Sited on a rocky hill, sheer above the sea, TARRAGONA has a formidable ancient past. Settled originally by Iberians and then Carthaginians, it was later used as the base for the Roman conquest of the peninsula, which began in 218 BC with Scipio’s march south against Hannibal. The fortified city became an imperial resort and, under Augustus, Tarraco was named capital of Rome’s eastern Iberian province – the most elegant and cultured city of Roman Spain, boasting at its peak a quarter of a million inhabitants. Temples and monuments were built in and around the city and, despite a history of seemingly constant sacking and looting since Roman times, it’s this distinguished past which still asserts itself throughout modern Tarragona.
Time spent in the handsome upper town quickly shows what attracted the emperors to the city: strategically – and beautifully – placed, it’s a fine setting for some splendid Roman remains and a few excellent museums. There’s an attractive medieval section, too, while the rocky coastline below conceals a couple of reasonable beaches. If there’s a downside, it’s that Tarragona is today the second-largest port in Catalunya, so the views aren’t always unencumbered – though the fish in the Serrallo fishing quarter is consistently good and fresh. Furthermore, the city’s ugly outskirts to the south have been steadily degraded by new industries – chemical and oil refineries and a nuclear power station – which do little for Tarragona’s character as a resort.
It’s not often that you’ll come across a group of grown men and women who willingly climb onto each other’s back to form a tall, if a bit wobbly, human tower. But when you do, it’s a sight to behold. Catalunya’s famous castellers – teams of people competing to build human towers – originated in Valls, near Tarragona, at the end of the eighteenth century. Over time, the rest of Catalunya embraced the tradition, and castells now form a part of festivals throughout the region. The impressive castells can loom up to ten human storeys tall, and are completed by a small child scrambling to the very top.
Castells are a feature of Tarragona’s annual Festival of Santa Tecla in mid-September. To learn more about the history, pay a visit to Tarragona’s Casa de la Festa, Via Augusta 4 (end June to end Sept Tues–Sat 11am–2pm & 5–9pm, Sun 11am–2pm; rest of year Tues & Wed 9am–1pm, Thurs & Fri 9am–1pm & 5–7pm, Sat 10am–2pm & 5–7pm, Sun 11am–2pm; free; t977 220 086). The Festa Major of Vilafranca del Penedès in late August also showcases castells.