An Accidental Day in Tarragona


Today was a day that it was a good to have a back-up plan. We went to Barcelona with the intention of taking the train to Zaragoza. Once we got there I found out that we needed to have our passports with us in order to buy non-regional train tickets. Of course, we didn’t have our passports on us so we had to change plans. We ended up taking a regional train to Tarragona, which is where we were planning to head tomorrow.

Tarragona is a mid-sized city with significant Roman ruins about an hour South of Barcelona on the express train. We got there around 1:30 p.m. and barely made it to the tourism office before they closed for siesta. We learned that there were numerous Roman sites to see as well as the oldest cathedral in Catalonia–which was located mere blocks from where we were standing.

We made our way up some stairs to the magnificent Cathedral of Tarragona and spent more than an hour inside. It is in all honesty one of the most impressive churches I’ve ever seen. Like the cathedral in Perugia, it is built on top of a Roman temple. However, since Spain was once Al-Andalus it is also built on top of a former Moorish temple.

The current building dates from the 12th century, though elements of it are much more recent. The things I found most exciting about it are not necessarily the things that might catch the eyes of folks less interested in religious architecture or mediaeval Europe. Specifically, I was much enamored with the traces of paint, and in some cases actual murals, that dated from the early years of the cathedral.

Most people tend to think of mediaeval stone buildings as built from plain blocks. This was often not the case. In many instances the bare stone was actually painted but as the years passed the paint wore away leaving only grey slabs behind. Not so with the Cathedral of Tarragona. Inside of it you can see the faded blues and reds that once graced the columns, pilars, and walls. Honestly, I’ve never seen anything like it. It is subtle to the eye and not necessarily beautiful but it certainly unleashes the imagination.

Other elements of the cathedral worth mentioning include numerous side chapels built or decorated over the centuries in a variety of different styles and a quiet courtyard featuring five different water gardens and an ancient cedar.

After our visit to the cathedral we had lunch at little place on a nearby plaza called El solet. It is one of those places that only exists in Europe: a small, casual, family run spot serving a three course meal for a scant 16 euros and with food of a quality it is difficult to find in the United States, especially for that price. I had a risotto followed by a soupy seafood rice dish and flan. I like Spanish rice dishes a great deal and both dishes were delightful.

Following lunch, we made our way to city’s Roman ruins. They were impressive! We didn’t even make it through all of them–it would have probably taken us the whole day to do so. We walked through the passages under the old circus, along the wall, and through the Torre del Pretori. The wall was the most enjoyable. In 1933 the city redesigned the landscape just outside of it into a garden. That made a walk along it the perfect late afternoon stroll.

I found the Torre del Pretori to oddly moving. It was used as a prison by the fascists immediately after the Spanish Civil War. Between 1939 and 1945 some 650 anti-fascists were executed within it. It occurred to me, as we were standing in the cell in which they spent their final hours, that I am probably one degree removed from some of the people who died there.

One of my mentors was the Spanish anarchist Federico Arcos. Federico fought in the Spanish Civil War and then was part of the guerilla resistance against the fascists until the mid-1950s, when he finally fled to Canada. Many of his friends and comrades died at the hands of fascists. Over the years, he shared with me many of their stories. It is not hard for me to imagine that some of them were killed in the Torre del Pretori.

Of course, I’ll never know for certain. But the thing about history is that it can feel quite abstract until it doesn’t. Carl Hampton’s death at the hands of the Houston police felt like just another story of about a political assassination to me until John “Bunchy” Crear narrated it to Sadé and me as part of our oral history project. Now, I think about it and its continuing impact on the city and on people I know and care about every time I walk or drive down Emancipation Avenue.

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