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Tarragona impressions

By JJ White
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Twenty-five years ago I first set eyes on Tarragona, the city of eternal spring. That's what the Romans called it, though I don't know if they were referring to the weather, which is mild the whole year round,  or perhaps a sort of energy microclimate that acts as a “fountain of youth”. In any case I fell in love with the city's beauty, history, the sights, sounds and smells and laid down my roots in this sunny Mediterranean paradise.

Historical center of Tarragona
Historical center of Tarragona

The cathedral bells chime seven, and I can hear the street sweepers making their way along the towering Roman wall towards the plaça Sant Joan, where the orange trees and the flowers bask in the morning light. I roll out of bed, shower and get dressed and wander out into the medieval labyrinth of the “old town”, to my favorite café (El Solet) overshadowed by Tarragona's gothic cathedral. There on the terrace, over coffee and a sandwich, I wonder about the masons who sculpted those gargoyles and faces into its complex stonework. And here I sit, eight hundred years later, in complete awe of its solemn beauty.

It's Wednesday and the farmers are selling their fresh produce in the plaça del Forum,  where Roman Tarragona's administrative buildings were located and some ruins still remain. There is a continuous flow of friendly banter between the clients and vendors. You're not just buying fruit and vegetables. It's like going to a laugh therapy session with a psychologist. The market is even larger and more animated on Saturday.

the magnificent cover of the Tarragona markethall
The magnificent cover of the Tarragona markethall

How about fresh fish for lunch?, …. Sea bass?... Maybe sardines, which are considered the tastiest in all of Spain. No, I think today we'll have squid with potatoes in a chocolate, paprika, garlic sauce with fresh peas. I walk down through the city, crossing the Rambla Vella, then the tree lined Rambla Nova (a pedestrian thoroughfare), then by the statue of the heroes of 1811, commemorating those who died in defense of the city during the French assault of the Napoleonic Wars. I work my way over to the plaça del Mercat in front of the central covered market. Constructed in the early 20th century in the modernist style with twisting ironwork and vaulted ceilings, it houses a hustle and bustle of fishmongers and butchers and an array of shops selling cheese and cured sausages, olives and salted cod, fruit and vegetables and cafés and restaurants. A great place to have a beer with friends, or even better, the market plaza is lined with terraces for tapas and drinks.

After the squid and a delicious bottle of Priorat, a brief siesta was absolutely necessary, but not too long because there's an interesting art exhibition in the port of Tarragona in Tinglado #2 (a wharf warehouse) that I don't want to miss. I decide to take the long scenic route along the beach (Miracle) in the warm and salty afternoon breeze, blowing away the remnants of those Priorat dream clouds. I occasionally glance up at the arches of the Roman ampitheatre just below the city walls. Out to sea, the shimmering sunlight reflects its abstract illuminations across the ship's hulls, back dropped by an endless expanse of electric blue as the sea meets a cloudless sky.

El Serrallo Tarragona s fisherman neighborhood
El Serrallo Tarragona s fisherman neighborhood

The exhibition was wonderful, but after the walk, I was ready for some refreshment, and no better place in this part of the city than the Serallo. I arranged to meet with Noèlia here in the fisherman's neighborhood with the “Llotja”, where the fresh fish is auctioned daily except on Monday.

When I first came to Tarragona twenty-five years ago, you could see the fishermen and their wives mending the nets on the wharf in front of their docked boats. Today the area is filled with bars, restaurants and fountains. If you want a good fish restaurant, this is the place, with prices for all wallets.

In the evening, a good place to start is the plaça de la Font.  Built on the remnants of the Roman Circus, this is the social hotspot of Tarragona with a fury of bars and restaurants under the watchful eye of the city hall, looming at the far end. The city has a rich nightlife with dance clubs, music bars and theaters.  My favorite places are: 12 Topos, the Groove, the Cau, but the list of options is endless and for all tastes.

human towers tarragona
Human towers in Tarragona

The city explodes into a giant fiesta for Sant Magí and, more importantly, Santa Tecla (the patron saint of the city). For two weeks the city goes crazy with processions, fireworks and an overall excess of drunken debauchery, leaving your senses reeling for weeks after. The festival has its origins in medieval times, when the relic of poor Santa Tecla’s arm was supposedly brought back from present day Armenia after paying a hefty price of 200 horses, 1000 cheese wheels and a golden throne. Apparently this wasn't enough for the whole skeleton, but no problem. When they marched her arm into Tarragona, (or someone else's arm) the people went crazy with elation and have recreated this epic moment ever since.

I love the size of Tarragona which is about 130,000 which means that you have everything that a city has to offer, but without the aggravation that a city the size of Madrid or Barcelona can cause. It's small enough to run into familiar faces often, but large enough to be anonymous if you so choose. More importantly, you are right by the sea with its nurturing and healing powers and not more than twenty minutes from the mountains of the Mussara or the Serra de Prades, where you can scour the hills for wild mushrooms in the fall, or wild asparagus in the spring.

   There are some beautiful hikes starting from the city, of which my favorite is along the Francolí River out to the Roman aqueduct “el pont del diable”.  Also, a walk along the beaches and rocky formations of the coast through the “bosc de la Marquesa” is breathtaking. An interesting walk is that to the Loreto caves, that were Roman quarries for the construction of Tarragona. The “Mèdol” near Altafulla was the largest Roman Quarry and is well worth the visit.

   I once heard that the greatest traveler is the one that has no clear plan or expectations, just wanders where desire, intuition and circumstance takes them. Discover what life has to offer with open arms and an open mind. Explore and get lost in Tarragona, and you'll find its cultural wealth and beauty at every corner. Enjoy!

Try our Tarragona highlights tour and discover Tarragona.

JJ White
Born: Philadelphia 1966 Masters of Prehistoric Archaeology, Oxford University Artist: exhibitions in the United States, Japan, Switzerland and Spain. Musician (singer/ songwriter)

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