At the Santa Tecla Festival, Tarragona shows why it’s the heart and Soul of Catalonia
By Olivia Gilmore
For locals and tourists alike, the end of September in Tarragona Spain means a whole lot of human castles, big-headed Catalan figures, and a constant festivities that roar throughout the cobblestone streets of Tarragona.
The massive fun-filled celebration is anything but calm, but there’s something about strolling along the coast of the Mediterranean at high noon, listening to traditional music play around you that makes you truly recognize where the heart and soul of Catalonia lives–right here in Tarragona, Spain.
The amount of history that thrives in Tarragona is mainly due to the city being one of the first Roman metropolis.
The Festival itself is considered to be a miniature version of Fiesta Mayor, a celebration of the town’s patron Saint, Sant Bartolomeu.
Located an hour away from Spain’s urban hub, Barcelona, the ten-day festival draws in visitors from near and far who are looking to experience a wide range of traditional music, dance, and mythical performances. Oh, and don’t forget the eight-story-high human towers!
With all the commotion and barely enough time to sleep, there are some aspects of the Santa Tecla Festival that cannot be missed.
If you ever find yourself in the captivating city of Tarragona in September, which I hope you will, here’s what events to look out for at this Festival of National Interest.
Parading Through The Streets
When the whistle starts to chime and smoke starts to fill the streets of downtown Tarragona, it can only mean one thing, the Santa Tecla Parade is about to begin. Around 7 p.m. on day eight, handcrafted figurine heads known as “diables” come parading in between a narrow path surrounded by thousands of bystanders.
Children occasionally hop in to greet the dancing heads, all while blocking their ears from the loud booms and happily screeching at the mystical creatures setting off sparklers.
Consisting of four groups, the diables each represent a different historical and biblical icons, whether that be a twirling female dragon Vibria, or old giants and dwarfs. As the figurines start to make their way up to the Cathedral, the drums sound and suddenly everyone is intoxicated in the exhilaration of the parade.
Standing at the crossroad of 2 main streets, I was experiencing a sensory overload. I never imagined so many people fitting in Tarragona’s narrow streets, nevermind them all being totally absorbed in the Catalonian culture and traditions surrounding them.
It was a beautiful sight, to say the least.
Day of Santa Tecla
The Day of Santa Tecla, or the ninth day of the festival, means prying your eyes open after a great night of no sleep and getting ready to do it all over again. By 9 a.m., the sound of the marching band was already summoning people from their sleep and drawing them back into the streets.
Surrounding the Cathedral, there are human figures dressed in celestial white costumes and ones dressed in demonic black attire. Faces covered with masks, they represent the Seven Cardinal Virtues and Sins. Ever so ominously, they slowly lurk pasts the crowds onto the streets, creating a folkloric allusion.
As the sparks started to die down and street vendors started to pass out more and more drinks, the crowds made their way to the “new” downtown to watch costumed children perform popular traditional dances.
As night falls, the uproar rises. Make no mistake, if you are planning to visit Tarragona during the Santa Tecla Festival, you will NOT be sleeping.
If loud clamor of local bands playing their sets and the throngs of people belting the lyrics doesn’t keep you up, then the vibrant array of fireworks illuminating the Costa Daurada will.
As I boarded a yacht to watch the fireworks from the sea, I knew this meant the end of day eight. Nonetheless, the festival is known to carry on into the wee hours of the morning, which to no surprise, it surely did.
Human Towers Competition
Formed entirely of people climbing and standing on the backs of one another, human pyramids called “castells” are constructed in Tarragona Cathedral Square during the festival.
Since the 18th century, this tradition has consisted of strategic teamwork that uses humans know as “Castellers” to raise up five or more tiers until the smallest member, known as the “enxaneta” ascends to the very top of the tower and raises their hand in accomplishment.
Having had the privilege to view this popular tradition from the Tarragona Town Hall with the city’s Mayor, I got to witness firsthand dedicated groups of men, women, and children compete against one another achieve one common goal, build the tallest tower.
“It’s not just about the competition, it’s a symbol of our culture and traditions”, said Carmen our tour guide.
The utter amount of concentration, strength, and focus needed in order to build these towers is evident in the look of each group member’s face during the process.
As the first tier of Castellers crawls up along the shoulders of the base, the crowds fall silent.
Everyone is on edge as each tier is completed and the next brave soul climbs up. Each person strategically places their feet on the shoulders below them, all while balancing the person above them. If one person falls short, then the whole tower goes down.
Despite a couple of collapsed towers and gasps from the audience, the energy of the climbing Castellers radiate through the crowds, plastering smiles on everyone’s faces, including my own. Every time the youngest climber reached the top of the last tier, I swear the cheers from the crowds could be heard for miles.
Strolling Along La Rambla Nova
If you’re looking for some downtime if that’s even possible during Santa Tecla, head to La Rambla Nova, the main avenue of the city.
The tree-line 1.3-mile walkway is encircled around tiny local shops and eateries. Benches along the central pedestrian zone offer a restful place to view the numerous statues and fountains. The street begins near the Imperial Tarraco Square and ends when it reaches the Mediterranean seacoast.
The most noteworthy fountain on the La Rambla Nova is the Font Del Centenari, which encompasses the four cardinal points through its stone sculptures.
At the beginning of the avenue, there is a monument called the Monument als Castells, undoubtedly my favorite. The sculpture represents an 8-meter high Castell, one of Catalonia’s most prominent traditions.
Other Attractions Around The City
In the upper part of the city, the Roman Amphitheatre is a must-see, as it was a staple of Roman life in the 2nd century. Overlooking the Mediterranean, the Coliseum used to hold over 14,000 spectators who watched gladiatorial battles and public executions.
If you get the chance to Model of Roman Tarraco made by the Tarragona History Museum, it will show you a miniature reconstruction of the city.
Another renowned place to stop by is the Ancient Roman city wall ruins, which is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Several sections of the wall have been restored and three towers still remain, Cabiscol tower, Minerva tower and Arzobispo tower. This is an impressive place to witness authentic Roman ruins.
Also in the upper part of the city is the Praetorium and Roman Circus, which once held horses and chariot races.
The complex underground structure was once used as a passageway, a palace for the monarchs, and even a prison. You can walk through the dimly like tunnel for free, just don’t get lost.
Take a break at the Balco del Mediterrani, which offers an exquisite view of the Mediterranean. This viewpoint is unlike no other in the city, be sure to bring your camera.
Hungry? Visit the Mercat Central de Tarragona, a spectacular and unique marketplace consisting of fresh seasonal food, located just off of La Rambla Nova.
If you’re looking for a place to stay for next years festival, I would book ahead of time, as the hotels tend to be booked far in advance. I recommend staying at Hotel Ciutat De Tarragona, as it is located a street over from La Rambla Nova and is within walking distance from all of the city’s festivities.
Olivia Gilmore is a travel enthusiast, writer, and cultural anthropologist who has traveled to West Africa, Europe and across the East and West Coast of the United States. As a member of Amnesty International, her interests include advocating for human rights, humanitarian volunteer work, and cultural immersion. She’s from Lunenburg, MA.