Photo by Rafel Royes Lopez
Nestled along the Mediterranean coast in the lower half of Catalunya, the crescent moon-shaped comarca (county) of Tarragonès is a watery playground, as beach after sandy beach stretches away towards the neighbouring counties of Baix Penedès and Baix Camp. Its seaside geography means that it was, and continues to be, a principal site of Catalan industry (indeed, the capital city of Tarragona is still a port town, with the second-busiest shipping fleet in all of Spain), but in recent years the focus of its economy has predictably shifted from fish to tourists. And while its seemingly endless coastline makes it the ideal place for the leisurely pleasures of summer holidaymaking, the comarca’s long-standing cultural significance—most clearly manifested in its ancient and monument-laden capital—makes it a worthy tourist destination at any time of year.
The medieval period saw the rise of many of the comarca’s 21 principalities, as well as their attendant fortification; as such there are a number of impressive castells (castles) to visit, which both dominate the comarca’s towns and villages and dot its quiet, rural landscapes. Long before rival Counts of the 11th and 12th centuries built these crumbling landmarks, however, the Romans had already been and gone—but not without leaving their mark in their typically grandiose fashion. These monuments, too, are must-sees for any tourist keen to take advantage of more than the area’s sunny platjes (beaches).
The southern end of the comarca sees the start of the Costa Daurada, where Tarragonès becomes increasingly built-up. Salou, for example, home of the Port Aventura amusement park, bears the obvious marks of the tourist onslaught. But these areas are easily avoided, with more worthy destinations being tiny enclaves like Vespella de Gaià and Perafort—rural communities marked by well-preserved traditions, where people still live from the cultivation of almonds, olives and vines.
Things to see
In the middle of the comarca and easily accessible, the UNESCO World Heritage City of Tarragona is a good place to start one’s Tarragonès experience. During their approximately 250-year occupation of the town, the Romans built the numerous monuments that form the core of Tarragona’s cultural importance today, and its appeal to travellers and tourists. The amphitheatre, circus and city walls (muralles) were all built between 200 BCE and 1 CE, and are the principal archaeological sites within the municipal limits of Tarragona—they can be freely explored or toured with a group and guide. Just outside the city, four kilometres away, is the Roman aquaduct (Aqüeducte de les Ferres), also known as the Devil’s Bridge (Pont de Diable). This magnificent construction, which is 27 metres tall and 217 metres long, was built to bring water from the nearby Francolí river to the city. Like the amphitheatre and the city walls, it is an open-air monument, so no entrance fee is required. Once you’re overwhelmed by Roman ruins, head to the city’s excellent Museu Nacional Arqueològic to make sense of them all.
Jumping ahead to the 12th century, Tarragona’s Cathedral is a stunning sight for its mix of Romanesque and Gothic elements. Its soaring entrance and the rose-coloured window of its façade have become emblematic of the city, even though it’s surrounded by World Heritage monuments that infantilise it for age. Indeed, some say that the sculpture work on the Cathedral’s cloister is reason alone to visit Tarragona—it represents one of the finest examples of Catalan Romanesque art.
Also worth a visit in Tarragona are El Call, the old Jewish quarter, with its labyrinthine streets and dark history, and Castell Tamarit, the 11th-century seaside castle with gardens that practically plunge down into the water.
Other towns of interest are Altafulla in the south-east of the comarca, with its charming and well-preserved medieval castle, Roman ruins and Neoclassical church, and nearby Torredembara, with its four beautiful beaches, bustling fish market and handful of architectural gems, like the Edifici Antoni Roig, a fine example of Catalan Modernisme.
Moving away from the sights of Tarragonès towns, the county’s countryside has an abundance of medieval castles and towers to be explored. The Torre de Montoliu and the Torre d’Abella, both located near the small, pretty town of Riera de Gaia, are ancient ruins shrouded in a romantic atmosphere. Built in the 11th century, the towers themselves aren’t much to look at—but they are perfect endpoints to easy hikes that, once completed, offer lovely views of the surrounding countryside.
What to do
A day at the beach is business as usual in Tarragonès; the smaller coastal towns of El Creixell, Roda de Bara and Altafulla all boast intimate white-sand beaches perfect for snoozing and swimming. If you prefer a little swing with your sun, Vilaseca offers visitors three quality golf courses all within 12 kilometres of the town centre. And if you’re after something truly active, head to the town of Salou. With four vast beaches and several quiet coves, Salou is the place for scuba diving, kayaking and sport fishing—but its main tourist attraction is Port Aventura, the biggest amusement park in Europe.
What to eat
In Tarragonès, the real issue is ‘What to drink’. With over 70,000 hectares of vineyards, internationally-prized Tarragona wines have been recognised with the Denominación de Origen Tarragona label since 1932. The wine produced here is predominantly white, followed by reds and rosés. The white wines, which account for 70 percent of all those produced in the region, are markedly Mediterranean with an aromatic, fresh and flavourful character. Try them with a handful of almonds or hazelnuts—other treats cultivated in Tarragonès since pre-Roman times.
Another favourite of the region is its romesco sauce, made with local peppers, almonds, olive oil and tomatoes. A close variation of the sauce is traditionally prepared to accompany roasted calçots, the famed winter onion also grown in the area.
When to go
Tarragonès has a dry and pleasant climate; this time of year is therefore excellent for hiking through its bright inland areas or along coastal routes. Every September, the city of Tarragona celebrates its Festa Major: music, markets and dances pack the places of the old town for three days straight, and the typical Catalan castells, or human castles, are truly a swaying sight to be seen. The summer season is of course perfect for beachgoers, while medievalists should take note that every Sunday in May the Ball del Sant Crist is held in Salamó. Declared a Festival of National Interest by the Spanish government, it combines theatre and dance to tell the story of the town’s origins.
Where to stay
In Tarragona, the three-star Hotel Sant Jordi overlooks Playa Savinosa, one of the city’s most peaceful beaches. Its seaside terraces and central location, combined with reasonable rates, make it very good value. There is no lack of rural guesthouses in Tarragonès, but Can Mestret, in the beautiful 450-person seaside village of La Nou de Gaià, is a fine (if pricey) option. Available from April to November, the three-bedroom, three-bathroom house—with gardens, terraces and a wood-burning fireplace—must be rented in its entirety.
Ajuntament de Altafulla, Tel. 977 65 00 08, www.tarragones.org/elmorell
Can Mestret, Tel. 609 736 906, www.casas-turismo-rural.com/cataluna
Castles of Tarragonès, www.weblandia.com/castillos/tarrag
Estación Náutica de Salou, Tel. 902 36 17 24, www.estacionesnauticas.info
Fairs and Festivals of Tarragonès, www.firesifestes.com/Comarques/tarragones.htm
Hotel Sant Jordi, Tel. 977 20 75 15, www.hotelsantjordi.info
Port Aventura, www.portaventura.es
Turisme de Tarragona, Tel. 977 23 34 15, www.tarragonaturisme.cat
Turisme de Torredembarra, Tel. 977 64 45 80, www.turismetorredembarra.cat
Turisme de la Diputació de Tarragona, Tel. 977 23 03 12, www.costadaurada.org/ca/index.asp
Vins DO Tarragona, www.winesfromspain.comalta.com