About an hour’s drive from the spires of the Sagrada Familia there’s a little enclave laden with history which goes by the name of Tarragona. In this city, which is situated on the beautiful Catalan coast, you can still see the legacy left by the Roman Empire.
If you fancy a short break from the noisy crowds of Barcelona, this small but fascinating place is well worth a visit. It’s one of the most important historical centres in Spain and in Europe, due to the wealth of beautifully conserved Roman treasures that remain there.
The city’s Roman roots
Tarragona made its historical mark in 278BC when it became the first military base in the province of Spain. But today it’s more famous for the archaeological finds which are incredible to say the least. Centuries-old stadium walls are so well-conserved that on some pieces of rock you can still see the monograms of the slaves who built it. There’s also a Roman circus with a labyrinth of well-preserved underground passageways, a beautiful amphitheatre overlooking the sea with the remains of a Visigoth basilica at the centre and a wealth of museums, inscriptions and parts of antique pavements. With all this, it’s no wonder it was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2000.
But Tarragona isn’t a city that lives in the past. On the contrary – it’s the past which lives in the present. As you head towards one of the numerous local bars, there’s a good chance you’ll catch sight of a deserted Roman column or step on pavement previously marched on by legionnaires going towards new conquests.
‘The balcony of the Mediterranean’
The second city of Catalonia is known as ‘the balcony of the Mediterranean’ and indeed it is, quite literally. One of the city’s main streets, the Rambla Nova, ends with a long ledge where you can pause to look out onto the expanse of sparkling sea. Nearby you’ll find plenty of bars and restaurants with outdoor tables, taking advantage of this prime waterfront location.
Tarragona is the perfect place to enjoy the delights of the Mediterranean way of life. Sip on a glass of vermouth (the typical drink) accompanied by the time-honoured Tarragonese tapas dish – bread smeared with olive oil and tomato (pa amb tomàquet in Catalan). Other favourites include potatoes covered with a tomato salsa (patatas bravas), or grilled sardines (sardines a la plancha). You can’t leave without going to the port (Moll de Pescadores) to try the fried fish and a delicious plate of toasted noodles drizzled in a garlic and oil sauce (rossejat de fideos). There are also many modern restaurants, especially at Plaça de la Font, where Mediterranean and contemporary cooking are intertwined.
During the summer the beaches invite you to bask in the sun and lounge languidly in one of the many beach bars where you can eat tapas and drink beer until your heart’s content. But don’t rule out a visit in the winter. Thanks to the mild temperatures that grace the region for almost the entire year, a visit in February, when you can witness the ritual of the calçotada, is a must. Calçots are at type of sweet onion which sprout in winter, and it’s fair to say that they’re the object of worship throughout Catalonia. Locals eat them grilled and doused in a Romesco sauce (also very typical of Catalonia). Eating calçots is a very social affair, as groups of friends often come together to enjoy this delicacy washed down with a good bottle of regional wine.
Medieval, Modernista and traditional
Tarragona’s architecture represents the past 2000 years of its history. Despite being a small city, it vaults effortlessly from Roman to medieval – the Gothic cathedral a perfect example of this period, located on Pla de la Seu which is home to a vibrant food market on Sundays. The Catalan movement of Modernisme is also evident, with numerous buildings on the Rambla Nova the work of famous architects, such as Gaudí and Domenech i Mutaner. But the real jewel in the Modernista crown is the beautiful Teatro Metropol, designed by Maria Juiol (1807-1949).
Proud of its traditions, Tarragona is a city rich in cultural events which occur throughout the year. Look out for the famous human towers (castellers) which take place particularly during the summer season. The dizzying heights they reach are truly spectacular.
The city is constantly on the move, and in 2017 there will be another reason to go – Tarragona, having beaten the Egyptian city of Alexandria to the post, has been selected to host the XVIII Mediterranean Games.
From Barcelona, you can reach Tarragona by train (Renfe) which departs from the centrally located Sants station (taking 40 minutes to one hour, depending on the type of train you take). By car the cities are linked by the AP7 motorway (about 80km from Barcelona) and it is only 7km from Reus airport.