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Roman magic in Spain
Tarragona is a delightfully Iberian reminder of a time when the Roman Empire ruled Spain. There's still some magic in the stones there, say locals. Finding out proved quite an experience.
It was almost a Roman holiday. Staring out of souvenir shops, restaurants and public places were smiling Romans in armour - tall ones, short ones, and even a transsexual one, or so said a passerby. They appeared to have leaped out of the pages of an Asterix comic book. But this isn't Gaul we are talking about; we have in fact been transported back in time, to old Spain, or Hispania to be precise. After stretching one's legs in Turkish Airlines business class, admiring Naples from friendly skies above, landing in Barcelona and heading straight to the cauldron of Camp Nou to witness Lionel Messi & Co blast through the great Celtic wall, this was completely unexpected.
An hour by road (roughly 60 miles) from the Catalonian capital, on the banks of the shimmering blue-green waters of the Mediterranean, lies Tarragona, a quaint town that promises any visitor a clutch of age-old stories to carry back.
Little more than two decades ago, it was all apparently in ruins. The city council then decided to apply for Unesco World Heritage status, which led to a flood of complaints in the newspapers saying that Tarragona's rejection slip was on its way, and that the city had become a 'laughing stock' in Unesco's Paris boardrooms.
The citizenry's fear proved unwarranted. Unesco recognition galvanised many, and they set out to restore some glory to this city, an old Roman capital whose history goes back nearly 2, 000 years.
That mottled history is evident when walking through the city. Parts of the old city were demolished in 1854 and new buildings cropped up leading to Tarragona's own version of Barcelona's Las Ramblas. This is now La Rambla Nova. It connects the old city with the harbour and is dotted with flower shops and old-fashioned cafes where you can savour exquisite hot chocolate.
All narrow roads in Tarragona, however, lead to 'Roman' extravagance - or what it used to be. After a scrumptious lunch on Day One - which included unlimited wine, a jar of sangria, and romescu, a rich regional nut sauce - at the traditional fisherman's district of Serrallo, we set out to discover the old city on the route the Spanish tourism officials had chalked out for us. In the distance we could see the long stretches of sandy beaches, almost empty because of the October rain, but that did not deter the locals from indulging in their favourite watersports.
The Roman amphitheatre was located outside the old Roman city, near the sea. Tarragona, or Tarraco as it was previously called, had played a primary role during the Roman domination of Hispania. After the Emperor Augustus' sojourn here during 27-24 BC, many of the city's monuments were erected and it became the Capital of imperial Rome's Citerior province. The rocky promontory that stepped onto in 2012 AD had served as the vantage point for Romans in the 1st century BC, a nice thought to mull.
But it is the ruins of the Roman circus that stand out in all their imaginary splendour. You could almost hear the baying crowd, the cries of the gladiator, the clatter of steel and the stomping of horses when you close your eyes. Nearby, the apostles embedded in stone on the gates of a 12th century cathedral almost whisper the tales of time.
The Romanesque church is located in the site previously occupied by a Roman temple, dating to the time of Tiberius, a Visigothic cathedral and a Moorish mosque. Largely on account of its prominent position on Iberian shores, Tarragona was the scene of many a bloody conflict over the centuries. Step up to the Balco del Mediterrani (' Balcony of the Mediterranean' ) and you get a dramatic panoramic view of the sea and the beach.
This was also from where ships had once transported the excellent wines of this colony to Rome. The next day, we take the Cistercian route to the 12th century Poblet monastery, lying midway between Tarragona and Lerida, at the foot of the Sierra de Montsant. Our guide Paco slyly warns us, "No flash photography when you see the monks. They say they are part of the monument but not monuments themselves. " Once a royal stronghold, the chapel itself, we are told, was a dynastic burial place. We see several sarcophagi beneath grand surbased arches. We're then led on to the wine cellars. Paco tells us each monk was allowed 2 litres of wine per day to stay warm in these cold and enormous rooms.
We needed to get away from the chill too and were soon off to Priorat for a wine-tasting session. At the historic Hostal Sport, Marta Domenech, once the marketing head of Madrid's Mango, and now director of this family venture, invites you to enjoy the local wine, food, olive oil and culture.
After lunch and some quiet espresso by the fireplace, we headed to the Falset Castle, a shrine dedicated to the region's wine and winemakers. 'Els vins son petites histories dins d'una ampolla' (Wines are tiny histories contained within a bottle), we learn, and leave with the displayed words of Spanish writer Mauricio Wiesenthal ingrained in our minds: "When someone arrives at the Priorat region and gets lost on the country roads, inhaling the sharp aroma of the vineyards, they have the impression that nothing has changed for two thousand years in that remote Mediterranean land. They find bread, olives and wine;there's a magic stone everywhere. "
There are eight trains a day to and from Madrid, and many to Barcelona, just up the coast, about an hour away.
Priorat in the Tarragona province is a Spanish Denominacion de Origen Calificada (DOCa, the highest qualification level for a wine region according to Spanish wine regulations). It is one of only two wine regions in Spain to qualify as DOCa, alongside Rioja. It primarily produces powerful red wines. Part Alta (Old city) of Tarragona, where you can experience Roman ruins, dating back to 50 BC.
WHAT TO BRING BACK:
The intense red wines, and the local olive oil. You get cute Roman souvenirs, too.
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