Ancient Tarragona’s Tarraco
I really liked the city as soon as I arrived, despite being late at night. I wasn’t expecting a night tour of the city, yet here I was guided by Iulian, a Romanian compatriot, my host for the 2 nights I spent here.
He lived in Tarragona for quite some years now so he got me deeper into the secrets of Tarraco, the ancient Roman city. We’ve started with the old centre by going up and down on the cobbled streets, giving me bit by bit more information over its past. Our night tour ended up with the harbour in the opposite side of the town so by the time we got back it was already 2 AM.
The following day I started all over again with the city centre so I could also visit it properly. Now as I like walking and discovering the cities not necessary by maps, I walked quite randomly so I don’t necessary recommend you to take my route if you’re not the discoverer type.
Let me tell you a bit about its history so you can understand better its importance of the local history. Tarraco, the ancient Tarragona, is the first Roman settlement in The Iberian Peninsula. Due to its strategic location it soon became the capital of the Roman province of Hispania Citerior. With more than 2000 years of history ends up controlling vast territories of the Northern and Southern Spain from Galicia to the North-West to Murcia to the South-East. Pretty much all the city is protected as everywhere you turn you can see traces of Roman activity. The Roman city walls, a forum, a circus, a theatre, an amphitheatre, a basilica or an aqueduct are just few of the examples of the things you can visit here.
Let’s walk a bit through the city now. My first stop was at Balcon del Mediterraneo, just at the end of the Rambla Nova. Positioned on a high level of 40 m above the sea, it offers a view over the sea and nearby costal landscapes.
I continue my path through a little garden and descend to the amphitheatre. Like any other Roman amphitheatre, this one as well took advantage of the surroundings and was built in the slope to offer great acoustics. It is quite preserved and many of its chambers are visible. With a capacity of 14.000 spectators was hosting gladiator fights was clearly one of the main attractions of the population.
Climbing back up I am to enter the old city and just like any other ancient and then later medieval town, it has rather low buildings of 1-2 floors with occasionally stores or bars at the ground floor, on the narrow streets.
I reach el Foro provincial or what is left of it actually, the portico of one of the buildings. This area offers a vast plaza which nowadays is filled with cafes and bars, the nightlife of the city cherishing here in the weekends.
Continuing my path I reach the Hospital de San Pablo y Santa Tecla which was funded in 1171. There is no concrete information regarding its original architecture, today being visible only the main façade and 2 smaller arches of the western side. The capitals are decorated with geometric plant life forms
Very nearby is the Cathedral which was built in the same place of a Roman temple. It is built in the superior city, on high grounds, in the area dedicated to the cult. The construction started in the 12th Century with a Romanic style, followed by the Gothic one until the black pest came and left the work unfinished in 1331. As I was in town on Sunday, I got to walk through an open market in the square just in front of it.
I could not visit El Castillo del Paborde, of which only the northern façade still stands on, yet I had a walk along its walls. The initial Roman walls from the 2nd Century B.C. were surrounding the city on a 3.5 km distance, while today only 1 km of it remained. The walls are the oldest Roman construction still conserved situated outside Italy. Between the 16th and 18th Century the walls were improved by having added merlons and crenellations to strengthen the defensive system. The Passeig Arqueologic offers a walk within history to to its informative panels along the way.
La Maqueta de Tarraco, a miniature 3D model shows the Romn city at its peak level of splendour and richness of the 2nd Century. With a free entrance here, you will definitely manage to have a great overview of what Tarraco was in its glory times.
The medieval city was surrounded by Roman walls this maintaining the insides in a good condition, reinforced here and there with several towers. The Mur Vell, or Old Wall (the 12th Century one), was partially conserved. In the 14th Century the walls were enlarged including the old Roman circus area through Muralleta or the Small Wall, visible next to the Saint Hermenegild vaults.
El Pretorio, just nearby the circo was allowing the passage between the lower city and the Foro principal, through its underground passages. It had many usages afterwards, perhaps the most important ones being a palace or a prison.
El Circo romano was the building dedicated to the horse chariot competitions, had a capacity of 30.000 people. Built in the first century it is located surprisingly inside the city walls and so it is one of the most conserved circus of the Western side of Europe.
I didn’t reach the harbour again during the day, yet El Serallo plays an important role in the life of Tarragona. With a quite big and important harbour of the area, the fishing culture could not miss. In this part you’ll find many fish and sea food restaurants and a market from where nonetheless you can buy fresh products.
As such kind of activity couldn’t miss from an ancient city, every year Tarraco Viva gathers people from all around Spain and not only to a Roman festival., The history in May here gets alive through the men wearing costumes of Roman clothes and presenting and representing the life of ancient Tarraco. The festival started in 1999 and offered ever since much information about the military and daily life, about the legions, theatre, gladiators, food, writing, engineering, fashion or homes.
A particular celebration of Tarragona is its concurso de castells, human towers. As I’ve been told in the warm season starting with June to October it can happen many times, without a specific occasion. If you see a bunch of people coming together seeming like a crowd, it’s more likely soon you’ll see people appearing on top of each other.
This tradition has more than 200 years of history, being present in the majority of the regional festivities. The castells season ends at the beginning of October when the best groups of Catalunya gather here in Tarraco Arena Plaça and compete to see which one gets the higher tower, with the most people.
Just so you get an idea and plan soon your trip here:
The tourism section online of Tarragona had me also quite impressed: full of details, tours, options to spend the time here, lodging, interactive maps, calendar of main activities and many, many other. Take a look here and you’ll see it for yourself that the city worth the time.
What I really liked was the App they offer that gets you back in the past and allows you to relieve the shows and glory of the theatre and of the Roman life with 3D animations. You can download it for free even now.
Tarragona played an important role in the history and from the short but lovely time I had here, I’d definitely put it on the list of visiting places in Spain.