It’s peaceful now. We are in Tarragona, on the Balcón de Mediterráneo, a long walkway fringed with palm trees and ornate wrought-iron railings, gazing at the teal-blue sea and the harbour beyond. Below, through a cluster of heavily scented mimosa trees, we are gazing back through time.
Life was less peaceful in the second century AD, when Tarragona was known as a Roman colony called Tarraco. And as in all major Roman settlements, the amphitheatre was the heart of civic life. Tarragona’s is one of Europe’s finest and most intact. With the timeless sea as its backdrop, the tiered rows of seats once hosted 15,000 spectators as gladiators fought for their lives in the heat and dust.
We are 100 kilometres south of Barcelona. South: that’s a significant detail. Iris, the photographer and my companion on this trip, and I are both adopted Barceloninas: I lived in the city for several years before returning to London; and Iris, after growing up in Italy, still lives there. We were soon comparing notes on our favourite haunts in the Catalan capital. But our mission was to drive out of the city and explore some of Catalunya’s lesser-known corners.
We wouldn’t head north to the beaches of the Costa Brava and the foothills of the Pyrenees, nor westwards into the Rioja winelands – but south to the less-visited Catalunya of lush valleys and unspoilt beaches, Unesco World Heritage Roman ruins, wonderfully ornate art nouveau architecture and unique food.
I knew the region, but 10 years had passed since my last visit to Tarragona. I was also keen to revisit the small town of Reus although Iris was sceptical (wondering, like hundreds of others, if there was anything there, other than an airport). More on that later.
Heading off in a pristine white Fiat 500X SUV on the AP7 motorway, Barcelona’s urban sprawl soon gives way to the pines and scrubland of the Garraf National Park and the vine-covered hills of the Penedès region. Within an hour we arrive on the Costa Daurada – the Golden Coast – and Tarragona.
After settling into the central SB Ciutat de Tarragona Hotel, we walk up the Rambla Nova – a leafy, pedestrianised boulevard, like a mini version of its more famous Rambla cousin in Barcelona – filled with strolling families, old men with canes and flat caps and skateboarding teenagers.
Roman remains are everywhere. Just before the Rambla meets the seafront, past a steep hill with the vast, remaining walls of the original Roman fortified city, we arrive at the remains of the Tarragona Roman Circus, where the Romans held Ben Hur-style chariot races.
The sprawling complex includes a lookout tower and underground chambers; but the pièce de resistance is an epic tunnel that runs underneath what would have been the full length of the stadium. To one side, there are small chambers where charioteers and the lions would have been prepared for battle.
The Circus lies on the edge of Tarragona’s Old Town or Casco Antiguo – a steep warren of winding alleys and tranquil plazas. We stop at Plaça de la Font – a grandiose, pedestrianised square, lined with terracotta, ochre and white 19th century townhouse apartments and an impressive fin de siècle town hall at the far end.
At Restaurant Forum (they’re big on their Roman heritage round here), we tuck into espinacas a la crema, a spinach-filled, cannelloni gratin, followed by tender duck breast in plum sauce (a Catalan classic) and one of my all-time favourite puddings – crema Catalana (the Catalans’ own take on crème brulée) that comes served in a traditional earthenware dish.
The next morning we visit Tarragona’s Roman Forum itself, a sprawling complex with pillars, buildings and wells, now tucked away in a residential area amid blocks of flats, hardware shops and local bars. Then, after squeezing in a visit to the Old Town’s huge 12th century cathedral – an impressive mix of gothic and Romanesque architecture, stained-glass windows and intricately carved figures of the apostles on the façade – we are back on the road, along the coast to Torredembarra, a tiny town with a string of good fish restaurants on the beach.
It’s a perfect afternoon, not a cloud in the radiant blue sky. We sit in the smart beachfront terrace of the family-run La Sirga restaurant, savouring steamed mussels, followed by simple grilled bream with pisto (a Catalan ratatouille). But the star of the show is the homemade ice cream. With our tubs of salty-sweet pistachio and hazelnut in hand, Iris and I kick off our shoes and wade through the warm, silky sand.
The next day, a 20-minute drive inland takes us to the small town of Reus. Although these days the town is best known for the small airport used by budget airlines, Reus is one of my favourite little nooks of Catalunya – a forgotten jewel of a town, full of floridly decorated art deco townhouses. Reus was also the birthplace of maverick architect Gaudí.
The maestro never built anything here, but the town is now home to the Gaudí Centre – a brilliantly interactive museum exploring his life and work, where you can create your own undulating, Gaudí-style roof. Then, after a quick tapas stop for some excellent calamares (battered, fried squid) and croquetas (battered, fried mashed potatoes) at Casa Coder – an art nouveau restaurant bar on the grand square next to the museum, we were off in the Fiat once more for the final leg of our trip.
To the foot-tapping sounds of Benny Spellman’s Fortune Teller and a medley of 1960s Greenwich Village folk, blues and African pop from Iris’ iPhone, we head back on the road towards Barcelona, to the Cellers Augustus Forum winery in the Penedès. It was the Phoenicians who first introduced winegrowing to the region, but it wasn’t until the Romans arrived two centuries later that viniculture developed extensively in the area. The winery is named after its location on the Romans’
Via Augusta – the road that led from Rome to Cádiz in Andalucía.
After driving along a winding gravel track through vineyards, we’re met by Albert Roca, who runs the winery with his brother, sister and cousin. He shows us around the headily grape-scented,
oak-barrel-filled cellars and outbuildings where they make not only wines from cabernet sauvignon to grenache but also superbly subtle, deluxe ‘Forum’ vinegars, celebrated by top chefs and restaurants from Gordon Ramsay and Raymond Blanc to Girona’s El Celler de Can Roca, up the coast from Barcelona.
Like all wines and indeed vinegars, their distinctive taste is heavily influenced by this soil and climate. Standing in a smart function room with floor to ceiling windows overlooking the vineyards, we can glimpse the Mediterranean through the vines with the hazy Bonastre mountains in the distance.
This combination of sea and mountains is just one of the things that makes the Catalan countryside so memorable and keeps those in the know returning again and again – myself included.
Roca opens a bottle of xarel-lo, a honeyish, vanillary white wine and a light, fruity merlot syrah. As I’m driving, my wine tasting sadly has to be of the very briefest kind but I make sure to take a bottle back to enjoy at home.
I wish you could bottle the spirit of this ancient, modern, beachy, towny, fertile place. But you’ll just have to go and taste it for yourself.
Six driving highlights
Best meal: Dinner at Restaurant Forum
Best song in the car: Iris’ favourite song, O Bia by Cameroonian musician Francis Bebey
Most useful Catalan phrase: Estava delicious – ‘it was delicious’
Most amazing smell: The heady, musty scent of grapes in the cellars at Augustus Forum
Taste: My pistachio ice cream and Iris’ arroz negro (black rice) at Restaurant Forum
Favourite colour: The teal blue of the sea next to the Balcón de Mediterráneo
Cathay Pacific launches a four-times-weekly service to Barcelona from Hong Kong on 2 July