By Tim Woods:
A string of global top ten hits; a world-famous fashion icon; the star of era-defining TV shows. But when you hear ‘Minogue’, do you immediately think ‘Dannii’?
Tarragona suffers from a similarly overbearing sibling. It has everything a visitor could want from a Spanish excursion – coast, culture, cuisine and cerveses – yet for many, Catalonia means one thing: that overcrowded, football-famous metropolis up the coast. Even names such as Sitges and Salou will often chime more readily. These nearby resorts offer little more than sun, sangria and “Full English, only €15!!!”, yet still attract more tourists. Some hotels even offer trips to Tarragona as an afternoon excursion: “Only four hours there and back!!!”. Being little more than a time-killing detour from these culturally devoid upstarts must be hard for a former Roman capital to bear.
Yet could the times be changing? Barcelona’s authorities are actively turning tourists away, and there are only so many boiled-lobster beach-lovers that can be squeezed onto a beach. There is a void to be filled, a market to be served, and Tarragona is more than equipped to step up.
Late afternoon, I lose myself in the constricted alleys of its honeycomb old town, the docile ochre of the buildings disrupted by the Catalan flags that flap from every other balcony. I am hardly alone; a steady stream of tourists meander with me, and we are all eventually drawn to the steep steps of the cathedral, where perching space is at a premium. But drift along any of the streets that radiate from this central point and you have space, time, quiet; a stillness rarely found in Barca.
I head to the rambla, where I can actually ramble, rather than being jostled along with a crowd’s haste. Fish and tapas restaurants flank either side, but there are spaces to be had at the tables. The tiny bars selling home-flavoured vermouth are hidden just a couple of streets away. Later, I head to the Balcó del Mediterrani. It’s a hazy, lazy evening, perfect for outside, yet there is still ample room at the city’s prime lookout, from where you can soak up the ancient Amfiteatre to the north, or the fishing boats spinning around at sea.
Humbler Roman sites crop up unexpectedly. Next morning, in search of watermelon for a hungry toddler, we stumble upon the Teatre Romà de Tarragona. This spectacular site pops up unexpectedly; there are no signs, no tour parties, no fuss or fanfare. It’s just there, should you want to see it.
Or not. Up to you.