Tarragona’s different layers

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Tarragona, Spain

There’s no doubt that the Ancient Romans often enjoyed the finer things in life. We know that they enjoyed watching sport, for instance, and the Colosseum in Rome is a perfect testament to that.

But in the Spanish city of Tarragona, we see evidence that the Romans took this pleasure even further.

The Tarragona Amphitheatre

It was in Tarragona that the Romans built an impressive amphitheatre in the second century AD. It is not nearly as big as the Colosseum but it is still a large structure.

What makes it particularly special, though, is the location.

It is right on the coastline, in such a way that the glint of the sun on the sea can brighten the site, that the crisp salt air can blow into the seats, and the view evokes feelings of a beachside resort.

Even two thousand years ago, people were travelling to the Spanish coast for a relaxing break.

As I stand in the centre of the arena and look around at the rows of seats surrounding me in every direction, it’s hard to believe that this important site was almost lost.

Over the centuries it was gradually filled in and built over. There was a prison on top of the amphitheatre in the 20th century and the plan was to demolish the whole site and give it over to developers.

It was mainly because of the intervention (and funding) from American philanthropist William J Bryant that the site was saved and restored.

You can access Tarragona Amphitheatre from the western end of Via Augustus. The official address is Parc de l’amfiteatre,43003 Tarragona, Spain.

You can see it on a map here.

Tarragona Amphitheatre is open in winter (1 October – 10 April) from Tuesday – Saturday: 0900 – 1900 and Sunday: 0900 – 1500. (It is closed on Mondays.)

In summer (11 April – 30 September) Tarragona Amphitheatre is open from Tuesday – Saturday: 0900 – 2100 and Saturday – Sunday: 0900 to 1500.

Entry to Tarragona Amphitheatre costs €3.30 for an adult and €1.70 for a concession.

However, I think it makes more sense to buy the combined ticket which will give you entry to four of the city’s World Heritage Site monuments and museums. The combined ticket costs €7.40 for an adult and €3.65 for a concession.

Tarraco

The story of the amphitheatre parallels the story of the whole city in some ways. To appreciate this, first some brief history.

When the amphitheatre was built, this city was not called Tarragona. It was called Tarraco and it was an extremely important part of the Roman Empire.

It was the first imperial city to be established in the Iberian Peninsula and had already become the capital for this province.

In 27 BC, Emperor Augustus based himself here during Roman campaigns on the peninsula and the city flourished because of this attention.

It became extremely wealthy because of his patronage and this continued for a couple of centuries after his death. Enormous public buildings were constructed and the city had clear sectors dedicated to religious and political activities.

But in the two millennia since then, the ancient Roman monuments were gradually built over, adapted into other structures, or pillaged for their raw building materials.

Looking at Tarragona today, you would hardly recognise the old city of Tarraco… at first. But look a bit closer, and there’s a lot of it still there.

Roman Circus

Just up the hill from the amphitheatre, about five minutes walk away, is what remains of the old Roman Circus.

This was an incredible track for chariot racing with even more seats than the amphitheatre.

In fact, the circus would have been about 325 metres long and 100 metres wide, so you can only imagine the spectacle of the huge crowds cheering in the stands.

A corner of the circus still exists and you can go inside to start to get a sense of the scale and the design. There are still some of the original tunnels that cut beneath the stands to help with the flow of spectators.

If you stand at just the right spot, you can look down the length where the track would have gone, where chariots would have raced against each other thousands of years ago.

Houses and shops now fill most of the space but, between them, there is still a straight line, some of it empty space of pedestrian malls. It’s not hard to picture Tarraco here, with Tarragona just transposed over it.

You can access the Roman Circus from the western end of Via Augustus. The official address is Rambla Vella, 1C, 43003 Tarragona, Spain.

You can see it on a map here.

The Roman Circus is open in winter (1 October – 10 April) from Tuesday – Saturday: 0900 – 1900 and Sunday: 0900 – 1500. It is closed on Mondays.

In summer (11 April – 30 September), the opening hours of the Roman Circus are Tuesday – Saturday: 0900 – 2100 and Saturday – Sunday: 0900 to 1500.

Entry to the Roman Circus costs €3.30 for an adult and €1.70 for a concession.

However, I think it makes more sense to buy the combined ticket which will give you entry to four of the city’s World Heritage Site monuments and museums. The combined ticket costs €7.40 for an adult and €3.65 for a concession.

The Roman city of Tarraco was laid out in three tiers, making the most of a natural incline on the landscape – but also accentuating it for further impact.

The circus was in the middle terrace.

On the lower terrace were administrative buildings, most of which have been lost to time.

On the upper terrace, there was a large open square – a forum – and the most important government and religious buildings. At the centre was a temple dedicated the god Jupiter.

Tarragona Cathedral

You can still make out the difference in height between the tiers of the ancient city. You can feel when you’re at the top. And, just in case you’re not sure, the Tarragona Cathedral marks the centre of this level.

The cathedral is built on the site of the original temple to Jupiter. Although almost all of that temple has gone, there is one small section of the church that has an old Roman wall enclosed within it.

The two religious buildings are quite literally connected.

But it’s the spiritual and cultural connection that I find most interesting.

It’s the focus on this spot for the most important religious structure in the city. A central gathering point for the population and their faith.

Tarragona Cathedral is worth the visit and is one of the most important sights in the city.

The oldest parts of the complex are from the 11th century and it has gradually been expanded and modified over the hundreds of years since then. The main axis is about 100 metres long and the design of the interior is a combination of Romanesque and Gothic.

As well as the main section of the cathedral, there is an adjoining cloister, which was built in the 1200s.

From the garden in the middle of the cloister, you can get a lovely view of the church’s exterior and the 70 metre-high bell tower.

You’ll find Tarragona Cathedral at the highest point of the historic centre, at the northern end of Carrer Major. The official address is Pla de la Seu, S/N, 43003 Tarragona, Spain.

You can see it on a map here.

Tarragona Cathedral has different opening hours on different days throughout the year, depending on a few factors. It is worth checking on the official site.

In general, though, Tarragona Cathedral is open between 1000 – 2000 in summer (1500 – 2000 on Sundays). In winter it’s generally open between 1000 – 1700 (closed Sundays). And in spring and autumn it’s generally open 1000 – 1900 (closed Sundays).

Entry to Tarragona Cathedral costs €5 for an adult, €4 for a concession and €3 for children aged between 7 – 16.

The Roman history of Tarragona is the foundation of the city – quite literally – and that’s why I wanted to tell you about it in this story.

You can do tours of Tarragona from your accommodation in the city or from Barcelona. There is this option of a small group tour or there is this option of a private tour.

You can also reserve an audio tour of the cathedral in advance, as another option.

However, it is worth noting that there’s a vibrant modern life here today and I have enjoyed spending some time getting to know it better.

Tarragona is close to Barcelona and easy to reach via public transport, including the high-speed AVE trains.

It’s an easy and pleasant escape from Barcelona’s tourism crowds that offers the coastline, mixed with history and great food.

The Romans were onto something when they established their first Spanish city here – and we can all still benefit from that decision.

THE BEST ACCOMMODATION IN TARRAGONA

Tarragona is much more relaxed than Barcelona and you may enjoy basing yourself here instead, at least for a night or two.

BACKPACKER

For a good budget option, I would suggest the Tarragona Hostel, which is in a great location.

BUDGET

For an affordable hotel in a good location, the Pigal, often has great deals.

HOTEL

If you’re interested in something a bit nicer, I would highly recommend Astari Hotel, which has a great pool.

LUXURY

And if you want some luxury, the best option is probably the AC Hotel Tarragona.

This is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. For more info click here. You can see all the UNESCO World Heritage Sites I’ve visited here.

Time Travel Turtle was supported by the Spanish Tourist Office in partnership with Tarragona Tourism but the opinions, over-written descriptions and bad jokes are his own.

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