Welcome to Colonia Julia Urbs Triumphalis Tarraco. Better known to us today as Tarragona, it is one of the world’s most spectacular still- standing Roman cities.
Situated in Catalunya, on the North-Eastern coast of Spain, both the stunning location of this 2,200-year-old city and the abundance of its monuments, attract and fascinate visitors from all over the modern world.
In Tarragona, there is hardly a moment during one’s stay when Rome and its lifestyle don’t, in some way, impinge upon your daily activities. You sit down on a huge granite slab – then note that it’s part of the old Roman wall. You pass some workmen repairing the drains under the pavement under the supervision of a young archaeologist; she’s making sure that they don’t damage the remains of the Tribune’s circus-side box that’s down under. Having a drink at a table in a plaza? Then you’re actually enjoying it while sitting on part of the old ceremonial forum, or even right over the middle of the circus track! You notice that the Rambla Vella (the Old Boulevard) is as straight as an arrow – this is not surprising since below it is one of the long sides of the chariot-racing circus; you’ll certainly have gasped as you visited the circus’s vaults down below the modern city.
Moreover, if you’re learning Latin, French or Spanish you’ll be familiar with the sounds of much of the language you hear around you, which is latinate Catalan; you can use French or Spanish here and be understood, and the locals will really appreciate your attempts at speaking either language.
Before the Romans arrived, this area of today’s Spain was the home of an Iberian tribe called the Cessetani; the Carthaginians passed through here, too. The Roman city of Tarraco, today’s Tarragona, stands on the site of Iberian Cissa, the tribe’s most important settlement.
In 218 BC, at the beginning of the second Punic war between the Romans and Carthaginians, Gnaius Cornelius Scipio disembarked further up the Spanish coast at Ampurias (a Greek colony that was an ally of Rome). Together with his brother Publius, he destroyed Cissa and rebuilt it as Tarraco, which he founded as the principal winter base for the Roman armies in Spain (then known as Hispania).
It later became a Roman colony under Julius Caesar (see name at beginning of this article) and then, under Augustus, who convalesced from illness at Tarraco during the second of his military campaigns in North-Western Spain (26-25BC), it became the capital city of the great Roman-Spanish province of Hispania Tarraconensis.
It was Augustus who initiated the great urban monument – building programme, and the city continued as a booming centre until the mid-third century AD, when it was sacked by the Franks. Tarraco then lost its capital status to Tolosa (today’s Toulouse, across the Pyrenees).
When you arrive, if you take Carrer Mayor (Main Street), the original uphill access route to the imperial complex, you’ll soon come to the Placa del Font, where there is a selection of recommended, cheap places to stay, as well as some budget-priced eateries. From here you can easily arrive at the Tourist Office (outside the city walls) where you can obtain maps and an all-inclusive ticket to monuments that charge for entry (remember that on the continent, all museums and galleries are closed on Mondays).
These walls are a sensible place to begin your tour of Tarraco . Not only do you get a splendid view of the modern city and surrounding countryside, but you are also walking alongside the original Iberian and third-century BC Roman foundation stones of the city wall. Note the trademarks of the different Roman stonemasons on many of the stones near the entrance, also the encouragement to Bibe e fontis salutis (“drink from the fountain of health”) inscribed on the pathway water fountain. Wine was drunk on a daily basis in Roman times, it was more easily available than water, so this fountain would have been a welcome treat.
After leaving the great walls, it makes sense to see the other areas that are up here on the highest point of the city. The great Temple of Augustus and its surrounding complex stood where today’s Cathedral is situated. The Cathedral itself is mediaeval (begun in the mid-12th century) but in the cloister – entrance at side of cathedral – you can see some of the Roman temple’s portico and other remains. In ancient times, this acropolis must have been impressive for returning, tired fishermen who had a boatman’s eye-view of home (and Roman power!) from the coastal waters. If you are up here on a Sunday morning, you can browse the stalls of the antiques market (books and memorabilia), which are set up in several streets that stand in the former Provincial Forum; you’ll notice a few Roman archways still standing here.
Make your way downhill, following the signs to the National Archaeological Museum, a treasure-house of Roman Tarraco. Allow a few hours here to see pottery, sculptures, mosaics, architectural fragments, even a part of the original Roman wall itself. Next door is the History Museum, which has a very explicit model of Roman Tarraco that really does show how little the ancient city plan has changed over the centuries. We’re walking around many of the same streets, just a few metres higher! Take the lift to the rooftop, for a panoramic view of the city and coast.
When you move through from this museum to the Circus (first century AD) and step down into the vaults (they were possibly first used as a grain store before becoming part of the circus) you are in the very foundations of Roman Tarraco. At ground level you can see, though not access, part of the original stands where the 14,000+ spectators yelled support for their favourites in the quadrigae (4 horse) and bigae (2 horse) chariot races. Much of the rest of the circus still exists, but it is underneath those blocks of 19th century flats that are opposite! A few more parts can be seen in nearby streets and along Carrer d’Enrajolat, above Placa del Font.
When you leave the Circus you’ll be very close to the Amphitheatre, which was also built for an audience of about 14,000 persons. With the Mediterranean behind it, it is an impressive sight, even though its history is that of indescribable suffering. It was built at the beginning of the second century and altered in 221AD, during the time of the young Emperor Elagabalus. A large section of the cavea (seating) is still here, and you can walk around these steep, original structures, with the sea on one side, the arena on the other.
Before you leave, take a walk down into the arena and visit the remains of the 12th century church that replaced the original 6th century basilica on the site. That first church had been built by the 6th century Visigothic Christian community in memory of the Bishop of Tarragona, Fructuosus and his deacons Augurius and Eulogius who, in 259AD, were all condemned to be burnt alive in the amphitheatre during the third century persecutions of Christians. The events were recorded by an accompanying eyewitness (“when night fell they [the Christian community] hurried into the amphitheatre with wine, in order to extinguish the dead bodies, still smoking…” Passion of Fructuosus, 6 ).
If you want to spend time on the beach, you can easily access it from here by walking in either direction along the promenade for about 15 minutes until you come to a turning towards the sea.
Down in this flat area below the new boulevard (Rambla Nova) with its choice of outdoor restaurants, cafés and shops, there are other interesting sites to visit – Tarraco was said to have 250,000 inhabitants at one time, and, in true Roman fashion, the authorities catered for every aspect of their lives. Whilst the Provincial forum in the temple complex of the Imperial Cult on the acropolis was for the formal rituals of Emperor worship, this local forum was the hub of commercial and social activity. If you’re now on the Rambla Nova, with the beach behind you walk along until you reach Carrer Canelles on your left, turn down here and continue straight until you reach the two parts of the forum. Although you have to do a bit of mind-stretching in order to imagine the temples, portico and shops that once provided the meeting place for Tarraco’s residents, you can still see (on either side of the road) remains of columns, inscriptions, a water cistern – part of a town house/office – and house foundations. When you leave here, get back onto Carrer Soler and after two blocks you will see the Roman theatre on your left; archaeological work is in progress and public access may be restricted when you visit, but the view from above includes a wide section of the cavea.
You are now not far from the harbour area, Serrallo, built a century ago, but now modernized and a favourite of locals and visitors around the time of the early afternoon main meal because of its trendy restaurants. The Romans were the first to build a sea-wall and a tower-lighthouse in this area (the ruins of the latter were visible until the mid-18th century), since Tarraco was the principal northern port of entry for the wine, olives and wheat from Southern Spain, Italy and North Africa.
This fish/seafood restaurant area is expensive and you might prefer to buy a drink here and try to get into one of the (few) cheaper places in the back streets. For budding marine archaeologists and others, there’s a great little shop along this front, that sells all manner of aids, maps, instruments and books, whether your underwater interest is ruins or oceanography.
From Serrallo, it’s about a 20 minute walk to the interesting Roman Necropolis Museum, which houses the findings from Paleochristian burial sites from the 3rd to the 8th centuries. The Necropolis itself is next door (just outside the ancient city) but has been closed for some time with no date set for reopening.
You should not leave Tarragona without visiting the nearby Les Ferreres aqueduct (its colloquial name is “the devil’s bridge”), one of the Roman city’s two main carriers of water from the River Gayo, 30kms away. When you leave the Necropolis Museum, walk along Carrer Ramon i Cajul towards the centre of town and look for a number 5 bus stop. The 10 minute ride will take you to a pretty wooded picnic park, from where it’s a five minute walk up to the aqueduct, then you can walk out along a part of the upper channel.
As at the other Roman sites in Tarragona, as you stand on the aqueduct you will not be bothered by mass tourism, history is the prime attraction in this city; even the beaches are visited by the locals rather than by many visitors.
The good news for visitors is that Tarragona is easily accessible. Low-cost airlines fly into nearby Reus and Barcelona, the airports of Valencia and Girona are a 2-hour train ride away, and both the Spanish train company, Renfe and the Alsa bus network, run along the Mediterranean coast from Cartagena in the South to Montpellier (just over the border in France) in the North. All these cities offer ancient Roman (and sometimes Greek) sites and museums of their own, so that you can, if you wish, totally immerse yourself into antiquity from the moment of arrival to departure time! On arrival in Tarragona, the bus station is a 12-minute walk from the centre and when you alight from the train it’s a 7 minute journey along a street and up a flight of steps.
Tarragona hopes to become the European City of Culture in 2016, so get there before the crowds do!
Have a good trip! Iter felix! ¡Buen viaje! Bon Viatje! Bon voyage!