This is an article about a Roman itinerary in Tarragona city. We will follow along this route the path of the main preserved monuments of Roman times in Tarragona, the remains of the maximum splendor moment of the city. Some of these spots obtained on November 30, 2000, from the declaration of World Heritage by UNESCO for the Roman archaeological site of the ancient Tarraco.
Our route can be done it’s two hours walking in total. Nevertheless, it would take you at least the whole day if you want to visit all the spots and learn a bit about Tarragona history at the museumized spaces. You won’t regret the effort!
These are our spots on our Roman itinerary in Tarragona city. The order follows a logical itinerary, but they are not in order of importance.
- 0. A bit of history & why to follow a Roman itinerary in Tarragona
- 1. The Roman walls
- 2. Ca la Garsa
- 3. The Roman Temple – Tarragona Cathedral
- 4. Provincial Forum
- 5. The Roman Circus
- 6. The Roman Amphitheater
- 7. The Roman Theater
- 8. The Local Forum
- 9. The early Christian necropolis
- 10. Volta de Pallol
0. A bit of history & why to follow a Roman itinerary in Tarragona
Tarraco had been founded in 218 BC. According to Plinius by the Roman generals Gneo and Lucius Cornelius Scipio, at the time of the Second Punic War (218 BC – 202 BC). The legions of the Scipio brothers had landed shortly before in the Greek colony of Emporion (currently Empúries) to cut off communication between the vanguard and the Carthaginian rear. That is, between the famous Aníbal Barca elephants, who advanced unstoppably towards Rome, and Qart Hadash (Currently Cartagena), the main Carthaginian military base in the Iberian Peninsula.
The Scipios and their legions established the first and most important Roman military barracks in the Iberian Peninsula in the upper part of the current Tarragona city. This first Roman settlement was very close to an Iberian oppidum founded at the end of the 5th century BC and recently archaeologically documented. The Romans built the walls and they set up the most important port of the western part of their Empire.
Tarraco grew and the permanent presence of troops attracted trade and civilians looking for new opportunities in that Roman far west. The city was about legionaries and tavern atmosphere all over. Nevertheless, Tarragona has always had very nice weather and an excellent strategic location. Therefore, Octavius Augustus decided to stay in 26 BC in order to control the campaign against the Cantabrics and the Asturs and to get far from the Senate. That year Tarraco became the center of the Roman Empire. Indeed, the capital of the known world.
We propose a route along the following 10 historic Roman locations in the city of Tarragona:
1. The Roman walls
Nowadays, it is possible to spot nice parts of that Roman wall. In the Nort part of the upper Roman town, the authorities fitted out for pedestrians to use a dirty promenade to be able to admire a kilometer of the ancient wall. The promenade name is Passeig Arqueològic and it is highly recommended. In the South of the Roman town, near Portal de Sant Antoni, the visitor can admire a piece of wall that was reused as a wall for houses. We recommend starting our itinerary in Portal del Roser, follow Passeig arqueològic along the Roman wall until you arrive at Portal de Sant Antoni, and get into the Roman town by it.
The wall was the first major construction that the Romans carried out, shortly after settling on the site. We assume that the first wall must have been a simple wooden fence. The military camp established in Tarraco evolve to be a very important base to land reinforces and download supplies for the military campaigns. Therefore, it came up the need to strengthen the defenses. Thus, between 217 and 197 BC, the first stonewall was built. From an architectural point of view, it consists of cyclopean locks reinforced with towers at the most vulnerable points. The height of the perimeter walls was 6 meters and the thickness 4.5 meters. Three towers from this period remain, we call them currently Arquebisbe, Cabiscol and Minerva towers.
2. Ca la Garsa
Ca la Garsa is a medieval house from the 13th Century and a unique architectonic vestige of the Jewish community of Tarragona. That community occupied the call, the Jewish quarter, from 1238 to 1492. Despite being a medieval building, Ca la Garsa is important as a Roman heritage too since it is located on the archeological area of the provincial forum and it was constructed with reused Roman ashlars and there remain parts of the lately Roman walls.
The building is currently in ruins, but the medieval arches and part of the late Roman wall was preserved. The remains are under protection as a cultural asset of local interest. You will not take long to take a look to this spot but it is very worth to pass by during our route in Part Alta of Tarragona.
3. The Roman Temple – Tarragona Cathedral
We recommend continuing our itinerary to get to the Cathedral. Only a very little part is left from the old Roman temple. Nevertheless, the visitor can follow its tracks in the Cathedral, which is located in approximately the same place as the Roman temple. The ancient Roman temple was at the Provincial Forum, which was structured in two squares at different heights. The upper one was surrounded by a portico, of which most remarkable remains stand in the cloister of the Cathedral. The experts identified some structures there as the cell of a grand temple.
The construction of the Cathedral began in the 12th century in Romanesque style, continued in Gothic style and was consecrated in 1331, but was left unfinished due to the Black Death. The visit has different prices depending on your age and they have discounts for groups and specific groups of people.
4. Provincial Forum
The Provincial Forum was built in the upper part of the city around 73 AD, during Emperor Vespasian period. It had the function of ruling the province from a political and economic point of view and therefore was the headquarter of Consilium Provinciae Hispaniae Citerioris. Up on its stones the medieval and even the modern and current Tarragona was built.
You can track some parts of ancient walls on houses’ façades and hidden in the demolition works all around. We suggest a route along some narrow streets of the old part of the city where it will be easy to spot some of the roman past.
5. The Roman Circus
In the circus the chariot races were disputed, generally of two horses (beams) or four (quadrigas). The circus of Tarragona is among the best preserved in the West of the Empire, although most of its structure is still hidden under old buildings of the nineteenth century. At the moment you can visit the eastern end, where, in addition to the monumental façade and the bleachers, you can see the vaults of Sant Hermenegild and Enrajolat street. Another sector of the old circus has been exposed in Sedassos Square and Ferrers Street. Some vaults are also visible at Trinquet Vell street and Plaça de la Font.
The visit includes nice terrace views and a small exhibition.
6. The Roman Amphitheater
The amphitheater was a spectacle building where beast fights, hunts, public executions and gladiator fights took place. The one in Tarraco was built at the beginning of the 2nd century AD. C. and was the subject of reforms in the year 221, as indicated by the inscription of 140 m, the longest in the entire Empire, which crowned the podium. Part of the northern bleachers carved in the rock, very eroded, and part of the southern bleachers, supported on concrete vaults, are currently preserved. Here they suffered martyrdom in the year 259 St. Fructuosus, the first bishop of Tarragona, and his deacons.
The location of the amphitheater is spectacular because of the sea views. The best views of the Arena are from Via William J. Bryant.
7. The Roman Theater
Of the three large buildings for shows in Tarraco, the theater was the first to be built, already in the time of Augustus. Built on old port warehouses, it had a large semicircular sector of bleachers divided into three caves facing the stage. The back of this one was closed by a great monumentalized wall with columns and statues that are conserved, partly, in the National Archaeological Museum of Tarragona.
The building was renovated and enriched with marble statues in the second century, and was abandoned in the third century. Stage shows were held in it. Unfortunately, nowadays you can only admire the remains of the Roman theater across a fence since its under renovation.
8. The Local Forum
The forum was the center of citizen life. Around a large square stood the main buildings of the city: the curia, the basilica, the temples and numerous shops. The forum of Tarraco was destroyed by the expansion of the nineteenth century and only the basilica remains, structured as a large building with three naves separated by columns. Another area that can be visited from the ruins shows the back of the Capitoline Temple, streets and various houses.
Today there is not much to see there and entry is not free. If you want to skip a visit on this tour you can choose this one. Otherwise, if you are very much into entry at all the places at the Local forum you will be able to spot the remains of a tavern, some structures full of shops in the past and a couple of giant columns. You will be also able to walk along the cardus of the ancient city.
9. The early Christian necropolis
This an ancient Roman cemetery of III A.D. that became very popular since they buried there one of the first Christian bishops of Tarragona. The Christian community made out of his tomb a sanctuary and built two basilicas. In 1923 the necropolis was discovered and excavated because the construction of an old tobacco factory.
Nowadays the visitors can explore part of the old necropolis and admire some tombs and sarcophagi. A museum with some information is part of the visit. The information panels are only in Catalan but it is possible to download a free audio guide in English.
10. Volta de Pallol
The Volta del Pallol is a historic building famous because of its beautiful arches. It formed part of the constructions of the large administrative square of the Provincial Forum of Tàrraco. The famous arches probably were, in Roman times, a long gallery that served as a support for a second floor in the building, unfortunately, the function of the building is unknown until the late 16th Century.
We do know that was in use during the medieval period and could have been a church. Today is a good welcome or a sweet farewell of this Roman tour since it is locates in a current very nice square and to spot is an invitantion travel back to history.