martes, 13 de septiembre de 2011

Tarragona Revisited

Standing on the Mediterranean Balcony staring out at the vast expanse of blue it is easy to understand why the Romans chose Tarragona as the capital of their expanding empire in Spain. A single turn of the head gives sweeping views of all approaching ships and, gazing eastward, a homesick centurion might allow himself to imagine Rome on the distant horizon. The view from the Balcón invites both grand plans and sober introspection.
Directly below, goods and passenger trains roll into the station. The evening breeze wafts up words from the tannoy, a long distance train is leaving shortly for Granada. Twenty years ago I got on that train with my bike and my Catalan friends. Now I’m back in the city where I spent some of the best years of my life. Walking away from the Balcón, down the pedestrianised Rambla Nova, I’m delighted to see that little has changed since my departure. Classy boutiques, cafés and ice cream parlours line the street hosting the central walkway, the rambla, where locals stroll before dinner. Catalans used to joke that this is the longest street in the world, stretching all the way from Mediterranean (Balcony) to the Atlántico (Bank) at the far end. I’m sure they still do.
In the old quarter, a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2000, I chuckle when I see some of my old haunts standing just as I left them. The cave-like mustiness hanging heavy in the air of El Candil bar in Plaça del Ajuntament, takes me back to the winter nights I spent there on my way home from work. It was within these ancient walls that I learned my first words of Catalan from a patient old gentleman who I now half expect to serve me a glass of muscatel as I sit at the bar. In “my street,” not far the cathedral, I see the red light is still burning brightly outside the brothel. 
Visitors to Tarragona will be captivated by the timelessness of the old quarter. Much of it is surrounded by the city walls, parts of which date back to the second century BC, when the Romans built fortifications here to protect their base. El casc antic, as it is known in Catalan, is a labyrinth of narrow cobble-stoned streets and well-preserved medieval buildings which evoke fantasies of civil war and bubonic plague raging within these very walls where you now pass. The air here feels thick with a troubled history that you are always just one step away from.
The cathedral bell tolls.
Further up the hill is the magnificent early gothic Cathedral of Santa María. As I stroll around the cloister an ancient bell ringer pauses on his way to the tower,
“It’s forbidden,” he says, glancing around furtively,
“For me to talk to visitors.”
No clerics in sight, so he proceeds to enlighten me on some of the more intricate features of the surrounding stonework. His easy familiarity with the detail comes not from rote learning of the facts but with years of cohabitation that infuse his tone with warmth and affection. Urging me to say a prayer in the chapel of Santa Tecla before I leave the cathedral, the bell ringer hurries off. I’m alone again. The gargoyles stare down at me impassively.
Outside I see that gypsies are gathering on the broad stone steps leading down from cathedral forecourt into the Carrer Major, the steep narrow street serving as the main artery in the old quarter. In the twilight they drift up here to sing and play the guitar, a tradition that their families brought with them from the south of Spain two or three generations ago. The first notes of Flamenco drift out on the evening air; I listen to the sound of the immigrant community in Tarragona reconnecting with its roots in the south of Spain. Their words speak of melancholy and passion.  
Music will fill many of the squares throughout the old town as the evening progresses. Sound technicians have been doing tests all afternoon and by midnight traditional and modern rhythms will be bouncing off the ancient walls. These are the verbenas populares, live open air dance music, in which the whole town is invited to take part. It is the festival of Santa Tecla, the patron saint of Tarragona, and the city celebrates the event every year in September a very big way with parades, live bands and fireworks, there will be no mercy for party poopers tonight. Noise, colour and joie de vivre propel this festival well into the small hours, night after night.
Outside of the old city it is quieter. I cross the Rambla Nova and head into the back streets in search of patatas bravas, chunks of fried potato served with garlic mayonnaise and a dash of Tabasco sauce. I’m looking for El Meson Andaluz, and I find it. It’s a modest tapas bar, a place of character that is not entirely unchanged in the twenty years since I left the city. This is reputed to be one of El Tel’s (Terry Venable’s) haunts when he was manager of Barcelona Football Club. Photos of famous customers line the walls but it is too dark to see El Tel, and I’m not sure I’d recognise him anyway. The waitress is Cuban, she can’t help. I’m the only customer so she talks to me for a while in wistful tones of her life in the Caribbean.  Fireworks explode in the night with loud dull thuds followed by rapid fire cracks. We look at each other momentarily, she gives me a weary smile, lifts the dish cloth and sets about cleaning the bar area in slow circling motions.
I stroll back up the Rambla to the Balcón. A full moon has risen and hangs low over the Mediterranean. Its silvery light illuminates the ruins of the Roman amphitheatre, which stand in dark profile against the mirror-like surface of the sea. This is where crowds of around 13,000 gathered regularly to watch gruesome spectacles. The setting is so well preserved that little effort is required to conjure up images of the last terrifying moments of lives lost here. The remains of a church stand in the centre of the arena now.
New forms of local entertainment have replaced martyrdom and gladiator fights, although the emotions remain arguably the same. Fear, bravado and sheer physical strength are all in play when it comes to els castells, human castle competitions. Teams from Tarragona and nearby towns compete during Santa Tecla and other local festivals in this very Catalan tradition. Each team has its own unique kit, the locals, els xiquets de Tarragona, wear white trousers, a red and white striped shirt and, crucially, a thick broad black belt, a girdle in effect, wrapped repeatedly around the waist. Without this last item there is no support for the spine, and there have been casualties.
This afternoon els xiquets attempted a nine person high castle. Watching the enxaneta, a small child, scramble up the trembling tower, I bit my nails and covered my eyes, and tried to do both at the same time. If he or she reaches the top, unfurls a handkerchief and descends to safety without the castle collapsing, then the castell is declared valid.  I see that, mercifully, the enxaneta is wearing a crash helmet. Some traditions have changed, and definitely for the better.

This article is an extended version of a prize-winning competition entry I submitted to The Daily Telegraph in October 2010:

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