Have you ever wondered how the Port and the Serrallo neighbourhood came into being? The maritime district of Tarragona, right next to one of the biggest seaports in the Mediterranean, is a hive of gastronomic, cultural, associative and economic activities which have mainly revolved around fishing and the sea since time immemorial. This article gives you some tips for having an authentically maritime experience in the fishing district of Tarragona.
A little history: the origins of Serrallo and the Port
It is widely known that Tarragona has a long-standing fishing tradition that has been documented since the thirteenth century. In the fourteenth century, the first references appeared to the botigues de mar (‘the wooden shacks where the fishermen lived, which they also used for storage’) on Miracle Beach and, later on, near the mouth of the River Francolí. During the eighteenth century, most of the people who worked in the fishing sector lived in the city, in the Part Alta. The poorest among them, however, still lived in shacks in the area known at that time as Platja Llatzeret, in front of Carrer del Mar.
Towards the end of the eighteenth century, the Port’s Works Committee planned the construction of the Marina district in the Part Baixa (lower part) of the city. It was not until the middle of the nineteenth century, however, that we can point to the beginning of Tarragona’s fishermen’s district: El Serrallo. The construction of the Tarragona-Reus-Montblanc-Lleida railway line and the expansion of the Port of Tarragona made it imperative to move the fishermen’s houses from Carrer del Mar to the neighbourhood’s current location, between the Port, the railway line and the area around the River Francolí.
When the neighbourhood first arose during the second half of the nineteenth century, it started to be known as El Serrallo, which means harem in Spanish. This comes from the Italian word serraglio (‘closed, harem’), which, in turn, stems from the Latin serrare (‘to close’) and reached us, via Turkish, from the Persian word sarai (‘palace’).
However, the true origin of the name has always been unknown. Historians ascribe it directly to the Hispano-Moroccan War (1859 – 1860). Below are four hypotheses taken from the essay by Vicenç M. Garcia on the origin of the name Serrallo:
- The first: It means ‘harem’. In the fishermen’s shacks, life was pretty free and easy, like in the Muslims’ harems.
- The second: It comes from “serraller”, or locksmith. A number of them used to work in the neighbourhood.
- The third: It comes from “ferralló”, a small streetlight in the port.
- The fourth: In memory of an old, ruined palace that used to belong to Moroccan nobility, El Serrallo, on the outskirts of Ceuta, which the Spanish military used as an operating base during the Hispano-Moroccan War (between Spain and Morocco) where General Echagüe, the Count of Serrallo, was wounded in the Battle of Serrallo on 25 November 1859. Several Tarragonans were involved in the battle, including residents of the maritime district, sent from the barracks in Tarragona.
Before the name El Serrallo became established, the district went by two other names: the neighbourhood of Sant Pere (on a map from 1883 by Saturnino Bellido, the director of the Port of Tarragona between 1881 and 1889) and Tarragoneta, because the population was very tiny, or perhaps because of its similarities with the district of Barceloneta in Barcelona. Neither of these names caught on.
Gastronomic traditions next to the sea
The maritime neighbourhood of Tarragona, El Serrallo, has become a big attraction thanks to its seafood restaurants and privileged location right by the sea. The district’s commercial activities have been well-established for many, many years. The fathers, sons and grandsons of fishermen have continued the professional trade of their ancestors to maintain the seafaring essence of El Serrallo in its restaurants and businesses.
Historians verify that Tarragona has had a Fish Market since 1928, although documents have been found that point to it being much older. This is where you will find the most prized species of fish such as red prawns (native to Tarragona), tiny cuttlefish, Norway lobster (known as “gadegang” in Tarragona), blue whiting, hake, monkfish, mantis shrimp, deep-water pink shrimp, octopus and squid… as well as oily fish, most notably sardines, anchovies and mackerel. The fishermen also fish for line-caught hake, sole, octopus, bluefin tuna and swordfish, when in season.
A rich stew of moixina (blackmouth catshark) with potatoes and garlic mayonnaise sauce, or a romescada redolent with Romesco sauce… these are some of the most typical dishes from the district’s traditional cuisine, whose most important feature is the flavour and aroma of the sea. The number one sauce is Romesco, made from scalded dried peppers, roasted tomatoes and garlic, toasted almonds and hazelnuts, olive oil and a splash of vinegar. The restaurateurs have inherited this seafaring culinary legacy which you can savour in most of the restaurants in the neighbourhood.
Check out the list of restaurants in El Serrallo for a fantastic gourmet experience.
The Moll de Costa: a sea of culture
Getting to the Costa Wharf today is much quicker and easier. The Port Walkway, which was opened in 2018, stretches for 300 metres and connects the city centre with the sea (Miracle Beach, the Miracle Beach Promenade, the Marina and the recreational and cultural area of the Port de Tarragona) in just seven minutes, doing away with the decades-old barrier of the train tracks to get there.
You will also find two elevators plus an access ramp towards the railway station in the area of Passeig d’Espanya.
Once you have gone along the promenade on Miracle Beach, you will come to the Tinglados (sheds) on the Costa Wharf. These are the old sheds that used to be used for storage by the fish workers (former warehouses for storing merchandise) and since 1988 they have been used to host cultural, social and recreational activities. The former warehouses are now being used as refuges.
In Tinglado 2 you can view exhibitions with a very defined conceptual line that showcase contemporary art.
In Refuge 2, the Port Museum has been set up. Here you can take a journey through the history of the Port from when the Romans first disembarked through to the present day. On guided tours and family-oriented educational activities you can learn about all the aspects of the Port’s activities and its vessels. Outside the Museum, you can go on the Port of Tarragona Heritage Route, which follows a series of panels that highlight around a dozen heritage features of the port on a four-kilometre walk from the Port Museum to the Banya Lighthouse, at the end of the Llevant Wharf. You can either do the route on foot or by bicycle.
In Tinglado 4 there is a temporary exhibition covering the history of Roman Tàrraco featuring some of the most representative pieces from the National Archaeological Museum in Plaça del Rei, currently closed for refurbishment. Here you can see the Ivory Doll, the Head of the Medusa, Antinous, Emperor Lucius Verus, and much more.
Another space worth bearing in mind is the Serrallo Theatre. Housed in the former Fishermen’s Depot building and managed by the City Port Department of the Port of Tarragona, this facility hosts the cultural, social, educational and institutional events associated with the district and, indeed, the rest of the city of Tarragona. Here you can watch concerts (as part of the Ja Veus Festival or independent concerts featuring all kinds of music), go to indie film screenings (as part of the REC, Tarragona’s International Film Festival), attend conventions and conferences, enjoy swing parties with musicians and dancers, and much more.
Unique architecture to round off your visit
No sooner do you enter the neighbourhood than you come to Carrer Trafalgar, the most emblematic avenue of the Serrallo district, now remodelled and full of terrace bars and cafés where you can sit and have a midday vermouth, lunch, an afternoon snack or even end up dining. In 2007, the year the avenue was renovated and reopened, an outstanding sculptural artwork by the acclaimed sculptor Béatrice Bizot was also unveiled: a series of fountains that transform into a visual spectacle of light, colour and water as night falls.
At the heart of the neighbourhood, you should make a point of stopping at the Church of Sant Pere Apòstol of Tarragona, the church of the Serrallo district. This Neo-Gothic style building is dedicated to St Peter, the patron saint of fishermen. It was inaugurated for the festivities of All Saints Day in 1880 and has been a hub of religious activity ever since.
If you head across the terraced area of the emblematic Carrer Trafalgar, walk through the Tinglados zone and reach the very end, towards the lighthouses, you will come across a Modernist style clock, the Port Clock, which was installed on the Llevant Wharf in the Port of Tarragona in 1922. Engineer Francisco García de Membrillera was responsible for the clock’s design while jeweller and clockmaker Josep Rigau designed the gazebo and the clock’s workings. This emplacement was quite deliberate, as Carrer d’Apodaca was taken as a reference so that people could tell the time from as far as away as Plaça dels Carros. The clock replaced the trumpet blasts that used to mark the beginning and end of each working day.
At the end of the Llevant Wharf you can see the Banya Lighthouse, which was originally built in the Ebro Delta to a design by Lucio del Valle in 1860. It is a unique example of the metal lighthouses that were installed at the estuary of the River Ebro. The lighthouse, which also served as the lighthouse keeper’s home, went into operation in 1864 and was still active until 1978, when a new concrete one was built. In 1984 it was transferred to the Port of Tarragona to save it from being demolished and then to restore it, and in 2003 it was turned into the Lighthouse Museum as an extension of the Port Museum of Tarragona. It is currently open for pre-arranged visits.
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