We went to a supermarket just before we left Andorra. There were more cigarettes there than I’ve ever seen before! Some brands had special offers – buy 3 cartons, get a free bottle of booze, or free lighters. And there was even one brand that was sold by the bucket – approx 198 cigs in it. Yuck! I guess the prices were good, I have no idea how much a packet of cigs is at home. Anyway, we got some food and a tetrapak of wine ‘cos we are complete philistines (and they fit in our fridge better than glass wine bottles) and headed south towards Valencia.
One of the towns along the way is Tarragona, which is on the coast about 100km south of Barcelona. I consulted our Lonely Planet guide and it sounded like we should stop there and have a look. Originally founded by the Romans in 200-something BC, it is Spain’s second-most important Roman site. In 27BC Augustus made it the capital of his new Tarraconesis province, which is now roughly all of modern Spain. In its heyday, it had a population of over 200,000. Current population is around 132,000. It was abandoned in AD714 when the Muslims arrived, then reborn as the seat of a Christian archbishopric in the 11th Century.
We parked just outside the old city walls, which now have apartments built into and on top of them. Walked through the old town to the cathedral, whose spire is the highest point of the town and can be seen for miles. Along the way, there were posters everywhere advertising the Festival of Santa Tecla Saint Thecla (a saint of the early Christian Church and reported follower of Paul the Apostle), which was happening while we were there. And we found out after a bit more research that one of the highlights of the festival – the human tower display – was happening the next day, Saturday. More on that later.
There are some excellent historical Roman sites in Tarragona – the amphitheatre near the beach, which also contains the remains of a couple of 6th and 12th century churches. The original stone from the amphitheatre was used to build the nearby port, so what is now there is a partial reconstruction. Right near one part of the city walls is the ruins of the Roman circus, the ancient chariot racetrack. If you follow the modern road up to the right of the circus, you can see the apartments built above the city wall.
We stayed at a campground on the beach just north of the town. First one we tried had shut for the season, and the one we stayed at seemed to be closing the morning we left. Everyone around us was packing up their caravans, chucking out huge rolls of lino, rolling up fake grass, putting fridges and freezers into storage and trying to cram months of accumulated crap into either their caravans or the huge dumpsters that were already overflowing.
Drove back into town just before midday and parked at a parking station so we could go to the Plaza de la Font to watch the human tower building. The Municipal building is at one end of the square, and it had a stage set up in front of it. When we got there, there was a group of people in costume reciting pieces of poetry, with the occasional display of fireworks and loud bangs. We had no idea what was going on, but clapped along with everyone else. There was a very enthusiastic rendition of what we thought was the Catalonian anthem (Catalonia is currently trying to gain independence from the rest of Spain, there are many pro-Catalonia posters everywhere). And then the 4 teams of tower-builders marched into the square, each heralded by its own band. The teams took turns to build towers of up to 9 people high, in various configurations ranging from 3 people on each level, to just one person supporting another one on his or her shoulders, going up and up … all with little kids wearing helmets at the very top. For anyone who has a child who is a climber, send ’em to Human Tower Building classes at Tarragona. They will either love it, or decide they’re not so keen on climbing after all.
We spent a few hours at the square, watching the poetry recital and then the tower building, and one thing that really struck me was how amiable the crowd was. Everyone was happy, there was no tension or crying kids or irritable people, it all just flowed beautifully. Over the course of our time there, we ended up getting closer to the front as the crowd ebbed and flowed. It was just one of those lucky occasions of us being in the right place at the right time.