remote work and LGBTQ word-of-mouth are each helping to fuel interest, says the agency.

American visitors to the town are also increasing. Marina Norwell, of Oliver’s Travels, the U.K.-based villa-rental specialists, says inquiries from the U.S. quadrupled in 2023 from the year before.

Norwell says a top choice for villa-minded Americans is a 10-bedroom country house with a saltwater swimming pool, about 15 minutes from the centre of Sitges, with a high-season weekly rate of about $18,500. Norwell says it’s popular with larger groups.

Sitges is something of a paradox, say residents. Known for its freewheeling nightlife in high season, it becomes a quieter, family-friendly community the rest of the year. The Tantows, who relocated during the pandemic from San Francisco to Florida, said they have no qualms about letting their two children, 9 and 11, explore on their own—something they couldn’t imagine back in San Francisco.

A desirable setting to raise children was also on the minds of full-time Dutch residents Ben Aquina and his wife, Carmen Aquina. The couple moved to Sitges in 2015 from the Netherlands to give their two sons, then 12 and 13, an international experience, he says.

The family rented for two years “to make sure that everything would go well with the kids,” says Aquina, a 63-year-old retired businessman. Then he and his wife, now 57, paid about $2.8 million in 2017 for a 7,000-square-foot, four-bedroom house on a ½-acre lot in a gated community near the city’s premier golf course, Club de Golf Terramar.

Ben and Carmen Aquina are selling their four-bedroom Sitges home for $5.79 million. PHOTO: ANTHONY PEREZ FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
The renovated open-plan kitchen and dining area of the Aquina home. PHOTO: ANTHONY PEREZ FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

They spent more than $3 million on a gut renovation of the three-level property, originally built in 2004, adding everything from a new kitchen and upstairs terrace to a new outdoor pool.

“We love Sitges,” says Ben Aquina. “Life is so nice; the climate is perfect.”

Now that their sons are attending universities in Amsterdam and Rotterdam, the couple has listed the home for $5.79 million, with Rachel Haslam of Lucas Fox handling the sale. They plan to downsize locally to an apartment, as well as spend more time back in Holland.

At their current asking price, the Aquinas would just about break even, but many Sitges lovers are willing to take a loss, says Jordi Carbonell, sales director for Barcelona’s surrounding areas at Engel & Völkers Spain.

Carmen Aquina, 57, and her husband, Ben Aquina, 63, plan to downsize to a Sitges apartment from their 7,000-square-foot home. PHOTO: ANTHONY PEREZ FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

Catalonia led the way in the industrialisation of Spain in the 19th century, and Sitges became a spot for Catalan magnates to build lavish summer villas, often in a style associated with architect Antoni Gaudí up the coast in Barcelona. Still expensive to buy, and often very expensive to modernize, they typically need a new kitchen and new air-conditioning system, and even a new roof, requiring a total investment of almost $10 million to $11 million, says Carbonell. New owners may never resell for that price, he adds, “but some people just love these properties.”

Carbonell says the highest square-foot prices can now be found on Passeig Maritim, the palm-lined boulevard bordering the beach. In 2023, Lucas Fox sold a 1,930-square-foot contemporary apartment on the boulevard’s continuation, Passeig de la Ribera, for $1.6 million, or $831 per square foot, far exceeding the resort’s average.

Both the Tantows and the Aquinas were drawn to the community’s proximity to Barcelona—“Sitges wouldn’t be Sitges without Barcelona,” says venture capitalist Martin Tantow, who says the family relies on direct flights from Miami and California. But they also use it as a getaway to the nearby Penedès wine region, home to Catalonia’s sparkling Cava wines.

Carbonell says Sitges-bound buyers who want more land often head up to Penedès, where luxury properties can come with stables and tennis courts. Meanwhile, budget-minded international buyers who want access to Sitges but more space for their euro are increasingly heading a 15-minute drive away to nearby communities, Sant Pere de Ribes, closer to the vineyards, and Vilanova i la Geltrú, a small city down the coast, where “you can spend 450,000 euros on a home but still enjoy Sitges on the weekends,” he says.

Mary Anne Gibbons and Michael Healy, a couple in their early 70s from Washington, D.C., recently capped off an Iberian holiday with a first-time visit to Sitges, opting for an Oliver’s Travels villa near Sant Pere de Ribes, where they paid around $1,400 in total for four nights in a three-bedroom renovated stone house.

Intending to use the setting as a base for discovering Barcelona, Gibbons says they opted most days to hang out in Sitges instead.

“It’s a really cute town with a very relaxed atmosphere,” says the attorney, who enjoyed the seafront promenade and quaint shops and cafes. “Very chill.”



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I.M. Pei was the confident visionary behind such transformative structures as the Bank of China Tower in Hong Kong and the Louvre Pyramid in Paris, but he was also humble, and for years resisted a retrospective of his work.

Pei, a Chinese-American architect who died in 2019 at 102 , would always protest any suggestion of a major exhibition, saying, “why me,” noting, too, that he was still actively at work, recalls his youngest son, Li Chung “Sandi” Pei. A decade ago, when Pei was in his mid-to-late 90s, he relented, finally telling Aric Chen, a curator at the M+ museum in Hong Kong, “all right, if you want to do it, go ahead,” Sandi says.

A sweeping retrospective, “I.M. Pei: Life Is Architecture,” will open June 29 at M+ in the city’s West Kowloon Cultural District. The exhibition of more than 300 objects, including drawings, architectural models, photographs, films, and other archival documents, will feature Pei’s influential structures, but in dialogue with his “social, cultural, and biographical trajectories, showing architecture and life to be inseparable,” the museum said in a news release.

As a Chinese citizen who moved to the U.S. in 1935 to learn architecture, Pei—whose full first name was Ieoh Ming—brought a unique cultural perspective to his work.

“His life is what’s really interesting and separates him from many other architects,” Sandi says. “He brought with him so many sensibilities, cultural connections to China, and yet he was a man of America, the West.”

Facade of the Bank of China Tower in Hong Kong in a photograph commissioned by M+ in 2021.
© South Ho Siu Nam

Pei’s architectural work was significant particularly because of its emphasis on cultural institutions—from the East Building of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., to the Museum of Islamic Art in Doha, Qatar—“buildings that have a major impact in their communities,” Sandi says. But he also did several urban redevelopment projects, including Kips Bay Towers in Manhattan and Society Hill in Philadelphia.

“These are all places for people,” Sandi says. “He believed in the importance of architecture as a way to bring and celebrate life. Whether it was a housing development or museum or a tall building or whatever—he really felt a responsibility to try to bring something to wherever he was working that would uplift people.”

A critical juncture in Pei’s career was 1948, when he was recruited from the Harvard Graduate School of Design (where he received a master’s degree in architecture) by New York real estate developer William Zeckendorf.

With Zeckendorf, Pei traveled across the country, meeting politicians and other “movers and shakers” from Denver and Los Angeles, to Philadelphia, Washington D.C., Boston, and New York. “He became very adept at working in that environment, where you had to know how to persuade people,” Sandi says.

During the seven-year period Pei worked with Zeckendorf, the developer fostered the growth of his architecture practice, supporting an office that included urban, industrial, graphic, and interior designers, in addition to architects and other specialists, Sandi says.

When Pei started his own practice in 1955, “he had this wealth of a firm that could do anything almost anywhere,” Sandi says. “It was an incredible springboard for what became his own practice, which had no parallel in the profession.”

According to Sandi, Chinese culture, traditions, and art were inherent to his father’s life as he grew up, and “he brought that sensibility when he came into America and it always influenced his work.” This largely showed up in the way he thought of architecture as a “play of solids and voids,” or buildings and landscape.

“He always felt that they worked together in tandem—you can’t separate one from the other—and both of them are influenced by the play of light,” Sandi says.

View of the National Center for Atmospheric Research, on the mesa, in a photograph commissioned by M+ in 2021.
© Naho Kubota

Pei also often said that “architecture follows art,” and was particularly influenced by cubism, an artistic movement exploring time and space that was practiced in the early 20th century by Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque, and the sculptor Jacques Lipchitz, among others. This influence is apparent in the laboratory at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colo., and at the Everson Museum of Art in Syracuse, N.Y. “Those two buildings, if you look at them, have a play of solid and void, which are very cubistic,” Sandi says.

Yet Sandi argues that his father didn’t have a specific architectural style. Geometry may have been a consistent feature to his work, but his projects always were designed in response to their intended site. The resulting structure emerged as almost inevitable, he says. “It just was the right solution.”

Pei also intended his buildings “not only to be themselves a magnet for life,” but also to influence the area where they existed. “He never felt that a building stood alone,” Sandi says. “Urban design, urban planning, was a very important part of his approach to architecture, always.”

After he closed his own firm to supposedly “retire” in the early 1990s, Pei worked alongside Sandi and his older brother, Chien Chung (Didi) Pei, who died late last year, at PEI Architects, formerly Pei Partnership Architects. Pei would work on his own projects, with their assistance, and would guide his sons, too. The firm had substantial involvement in the Museum of Islamic Art, among other initiatives, for instance, Sandi says.

Working with his father was fun, he says. In starting a project, Pei was often deliberately vague about his intentions. The structure would coalesce “through a process of dialogue and sketches and sometimes just having lunch over a bottle of wine,” Sandi says. “He was able to draw from each of us who was working on the project our best efforts to help to guide [it] to some kind of form.”

The M+ retrospective, which will run through Jan. 5, is divided into six areas of focus, from Pei’s upbringing and education through to his work in real estate and urban redevelopment, art and civic projects, to how he reinterpreted history through design.

Sandi, who will participate in a free public discussion moderated by exhibition co-curator Shirley Surya on the day it opens, is interested “in the opportunity to look at my father anew and to see his work in a different light now that it’s over, his last buildings are complete. You can take a full assessment of his career.”

And, he says, “I’m excited for other people to become familiar with his life.”