Here is a must-do city walk along the absolute highlights from the Roman era, two thousand years ago. In addition, we have suggestions for enthusiasts to further expand the tour, on foot and by car. Finally, in this Blog we show how remarkably different the Dutch deal with their own Roman heritage.
Tarragona is undisputedly the heart of the Roman heritage in Catalonia. In 200 BC. Tarraco (as Tarragona was then called) became the first Roman settlement outside Italy and the capital of Hispania. The two-thousand-year-old traces of this can still be found throughout the city and on every street corner. For example, you can come across an old column in a restaurant, or an old part of a city wall in a square. Also check out our Blog with 4 short YouTube videos about how everything looked like two thousand years ago. For practical information such as opening times, see the MNAT website.
Tarragona features prominently on the UNESCO World Heritage List and you are about to experience why.
Roman city walk: the highlights
The walking time itself is only about 20 minutes, but allow half a day because you will probably also want to go inside the Circus or the amphitheater. Or have a drink and a tapa somewhere on a terrace in the old town. You can easily walk the tour yourself, but with a guide is also great. They can be found next to the entrance to our starting point, the Maquete Tarraco.
1. Maquete Tarraco
We start with the model showing what the city of Tarraco looked like in the second century AD, the height of Roman times in Tarragona. It's nice to start here because it helps you recognize everything during the walk.
With its 18 m2 surface, it is the second largest model of the Roman world in Europe (only the one in Rome is larger). The entrance is free.
The model can be found on Plaça del Pallol square. Together with Plaça del Fòrum (which we will visit later), this square formed the Fòrum Provincial. More on that soon.
2. Paseo Arqueológico
We then walk through the Portal del Roser (in the Roman wall itself) and turn right. That's where the Paseo Arqueológico begins, an open-air museum that runs all the way along the 2,000-year-old Roman city wall. The first phase of this wall was built as early as 200 years BC., at the time of the 2nd Punic War (you know, Hannibal and his elephants). The wall is impressive as are the old towers. With many beautiful details, such as the relief of Minerva (the oldest outside Rome itself). There are many signs with info along the route.
3. Fòrum provincial (Plaça del Fòrum)
After we leave the Paseo Arqueológico on the other side, we continue along the wall and enter the Portal de Sant Antoni into the old town. One street further we arrive at the beautiful square 'Plaça del Fòrum', which used to be part of the Fòrum Provincial. This was the political and administrative nerve center of the province of Tarraco. Today this once vast square is home to dozens of cozy alleys, restaurants and wine bars. Here you can even relax on one of the terraces, around the two-thousand-year-old remains.
4. Circo Romano
We walk on and arrive at the entrance of the Circus Romana. The entrance itself is already impressive with its 14th century tower of Monges, but the two thousand year old Circus Romana is the real showpiece. The Circus Romana with its chariot races was without doubt the most popular mass spectacle in the Roman world. Built in the 1st century and with a surface of 235 by 115 meters, it is an enormous structure.
A visit to the Pretorio tower is included with the visit to the Circus Romana. In Roman times, the Pretorio gave passage from the lower town to the Fòrum Provincial, connected by underground passages. According to a legend, Pontius Pilate (who had condemned Jesus in Jerusalem) died here and the traces of blood can still be seen on the wall.
Be sure to go to the roof of the Pretorio, where you have a fantastic view over Tarragona city, the sea and the cathedral.
Opposite the Circus Romana is the amphitheater. Built in the 2nd century it was used for gladiatorial and animal fights. The amphitheater could seat 15 thousand spectators and measure 130 by 100 meters. A basilica was later built in the middle of the amphitheater to commemorate three martyrs who were burned at the stake here during the persecution of Christians.
Next to the amphitheater is a park and also a restaurant, with a large terrace and a beautiful view of the amphitheater and the sea. A nice place to rest after this walk. And who knows, after that you're fit and inspired enough to visit 2 more beautiful Roman sites...
Roman city walk: OK, 2 more then
For those who are interested, we extend the tour a bit, still on foot. It will cost you an extra hour, but well worth it.
6. Fòrum de la Colònia
We walk from the amphitheater over the Rambla Nova, via Plaça Corsini along the Mercado Central, to the Fòrum de la Colònia. This was the local heart of Tarraco's social and political life. All the main streets led here and it was a meeting place for the local elites. Unique monument in the middle of the city.
7. Teatro Romano
If we continue on and turn right at Plaça General Prim, then we arrive at the remains of the Roman theatre. This theater was built in the time of Emperor Augustus in the 1st century BC. as part of the Fórum de la Colonia and was one of the most emblematic buildings in Tarraco.
Roman Tarraco by car
The most beautiful Roman remains can also be seen around Tarragona. They are easy to reach by car. Below a short legend of all monuments, for more information and photos see our Culture page.
(a.) The Roman villa of Centcelles is beautiful and also contains the oldest known Christian themed dome mosaic in the Roman world.
(b.) The Puente del Diablo (Devil's Bridge) is a Roman aqueduct. It was built to supply water to the ancient city of Tarraco.
(c.) The Torre de los Escipiones is a 1st century funerary monument on the route of the Via Augusta (the Roman road from the Pyrenees to Cádiz).
(d.) Cantera de El Mèdol is a huge pit, more than 200 m. long, where in Roman times stone was quarried for the buildings in the city of Tarragona. Recommended!
(e.) Vila Romana dels Munts is one of the best preserved aristocratic villas from Roman Hispania.
(f.) The Arc de Berà is a Roman triumphal arch on the Via Augusta.
Frugally preserved Roman heritage in the Netherlands
The Roman heritage in both Tarragona and the Netherlands is recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Yet there are major differences between the two. But first... what kind of Roman heritage is there in the Netherlands?
The answer is the 'Limes'. Two thousand years ago, this was the northern frontier of the immense Roman Empire. In the Netherlands this border ran along the river Rhine, and internationally from the Wall of Hardrianus to the Black Sea. To guard it, the Romans built watchtowers, roads, waterways and army camps along the river. There are many remains here, making the Limes the largest archaeological monument in the Netherlands.
For example, in Leiden (we grew up not far from here) Park Matilo is located on the spot where the Roman fortress Matilo was built. That fortress is now hidden under the park, but was declared a national monument in 1976. But now it comes. In the Netherlands we are so careful with this heritage that we are keeping everything underground for the time being, pending better archaeological techniques. It is forbidden to excavate anything (there is now a Roman park on top).
How different this is in Tarragona! Here, the heritage can be found in all corners and streets of the city, integrated into existing buildings, inside restaurants or in squares between terraces. And in the Netherlands we keep the Roman works underground for later…
There maybe is a lot to say for both. But either way, all that lively Roman history in the city makes me very happy!