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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.
Cava – Spain’s answer to champagne – is grown largely in the Penedès region, which also produces quality white wines and sturdy reds. “Cava” simply means cellar, and was the word chosen when the French objected to the word champagne. The eminently drinkable, and very affordable, sparkling wine is usually defined by its sugar content: seco (literally “dry”) has around half the sugar of a semi-seco (“very sweet”). In addition to selling cheap bottles of bubbly, the region’s famous bodegas often offer informative tours and tastings, and are located in stunning properties, attractions in themselves. Most can be found in the Penedès region near the town of Sant Sadurní d’Anoia, about 30km west of Barcelona, and easily accessible via the highway that zips right past it. The countryside around Vilafranca de Penedès, 15km southwest of Sant Sadurní, is also dotted with wineries, including wine giant Torres. There are regular trains from Estació-Sants Barcelona to Sant Sadurní (40min) and Vilafranca de Penedès (50min).
Around 35km west of Tarragona lies one of Spain’s emerging wine regions, the Priorat, which was awarded its DOC in 2001. The red wine produced here, and in the adjacent Montsany DOC, is highly sought after, and the cellers have started to follow their more established competitors in La Rioja by cashing in with wine tours and tastings. The turisme in Tarragona has up-to-date information, or you can try the local office in Falset (Mon–Fri 9am–3pm & 4–7pm, Sat 10am–2pm, Sun 11am–2pm; t977 831 023, wturismepriorat.org). Most tours cost €5–7, and many have English-speaking guides – reservations are essential.
La Conreria de Scala Dei c/Mitja Galta 32, Scala Dei, just south of La Morera de Montsant t977 827 027, wvinslaconreria.com. This established winery, named after the Carthusian monks of Scala Dei, offers tours through its cellars and vineyards followed by tastings. Book tours in advance, via phone or website. Tours €10. Mon–Fri 11am–5pm, Sat & Sun 11am–2pm.
Costers del Siurana Camí Manyetes, Gratallops t977 839 276. This highly regarded winery offers tours through the cellars, and also runs the charming, small Cellers de Gratallop restaurant nearby, which serves regional cuisine – and Priorat wine, of course. Call or email ahead to enquire about tour hours and prices.
LLEIDA (Lérida), at the heart of a fertile plain in inland Catalunya, has a rich history. First a municipium under the Roman Empire and later the centre of a small Arab kingdom, it was reconquered by the Catalans and became the seat of a bishopric in 1149. Little of those periods survives in today’s city but there is one building of outstanding interest, the old cathedral, which is sufficient justification in itself to visit. Several interesting museums and a steep set of old-town streets will easily occupy any remaining time. Rooms are easy to come by, and the students at the local university fill the streets and bars on weekend evenings, including at the breezy Plaça de Sant Joan, in good-natured throngs.
There are few ruins more stirring than the Monestir de Poblet, lying in glorious open country, vast and sprawling within massive battlemented walls and towered gateways. Once the great monastery of Catalunya, it was in effect a complete manorial village and enjoyed scarcely credible rights, powers and wealth. Founded in 1151 by Ramón Berenguer IV, who united the kingdoms of Catalunya and Aragón, it was planned from the beginning on an immensely grand scale. The kings of Aragón-Catalunya chose to be buried in its chapel and for three centuries diverted huge sums for its endowment, a munificence that was inevitably corrupting. By the late Middle Ages Poblet had become a byword for decadence – there are lewder stories about this than any other Cistercian monastery – and so it continued, hated by the local peasantry, until the Carlist revolution of 1835 when a mob burned and tore it apart. The monastery was repopulated by Italian Cistercians in 1940 and over the decades since then it’s been subject to continual – and superb – maintenance and restoration.
As so often, the cloisters, focus of monastic life, are the most evocative and beautiful part. Late Romanesque, and sporting a pavilion and fountain, they open onto a series of rooms: a splendid Gothic chapterhouse (with the former abbots’ tombs set in the floor), wine cellars, a parlour, a kitchen equipped with ranges and copper pots, and a sombre, wood-panelled refectory.
Beyond, you enter the chapel in which the twelfth- and thirteenth-century tombs of the kings of Aragón have been meticulously restored by Frederico Marès, the manic collector of Barcelona. They lie in marble sarcophagi on either side of the nave, focusing attention on the central sixteenth-century altarpiece.
You’ll also be shown the vast old dormitory, to which there’s direct access from the chapel choir, a poignant reminder of Cistercian discipline. From the dormitory (half of which is sealed off since it’s still in use), a door leads out onto the cloister roof for views down into the cloister itself and up the chapel towers.