The train was a slow one, taking two hours along the Mediterranean coast to my last unknown stop, Tarragona. It sounded interesting: Roman settlement, big seaport, Visigothic Christian presence, and, for the gastronome, home of the fabled romesco sauce, which is made out of olive oil, crushed almonds, and a particular dried red chile that isn't hot: recreating it in the US involved chile ancho. I'd had it once in Barcelona with a mixed-vegetable tapa, and again in Valencia with that mixed vegetable plate, but it's most often served with seafood, so I was ready for that.
But how much of the town would I get to see? For the first time in my visit, the clouds were dark, and the Mediterranean was choppy, its water varying from slate-colored to black ink. The sere, brown countryside I'd been seeing had made me forget about rain, except for its absence. But this didn't look good for a pedestrian visit to a city. It held off until I reached my hotel, charmingly located above the city's bus terminal. It seemed to have been airlifted in from Czechoslovakia in 1979: sort of modern, with much polished wood and stone, a totally indifferent front-desk staff verging on mildly hostile, and a room that was just a smidgen smaller than would have been comfortable. I checked my watch: it was almost 4:30, so I'd better figure out what was where. But by the time I got to the lobby, it was raining. Still, I intuited that this wouldn't last long, and I was right: a half-hour later it stopped and the clouds looked a bit friendlier. Off I went.
I knew that the traffic circle just outside the hotel was the beginning of a rambla, one of those delightful Spanish streets divided by a strip of park where people walk, and that the rambla ended at the Mediterranean Balcony which looked from a height onto the sea. Turning left from there would take me to the Roman Circus, the remains of a giant chariot-racing arena. There wasn't much to see from the balcony, since the clouds were lurking offshore, and the harbor was full of container ships waiting their turn, so I was off to the Circus.
|The moody Med, shot the next day from the Archeological Museum|
The Circus didn't particularly thrill me: it's only partially excavated, since most of it lies under enough dirt to support the buildings of the nearby neighborhood, and, as I've said, I'm not thrilled by Roman art or architecture. Next to it is a Roman tower, to which the Spaniards added a story in the 14th century for the king to stay in when he was in town. Pretty dull. The Archeological Museum would have to wait for Sunday, so I just wandered aimlessly. Pretty soon I found myself at the Cathedral, and a quick look at its sign confirmed what I figured: closed to visitors on Sunday. Better take a peek.
|Swarming with tourists on Sunday, of course. But again, no steeple.|
|Hi! My name is St. ______!|
I wandered down the steps in front of the Cathedral (dedicated to St. Tecla, the town's patron, and surely one of the more obscure saints out there) and found myself in a square into which gigantes were gathering. I'd seen these outsize figures before, this spring in Girona, but not in this quantity.
I have no idea what was going on, because they are supposed to show up (as are the famous castells, the human towers for which the city is renowned) for the festival of St. Tecla in mid-September. In any event, they were gone by that night.
I made it back to the hotel after some wandering, and finding a big square lined with restaurants that would be a good place to find dinner. And, later, I ascended the hill again and chose a restaurant that had fish with romesco sauce. At last! The waiter didn't speak any English, but we communicated and I placed my order. He came out again with the menu. No romesco. Grrr: I ordered langoustines in garlic sauce and then hake with what the menu called "burned garlic." I'd been notably garlic-deficient on this trip, so it was time to make up for that. It was just okay, and instead of a wonderful Spanish draft beer, they had Amstel. The Dutch are gradually taking their revenge for the years the Spanish colonized them (yes, they did: how do you think the Prado got all those Bosches?), I guess.
It was damp and chilly the next day, so I headed to the Archeological Museum first thing. To my disappointment (but not surprise) it was 100% Roman, but at least it was dry.
|The plaza outside the Archeological Museum. Notice umbrellas.|
|The menu for a Roman seafood restaurant? No, it was originally on the floor, and the Romans didn't have restaurants.|
The Archeological Museum wasn't included in the ticket I'd bought at the Circus (although its ticket also gets you into other sites it administers, I found out too late and with no time). I wandered around, and discovered the only bit of Jewish presence I saw in Tarragona (although apparently an arch near the Archeological Museum was the gateway to its judería). It was an inscription on a stone supported by two Roman tombstones around the corner from the Cathedral.
Thanks to a couple of medieval Jews I keep on retainer for just such emergencies, I found that this reads "This is the gravestone of Rabbi Chaim bar Yitzchak," and a date nobody can make out.
It was lunch time, and it was sprinkling again, so I went into one of the few places that was open for lunch. I just wanted a couple of tapas and a beer, and the waiter urged calamari with onions on me, so I also ordered some blood sausage with "chopped eggs." The calamari were standard fried calamari (but good: I suspect any restaurant in Spain that produces calamari with the texture of pencil erasers doesn't last a week) with a few crisp-fried onions on top. The blood sausage sat atop a bed of fried, cubed potatoes with some padron peppers. I asked the waiter if "huevos" was a local term for "patatas," and all he said was "my mistake." Since the potatoes a) weren't very good, and were probably frozen, another cardinal sin in this country and b) bad for my diabetes, I concentrated on the sausage (excellent, and redolent of cumin) and the padrons. Now, you know that the Spanish say that every sixth padron is hot? I'd had several dishes of them on this trip, with zero heat, which is disappointing because the sport is part of the deal. These? Every one made me fear I'd leak earwax, they were so hot. Dang.
|Padrons, but harmless Madrid padrons|
I proclaimed the vacation OVER.