It’s a gorgeous vision; one that is lodged in the memory and resurfaces from time to time, when I’m daydreaming about those heady, optimistic days of overseas travel.
There is, in my mind’s eye, a provincial Catalonian flag, striped red and yellow and quivering in the gentle breeze against a backdrop of light blue sky and the calm, navy blue waters of the Mediterranean.
In the foreground, and acting as the icing on the cake of this particular sun-soaked memory, is a half-ruined sandstone amphitheatre. It dates back to the second century AD, when Tarragona — or Tarraco as it was called — was one of the most important ports in Hispania (as the Romans knew the Iberian Peninsula).
These days this seaside city lives in the shadow of Barcelona, which sprawls by the coast 100km to the north and has thrived as one of Europe’s biggest tourist magnets. But if you have a spare day in your itinerary, a penchant for history and culture and fancy taking a breather from the visitor hordes, Tarragona is worth the diversion from the Catalonian capital.
You can get here by road or rail in about an hour, while some cruise ships — such as the one we’re on, Viking Jupiter — include Tarragona on certain Mediterranean voyages.
The aforementioned amphitheatre, which used to attract up to 15,000 spectators for its gladiatorial contests, is one of the UNESCO World Heritage-listed relics scattered about the city. Most are within strolling distance of each other in Tarragona’s compact historic centre, although arguably the most striking of all is the formidable aqueduct, which looms on the city’s northern outskirts and bears the moniker: the “Devil’s Bridge”.
Meanwhile, mosaics, sculptures and other excavated ancient Roman finds are showcased at the National Archaeological Museum of Tarragona, one of the oldest museums in Catalonia. To see the people of Tarragona paying homage to their Roman heritage, coincide your trip to the city with Tarraco Viva, a fortnight-long festival normally staged annually in May.
Crowds don togas and other costumes of yesteryear and partake in revelry-fuelled events such as gladiator fight simulations, theatrical monologues, musical concerts and Roman cookery workshops. A good deal of wine is also quaffed.
While Tarragona is proud of its Roman roots, the city isn’t wedded to its ancient past. A stone’s throw from the old Roman circus, where horse and chariot races were once held, you’ll find dozens of lively bars, cafes and restaurants where locals live in the moment, socialising (and squabbling) over football and politics — and tucking variously into coffee, pastries, beer, wine, tapas and seafood (much of it sourced from the fishing boats that glide in and out of El Serrallo, a long-time maritime district).
Go for a mosey around the historic quarter, which is edged by the crumbling ruins of medieval walls and towers, and you’ll see enticing spots to sit down for refreshments. Sheltered by awnings, tables and chairs spill out onto sidewalks and squares, notably on Placa de la Font, a handsome spacious rectangle by the town hall.
It’s a five-minute walk from Tarragona’s imposing cathedral, which was constructed in the 12th century and sits on the grounds of a former Roman temple and later a mosque built by the Moors (one of a clutch of civilisations to occupy the city in the post-Roman age). Al fresco venues, as well as shops and banks (with ATMs), can also be found strung along La Rambla Nova, a wide tree-and-bench-studded boulevard that runs inland for just over a kilometre from Balcon del Mediterraneo, an elevated observation deck-cum-promenade that grants lovely sea views.
Tarragona’s La Rambla is a bit different from Barcelona’s. You can normally navigate its traffic-free central strip without being pestered by touts and getting flustered by the presence of hundreds of other tourists.
You will, though, likely be stopped in your tracks by the Monument to Castellers. This lofty bronze sculpture — crafted by Catalan artist Francesc Angles i Garcia — comprises dozens of characters in a huddle supporting a teetering mass of figures. This celebrates the tradition of human towers (castells). A feature of Catalan culture that symbolises togetherness, it’s believed to have begun in the Tarragona province more than 200 years ago. This practice endures, most dramatically at the Santa Tecla Festival, another of Tarragona’s cherished gatherings. Toasting Catalonian heritage and honouring the city’s patron saint, it’s due to be held again, all being well, in September 2021.