Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Tarragona, Spain A legacy of stone work

Stones from a mix of different eras form a wall in Tarragona
I just spent 3 days, from December 17 to the 20th in the town of Tarragona, southwest of Barcelona, an hour and a half by train.  I was drawn to this municipality because of it's long history and the layered remains that have made the city what it is today.  Phoenicians first settled here possibly 5,000 years ago, perhaps on previous habitations, and built stone structures and fortifications.  The Romans later built Tarraco, as it was called, the capitol of their Iberian conquests which covered most of present day Spain.  They built a magnificent city with a forum, Circus for chariot racing, an amphitheater for blood sports, and temples to the Roman Gods.  The city was partially abandoned when the Muslims arrived, but became an important Christian center in the 11th century.
A model of Roman Tarraco
Old Tarragona sits on a hill above the Mediterranean.  The Roman amphitheater is near the city's beach.  Above that are remains of the Circus, with a curve in the racing track on he sea end and remnants of walls excavated from under city streets.  Towering above it is a tall building of Gothic origin using stone pilfered from Roman structures.  This became a notorious prison used as late the Franco's fascist regime, where hundreds of people were sentenced to be executed after the Spanish Civil War.

Roman Amphitheater

This tower built over Roman walls was used as a prison for centuries

When you walk around old Tarragona, you see old stone walls appearing around every corner.  Long medieval blocks have massive stone foundations that could be thousands of years old.  Sometimes these take on an almost Flintstone cartoon quality because of their sheer size and rough forms.  Free standing ruins sit in plazas that have been used as gathering places for millennium.  The town's administrative square sits on top of the old chariot race track, with vaulted walls built over by adjacent buildings that can be seen inside restaurants and shops.
Gothic stone walls built over Roman Foundations
The magnificent Cathedral, the largest in Catalonia, was built between the 12th and 14th Centuries on the site of an important Roman temple and a later mosque.   It is a blend of Romanesque and Gothic styles, with Moorish elements and later Renaissance additions.  There are perhaps 3,000 years of quarried material in the building of the Cathedral and surrounding buildings.  The deeper you go in to the ground the farther back you go.  Old buildings were filled over and built on top of so that ancient foundations can be as much as 3 stories underground!
The Cloisters of the Cathedral contain Romanesque columns, Gothic pointed arches, and round Moorish windows
A pair of public water fountains flanks the broad staircase leading to the Cathedral

A column section becomes part of a wall in the ruins of a church built to honor martyred Christians in the Amphitheater
Pilfered materials were used to build new structures, creating historic collages of various types of stone.  Some of the softer stones have eroded to add a natural organic element to the character of the walls.
Eroded forms give geologic character to an ancient wall

Much damage was done to the city in various wars, including the Spanish Civil War in the 20th Century.  Major reconstruction has been undertaken to give Tarragona, like many Spanish cities, a level of elegance that is seldom seen in the United States.  Streets are paved in cut limestone blocks, and river cobbles, sometimes mixed with colored concrete.  Curbs are made of cut stone and attain a polish from years of foot traffic.  Because the medieval streets are narrow, the care taken to pave them beautifully makes the city a joy to walk around in.  There are some fine pebble mosaic walkways along the outer walls of the city in foliage arabesque patterns.  
Pebble Mosaic panels in a limestone walkway

When river stones are used in the streets they are usually larger in size and are set deeper in to the mortar so that they wont pop loose under the weight of car tires.  Bands of cut stone break up the areas so that the river stone mosaics are framed in squares and rectangles.  A curving street going up the hill paved in this method is truly a beautiful thing.  Steps are artfully incorporated in to the adjacent sidewalks with perfect proportions.
Street cobbles in black and white river stones with bands of limestone and limestone curbing
A freshly washed cobblestone street with limestone sidewalks

Beautiful Stonework frames a round window on the 20th Century Colegio de Sant Pau
Palo Verde trees are planted in skewed squares to follow the irregular line of a narrow street
It is clear that space is a precious urban commodity in Spanish towns, and they are given the finest quality treatments.  Experiencing them is a real treat, especially when coming from the United States, where the crappiest and least attractive materials, white concrete and asphalt, are used with abandon.  We have much to learn from Europe.  Just a reminder that I can build such things, so if you ever decide to invest in lasting and beautiful stonework for you garden, my years as a hard laborer are numbered, but I am interested in manifesting great things while I'm still capable.

Thanks for reading, Jeffrey


  1. Guess we'll have to add to our list of must-sees for our next trip!

    Absolutely stunning photos, Jeffrey! Love them.

  2. You inspire to strive for a greater beauty and an ideal hard fought in a automobile-centric society, especially where we are so willing to squander public lands (streets). Thanks for your prolific and visually rich view of the world.

  3. Absolutely stunning photographs! I must say that stone work is incredible. I enjoyed reading your post. Good work! Keep it up!
    spain itinerary