We stepped back 2,000 years in time when we arrived in this ancient Roman capital called Tàrraco.
In 218 BC, at the beginning of the Second Punic War, the Romans invaded the Iberian Peninsula creating a military base and port that would eventually give rise to the city of Tàrraco. It took some time however, before the Romans were able to defeat the native Celtiberian tribes, claim the land and name Rome’s newest province, Hispania.
It is believed that Julius Caesar visited Tàrraco at least once and in 45 BC, granted it a ‘colony’. In the 1st century BC, Tàrraco became the capital of Tarraconensis, the northern region of Hispania and is believed to be the oldest Roman settlement in Spain. For more than 500 years the Romans ruled and prospered in this region and today there are at least 14 protected sites, in and around the old Roman city of Tàrraco, listed together as one UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Tàrraco was the Roman name for this ancient city; today it is called Tarragona.
In 27 BC, Julius Caesar’s adopted son and heir, Emperor Augustus Caesar moved to Tàrraco and both the city and port quickly began to flourish. Soon after his arrival the name of the longest and most important road in Hispania was renovated and renamed ‘Via Augusta’. Hispania, at that time, included modern day Spain, Portugal, Andorra and southwestern France. Roman cemeteries were located outside the city walls, often lining the roadside. In the photo below you can see how Via Augustus may have looked 2000 years ago.
Augustus died in 14 AD, after ruling the Roman empire for nearly 40 years. A temple in his memory and honor was erected in the center of the top level of the provincial forum the following year. Today the stately Cathedral of Tarragona sits on the same site where once the Roman temple dedicated to Emperor Augustus stood. Recent excavations have discovered the foundations of the Temple of Augustus buried deep beneath the Cathedral floor.
City Model of Tàrraco
With so many Roman sites worth visiting in Tarragona, we found the detailed scale model of the city of Tàrraco, built by the history museum, a huge help in visualizing Tàrraco at its peak in the 2nd century AD. An excellent place to start or end your visit as you can see each site’s location, how they relate to each other and get an idea of what they looked like when Tàrraco was at its pinnacle.
Tàrraco has been continually inhabited, and as a result, materials from these ancient buildings and walls have been removed and reused for projects and needs through the centuries. A UNESCO designation however helps protect sites from further destruction. Thus we were able to relive and experience the ancient Roman way of life at each protected site we visited.
Las Murallas Romanas + Paseo Arqueológico
The first phase of the wall was begun just prior to 200 BC and it would have been one of the first large construction projects that the Romans carried out. The completed wall was approximately 2¼ miles long (3,500 meters) built to encase and protect Tàrraco. Today only ¾ of a mile (1100 meters) of the wall and 3 towers remain. One of the towers claims to have the oldest Roman inscriptions found anywhere in Spain. Today you initially see the larger outer wall that was built between the 16th and 18th centuries to reinforce and adapt the Tarragona defenses to new forms of artillery.
The Paseo Arqueológico or Archaeological Walk, winds between the ancient Roman and the newer outer wall. Along the way there are gardens, towers and plenty of historical markers with explanations. We enjoyed a leisurely stroll along the Paseo Arqueológico, absorbing the warm spring sunshine and imagining what life could have been like so long ago.
In the second half of the 1st century AD, both the Provincial Forum and the Roman Circus were built. At nearly 20 acres, the combined complex is thought to be the largest of its kind in Spain.
The Provincial Forum was made up of two terraced squares. The upper square was surrounded by a portico and many of the columns can still be seen in the cloister of the city’s Cathedral of Tarragona. In the center of the upper square (referred to as the imperial cult complex) was where the magnificent Temple of Augustus stood. The Provincial Forum was the seat of the provincial government, the imperial worship area and the economic center of the city. The forum covered a large part of what is now the medieval city center including the site of the Cathedral of Tarragona. The lower square had a central plaza surrounded by gardens, fountains and buildings that would have housed the entire Roman administration for the province.
The Circus was the third and lowest terrace of the huge provincial forum complex. A Circus was a large open-air venue, usually oblong and used for key entertainment events. (There were similar structures in Greece, called stadia.) The Circus, built in Tàrraco in the last quarter of the 1st century AD, had a seating capacity for 30,000 spectators (Rome’s Circus could seat 125,000) and was primarily used for horse racing, battle reenactments and the most popular spectacle, the chariot racing competitions. Entrance was free and inside were places to eat, drink and make wagers.
Although we found it interesting to explore, most of the Circus lies hidden beneath the medieval city center and all that remains are sections of the walls and some of the tunnels, or vaults, that accessed the stands.
The Colonial Forum, located in the residential part of the city, was where marketplaces and shops were located surrounded by temples and public buildings. All main streets led here making it an important meeting point, place to been seen, religious and social center. Tàrraco’s Colonial forum was built in approximately 30 BC and columns of a Basilica are the best examples of the handful of ruins remaining at this location.
The Roman theater of Tàrraco was built in the lower part of the city, near the Colonial Forum, during the time of Augustus in the 1st century BC. The seating was incorporated into a natural steep rocky slope and although much of the ruins were destroyed during the 20th century, the seating and stage areas are visible. When we visited, we could only peer down into the theater ruins from a viewing platform. There were, however, both engineers onsite and a posted sign that said the site was being restored and would eventually open, combined with ancient Roman baths nearby as an urban heritage park for all to enjoy.
Plays were free in Roman times and were performed during religious ceremonies. Rome celebrated more than 200 religious days annually making it possible to ‘go to the theater’ nearly every day. Theaters were not silent, however, like today. The audience cheerfully and loudly chatted away during performances so actors pantomimed and danced using music, elaborate gestures and costumes to communicate the meanings of the plays.
The first time you spot Tàrraco’s huge 15,000 seat Roman amphitheater, you can’t help but be awestruck. With a sparkling aquamarine Mediterranean Sea on one side of the amphitheater and ancient Tàrraco on the hill above, it is a dramatic setting for this piece of Roman antiquity.
The Romans believed having a theater, circus and amphitheater were essential elements for good living. However only the most prestigious and largest of Roman settlements could boast having all three and as Tàrraco was the capital of the entire region, it of course, had all three.
The amphitheater, built in the first quarter of the 2nd century AD, was used to stage Gladiator contests, cultural festivities and public executions. One particularly gruesome execution happened in 259 AD, at a time when Christians were being persecuted. The city’s archbishop Fructuosus and his 2 deacons were burned alive in the amphitheater. Years later, when Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire, a Basilica was built in the middle of the discarded and unfashionable amphitheater and dedicated to the three martyred Christians. You can see the ruins of the Basilica on the floor of the amphitheater in the photo below.
The Early Christian Necropolis in Tàrraco, 3rd to 5th centuries AD, is the largest and best preserved as well as one of the most important burial sites of the Western Roman Empire.
Archaeological studies of these cemeteries, crypts and burial sites today provide details of ancient lifestyles including longevity, beliefs, employment and names. All of which adds to our understanding of what life was like during the Roman Empire.
Pont de Les Ferreres also known as El Pont del Diable
The Aqueduct of Ferreres was built during the reign of Augustus in the 1st century AD to supply water to parched Tàrraco right up to the 18th century. A quick 2.5 mile (4km) bus ride dropped us off on the side of the freeway. We spotted a gravel trail and followed it through the pine trees for only a few minutes before catching glimpses of the aqueduct. The aqueduct once carried water from a river almost 10 miles (15km) away. Originally 15½ miles (25km) long, the aqueduct remaining today is about 800 feet (249 m) long and nearly 90 feet (27 m) tall.
Aqueducts are truly magnificent examples of architecture. We have seen others and we think, each one is worth a visit.
Museu D’Art Modern
Juxtaposed against all this antiquity, it was time for a refreshing visual change and we chose to visit a contemporary and modern art museum.
The Museum of Modern Art was created in 1976 and specializes in art primarily created by Catalan artists from the 19th and 20th centuries. We also liked that this museum is focused and engaged on collecting art that depicts history being created around us today and that they continue to search for new contemporary artists.
Being a fan of Joan Miró we immediately spotted his work in the Museum. We learned that when Miró’s daughter had been hit by a train, the attending doctor allowed Miró to pay his medical bills with his art. The doctor asked the artist for a painting for the new Red Cross Hospital in Tarragona. That request would move Miró away from exclusively painting to creating his art in textiles. He collaborated with Josep Royo and they turned Miró’s drawings into woven tapestries. The museum has this magnificent 9’x14’ (2.80mx4.20m) Tapis de (Tapestry of) Tarragona on display.
Playa de Milagro (Platja Del Miracle)
In Spanish the beach is called Playa de Milagro and in Catalan it is called Platja del Miracle. We like the Catalan name for this beautiful beach that is overlooked by one of our favorite places, the Balcón del Mediterráneo located at the end of Rambla Nova. Local tradition says that touching the iron railings of the balcony brings good luck. So out on our strolls we would head to the balcony and try to stock up.
One day we decided it was time to get down off the balcony and dip our toes in the Mediterranean – the water was still cool. The wind was perfect creating lively 3-4 foot waves as we strolled the length of the beach. At the farthest end of the beach we stopped for a glass of tinto (red wine) that came with a bowl of tasty green olives stuffed with anchovies and a wonderful view of the beach we had just walked.
Whether a citizen today visiting Tarragona or a citizen living 2000 years ago in Tarraco, the Mediterranean Sea at Miracle Beach is consistently beautiful and alluring. Whatever the date, it is a remarkable place to watch the sun rise on a new day or enjoy the final rays of a fading sunset at days end.
Salud from these tarragonians,
Ted and Julia