Feeling The Roman Presence

Tuesday, June 19, 2012
Travel Writer

The ancient Romans were an ambitious lot. At the zenith of their empire, they controlled a good swath of the world’s prime real estate, from London and Iberia all the way to Cairo and Jerusalem.

All around the Mediterranean rim, the heart of Roman territory, you stumble across ruins of this once-mighty civilization. The Roman Forum is just the best-known example of a genre whose brick walls, stone burial markers, and still-solid archways are visible from Salamanca to Sofia.

In few places, however, can you feel the Roman presence as vividly as in Tarragona, a small city on the Spanish coast. An hour’s drive south of Barcelona, Tarragona — or Tarraco, as it was known in the time of Caesar — lives off the glory of its days as Hadrian’s hangout.

Driving south along the coastal plain, the turquoise Mediterranean sparkling off to your left, you can see why Octavio Augustus chose Tarragona as the first strategic settlement outside Rome. The town sits scenically above a sandy half-moon beach; from the cliffs on either side, there are good views out to sea and down toward the Ebro River Delta.

The Romans’ amphitheater still crowns the hill above the beach, where the prosaic trappings of a modern city have sprung up around it — train tracks, hotels, parking lots. But stroll upward through an olive garden, and you find yourself standing before the imposing wall of the Old City.

From the moment you step through the cypress-flanked archway, there’s something ineffably Italian about Tarragona’s Old City. Maybe it’s the palette of peach and terracotta; more likely, the narrow streets paved in mosaic-like patterns of black and white pebbles. Whatever the reason, historic Tarragona has an aura of Romanness that’s evident to anyone who has set foot inside the Eternal City.

Tarragona’s Roman vestiges are so comprehensive that if you squint your eyes, you can almost see toga-clad officials bustling about the forum, trading gossip under the arches. You can climb portions of the Roman fortifying wall, gazing at the same sea that drew Caesar Augustus, and practically hear the cries of spectators where chariots once raced. Few historical sites are so engagingly immersive — which is likely why UNESCO has designated this a World Heritage site.

Today the historic quarter is sun-baked and sleepy. A sprinkling of locals lounges in the shade during siesta, nursing cold drinks, while a few tourists wander the quiet lanes. Most stop in awe in front of Tarragona’s cathedral, a massive structure that looms over the hilly central plaza: no fewer than ten pointed arches ripple like a marble wave over the main entrance, guarded by a dozen life-sized patriarchs.

But the Catholic Church was just one of many players in Old Tarragona. In another square, stone enclosures delineate the spots where pre-Christian Romans worshipped Jupiter, sacrificed animals and anointed priests.

And just adjacent to the Plaza del Rey — the King’s Plaza — is the site of the onetime Jewish Quarter, a proximity that signaled Jews’ protected status under local authorities. As throughout Catalonia, a Jewish community flourished here in Roman and early medieval times before expulsion into the Sephardic diaspora.

A stunningly preserved Jewish neighborhood is visible in a series of archways and stone structures near the Plaza of Angels. A poignant plaque in Catalan and Hebrew is dedicated “to the descendants of the those Tarragonians of the faith of Moses expelled in 1492, wherever they may be,” and assures them that their heritage still breathes within Tarragona’s ancient walls.

The recuperation of this Jewish past is part of an earnest effort by Spanish tourism authorities to revive the long-lost Jewish legacy nationally, an initiative I’ll explore over the coming weeks. Here in Tarragona, the onetime glory and then decline of local Jewry mirrors a similar arc in the fortune of the city itself. Tarragona reached its zenith of power and population in the time of Christ, the same epoch when Jewish families thronged in streets now eerily quiet.

I visited the ghosts of that era at the impressive National Archaeological Museum of Tarragona. Nestled into the Roman walls overlooking the sea, the museum offers a nice dose of context for the history that surrounds it.

Four floors of compact, well-labeled exhibits — including life-sized statues of Tarragona’s bygone emperors and gods — are enjoyable even for people like me, who normally roll their eyes at thousand-year-old jugs. I could imagine the long-vanished Jewish Catalans decorating their homes with reconstructed mosaic floors, or eating kosher hake with the iron forks and knives on display.

Outside, the Spanish sun cast shadows over the vaults and labyrinths of the Romans’ Circus, where horse-draw chariot races were the soccer of their day. I imagined the boisterous scene of yesterday as I walked, completely alone, through tunnels and first-century towers.

In a city of millennial echoes, the only sound was my own footfall. 

Tarragona’s Plaza del Rey by night. Alberich Fotografs/Tarragona Turisme

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