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Tarragona Day Trip: An Ancient Experience

a close up of a church

Just an hour south of Barcelona, the port city of Tarragona attracts thousands of visitors every year, offering each one of them a direct contact with the ancient world. Read through to find out what you can expect to see and learn about on a Tarragona Day Trip!

Two millennia ago, Tarragona was one of the most important military and political centres of Roman rule. Once the seat of an Iberian tribe, who settled there during the 5th century BC, it was captured in the 3rd century BC by Roman generals, transforming it into the earliest Roman stronghold in the Iberian Peninsula. It was known as Tarraco and it became the capital of the Roman province of Hispania Citerior during the period of the Roman Republic. Later, Emperor Augustus travelled to Spain to oversee the conquest of Cantabria, and he made Tarraco the capital of Hispania Tarraconensis.

The walls

The defensive system of walls around the ancient city is one of the earliest examples of Roman engineering. In fact, they’re the earliest roman construction preserved outside Italy. Despite their age, they’re also the best-preserved examples in the world. You can’t help but be impressed by these tremendous blocks of stone and wonder how they were transported and put into place. Some of them must weight over 30 tons. And because of its sophistication, this model was copied by other provincial capitals in the Empire.

Romans vs Christians

The documental, artistic and archaeological Paleochristian heritage that has survived in the city is, as a whole, the most notable on the entire Iberian Peninsula. Tradition links the arrival of Christianity to the missionary actions of the Apostle Paul, but the first historical mention of Christianity in the city dates to the year 259, in which the bishop of Tarraco, Fructuosus, and his deacons Augurius and Eulogius were burned alive in the amphitheatre during the persecution of Christians waged by the emperors Valerian and Gallienus. In the late Roman era, the church in Tarragona played an active role in many provincial councils, with some of its bishops holding powers of primacy on behalf of the Pope (Bishop of Rome) for the Hispanic provinces. The See of Tarragona is located where, during Roman times, a temple was erected in dedication to the Imperial Cult. This sacred pagan area was partially dismantled after the 5th century and transformed into a Christian space.

The city today

The modern city is built over Roman ruins. In 2000, the archaeological ensemble of Tarraco was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. The old quarter, with many houses built partly of Roman masonry, is more than half surrounded by the defensive walls and square towers. Roman ruins include the theatre, amphitheatre (from the 2nd century AD, sitting 12000 spectators, was the site of battles with gladiators and wild animals), circus (now forming part of the city’s archaeological museum), forum, and necropolis and, nearby, an aqueduct, the so-called Tomb of the Scipios, and the Triumphal Arch of Bará. The cathedral (12th–13th century) is transitional between Romanesque and Gothic, with a beautiful cloister. Tarragona has a pontifical university, a school of arts and crafts, a large technical school, and a Paleochristian Museum with one of the best collections of 4th- and 5th-century Christian documents in Spain.

Want to experience it yourself? Come along on our Tarragona Day Trip and get immersed in this magical, ancient world.