Tarragona, history and culture on the Spanish seacoast

Photo by Karen Bradbury
Photo by Karen Bradbury

Tarragona, history and culture on the Spanish seacoast

by Karen Bradbury
Stripes Europe

If I had the good fortune to work as a tour guide in the Spanish city of Tarragona, I would likely start my tour from atop the 14th-century Pretori Roma tower. 

From the viewing platform above this sturdy medieval tower that once served as the residence of a royal family, my guests would no doubt be entranced by the 360-degree view that met their eyes. 

We would look across the patchwork of terracotta roof tiles toward the magnificent St. Thecla Cathedral, consecrated in 1331. Lording it over the highest point of the city, it occupies the site of a former Roman army barracks and formed the core around which a prosperous Roman city was to gradually develop. 

We would next cast our glances to the ancient city wall, built by the Romans beginning in the 2nd century B.C. to protect Taracco, the oldest Roman settlement on the Iberian Peninsula and the capital of Hispania Tarraconensis, one of three Roman provinces in Hispania from 27 BC–459 A.D.

Photo by Karen Bradbury

We would then turn our attention to the other things the Romans left behind: directly below us the circus, where chariots used to race, and the amphitheater, where gladiators fought their fellow man and beasts of the wild. 

Still looking down at the amphitheater, we would fast forward to January 21, 259 A.D., when Fructuosus, the city's bishop, was burned at the stake alongside his two deacons for refusing to recant his belief in the Christian God. We'd then gaze at the remains of the church erected at the site of their martyrdom. 

We would look out towards the bustling, hard-working port whose original contours were part of the reason the Romans took interest in the area to begin with. 

If the day was a warm one, I'd end by pointing out the palm-lined beach with its golden sands at our feet, and suggesting a swim in the clear turquoise waters. 

As I'm only a guide in my dreams, I will instead say how pleased I was to stumble across Tarragona, a city of 100,000 residents located some 45 miles south of Barcelona along the Costa Daurada. 

When a dismal weather forecast made a late-season Alpine hiking adventure seem like a bad idea, a last-minute change of plan was called for. Little did I suspect Plan B would deliver me not only to such an amazing place, but at the perfect time as well.

Photo by Karen Bradbury

My visit happened to coincide with La Tecla, the city's major festival of the year. For 10 days, the city's residents young and old enjoy music, processions, pyrotechnics and a street party atmosphere. 

While Covid downsized the festivities and an online ticketing system designed to cap visitor numbers limited my chances to see as much as I would have liked, I still managed to hear the traditional music and admire the gigantic papier-mache figures who perform their set pieces in rituals dating back centuries. 

Another extraordinary stroke of luck was to have showed up just in time for European Heritage Days, when Tarragona’s numerous UNESCO World Heritage List sites opened their doors for free.

Tarragona's size and vibe proved the perfect counter to Barcelona's capacity to overwhelm and a typical beach resort town's lack of history and culture. 

Other things to recommend the area include its proximity to PortAventura World, Spain's largest theme park, and the Paredes Mountain range, where active vacationers can find trails, canyons and sheer rock walls waiting to be explored. 

Those after a sunny spot in which history, culture, nightlife and beaches so happily comingle would do well to put Tarragona on their must-visit list. 

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