Tarragona, the name rolls off the tongue in a satisfying manner; it sounds like a place where warriors would fight to the death in gladiatorial combat… or somewhere that you might have a pretty good idea what your chicken or fish is going to be flavoured with in a restaurant.
After having a ball with a bit of modern chariot racing in Catalonia’s historic Romanesque city, we had a date with some modern day gladiators taking part in the city’s Terraco Viva festival.
Tarraco Viva lasts for 10 days in May and involves a packed programme of Ancient Rome themed events; the bloody highlights of which are the gladiator battles in the authentic setting of Tarragona’s 2nd century amphitheatre.
I’d thought that we might be getting involved in a bit of gladiator training, but it wasn’t the case. We were only there to watch; something I was glad about after meeting the actual gladiators from Italian specialists Ars Dimicandi. These guys made Russell Crowe seem like Homer Simpson by comparison.
Under a scorching sun, I sat amongst a packed amphitheatre of mainly local families and waited for what I expected to be a Roman version of a piece of fighting theatre in WWE and The Rock fashion.
I was wrong.
The gladiators from Ars Dimicandi don’t simply recreate gladiator battles using authentic weapons and moves, they fight to win.
I didn’t cotton on to this until, halfway through the second fight, I noticed that one of the gladiators had a trickle of blood running down his back. At first I thought it must have been an accidental nick, but as I concentrated on the moves more, it was obvious that these guys were going for it big time.
There were no swish Hollywood moves; just two gritty warriors lumbering at each other, parrying some blows, grunting under the impact of others. The weight of the shields and metal helmets combined with the searing sun clearly wore them down as the fight progressed, making it as much a test of stamina as of fighting skills.
Eventually one gladiator stumbled and fell to his knees, exhausted. The crowd bayed for blood. Suddenly it didn’t feel like a recreation for a festival, suddenly there was a taste of what true gladiator contests must have actually been like.
The master of ceremonies asked the crowd if the defeated gladiator should be spared or put to the sword. The crowd wanted blood; the master of ceremonies, clearly needing his ears cleaned, heard otherwise and the loser was spared.
This happened with every fight; the crowd chanting for death, the master of ceremonies letting the fallen gladiator live to fight another day. They’re a bloodthirsty lot in Tarragona.
What I initially thought might be a cheesy but fun event turned out to be quite fascinating and illuminating. By the time it came to the final battle I was cheering with everyone else for strutting peacock and crowd favourite, Leo, whose net and trident seemed mismatched against an armoured opponent with shield and a sword.
In the violent world of the gladiator, as anyone who’s watched the movie knows, it’s not the weapons that count, it’s the guile and prowess of the individual warrior… and, in energy sapping temperatures, using a net to restrict the movements of someone wearing metal clothes will soon wear them out.
Leo won, the crowd bayed for blood, the master of ceremonies showed mercy.
It would have been interesting to see what would have happened if he’d obeyed the crowd’s wishes. Given the realism of Ars Dimicandi gladiator show they might have actually lopped the fellow’s head off… all in the name of authenticity.
The gladiator contest at Tarraco Viva costs €3 to watch. But you don’t have to wait till May 2013 to see Leo and the lads from Ars Dimicandi beat each other black and blue. The battles continue throughout the year at various venues around Europe.
I bayed for blood at Tarraco Viva as a guest of the Catalunya Tourist Board.
Jack is co-owner, writer and photographer for BuzzTrips and the Real Tenerife series of travel websites as well as a contributor to online travel sites and travel magazines. Follow Jack on Google+