Ever since La Tomatina set the silver screen on fire in Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara , Spain has captured the imagination of many an Indian traveller. Party talk is liberally flavoured with mentions of its tomato festival, flamenco, tapas , paella and sangria. My earlier visit to that country had taken me through exotic locations such as Valencia, Segovia and Madrid. This time around, landing in Barcelona on a nice summer day in May, I was determined to log a great many small towns in my diary. I drove towards Tarragona, a historic Catalonian town and World Heritage Site. Called Tarraco by the Romans, the town is a repository of their relics.
The two parts of Tarragona are easily discernible. The medieval, walled La Part Alta is at a higher altitude, while the affluent modern section, known as Eixample, is at a lower level. The Rambla Nova (avenue) traverses both segments. Like most ramblas in Catalonia, this one too is lined by a multitude of cafes, restaurants, boutiques and tapas bars. Walking down to the end of the rambla , I reached the Balcó del Mediterràni — the Balcony of the Mediterranean, offering a breathtaking panorama of the blue expanse.
The historic town is at the end of the Rambla Vella, dotted with Roman edifices, including a well-preserved 2nd Century amphitheatre. Facing the magnificent sea and carved from solid rock, the spectacular arena could hold 15,000 spectators. Standing there, I recalled scenes from the movie Gladiator . It is said that Emperor Augustus was an enthusiastic spectator who loved blood-curdling combats between wild animals and gladiators, as well as gory executions — all set against the beautiful backdrop of a serene Mediterranean.
Apart from horrific combats, the amphitheatre was also witness to Christians burnt at the stake in the 3rd Century. Remnants of the Santa Maria del Milagro Church, built on the site of the execution in the 6th Century, are visible right in the middle of the amphitheatre.
A short distance away is the impressive circus constructed by Emperor Domitian. Once a venue for immensely popular chariot races, it brings to mind scenes of the races in Ben-Hur . A lofty tower dating back to 1st Century BC looms in the distance. History peeps from every corner of the town. With several houses built around long-forgotten edifices, Tarragona represents a seamless blend of the modern and ancient.
In the centre of the Old Town, the Fountain Square with an imposing Town Hall overlooks dozens of tapas bars, souvenir shops, cafes and boutiques. A 12th Century cathedral, constructed over an ancient Roman temple, towers over the town at a vantage point. Boasting an interesting blend of Gothic and Romanesque architectural elements, the cathedral is a peaceful haven with its beautiful stained-glass windows and eye-catching interiors.
Trudging towards the busier sections of the town along steep, cobbled lanes takes a toll on my legs. I make a beeline for a restaurant where I enjoy a long and leisurely repast of seafood paella washed down with my favourite sangria.
As the sun begins to set, I unwind at the silvery beach dotted by umbrellas and recliners.
The next morning I head to Sitges, a popular Mediterranean resort town along the Costa Dorada (Golden Coast). Besides a lovely promenade that extends tantalisingly from the heart of town to the silvery beaches, the town prides itself on 300 days of sunshine a year, which draws sun-starved European tourists to its shores. The town has a sizeable gay community.
Ensconced at the foot of the Garraf Massif, Sitges has several enchanting old structures, including a 17th Century church called La Punta by the locals. The Sant Bartomeu i Santa Tecla Church is a Baroque structure, complete with an Organ dating back several centuries. Perched prettily on a tiny hill overlooking the town and the beach, the church is an oasis of calm.
With its palm-fringed promenades, gorgeous beaches and a fair bit of culture and history, Sitges is perfect for a luxurious vacation. It is also the venue for an international film festival, theatre festival, carnival and gay pride parade.
Tarragona is about an hour’s drive from Barcelona. Fast trains take you there in just half an hour.
The best way to explore Tarragona and Sitges is on foot; do pack comfortable walking shoes.
Sitges is a 45-minute train ride from Barcelona. With careful planning it is possible to visit both Tarragona and Sitges in two days.
Seafood is a speciality of Tarragona, including the region’s signature sauce romesco .
Facundo Bacardi belonged to Sitges, and little wonder there is a Rum Museum in town.