The underrated Spanish coastal city that's worth the quarantine

Richard Franks
·4-min read
Tarragona, Spain - iStock
Tarragona, Spain - iStock

“It’s been quiet, dead, there’s nobody arriving,” said Alfonso, my taxi driver from the airport. “I have little work, we need tourists.” It rang true. My flight to Spain was carrying just 24 people, including the four cabin crew, and they had so little to do they dragged the trolley up the aisle eight times.

I was subconsciously cautious when I lunged into my first overseas jaunt of the year. Determined to salvage one tropical trip amid the uncertainty, I was ultimately persuaded by cheap air fares (£5 each way, Birmingham to Reus, ryanair.com) along with the shedload of hotels offering discounted rates. They too were trying to salvage something, albeit more imperatively than my wanderlust.

Like many others, I am habitually drawn to the coast, and the gorgeous Unesco World Heritage City of Tarragona is just a 15 minute drive from the airport. My hotel, the four-star H10 Imperial Tarraco, overlooks Parc de l’Amfiteatre, a beautifully arranged historic garden with second century Roman Amphitheatre remains, and a quiet, sandy beach just beyond it. The hotel normally has no problem shifting rooms in excess of £100 a night, but they’re currently offering seaview rooms with free breakfast for half of that.

I was glad to find out that the breakfast buffet is still very much alive in Spain. Unlike the UK, where table service is now mandatory, here I am free to roam the hotel’s delectable platters of bread, cheese and fruit at my own free will. It’s as Covid-compliant as can be: there are hand sanitiser stations at every entrance point, personal tongs at every table, and you must wear a mask when not seated. Despite what we’re told by UK officials, Spain feels robustly safe.

Full from Spanish omelettes and manchego, I pop my mask on and head towards the Old Town. On the way I can’t help but be drawn in by Shiva Music, a physchedellically-vibrant record store just a stone’s throw from the 1st century chariot racetrack ruins of Circ Romà. Bowie and Sabbath records adorn the shop front display while The Beatles blast from the speakers. This is my kind of place.

Captured by the Romans in 218 BC, Tarragona naturally feels more Italian than Spanish. You could be forgiven for wanting an aperol spritz rather than a vermouth, with its maze of old cobbled streets, narrow alleyways and quaint, cafe-bordered squares not too dissimilar to those in, say, Venice, or Verona. Much of the Old Town is on an incline, and at the city’s highest point is Catedral de Tarragona; a stunning example of Gothic architecture and a popular tourist attraction in ‘normal’ times.

beach - Getty
beach - Getty

Those ‘normal’ times feel a distant memory as the streets are in fact quiet. Not empty, but certainly not buzzing with foreign activity. What would normally be a popular autumn escape for many of us is now populated by the locals who are doing their best to prop up their own economy.

The beauty of a destination like this is its best-of-both-worlds quality: similar to its noisy neighbour Barcelona (60 miles along the coast), Tarragona is ideal as a city break, but also as a coastal holiday. A 20 minute walk from the cathedral takes me to Playa El Miracle, a deceivingly secluded beach free of facilities, and free of people. I use the term ‘secluded’ paradoxically – the beach is easily accessible from the main train station and is the very same one I can see from my hotel balcony, but at this moment it feels like nobody else knows about it. Armed with a good book (Landmarks by Robert Macfarlane) I’m happy enough whiling away the hours here… so that’s what I do.

After heading back to my hotel to freshen up, I ventured out to La Rambla Nova – Tarragona’s oldest street – for a bite to eat. On La Rambla Nova I stumbled upon Bocois, a neighbourhood bar so popular with the locals that staff speedily serve occupied tables along the street and across the road. It’s in total contrast to the normally tourist-lined streets of the Old Town round the corner. I opted for their evening offer of tapas with a drink for €5.80/£5 (garlic shrimp, washed down with a glass of local vermouth) as I blissfully enjoyed people watching.

“We are serving a lot more local people, definitely,” said my waiter. “My English is not good so it is easier for me, but I am concerned that the tourists may not come back.”

I don’t believe that the tourists won’t return. At the time of writing, quarantine-free destinations like Cyprus are enjoying a late boom in visitors and unlike mine, flights are packed. For countries like Spain to recover, and for Alfonso to recoup his income, the quarantine must be dropped. Airport testing is vital.

Note: The FCDO currently advises against all non-essential international travel to Spain and those who do travel to the country must self-isolate for 14 days upon return.