With the nickname “City of Eternal Spring” Tarragona seemed a good location to experience our first Carnival.
You can find Tarragona, by car, 1 ½ hours south of Barcelona or 2 ½ hours north of Valencia. Current population is about 140,000 and it is located on a part of the Mediterranean called the Costa Daurada (Golden Coast). Temperatures have been a pleasant 60-70°F (15-21°C) the entire month of March so we have put most of our extra layers of clothing away.
Carnaval de Tarragona 2019
Carnival began this year on February 22nd and ended on midnight, March 5th (Fat Tuesday). We arrived in Tarragona on February 28th, mid way through Carnival so as soon as we finished settling in to our Airbnb, we headed out to the streets following the sound of music and quickly found ourselves immersed in the lively and colorful Carnival revelry.
During Carnival the streets were filled with vibrant colors, people in costumes, music and the throbbing of drums celebrating the festival of the ‘King of Debauchery’. Carnival participants and spectators of all ages were wearing their carnival ensembles and were in high spirits enjoying the festivities.
We generally witness such zeal and involvement by most citizens of Spain when it comes to any and all fiestas and love how everyone joins in the playfulness, dons their costumes and continues the traditions. They have an admirable joie de vie!
Bajada del Pajaritu
The highlights of this satirical Carnival festival are the long parades on the final Saturday and Sunday and the Crema del Ninot i la Ninota – the burning of the stuffed Carnival King and concubine figures at the festivities end. There are, however, quite a number of other events. We watched an amusing Bajada del Pajaritu translated as ‘odds & ends’ event one morning. The streets were lined with bales of hay to cushion the inevitable tip-overs and crashes.
The wheeled-karts were similar to our North American home-made go-karts made of odds & ends, but this was not a race. Instead this competition allowed for only one fully costumed team at a time to go careening down a steep, narrow and winding street, ending up, hopefully in one piece, in front of the judges.
Casa de la Festa
Another event we were able to attend was the ‘Casa de la Festa’ a hilarious play dealing with the Carnival King’s funeral service. All spoken in Catalan but we certainly had no problems understanding the message. Be warned, you may not want to look too closely at the photo of the dead King of Debauchery.
Desfile Carnaval (parade carnival)
Without a doubt the highlight of Carnival is the float-filled parade on Saturday night. Although the floats were charmingly pulled along by tractors, reminding us we were in a smaller community, the parade was spectacular nevertheless. Each float was decorated with multiple lights and a riot of color, with upbeat, feel-good dance music blaring off the back of the float for the 50 and more dancers and performers following behind. The headdresses were stunning, some taller than the wearers themselves and the face makeup beautifully creative. The dazzling array of costumes included black widow spiders, clowns, dragonflies, centaurs, mock baseball diamonds, samurais, medusas, praying mantis, German beer maidens and so many more. There were also dozens of costumes similar to the kind you see at Carnival in Brazil that were sensational.
Crema del Ninot i la Ninota
The Burial of the Carnival King is held on the final night and what an experience it was. Due to the death of the King, although a satire, it is supposed to be a somber event, and the main actors play their parts well when once again they paraded through the streets. This time however they are accompanied by large mythical creatures that shot fireworks and sparklers continually and in all directions. Parade goers jumped back 10 feet or more each time a lion, ox, dragon, griffin or phoenix headed towards them (and us) spewing fireworks. We have a few spark marks on our jackets and backpacks to commemorate our attendance.
There is of course so much more to Tarragona than carnival and we wanted to record a few other highlights.
Sometimes when we have no expectations, we are completely taken by surprise. The Cathedral of Tarragona is large and magnificent, both inside and out. We were impressed in terms of the labeling of the chapels and artwork throughout the cathedral – the best and clearest descriptions with accompanying photos, we have found in any Church, Basílica or Cathedral anywhere in Spain.
A Roman temple once stood here, followed by a Visigothic cathedral, then a Moorish mosque and in 1154, the Archbishop ordered the Cathedral of Tarragona to be built on this popular site. There are an amazing 19 chapels inside this magnificent Cathedral as well as a beautiful Cloister and the excellent Diocesan Museum.
The Diocesan museum displays renaissance tapestries and Roman artifacts recovered during excavations at the cathedral between 1999 and 2001. They also show a number of paintings from the 12th, 13th and 14th centuries that we particularly enjoyed. The hour or so we spent here was well worth our time and, without a prior commitment urging us along, we could have easily doubled that time.
Balcón del Mediterráneo
Each city we stay in we invariably find a favorite or most memorable destination or plaza or walk and in Tarragona, the outdoor balcony overlooking the Mediterranean became one of our favorite places to walk to.
The Balcón del Mediterráneo can be found at the end of the lovely wide tree-lined street named Rambla Nova. It is a wonderful location to feast your eyes on the sensational views of the Mediterranean Sea, scan the beaches and check out the ever changing ship traffic.
El Serrallo: An Old Fishing Village
El Serrallo is an old fishing village found just south of the Balcón del Mediterráneo. We enjoyed our leisurely stroll on the promenade and admired all the various ships and boats in the harbor. It was recommended to us to have a meal in the village as the restaurants offer the very freshest of seafood available. We chose our restaurant with a perfect view and ordered the baked dorado to share. The fish was baked inside a salt crust, keeping it tender and moist. So incredibly delicious and not at all salty. We have been enjoying dorado for months and just today learned it is also known as mahi-mahi. No wonder it is so good!
Museu d’Història – Casa Castellarnau
Casa Castellarnau was built in the early 15th century and has been renovated many times, but it was the excavations in 1993 that discovered that Casa Castellarnau was built within the administrative square of the Provincial Forum of the Roman period that we found intriguing.
This casa-palace once was a royal residence as well as a home for many wealthy and influential Tarragonian families over the last 500 years. Today, however, it houses the History Museum of Tarragona showcasing a wealthy home with period furniture, decorations, architectural details and impressive paintings, including on the ceilings. It also has an alleged ghost that likes to occasionally play the piano.
If you know us you may know we enjoy trying new foods and flavors. Calçots (pronounced cal-sots) are harvested between late February and the beginning of April is this region of Spain and therefore a coveted seasonal delicacy.
Calçots are large green onions, that look similar to thin leeks, are traditionally roasted in their skins over wood-fires and then served with a romesco sauce made with nuts, garlic and olive oil. What an amazing combination – they are delicious! We easily found a recipe online and baked them in the oven in the apartment. We tried dipping them in both a romesco and simple pasta sauce and thought the calçots paired nicely with both.
A calçotada party is when you gather some friends and eat these delicacies accompanied traditionally with red wine from a ‘porron’, a wine pitcher with a long spout that you’re supposed to lift above your head and pour into your mouth, never touching the spout to your lips. It is highly recommended you wear a bib when attending a calçotada.
Concurs de Castells
The art of building human towers has been around for more than 300 years and it all began in Tarragona. We had seen photos in a number of cities in Southern Spain advertising this Catalonia art / sport. When we learned Tarragona was the birthplace of castells we were excited to be able to see our first castell. However, much to our disappointment, this is only a summertime activity and is performed at various summer festivals. Castells are so unique they have been declared a UNESCO world heritage ‘Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity’.
So we must wait for an opportunity to witness live castell’s forming and dismantling. But, in the meantime, each day we go out in Tarragona, we walk past this most interesting statue called ‘Monumento a Los Castellers’ located in the center of our favorite street, Rambla Nova.
Tarragona has been a city full of surprises. The entire carnival was such fun to be a part of and like most spectators along the parade route, we too had slipped into costume. We are so pleased we added this Catalonian city to our agenda and we will have much more to share in a future blog.
Salud from these tarragonians,
Ted & Julia