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.