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Tarragona Roman Circus (Circo Romano de Tarragona) is an ancient racing arena, probably built under the Emperor Domitian in the first century AD, which still contains some astonishing subterranean Roman tunnels.
When Tarragona Roman Circus was constructed it would have been able to accommodate up to 30,000 spectators and was just one of a series of impressive public buildings serving the Roman settlement of Tarraco. It was in use until the fifth century AD, when it was abandoned and slowly fell to ruin.
Today, though little of the original structure survives, visitors can still get an insight into the original scale and setting of this ancient chariot racetrack. Most of the circus is now buried under the more modern buildings which were built atop the ruins, largely in the 19th century, though the small exposed area is actually quite well preserved.
At one end of the Circus complex stands the Praetorium, a Roman tower which once formed the corner of the large Roman forum. This forum was connected to the circus complex below via a series of passageways and tunnels, which were also used to service the games held at the circus. Miraculously, some of these underground tunnels have actually survived and are now open to the public – making a visit to this site a genuinely impressive experience.
Tarragona Roman Circus is part of the UNESCO World Heritage site of the Archaeological Ensemble of Tarraco.
Magic of Tarragona or Back to Roman Times
This summer I fell in love with Tarragona, one of the most charming cities I have ever seen. Though it is a city with more than 2000 years of rich and extensive history, housing well-maintained ancient Roman sights, amazing carnivals and breathtaking nature, Tarragona often gets unjustly overlooked. I first visited it this July, then half a year later, in February, I had a chance to re-discover the city again. Usually, I don’t travel to the same place twice unless I really love it, and I did indeed enjoy Tarragona a lot. Moreover, my second visit made my love even deeper and stronger.
Located in northeast Spain, it can easily be reached by public intercity transport. After a short train ride from Barcelona, I found myself in the port of Tarragona, having no premeditated plans, maps, or “to-do” lists. The weather was fantastic, so without waiting a minute, I headed to the city center. I couldn’t believe my eyes, as everything I saw looked like a wonderful decoration to a historical movie.
Some people compare Tarragona to Rome, and there is a good reason for that. Similar to Rome, Tarragona has more than two thousand years of vivid and colorful history. Back in the ancient times it served as a residence for emperors Augustus and Adrian. It was known as the second capital, right after Rome. Well preserved architectural and archeological monuments of Tarragona are now included in the list of Unesco World Heritage. Surprisingly, the forum, ancient walls, 2nd-century amphitheater, and even the gladiatorial arena look entirely natural nowadays.
One of the first things you will see upon arrival if you travel in by train is the Mediterranean Balcony. Located just a few steps away from the train station, it offers a chance to enjoy the sweeping views of the coastal strip and the harbor with tankers lined up. To take a break before the city run, I ordered ice cream in one of the nearby bars and grabbed a seat opposite the fountain. I sensed the vibe of the city: people chattering, kids running around, a musician playing a lovely piece of music. Suddenly my heart filled up with pure joy. I had no doubts I am falling in love with Tarragona.
Roman Circus of Tarragona
Walking 5 min down the road, I stumbled upon the Roman Circus — a splendid ancient arena, harboring many miles of original underground tunnels and passages underneath. Back in Roman times, these tunnels were used to provide for performances, and are now tourist-walkable. The actual feeling of attending the place in person is hard to express. Being there is a beautiful experience that gives an idea of what the Circus looked like in the past. After walking long corridors and enjoying their remarkable engineering construction, visitors are rewarded with splendid views of the city from the tower. Tarragona is incredibly beautiful!
Right after the Circus, I followed the path to the 2nd-century Amphitheatre. It is an excellent historical landmark and one of the most exciting places to visit in Tarragona. Thanks to the ongoing government efforts, the ancient ruins are extraordinarily well-preserved. A few euros will let you take a look at the place from inside. However, if you are late (admission stops at 3 PM), you can admire the amphitheater for free from a distance. I felt delighted and relaxed, sitting in the park in front of the site, enjoying views of the amphitheater and the Mediterranean sea.
Archeologic passage (Passeig Arcqueologo)
Another part of the Roman complex is the Archeologic passage. This place is quite small but well worth visiting. A pleasant walk around the city walls will let you immerse into and soak up the 2000-year-old Roman history. What makes this place unique, is the number of kitties and birds, happily cohabitating there.
The little park at the end of the road was an unexpected cherry on the pie. I seized the opportunity and had my lunch in this little green oasis. Fantastic!
Tarragona Cathedral (Catedral Basilica Metropolitana Primada de Tarragona)
The Cathedral, located in the heart of the old town, is another charming spot of Tarragona.
Decorated with carvings and cloisters, it is beautiful both inside and outside. Moreover, it has a little secret. Come and find it! I am sure you won’t regret.
What I loved, even more, was the surrounding area, known as Casco Antiguo.
It has surprises at every turn! I enjoyed every single second of walking the narrow but full of sunlight cobblestone streets, passing by a little flea market, as well as perfect cozy bars
Tarragona old town is an ideal authentic area to have time travel of sorts, to sit in a small cafe and watch time go by. Relaxed and happy faces of Tarragona’s citizens make the scene even more idyllic.
Torre del Pretorio Romana
Last but not least, another remarkable sight is Torre del pretorio Romana, a tall tower which served different purposes throughout its life. First a watch tower, it later became a part of a palace and ended up being a prison afterward. Nowadays, this great landmark grants a spectacular view to most of the Tarragona from its top.
If you would like to visit all of these sights I would recommend taking the combined sightseeing ticket, which grants you entry to main attractions, including the amphitheater, forum, and ancient walls. Try to start your tour early in the morning as later on tickets can be sold-out.
Tarragona is an excellent place for nature-lovers as well, with a coastline that stretches for more than 15 kilometers. Its wide golden sandy beaches are washed by arguably the most transparent waters in all Catalunya region. I came in with no intention to swim but ended up in the sea nevertheless. Since I had no swimsuit, I just merely jumped into the water with the clothes I had. The water is indeed impossible to resist! It was my most enjoyable swim of that summer.
Later on, after a bit of drying up, I decided to walk one of the Tarragona hiking paths. The city has a fantastic network of trails, totaling 75 kilometers. I have chosen the most scenic one. The one which goes along the sea all the way from Tarragona to Tamarit. It turned out to have a surprise in store for me, but that’s another story.
So, what can I say about Tarragona? It’s honestly a magic place, radiating with love, joy, and happiness. Would I come back? Definitely yes.
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Tarragona, city, capital of Tarragona provincia (province), in the comunidad autónoma (autonomous community) of Catalonia, northeastern Spain. It lies at the mouth of the Francolí River, on a hill (230 feet [70 metres] high) rising abruptly from the Mediterranean Sea. Tarragona is a flourishing seaport, an important agricultural market, and the centre of active tourism, concentrated in some well-known beach resorts. The city also supports the petrochemical industry that is concentrated around it, and Tarragona’s port is equipped for handling and transporting millions of tons of oil annually.
Once the seat of an Iberian tribe, it was captured in 218 bc by the Roman generals Gnaeus and Publius Scipio, who improved its harbours and its walls, transforming it into the earliest Roman stronghold in Spain. It was known as Tarraco Julius Caesar initiated its period of splendour and called it Colonia Julia Victrix Triumphalis to commemorate his victories. A temple was built in honour of the Roman emperor Augustus, who made Tarraco the capital of Hispania Tarraconensis the so-called Castle of Pilate is supposed to have been his imperial palace. The emperors Hadrian and Trajan endowed Tarraco with power and cultural prestige, while its flax trade and other industries made it one of the richest seaports of the Roman Empire. Its fertile plain and sunny shores were praised by the Roman epigrammatist Martial and its famous wines extolled by the writer Pliny the Elder.
According to tradition, St. Paul, with the help of St. Thecla, founded the Christian church in Spain at Tarraco in ad 60. The city was razed by the Moors in 714 and remained unimportant until early in the 12th century, when it was recaptured by the Christians. After 1119 Tarragona resumed its new life as an important city of the Spanish kingdom of Aragon, and from it James I organized the conquest of Majorca (1229). Having inherited from Rome an imperial sense of unity, Tarragona has shown stubborn loyalty to the kings of Spain and has been a bulwark against invaders.
The old quarter, with many houses built partly of Roman masonry, is more than half surrounded by Roman walls and square towers from the time of the empire. Roman ruins include the theatre, amphitheatre, 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 fine cloister. Tarragona has a pontifical university, a school of arts and crafts, a large technical school, and a paleo-Christian museum with one of the best collections of 4th- and 5th-century Christian documents in Spain. It is also the seat of an archbishop. Pop. (2006 est.) 62,998.
The three symbols of the supremacy of Tarrago
We begin our journey through the Tarragona from 2000 years ago, visiting the Roman amphitheater, built the second century. You'll find it towards the sea, in front of Miracle Beach, where the animals came and touched the Via Augusta, driveway to the city. It was built to celebrate the fights with the gladiators and the hunting of wild animals but also was the scene of public executions. It had a capacity of 14,000 people settled into the stands carved into the rock that can still be visited today.
Then, taking the walk of the palms, we dated Roman Circus I. century It is considered one of the best preserved of the West and unique structure as it was built in the inner city. Here took place the horse races, the mass spectacle of the Roman world, which explains the large capacity of this room, 30,000 spectators. Then use changed during the nineteenth century and other buildings were built inside.
Finally, it would be interesting to see the Roman theater construction in conjunction with two previous praise symbolized the supremacy of the Roman city. Unfortunately the theater is in very poor condition and can not be visited inside.
Route by the Roman Tarragona
To start the route of Roman Tarragona, We could take a stroll through the walls of the Paseo Arqueológico . In the 2ndcentury B.C. Tarraco built these walls to demarcate the urban perimeter, its original length was 3500 metersand today, are still preserved 1100 meters of the original walls surrounding the old town. Many old style buildings are real gems because they are part of the Antigua Muralla. It is a lovely place to stroll admiring some of the preserved Roman sculptures, and imagine the inhabitants of that time walking in their coats and leather strappy sandals.
Murallas Romanas de Tarragona
© Photo by Alberich Fotògrafs
One of the most anticipated visits will be the Roman amphitheater where the games and fights were held here to entertain its citizens for centuries step into the arena of the amphitheater, walk between the cells where the animals and Christian prisoners were locked, or sit in the stands and imagine the gladiator battles that were held here, it is a truly unique experience.
Roman anfitheater aereal view
On the Roman Tarragona route you cannot miss a visit to the buildings of the Forum, which formed the heart of the Roman city, with its columns, squares and stays that take us to other times. You cannot forget to delve into the Roman Circus,where chariot races took place. It is one of the best historic sites preserved in the West, even though most of its structure remains under buildings built in the 19th century.
Near the sea, farthest from the center of the city is the amazing Museo Paleo-cristiano and the most important necropolis in Western Europe that features Roman bodies buried in amphorae in the fetal position, which is very impressive. One of the jewels of the museum is Muñeca de Ívori an emblematic archaeological piece found in 1927 that remains in perfect state.
Roman Forum ancient ruins
Another of the most important Roman monuments of Tarragona is located a few kilometers away from the city, which is the spectacular Acueducto del Puente del Diablo. Guided tours of 90 mins are in Parc Ecohistòric del Pont del Diable, where you can discover every historical corner while you enjoy a beautiful natural setting in the Jardín Romántico.
Don’t hesitate, you will fall in love with the city of Tarragona, to travel back in time and see how easy it is to see here how everything was in imperial times.
Tarragona festivals and events
Tres Tombs The feast day of Sant Anthony Abat (January 17th) is celebrated with a horse parade called the 3 turns (Catalan: tres tombs).
Carnaval In February Tarragona stages one of Spain’s largest carnival parades.
Dixieland festival One of the largest jazz festivals in Spain takes place in Tarragona during April.
Tarraco Viva Each summer during May, Tarragona celebrates it’s Roman heritage by staging a series of events including gladiator fights, processions and chariot races.
Corpus Christie This traditional Catholic festival is widely celebrated in Spain at the start of summer, dates vary from year to year.
Feast of St. John (Revetlla de Sant Juan) On the night of June 23rd Tarragona celebrates the summer solstice in style with fireworks, bonfires and parties which last until daybreak.
Santa Tecla Tarragona’s festa major in honour of the town’s patron saint, lasts for ten days either side of September 23rd. The celebrations include human towers, fire runs and processions of giants.
Concurs de Castells (human towers competition) This spectacular event takes place in Tarragona every other year in October. The next competition will be in 2018. Other human towers events take place throughout the year.
On Saturday mornings the Plaça del Forum hosts a bustling food market
How to get to the city of Tarragona
By plane and bus
Reus International Airport (REU) is about 20 minutes, 7 km, from the centre of Tarragona. You can hire a private transfer or take one of the several Hispano Igualadina public buses between Reus Airport and Tarragona.
Barcelona airport is over 80 km away, and again this is where bus routes, or shared transfer, are the best connections to Tarragona.
AVE train to Tarragona – Book a Renfe train ticket in Spain.
There are two train stations in Tarragona:
Tarragona Adif Station is the train station in the city centre for regional train connections to Reus, Barcelona, Tortosa and Lleida, and Renfe long-distance trains to Valencia, Andalusia and Madrid.
Camp de Tarragona is the AVE station, located 10 minutes from the city centre.
You can book tickets through the Renfe website in English and tickets specific to the high-speed network. All tickets must be booked in advance as it is not possible to turn up on the day and book at the station. You can pay with Visa, Mastercard and Paypal.
The AVE trains have nine classes if you count overnight trains with sleeper/sleeper options, but there are two main ones to consider – Turista (a second class option with 2 x 2 rows of seats) and Turista Plus which is a bit more spacious (with 2 x 1 rows of seats). I travelled on each of my journeys with a Turista ticket, which was quite comfortable and was good value for money.
If you want to book a multi-stop trip, consider purchasing a “Spain Pass”. This means you can travel on one ticket for the AVE and other long distance trains. You must reserve a seat before each journey, as space allocated for Spain Pass holders is limited.
Where to Find the Monuments of Roman Tarragona
How many days do you need in Tarragona to see everything? For leisurely sightseeing, and the chance to enjoy the sun clad avenues, local markets, and laidback eateries and bars that this Mediterranean coastal city exudes, two days in Tarragona would be ideal. However, if you are short on time or day-tripping from Barcelona, Tarragona’s major Roman sites can be seen in a day since it is a compact city and easily accessible on foot.
The first stop was the Tarragona Amphitheatre – one of only seven in Spain country preserved and opened to the public. You can wander freely around the majority of this 2nd-century structure on the coast of the Mediterranean Sea, where you can stand in the grounds and imagine how it once accommodated 12,000 eager spectators.
The Roman Tarragona Amphitheatre with a view to the Mediterranean Sea
The large entrances leading inside Tarragona Amphitheatre
Get up close to the Roman ruins of the Amphitheatre.
Historically layered itself, the amphitheatre was built upon during the 6th and 7th centuries, when the Church built a basilica in memory of the martyrs who perished during the days of Christian persecution. Various temples and other structures were built over the top, including a prison and holiday apartments, before it was finally uncovered for its original foundations as a Roman city to be laid bare.
Roman Circus and Praetorian Tower
A short walk from the amphitheatre is the Roman Circus and Praetorian Tower (Circ Romà), once used to hold grand horse and chariot races. You can climb to the top for a 360 view of the city, and parts of the lower spectator archways remain.
Approaching the Roman Circus and Praetorian Tower
The sweeping view of Tarragona city from the top of the Roman Circus
Ariel View of the ruins of the Roman Circus in Tarragona, blending with modern city structures
The Tarragona of today was built on top of what was once the racing circuit, and if you look closely enough at the shop fronts and some structural detail, you may see the archway resemblance where stores have been built on top on roman vaults.
Find Roman Ruins in Tarragona
A walk around the town centre unveils the narrow alleyways and historic streets of the medieval days, but not without the Roman keeping gaze. While sampling some vermouth in the specialist store, Bodega Enric, we only had to walk out into the open square to find a chunk of the old Roman city walls of Tarraco dominating the open square.
Remains of Roman Ruins in the streets of Tarragona
We wandered the sandy and ochre orange shaded streets in the most elevated part of the city known as Part Alta – once the site of Tarraco’s ancient provincial forum, also known as the Colonial Forum. This area was once the centre of social and political life in Tarraco, and you’ll notice old Roman stone and parts of the old wall incorporated into today’s structures.
Part Alta – once the site of Tarraco’s ancient provincial forum.
The ruins of Tarraco stacked with Tarragona’s more modern structures and murals.
Shops found within Roman archways in Tarragona.
The old Roman city walls still visible in Tarragona, Spain
We lunched in the modern Xamfrà del Fòrum that sits next to the Colonial Forum, marked by the ruins of a big square and a temple.
Some Roman ruins in Tarragona city are fenced off for protection, but still visible.
A stone Roman Column in the middle of a pedestrian street in Tarragona
Close by, the modern-day architectural examples by Catalan artist, Josep Maria Jujol can be found. The Theatre Metropole (designed in 1908 with a cruise ship style interior in antithesis to traditional theatre design) and the Mercado Central de Tarragona (opened in 1915 with arched windows and naves, in contrast to standard rectangular market buildings) shouldn’t be missed in a retro juxtaposition to the city’s ancient foundations.
Modern design and art on show at Theatre Metropole – in juxtaposition to the Roman ruins
Mercado Central de Tarragona
Roman Temple in Tarragona Cathedral
Saving one of the best until last, we found ourselves back in the very heart of the old city, looking up at the Cathedral that dominates the centre of town that stands on the former Roman temple site.
The Cathedral on the site of the former Roman temple in Tarragona
We climbed the spiral staircases for a panoramic view of the city from the bell tower, before climbing back down and peering down into the remains of the old Roman temple wall that is now an integrated foundation to this more modern structure.
View from the top of the Cathedral (former Roman temple) in Tarragona
Touring the Tarragona Cathedral – views from the interior gardens
Stones of the former city wall of Roman Tarraco, next to the wall of today’s Tarragona Cathedral
No matter what stands before you, beneath you or around you, the wonder of Tarragona is in knowing that you are surrounded by 2,000 years of history. A living history of one of the most important Roman Empire cities that is still accessible to this very day.
Tarragona one of the most popular cities in Catalonia
Today, tourists identify it as the first seaside town south of the major city of Barcelona, a place renowned for its slower and more relaxing pace than the great capital of Catalonia.
Tarragona is often favoured for its summer atmosphere and the natural beauty of its sea, natural parks and Mediterranean-style gardens scattered throughout. Cafés and tapas bars complete the picture of a truly unmissable location for anyone planning a trip to Spain.