Spring and summer getaway to Tarragona

'Tarraco, praeteritum et praesens'

Our aim for the two days we'll be spending in Tarragona is to get an idea of its splendid Roman past. The city has riches enough to justify multiple visits, and when you leave here you're sure to start looking through your agenda trying to find a return date. That's why we want to focus especially on exploring the Roman city of Tarraco. We'll always have other opportunities to discover its other charms, its squares, its ancient streets... The Costa Daurada has been populated by civilizations that have left a mark that endures to today, and that is especially the case of Tarragona.

Morning day 1: Ave Tarraco!

© Ivan Rodon

It probably won't be news to you that the monumental ensemble of ancient Tarraco is one of the most complete and interesting ones, not only in this country, but in the whole of what used to be the Roman Empire. It has been declared a World Heritage Site by the UNESCO and, to get an idea of the splendour of the original city, which traces its origins in a fortress set up here by Gnaeus Scipio in the year 218 BC, start your itinerary by checking out the scale model made by local artist Elies Torres depicting the city at its moment of maximum splendour in the 2nd century BC. To do so, head for Plaça del Pallol (where there are remains of the Provincial Forum, including the gate, the arch and the pillars of the Ancient Temple or worship area). The model is made to a scale of 1:500, and is the second largest scale model of the Roman world after that in Rome.

Nearby there is the Passeig Arqueològic, which conserves a good stretch of the Roman walls and a counterwall dating from the 18th century. In the 2nd century BC, the original Roman wall measured four kilometres in length and encircled the whole city, but today there remains little more than one kilometre. The stretch on Passeig Arqueològic has well conserved locks, two small gates and a gateway for road traffic, the only one of its kind that remains in Tarragona. There are also three towers, on one of which, known as the Minerva or Sant Magí Tower, we can find the oldest Roman sculpture and inscription in the Iberian Peninsula.

Our next stop is the Cathedral, where we'll explore the Provincial Forum and the Temple of Augustus.

As we walk there, we can feel the quality of the light and see the ochre coloured stone, extracted two millenniums ago from the Mèdol quarry, all around us. The Provincial Forum was divided into two squares, and we are now in the top one, which was surrounded by a portico, fragments of which still remain in the cloister of the Cathedral. We can quietly explore the cathedral, the construction of which was begun in the twelfth century and which is marked by the transition between Romanesque and Gothic styles. It is one of the emblems of Tarragona.

But let's return to the time of the emperors. The so called Roman Route of Tarragona will now take us on a visit of two locations in the Provincial Forum, the Plaça del Fòrum and the Plaça del Rei. The lower square was an immense rectangle, probably filled with gardens and statues, the remains of which can now be found in different places, including Plaça del Pallol, where we began our itinerary. In Plaça del Fòrum we'll find an angled wall. The Pretori, a tower that was the King's castle during the Middle Ages, was also part of the Forum ensemble, and affords magnificent views of the city.

Now, we'll head for the Roman Circus by way of a 93 feet long corridor with a barreled vault. This was used by those who were waiting to appear in the arena to drive a biga (a chariot pulled by two horses) or a quadriga (pulled by four horses). A part of the stands is still visible today, from which we can imagine the races that have appeared so often in films. Also of interest are the Towers of Sant Hermenegild and Enrajolat. Much of the site, however, now lies under the buildings of the surrounding streets, which were raised in the nineteenth century.

There can be no better way to finish off the morning than by visiting one of the city's most famous buildings, set beside the sea - the Amphitheatre. Its location and its state of conservation, together with the historical moments it has seen, make it one of the most commonly portrayed sites in Tarragons. If we listen carefully we may still be able to hear the cries from the arena as fierce animals and gladiators do battle and public executions take place. When the Roman Empire was coming to an end, in the year 259, this site saw the martyrdom of Saint Fructosus and his deacons. A Visigoth basilica was built here in the sixth century, as was the medieval church of Santa Maria del Miracle.

It might now be time to stop and refresh ourselves with a glass of vermouth. The town hall has started a promotion called Feel Vermut, with the aim of promoting this local custom and there is a programme of activities taking place on Saturdays and Sundays from March to the beginning of September. After our drink, it's time for lunch and the upper part of Tarragona has plenty of restaurants serving good food.

Afternoon day 1: Mosaics and Tarraco Viva

© Rafael López-Monné

After lunch, when the sun is at its hottest, it's time to head for a museum which will keep us in touch with the city's Roman heritage. At the National Archaeological Museum of Tarragona, you'll find mosaics which were once the floors of many of the wealthy houses in urban villas, which thanks to being protected for decades by the museum, are still in good condition today. Some are masterpieces, such as the mosaic of Medusa in Room III, or The Fish, a spectacular piece that is 6.25 metres long and 4.30 metres wide, with up to 47 depictions of marine life from the Mediterranean Sea.

Once we are outside again, in Carrer de Lleida, we can walk around the remains of the Local Forum, and, heading away from the city centre a little, seek out Avinguda Ramon i Cajal and Parc Central, where we'll find the Paleochristian Necropolis and the Paleochristian Ensemble of the Francolí. In the third century AD there was a cemetery here that became important when the remains of San Fructuoso were deposited here, and two basilicas and mausoleums were built. Part of the Necropolis is open to visits, and you can also enter the museum where local archeological finds are on display.

The icing on the cake for our Roman day in Tarragona is provided by one of the acts scheduled as part of Tarraco Viva, from the 5th to the 25th of May. This is an international cultural festival dedicated to divulging the history of the Roman Era. Check out the programme - the performance "Augustus, the power of the mask" is particularly recommended.

Morning day 2: Tarragona and the sea

© Joan Capdevila

This morning we'll take a break from exploring ancient stone. After all, we mustn't forget that the city is located on the Costa Daurada and also has plenty of beautiful beaches and coves. So, we'd like to invite you on a seaside excursion to explore them. We suggest hopping on a train and getting off at the station of Altafulla-Tamarit. From the station, head for Altafulla Beach, and from there start walking south back to Tarragona. In this way, we'll walk a good stretch of the Camí de Ronda coastal path. The first point of interest is the mouth of the Gaià River, which tends to be the calmer in its last stretch and is populated by many species of ducks and birds. In the distance we'll start to make out the castle of Tamarit, a private establishment reserved for parties and celebrations. After Cala Jovera there are some beautiful stretches of coast, dotted with small huts. The path goes around Mora Point and reaches the fragile, valuable ecosystem of the Marquesa woods, and then two coves - Cala Bec and Cala Fonda. At Crueta Point there beings a long beach called Platja Llarga which finishes at the rocks of Morrots and the small Capellans beach. We'll still find a few beaches before reaching the city, including Platja Savinosa and Platja de l'Arrabassada. Our walk finishes at Punta Grossa.

The best way to finish off our seaside morning is to head for Tarragona's maritime district, Serrallo, for lunch. This is like another world, living life at its own pace. Choosing a restaurant won't be easy since there are more than twenty. There are few better neighbourhoods for eating fresh fish. After lunch, we can see the fish auction, which is done mostly by machine these days and has little in common with the shouts and wars of numbers of the not too distant past.

Afternoon day 2: Patrimony beyond the walls

© Manel R. Granell

We're sorry to leave Tarragona, but to make our farewell less painful, we can stop off at some of the sights from the Roman period that can be found a few kilometres from what was once the great city of Tarraco. We'll have to leave the attractive towns of Centcelles and Vila dels Munts for another time and head for the Ferreres Aqueduct, of which 200 metres are still left of its original length of nearly 15 kilometres. Like the amphitheatre or the Cathedral, it's one of the best known and most photographed sights in Tarragona. It's also known as the Devil's Bridge and was originally used to channel water from the Francolí River to the city. If we take the N-340 highway, the ancient Via Augusta, we'll find, at a distance of six kilometres from Tarragona, the Escipions Tower, a square shaped sepulchre with a number of sculpted figures and inscriptions. Two kilometres further on, on the Via Augusta, you'll come across the Médol quarry. This is where all the stone that went to build the city of Tarraco came from. You'll notice the spectacular Mèdol Needle, a 16-metre-tall monolith that serves as an indication of the height at which the material started to be extracted from. And the famous Arc de Bera, a simple but special structure, and probably the most valuable historical monument in the country, which is located in the middle of a roundabout, and seems to be the exit gate from the world that we have visited these days and seems to be saying "see you soon" as you look back and see it disappearing in the rearview mirror.


Cultural venues

Torredembarra lighthouse

This is a relatively new landmark that came into service on January 1, 2000. It’s the last lighthouse built in the Spanish state in the 20th century, and it was designed by the architect Josep Maria Llinàs. Its height is 58 metres above sea level and 38 metres above ground, with a geographic reach of 20 miles. This lighthouse has the tallest tower of all the lighthouses in Catalunya.

  1. Av. de la Galera - Passeig del Roquer, 43830
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Roman villa of Munts

This Roman villa is located in Altafulla, 12km from Tarragona, and is one of the most important Hispanic complexes of its type. An important residential town, with rich decorative elements, it demonstrates what the residences of high-level administrators in Tàrraco were like.

  1. Passeig del Fortí, s/n, 43893
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Can Bofill

This old house, surrounded by palm trees and located at the end of the Passeig Marítim in Torredembarra, was built at the start of the 20th century by some summer residents of the town, and it’s currently the headquarters for the management of Areas of Natural Interest of the Muntanyans.

  1. Passeig Marítim, s/n, 43830
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Tarragona Cathedral, Cloister and Diocesan Museum

The Cathedral, dedicated to Santa Tecla, stands at the highest point of the city, and was consecrated in 1331. It’s worth visiting to see the cloister, an exceptional architectural and sculptural ensemble dating from the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. The Diocesan Museum has a remarkable collection of tapestries.

  1. Pl. Pla de la Seu, s/n, (Tarragona)
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National Archaeological Museum of Tarragona

This is the oldest archaeological museum in Catalonia and an important centre for the recovery, conservation, research and dissemination of the heritage of the Roman city of Tarraco and its area of influence. On display are numerous pieces from the Roman era and the mosaics are considered to be of special value. Other sites also make up the museum, including the Roman villas of Munts and Centelles.

  1. Pl. del Rei, 5, (Tarragona)
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Roman Amphitheatre

Possibly the best known image of Tarragona is that of its amphitheatre beside the sea. Oval in shape and with the stands sculpted into the rock, it was the venue for gladiatorial combats between men and men and men and animals, as well as for public executions. A Visigoth basilica was built here in the 6th century and it was also the site of the construction of a later medieval church.

  1. Parc de l'Amfiteatre romà, (Tarragona)
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Praetorian Tower and Roman Circus

A visit to two of the most important constructions that remain from the Roman period. Firstly the circus, built in the first century AD with an estimated capacity for 30,000 spectators. While a lot of it is now buried under the streets of the city, some of the original construction is still visible. It is connected by underground passageways to the Praetorian tower, which housed the stairs that allowed people to pass from the lower city to the provincial forum, and which, in the sixteenth century, became the palace of the kings of the Crown of Aragon.

  1. Pl. del Rei - Rambla Vella, (Tarragona)
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