Visiting Tarragona: Connecting the Past and Present

Aug 4, 2022 10:30:00 AM / by Mia Forouhari

History is abundant in Tarragona, Spain, including a UNESCO World Heritage site. On this CAPA day trip, Mia tours 3 landmarks in this city near Barcelona.

Welcome to Tarragona, a beautiful port city located just south of Barcelona that is one of the oldest Roman settlements dating all the way back to the 5th century BC. Thanks to a CAPA-led day trip, I was able to learn about the rich history of Tarragona and see ancient Roman ruins. Walking past the Cathedral of Tarragona and the medieval city center I found myself thinking about how Tarragona looked more than 2000 years ago. Wait…did I just see an Amazon truck drive by?

It’s crazy to see how many thousands of years of history have been preserved yet are just a foot away from the modern advancements of our society. Imagine the Romans lugging 50-pound stones one by one to build the city’s outer protective wall. Now, I can order absolutely anything I want with a click of a button. Jeff Bezos can have it sent to me within hours, even in a small town on the coast of Spain. Tarragona is a place that seems as normal as any touristy European town—full of Amazon trucks driving by, modern hotels, and kitschy souvenir shops. Without the guided tour we took through the city I would have never known how much incredible history has been preserved. Here are some of the most interesting things I learned about Tarragona, Spain:

street and buildings in Tarragona

Caption: See if you can spot the Tarragona Cathedral at the end of the street!

  1. The Tarragona Cathedral 

As our tour group walked up to the main entryway of the Cathedral that was built on the temple of the Emperor Augustus, I began to see just how detailed the façade was. The intricate carvings and glass inlays are stunning by themselves, but contain specific biblical scenes. The main entrance is divided by a statue of the Virgin Mary, while below her the story of Adam and Eve is depicted. These doors date all the way back to the 15th century. As our tour guide Lauri was describing the engravings, I immediately smiled to myself. I am currently reading “East of Eden” by John Steinbeck, a modern retelling of biblical Adam and Eve and Cain and Abel. Both the book and the cathedral find meaning in the contrast between good and evil. Again, I was impressed by how certain stories and history have kept such strong meaning over such long periods of time.

main entrance of Tarragonas cathedral

Caption: The Tarragona Cathedral’s main entrance.

statue of Virgin Mary on the doors of Tarragonas cathedral

Caption: The statue of the Virgin Mary and cathedral doors dating to the 15th century.

  1. Scenic Views from the Praetorium Tower

Once featuring horse and chariot races, the Praetorium and Roman circus of Tarragona is part of the UNESCO World Heritage site. Upon creation, the circus could accommodate up to 30,000 spectators. The Praetorium tower, located on the corner of what was the ancient capital square, now offers scenic views of the city. The tower was full of windows with carved arches and columns. If you look closely, you can see the high rise hotel and local casino through the southwest facing windows. I wonder what the Romans would have thought about gambling… The final set of increasingly steep stairs led to panoramic views offering sights from the cathedral to the sea. I would definitely recommend seeing this view if you visit the city.

panoramic view of Tarragona from Praetorium

Caption: The panoramic view of Tarragona from the top of the Praetorium.

a view of a casino in Tarragona through a window

Caption: Try and spot the casino!

  1. The Model of Roman Tarraco

The model of Roman Tarraco recreates the city in the 2nd century, at the peak of the city’s expansion. This model took 7,800 hours of work. It shows the protective walls the Romans built throughout the city, the cathedral, the Fòrum square, and the circus. While our group was unable to visit the model due to the building being too busy, make sure to try and see it if you can. Luckily, there is another model in the Praetorium tower made of wood that also depicts the city structure. I usually prefer Apple Maps instead of an 18-cubic-meter model, but hey, if it worked for the Romans it works for me.

Roman Tarraco in wooden model form

Caption: The wooden city model in the Praetorium.

a Roman circus in Tarragona

Caption: One of the locations of the Roman Circus.

All in all, I had a wonderful time visiting Tarragona thanks to CAPA and our lovely tour guide. Thanks for reading about my little connections between ancient history and modern society!

Thanks, Mia!

Mia Forouhari

Mia Forouhari is an official CAPA blogger for summer 2022, sharing her story in frequent posts on CAPA World. A Marketing major from University of Minnesota - Twin Cities, she is studying abroad in Barcelona this semester.

Mia's journey continues all semester so stay tuned.

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Topics: International Education, Barcelona, Spain, Local Culture