Imagine a scene from a Pedro Almodóvar movie — narrow, cobblestoned lanes lined with faded buildings festooned with laundry, balconies spilling over with red flowers, children playing soccer, a cat napping on a ruddy stone wall, the distant melody of a piano — that’s what Tarragona looks like. You can literally smell the Mediterranean in the air.
Located on Spain’s pristine Costa Daurada, the ‘golden coast’, named so because it’s bathed in sunshine, Tarragona is a perfect time warp. The sparkling Mediterranean forms the stunning backdrop to this ancient Roman city, where history is very much alive. I walk through the town with our guide Paco Tovar, a passionate local who recalls how, in the nineties, when the city council decided to apply for Unesco World Heritage status, many people wrote letters to newspapers, thinking Tarragona would be a laughing stock. But their fears were allayed when Unesco recognized the true significance of the city’s ruins and its rich history got a fresh lease of life. “Tarragona is like an onion,” Paco tells me, “where you have to peel away successive layers to discover true character and beauty.”
A good way to start exploring the town is to begin at the gates of the old city, still lined by ancient fortified walls and tall ashlars. To put the past and present in context, Paco shows me a model reconstruction of ancient Tarragona in its formidable heydays, housed in the Museum of History. Tarragona was called Tarraco when, during the Punic Wars, the Romans built it as a military camp, attracted by its benign Iberian climate. Like all Roman cities, it has a forum.
It was the first Iberian city where the wealthy Romans built a port, temples to worship their gods, and an amphitheatre. Tarragona was a focal point of Roman power for many years, and a buzzing port which exported olive oil, wheat and wine. After the Romans left, it became a sleepy backwater town in the shadow of its glitzy neighbour, Barcelona. Today, the fringes of the town are lined with chemical and oil refineries that strike a discordant note in a place so steeped in history.
Walking by old stone buildings and shabby apartments, we reach the tree-lined Plaça del Rei, where the toll of church bells is a constant soundtrack. The centrepiece of the square is the King’s Castle or the Tower of Pilates, which morphed into different avatars over the years — from a royal residence in the Middle Ages to a notorious prison in the years of the Civil War. Criss-crossing past tightly packed and narrow streets, and old wooden doorways and ochre buildings with ornate wrought iron balconies sporting the Catalonian flag in its vivid shades of red and yellow, we reach the honey-coloured cathedral towering above the city. Built out of mellow sandstone and marble, it’s located on the site of an ancient Roman temple and a Moorish mosque, and adorned with beautiful sculptures made by Mestre Batomeu in the thirteenth century. They say the cathedral of Tarragona was never finished because a large part of the population perished in the Plague and resources dwindled. The church is dedicated to a local girl, Santa Tecla, who is honoured as Spain’s first martyr.
From the cathedral, we detour through the atmospheric fourteenth century arches of Carrer Merceria, with pillars set on an incline, which used to be a farmers’ market. Paco tells us about the unique Tarraco Viva Festival, held in the third week of May every year, which is dedicated to the Roman Age — there are gladiator fights, acrobatics, theatre, and art and craft demonstrations, even Roman cuisine. “If you really want to experience the Roman times, you have to come then,” he says.
Tarragona, like many ancient cities, was dismantled by its citizens for building anew. Pilfered material was used to construct new structures so that, over time, many buildings had a collage of stones from different periods, like the layers of a cake, offering a historic timeline! For me, what really distinguished the town from other Unesco sites is the way in which the vestiges of ancient ruins and Roman arches have been incorporated into present-day buildings, even into the basements and cellars of apartments, homes and offices. I peer through the glass doors of the Caixa Bank, amazed to see an ATM machine placed nonchalantly near ancient stone walls and arches, a part of the foundations of the Roman circus. Beneath the Archaeological Museum is the entrance to the old Roman circus built by Emperor Domitian, through which spectators would have walked in two thousand years ago. I see the massive stone walls and ruins of the Provincial Forum in the middle of a square, with children riding their cycles through its portals. Talk about rubbing shoulders with history. Bits and pieces of the Roman civilization entrance me at every point: I touch rough stones with the names of Roman masons engraved on them, inscriptions embedded into the walls of homes, even love poems composed by the ancients. I am fascinated by the sight of medieval staircases under modern glass floors, and massive stone foundations that could be thousands of years old.
I reach the living room of Tarragona next: Plaça de la Font, lined with cappuccino bars and tapas restaurants serving local specialities like salted cod, Romesco sauce (a distinct sauce made with seafood, nuts, tomatoes, olive oil and garlic), allioli (a thick sauce made of garlic and olive oil), and bread smeared with olive oil and tomato (pa amb tomàquet in Catalan). Children play football and skate, shoe shops and souvenir stalls do brisk business, and fluttering pigeons rule the roost over what was once the centrestage of the circus and the chariot racing track. Plaça de la Font, with the City Hall, is the focal point of Tarragona today; it’s also the place where speeches and protests are held.
Paco tells me about growing up in this ancient city — he recalls playing football with his classmates among the ruins, and tells me the story of a lady who bought an old apartment and found a stone bench in the middle of her living room. She wondered about its peculiar placement till she realized that the windows of her apartment faced the Roman amphitheatre! I walk through that amphitheatre, an elliptical structure built into the slope of a hill with great views over the Mediterranean. A basilica was built over this amphitheatre in the sixth century, to honour the death of a bishop and his deacons, who were burnt alive, and it became a church in the twelfth century. The amphitheatre had to be partially rebuilt as a lot of it was broken up and used to construct the port. Standing in the middle of it, I can’t help but imagine Romans in togas, the gladiators and the speeding chariots, the clang of metal and the roars of the bloodthirsty crowd — a scene straight out of a historical blockbuster.
There is, of course, more to the town than just the Roman ruins. Prepare to be awed by Tarragona’s strong artistic vibe, expressed as graffiti, street art and murals painted on buildings, hidden in dark alleys and bricked-up windows. My favourite is the street where every traffic post has been painted in bright colours by an unknown artist, with accompanying graffiti on the walls. I see posters and souvenirs of the iconic castellars everywhere — Tarragona is famous for its human pyramids or towers, up to five storeys tall, built by people called castellers, who dress in trademark red and white striped shirts. They come together in groups called colles to build these human spires, which are based on qualities of trust and cooperation.
The city has fifteen kilometres of coastline which I discover, donning my helmet and perfecting my sense of balance on a fun tour of the city by Segway — I find beaches filled with schoolchildren on field trips with their teachers, warehouses called tinglados, which have been converted into galleries and shops, and the Port Museum showcasing maritime history and fishing techniques.
I love the ambience of El Serrallo, the district of the sailors and fishermen, the latter repairing their nets before heading out to sea, and the Church of Sant Pere here. El Serrallo is also dotted with seafood restaurants and open-air dining.
Come evening, I walk down Tarragona’s broad, tree-lined avenue, the Rambla Novas, a pedestrian street that has fountains and statues as well as flower sellers, quirky art galleries and lively cafés. I walk to the end of the street to a promenade lined with palm trees, called the Balcón de Europa, a point with panoramic views of the city and its beaches. I look into the wine-dark expanse of the Mediterranean, the golden sands of the Miracle Beach, the ancient amphitheatre to my left, and the bustling, modern port on my right. Paco says I have to touch the iron grills of the balcony; locals believe that tocar ferro (touching iron) brings luck. I think of the cargoes of yore — shiploads of wine, wheat and olive oil transported to Rome. I think of the seamless blend of the ancient and the modern in Tarragona.
Tarragona is 60km from Barcelona, which is connected by direct flights (Rs 50,000-Rs 70,000) from major Indian metros on several airlines, including Lufthansa, Emirates, KLM Royal Dutch and Air France. Take a RENFE train from Barcelona to Tarragona, or a bus.
A Schengen visa for Spain can be obtained from VFS (vfsglobal.com/spain). A tourist visa costs Rs 4,277 for adults.
Where to stay
Hotel Ciutat de Tarragona (from €109 for doubles including breakfast; +34-977250999, hotelciutatdetarragona.com) is modern and luxurious, and located just five minutes from the city centre, in the same building as the bus station. The Husa Imperial Taracco (from €102 for doubles; hotelhusaimperialtarraco.com) is a classic hotel that overlooks the Roman amphitheatre.
What to see & do
The best way to see Tarragona is on foot. Start at the gates of the Old City and visit the Museum of History to see a model of the ancient city. Afterwards, walk to the Cathedral and then Plaça del Rei, and spend time at the Archaeological Museum and the old Roman circus. Walk to the Plaça de la Font and City Hall. Also walk along the Rambla, and then down to the amphitheatre. Take a trip to see the Roman-era Devil’s Aqueduct on the outskirts of town, and another to see the monastery of Poblet, one of Spain’s largest and a Unesco site, about 50km from Tarragona. Take a trip to Port Aventura, one of Europe’s largest amusement parks. Segway is a tour with a twist (about €49 for 90min; segwaytarragona.es). Pick up some Cava, the local sparkling wine, and shop for ceramics, pottery and espadrilles.