Located in the region of Catalonia on the East coast of Spain, Tarragona is approximately 60 miles (98 km) from Barcelona. The city dates back to the Phoenicians when it was called Tarchon. During the Second Punic War, (218 – 201 BC) Tarragona was taken by the Romans and became the main military base in Hispania. Over the next 200 years it was used as the base in the conquest of the whole of the Iberian Peninsula and was the Capital of Hispania Citerior, which later became Hispania Tarraconensis, one of Rome’s two colonies on the Iberian Peninsula and the empire’s largest province; at that time the city was known as Tarraco. Around 45 BC Julius Caesar granted the town the title of colony and during the Cantabrain Wars (29 -19 BC) the Emperor Augustus stayed in the city (26 – 25 BC), ruled the Empire from it and made it a Colonia, which was the highest rank of Roman city.
During the 1st and 2nd centuries Tarraco underwent a period of growth. This period saw the enlargement of the forum and public baths and the construction of many of the buildings, the ruins of which remain today. The construction of the provisional forum and the circus also occurred during this period. The circus, the place of chariot races, was 190 metres long and although it has largely disappeared, the turn at the eastern end can still be seen with an illustration on a wall overlooking the site showing how it would have looked. To be seen clearly at this site are the concrete vaults which supported the circus. Running along the centre was the spina, a dividing wall containing statues, fountains and the counter to mark each lap. Also built at this time was the amphitheatre which is found just outside the town by the sea and it was during excavations in 1953 that an early Christian church was discovered.
The crisis affecting the Roman Empire during the 3rd century did not spare Tarraco and it was invaded by the Franks and Alemanni, although it did recover during the 4th and 5th centuries under the Visigoths. It suffered significantly during the Moslem invasion of 716 and as it was in the area that separated the Moslems and Christians, this prevented its’ recovery until the 11th and 12th century. In the mid-14th century the city once again went into a period of decline due to the arrival of the Black Death which killed 25% of the population, this in turn led to severe economic problem which was to continue throughout the 15th century before the situation was to improve.
The city then underwent periods of prosperity that coincided with those of the Kingdom of Catalonia and Aragon; these resulted in the construction of the great architecture which can be seen from the medieval period. During the Napoleonic Wars (1803 – 1815) the city was sacked by the French following a siege in 1811.
Still surrounded by the Roman wall on three sides is the old quarter where most of the historic monuments are located. Most of the area within this was in Roman times occupied by public buildings, although it did not just prosper in the Roman period but also during medieval times and periodically in the years that followed, providing a number of interesting buildings. The Cathedral of Santa Maria built in the 12th century stands on the ground of a Roman temple. The city also has a good selection of architecture dating from the 15th century.
Roman wall is the oldest Roman wall outside of Italy and dates from the 2nd century BC. Constructed in three distinctive layers; the lowest is constructed with large stones and the middle with the typical smaller stones which date from Roman times. The top part of the walls comes from the middle ages when significant work was carried out. A gateway, known as the Roser Doorway was opened in the wall during the medieval period to provide access to the city from the west. A tower built against the wall was also constructed in this period.
The tower known as the Tower of Pilates or Castle of the King was constructed in the 1st century AD to contain a staircase linking the circus with the gateway to the Provincial Forum. The tower was used as a Royal residence during the Middle Ages and during the post-civil War years it was used as a prison: It is now used as a museum.
A number of buildings are currently having work carried out on them; this includes the building from the 13th - 14th century built over a large Visigoth building which was to become one of the most important buildings in the Jewish quarter.
Tarragona has numerous sites of interest spanning the centuries, these are scattered around and outside of the city. Considerable work has, and is being carried out to preserve and restore the sites and in 2000 the Roman ruins of Tarraco were designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
To see more photographs and take a virtual tour of the site click on the photoshow below.