Homage to Catalunya: Tarragona

Homage to Catalunya: Tarragona

This is the final installment of a seven-part series on Catalonia, following this plan:

  1. Introduction & Background
  2. The City of Barcelona
  3. Museums of Barcelona
  4. Architecture of Barcelona
  5. The Museum of Dalí
  6. Montserrat
  7. Tarragona

If you want to catch a glimpse of Catalonia’s Roman heritage, no city is better suited than Tarragona—or, as the Romans called it, Tarraco. The capital of its eponymous province, the city of Tarragona is nevertheless much smaller than Barcelona, with a population of about 130,000. It is easily accessible from that mecca of Catalonia, about an hour away by commuter train, and thus well-suited for day trips. Tarragona is also worth visiting on its own—especially if you’re looking for a place less infested by tourists. Like Barcelona, it is situated on the Mediterranean coast, in a section the Catalans call the Costa Daurada, or “golden coast.”

tarragona_beach1
Tarragona’s beach with the tracks towards Barcelona

Roman remains are scattered throughout the city, especially in the old city center. This part of town is also called the “high part” by the inhabitants, for the obvious reason that it is situated high on a hill overlooking the sea to one side and the land on the other. You can reach this point by ascending the Via de l’Imperi Roma, a fine tiled walkway, sheltered with trees, that goes along the remains of the old Roman wall (which was likely built atop another, older wall, perhaps Phoenician). For a small price the visitor can climb up these walls and walk their length, giving one an excellent view of the city as well as the surrounding valley on the inland side.

Going along this way, the walker curves around back towards the city and the sea. I passed the Archaeology Museum, which unfortunately was closed at the time. Nevertheless, outside the building there are some ruins to explore, notably a staircase that leads up into the shell of the old Praetorium Tower. This tower has been repaired, rebuilt, and repurposed many times throughout its long life: as a castle, a barracks, and finally a prison. According to the informational plaque, it was used for this last function as recently as the Spanish Civil War (1936-39), when it was filled far beyond capacity with political and military prisoners, many of whom were executed. Nowadays, the tower is a ruined shell; before it, on a tall pillar, stands the statue of a Roman dignitary, who seems to be gazing despairingly at the sea beyond.

tarragona_statueview

Nearby, like a stone scar in the middle of the city, is yet another ruin. Like so many ancient remains, weather and time (not to mention the people who used these old ruins as stone quarries) have taken their toll on this site. All I could discern were doorways and what could have been rows of seats. A plaque informed me that this was a section of the old circus maximus, the stands where crowds cheered as chariots sped by. Further down, closer to the sea, a larger section of the old racing ground has been preserved. Apart from walls, doorways, and seating, there is a tower affixed to the structure—whose purpose I admit I do not know, but which looks to my eyes like a later addition.

Tarragona_circusmaximus2

But the most impressive ruin in Tarragona is still further towards the water. This is the amphitheater, which sits like a man-made crater in the hill above the beach. Few sights in Catalonia are more picturesque than this one: the tan stone, symmetrical and bare, seeming to float above the sea. Built in the early 2nd century, the amphitheater was approximately the same size as the one in Mérida, big enough for 15,000 spectators. And like all amphitheaters in Rome, what these spectators viewed was gore: fights to the death between slaves. During the reign of Valerian (253 – 260), the Christian bishop Fructuosus was, along with his two deacons, burned alive in this very amphitheater during one of the many waves of persecutions against the Christians.

tarragona_amphitheater

The Roman remains within Tarragona have been subject to the pressure of an expanding city. Their rocks have been quarried and their structures used as foundations. But outside the city, some ruins have fared rather better. The most famous of these is the so-called Pont del Diable, or Devil’s Bridge. More prosaically, this is Les Ferreres Aqueduct. This was built during the time of Augustus to transport water to the city of Tarraco. Today it sits, peaceful and pristine, in a wooded area about 4 km north of the city.

I could have gotten there easily enough by bus. But I like walking and so I decided to go by foot. Google Maps has a bad habit of routing pedestrians with the most direct route, without considering whether it’s really walkable. So the path took me along the highway N-240 (which links Tarragona and Bilbao), which is indeed quite direct. The problem was that the sidewalk dwindled and eventually disappeared, leaving me wandering in the tight space between the guardrail and the grass. Eventually I decided that this was possibly unsafe and certainly unpleasant, so I turned into Sant Pere i Sant Paul, a suburb of Tarragona. Once I crossed through this sleepy hamlet (and stopped for coffee), I entered some dirt paths that led through a pine forest.

Amid these natural surroundings the aqueduct mysteriously materializes, traversing a wide valley between two hills. It has hardly aged a day. The tan rock bears the same color as the sandy soil underneath, and indeed of much of the stone of this region. It is not as tall or as graceful as the aqueduct of Segovia, which has three levels of arches rather than Ferreres’s two. Nevertheless, one cannot walk across the top of the aqueduct in Segovia, as one can here. There is no ticket booth nor any tourist apparatus of any kind. One simply walks up and across, enjoying the view of the surrounding forest. Admittedly the constant whooshing of the nearby highway traffic does lessen the enchanting sensation of having discovered a forgotten ruin. Even so, the aqueduct is one of the jewels of Tarragona.

Tarragona_aqueducttop

This exhausts my knowledge of Tarragona’s famous Roman ruins. But Tarragona has still more to offer.

The most beautiful building in the city is Tarragona’s Cathedral. The building sits ensconced in the historic center, up on the hill, surrounded by attractive narrow streets and old buildings. A flight of stairs leads you up to its façade. This is most notable for its row of saints, apostles, and prophets in robs who flank the main doorway. In the central doorjamb stands the Virgin, holding Christ; and below her is a bas-relief of Adam and Eve. Once inside, I was able to hear the cathedral’s magnificent organ resonating throughout the space, since it was in the process of being tuned. This did not sound exactly beautiful, I admit, but it is a pleasure to hear even a single note on a real church organ.

tarragona_cathedralfacade

What first attracted my attention was the main altar. Luckily the visitor can walk right up to it, which is usually not the case. It is a wonderful gothic creation in polychromed alabaster, depicting scenes from the lives of Jesus and Mary in 18 separate reliefs. Once more, the Virgin and Child stand in the center, while above two golden angels raise their weapons in righteous fury. The cathedral also has a lovely cloister, spacious and filled with green. When I visited a painter had set up an easel in one corner and was at work. From the painter’s spot you could also see the cathedral’s distinctive octagonal tower, which is doubtless why he chose it. I particularly enjoyed the small vents in the walls around above the cloister windows, each one carved into a different pattern.

tarragona_altar

Attached to the cloister is the Dioecian Museum, which houses several religious paintings and tapestries. I was also surprised to find that one door led into an archaeological excavation. A temple dedicated to the cult of Augustus has been uncovered under the cathedral. Humans like to build their temples over one another, it seems, perhaps for the sake of continuity during a period of dogmatic change. Many churches in Spain have been built over mosques, which themselves had been built over Visigothic churches. And so history flows on.

Tarragona_castle

Once you descend the hill on which the old town sits, you can come to the city’s central road: the Rambla Nova. In the center is a spacious walkway where, when I visited, a Christmas market had been set up. Here you can also see the Monument als castellers, which is a metal statue depicting Catalonia’s famous tradition of making human pyramids. This tradition, by the way, is one of two in Catalonia to be designated UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage. The other is the Patum of Berga, a festival celebrated in the city of Berga during Corpus Christi, in which people dress up in giant monster costumes and dance.

At the end of the Nova Rambla is the Balcó del Mediterrani, a lookout point that sits high up above the Mediterranean Sea beyond. Dotting the seascape were the shapes of ships, large shipping frigates at anchor in the harbor. I wonder, do the sailors sleep on board or do they take a little boat to shore? The life of a sailor is a great mystery to me. Someone who assuredly did sleep many nights at sea is Roger de Llúria, a Catalan who was one of the greatest naval commanders of the medieval period, and whose statue stands in the center of the lookout point.

From here there is no direct way to get down to Tarragona’s beach, the Platja del Miracle. But it is worth the walk if you want to see the sun set below the dockyard, turning the skyline red and turning every building and person into a black silhouette. You may even enjoy a swim.

Tarragona_Cover


This wraps up my series on Catalonia. Of course with my measly three trips there I have inevitably left out much of the region’s treasures. Even so, I am tremendously impressed with Catalonia. It is a place replete with national and cultural beauty, rich with history, and still striving towards the future.

Homage to Catalunya: Montserrat (and Poblet)

Homage to Catalunya: Montserrat (and Poblet)

This is Part Six of a projected seven-part series on Catalonia, following this plan:

  1. Introduction & Background
  2. The City of Barcelona
  3. Museums of Barcelona
  4. Architecture of Barcelona
  5. The Museum of Dalí
  6. Montserrat
  7. Tarragona

The monastery of Montserrat, situated about 50 kilometers from Barcelona, is understandably one of the most popular day trips for visitors to Barcelona. But before I tell you about that monastery, allow me to take a detour to the Poblet Monastery—comparatively little visited, and yet the only monastery in Catalonia (which has three famous Cistercian monasteries aside from Montserrat) to earn the distinction of being designated a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Poblet

The UNESCO designation largely rests on Poblet’s status as the royal burial site of the Kings of Aragón. Every king and queen of Aragón since James I (1208 – 1276)—save one—is buried in an alabaster tomb in the monastery’s church. The exception is the last king that Aragón ever had, King Ferdinand II (1452 – 1516), who married Isabel of Castile and thus merged their kingdoms—incorporating Aragón into Spain as we know it. Ferdinand is buried in Granada, a city that he “reconquered” from the Muslims, along with his wife. (With few exceptions, every monarch since this marriage—henceforth, kings of Spain—has been buried in El Escorial, in Madrid.)

My plan was to take a day trip from Tarragona to visit the Poblet Monastery. But I made a fatal error: I had waited until Saturday, when the buses aren’t running. My only option was to take a commuter train to a nearby town, Espluga de Francoli, and walk about an hour to the monastery. The problem with this plan was that, due to the train schedule, I would have to turn around as soon as I reached the monastery in order to catch the only train back to Tarragona. This was clearly not desirable. But, lacking options, this is what I did.

Luckily, the train ride to Espluga de Francoli was itself worth the trip, skirting around the edge of the Prades Mountains. Even Espluga de Francoli was a charming sight, sitting atop one of the range’s foothills, like so many villages in the area. And though I did not have time to appreciate it, I enjoyed the town’s Moderniste wine cellar, designed by Pere Domènech i Roura. The walk to the monastery quickly drew me through the town, however, and into the surrounding agricultural fields. It was winter and nothing was growing, though the hills in the distance were still green.

poblet_sunbeam
The monastery hiding behind a sunbeam

I arrived at the monastery with barely ten minutes to spare. But this was enough to go inside and take a look around. This Cistercian monastery is built somewhat like a fort, and for good reason. Like the Monasterio de Piedra in Zaragoza, it was founded when there were still frequent clashes between Christians and Muslims on the Iberian Peninsula. Thus a strong wall surrounds the outside and there is a second layer of defense within. But it turns out that the monastery had more to fear from disenchanted Spaniards than from Muslims, since it was during the Mendizábal confiscations, in 1835, that the monastery was taken from the church’s hands and then destroyed by angry, anti-clerical mobs. In his youth Gaudí wanted to rebuild the monastery and turn it into a sort of religious commune; but this didn’t happen. Instead, the monastery was rebuilt later, starting in 1930, and began to house monks again in 1940. At present there are 29 monks living in the monastery.

Poblet_Facade

But I had no time to dwell on any of this history. Indeed, I barely had time to rush through the church’s Baroque portal, walk down the nave, and peek at the royal tombs beside the main altar (designed by Damià Forment, who also designed the even more impressive altar in Zaragoza’s El Pillar). After that I had to speed away back through the farmland towards Espluga de Francoli, where I caught the train back to Tarragona. Thankfully, my trip to Montserrat went more smoothly.

Poblet_Interior
Poblet’s main altar and, to the left, the royal tombs

Montserrat

As I said above, Montserrat is about 50 km (or 30 miles) from Barcelona. Getting there from the city center is easy. A commuter FGC train departs from the Plaça d’Espanya every hour: the R5 towards Manresa. You can hardly miss it: the ticket machines at the station are constantly swamped, and there are attendants on standby to help tourists buy the correct ticket. This train will, however, only bring you to the base of the mountain. There are two options for going up: a cable car and a rack railway. The second is slightly cheaper and the first has a slightly better view; but in the end it hardly makes a difference in the time or the experience.

Montserrat is Catalan for “serrated mountain,” and the name is well-chosen. As you approach, its form looms up above you like a giant stone saw. The surrounding countryside is a deep pine green, so the greyish brown rocks that appear look as though they are slicing through nature herself. The monastery complex is nestled between these sawtooths, overlooking the surrounding countryside. From up close, however, the sharp edges of Montserrat look swollen and bulbous, even vaguely alive. They could have been designed by Gaudí himself.

montserrat

Unlike Poblet and other two famous monasteries of Catalonia—Santes Creus and Vallbona de les Monges—Montserrat is Benedictine, not Cistercian. Its origins are somewhat unclear, and legend has extended them far into the past; but what is certain is that by the 12th century it was taking shape. The monastery grew steadily over the years, with Romanesque and then Gothic additions, until the 19th century, when it was struck by two blows. First, Napoleon’s invading troops burned the monastery in 1811 and 1812; and then it was taken by the government during the 1835 Confiscations of Mendizábal (which affected so many of the Spanish monasteries I have seen). Unlike Poblet Monastery, however, the Monastery of Montserrat was reopened less than a decade later, in 1844.

Montserrat_Monastery

But this wasn’t the end of the monastery’s troubles. When the Spanish Civil War broke out in 1936 the monastery was closed and confiscated by the Catalan government, the Generalitat. The wave of anti-clerical violence and persecution that took place during the war years resulted in the deaths of over twenty of the monastery’s monks. After the war’s conclusion, however, Montserrat was returned to the church. During Franco’s reign it became (like everything else in Catalonia, it seems) a symbol of Catalan nationalism, serving as a refuge and a place of protest. At present over 70 monks are still living, praying, and fasting within its walls.

Montserrat_facade

Though many buildings make up the Monastery of Montserrat, the most impressive, by far, is the basilica. You cannot see it from the outside, since it is enclosed in a rather plain and unremarkable square building. But once you enter this through the front portal and stand in the enclosed plaza, you can see the basilica’s façade. This actually of quite recent date, having been constructed after the Spanish Civil War. Nevertheless its fine sculptural friezes and decoration are perfectly in keeping with the place’s long history, as well as with the mountain itself, since the architect Francesc Folguera used stone quarried on site. The inside of the basilica is absolutely radiant. Numerous lights and candles illuminate the gold that seems to cover every surface. The vaulted ceiling, the walls, the altar—they all emit a regal glow.

Montserrat_Interior

In a space above and behind the main altar is the famed Virgin of Montserrat. Sometimes called the “Black Virgin” because of her dark skin, this is a statue of the Virgin and Child enthroned. According to legend it was carved by Saint Luke himself and discovered by some shepherds in the year 890 or so; but in reality it bears the clear marks of a Romanesque work. In any case, kissing this Virgin is supposed to bring blessing and good fortune, and so people line up for hours to do so. The expectant smoocher passes through an elaborately decorated doorway and ascends a staircase, at the top of which the Virgin patiently awaits—as she has done for centuries. For those in search of additional benediction there is a narrow passage in the space between the basilica and the mountain’s rockface, where for a small fee one can light a candle and place it on a metal rack. These candles are housed in colorful glass cups that glow attractively in the shadowy passage.

Montserrat_candles

At this point I felt hungry and began searching for something to eat. Montserrat is well-stocked with restaurants, cafeterias, and vending machines. But they are uniformly overpriced. And since being stuck on a mountain is like being on an airplane—in that there are limited options—vendors can charge whatever they like for quite ordinary food. I bought a sandwich from a machine and scuttled away, unsatisfied. Heed my advice and pack a lunch.

Next I wanted to explore the mountain itself. Montserrat is full of walking paths, ranging from a quick stroll to mountain climbing. There are also funiculars for those who would prefer not to climb up any steep hills. The Funicular de Santa Cova takes one down to an important shrine in situated in a cave; the Funicular de Sant Joan takes one upwards, giving one a panoramic view of the compound. But I had just spent several weeks in city centers, surrounded by grey asphalt, so I wasn’t interested in either of those. I was aching to lose myself in nature; so I chose the longest path, up to the top of San Jeroni, the highest peak in the area.

montserrat2

The beginning stretch was the most difficult, leading up several steep staircases that had been carved into the mountain rock. After the first half-hour, however, the trail levelled out somewhat. Still, the constant pumping of my legs as I rushed ever upwards quickly had me panting. The scanty trees seldom provided any relief from the glaring sun. But the mountain spurred me on like a mystery story, gradually revealing itself in a series of twists and turns, each one bringing more of the whole picture into view. The undulating curves of the mountainside were covered in emerald bushes and spotted with the bulbous grey of rocks, like the scales of an enormous reptile.

montserrat_cairns

Nearly an hour and a half had elapsed before I reached the top. The clouds hung lower and lower as I rose. The vegetation dwindled and finally disappeared, leaving only the swollen, jagged stone of this enchanting place. As often happens, there are many small cairns near the top—piles of stone that serve as miniature monuments to former climbers. Soon the whole surrounding landscape came into view; and the sight was well worth the exertion. The distant horizon faded into the atmospheric blue of faraway. The shadows of small clouds darkened the landscape below, where roads and towns looked like mere patches of dirt. But for the most part the view is a gently rolling sea of green.

montserrat3


So concluded my trip to Barcelona’s iconic mountain monastery. Now I must move on to another of Catalonia’s great cities: Tarragona.