A Journey through the History of Tossa de Mar
Tossa’s history oozes from its monuments, is inscribed in the crevices of the narrow streets and is soaked into the atmosphere of the place.
It is interesting as you wander about Tossa to have some background about its monuments and an insight into its history. It makes it so much more interesting when you know what’s behind a particular sight or building. And it gives you something to say on your holiday video, or captions for your photo album!
Here we take you on a journey from the first written accounts of Tossa de Mar, to more recent years:
Roman Times Turissa
Although there are spoken accounts of Iberian and Greek settlements where the modern day Tossa is situated, there are no physical traces or written records to prove the theory.
There is, however, solid evidence of an agricultural Roman villa dating back to the First Century, which was subsequently built upon around the Fourth Century.
Many rural villas dating back to Roman times have been found in the areas surrounding Tossa, the old Roman province of Tarraconensis. This one, known as Ametllers, is thought of as one of the most interesting.
The remains of this Roman villa, situated in what was then known as Turissa, can be accessed from the Avenida del Pelegrí, and you can inspect the amazing excavation from Tuesday to Sunday, 10am to 1pm and 5pm to 8pm. Entrance costs €2. You will also visit the ruins on the fantastic guided tour of Pandora’s Box which leaves the Tourist Office at 10am every Friday during the summer months. (Information: www.infotossa.com)
Dr Ignacio Melé, the town’s GP, was initially responsible for the discovery of the Roman settlement around the early part of the 20th century. Excavations were continued under the Institute of Catalan Studies, then later by the Barcelona Archaeological Museum on request by the Town Council of Tossa.
The ruins reveal advanced systems such as central heating and a swimming pool but more remarkable is a series of stunning mosaics, the central one adorned with a portrait of the owner of the house and inscribed with the name of the owner and the village.
In the Museu Municipal, you will see collections of valuable relics uncovered from the ruins, revealing how the folk of a bygone era used to live.
Marvel over fragments of mosaics and ceramics that expose the affluence of this villa. Agricultural tools, fishing tackle and loom tools prove the trading activities of both land and sea. It is also amazing to see other artefacts such as hairpins and small spoons, which lead you to realise this villa was once occupied by real life people, performing real life day to day tasks.
It is said that this Roman settlement of Turissa was destroyed by fire. Later, a new colony was built up, and this was known as Tursia.
12th to 16th Centuries Tursia
During the medieval era, attacks from the sea were rife and the people of the village needed a safe haven to retreat to during such times.
The Vila Vella as it is now called was originally built as this safe haven at the end of the 12th century, when the village was known as Tursia. This walled area was a fortified village, and one of many on the Catalan coast.
Two hundred years of combat and enemy encounters left the Vila Vella in need of a reconstruction, which was carried out in 1387, and a good thing too: for the walled town was to become a haven once again in the 16th century during the frequent onslaughts from the North African pirates.
Towers and Turrets
During this time, King Philip II of Spain ordered the building of a series of watchtowers all along the Mediterranean coastline. Lookouts would keep constant guard in these towers, and if danger approached, they would send word to the keepers of the towers built into the walled village, so that the townspeople could safeguard themselves within the walls.
One of these watchtowers, The Moorish Tower, still stands and now makes a wonderful viewpoint from which you can see the whole of Tossa.
Es Codolar, now a small beach and haven for snorklers, was the ‘keep’ of the walled town and formed a natural entrance by sea, being protected by the surrounding cliffs. The keep incorporates one of the three remaining towers of the walled village. It is called ‘Codolar’ or the homage tower, and it is built into what is now the town’s museum.
The original entrance to the Vila Vella was protected by two doors, one of them revolving. Through the original entrance is a square, the Plaza de las Armas, which was a parade ground for the inhabitants of the village.
In the case of attack, the space between the doors was filled with sand bags to make an indestructible wall. Now all that remains is an archway, and another of the towers - the Torre de las Horas – the ‘Tower of Time’, so called as it was once installed with a clock.
The third remaining tower is that of d’En Joneas that forms part of the frontal façade of the walled village.
Originally there were five towers and a number of turrets. Many of the turrets still stand, some of them in better condition than others, except one: the powder turret, which was used to store the gunpowder, which operated the canons and other defence systems. This turret was replaced in the early 20th century by the lighthouse you see there today.
Living in the walled village
The village is peppered with labyrinthesque alleyways and congregations of little houses with gardens, terraces and patios.
During its heyday, the Vila Vella accommodated some eighty houses, which could originally be purchased for the sum of one chicken!
The villagers would come to worship in a magnificent gothic style church looking over the bay and down the coast towards Sant Feliu de Guixols. The church was known as of San Vicente.
The old church was abandoned in 1777 when the building of the new church of San Vicente was completed outside the walls.
Building outside the walls
Towards the end of the 16th Century, building outside the walls of the village was still thought risky and therefore the area beyond the walls was very sparse and lonely. However, a chapel was built here during this time, that of the Virgin of Aid, or ‘Socors’, also known as ‘the fishermen’s chapel’. It is thought that Antoni Caixa, a merchant, funded the building to give thanks to the Virgin. This chapel later became a significant focal point for the village’s development, as well as being an important religious centre for seamen and traders who would be devoted to the Virgin.
17th to 18th Centuries The beginnings of the Vila Nova
As the pirate attacks diminished around the 17th century, Tossa’s villagers got more confident and began to settle outside the walled precinct, beginning what is now known as the ‘new town’ or Vila Nova.
Settlements outside the Vila Vella were primarily built close to the walls, showing that the villagers were still a little nervous and still recounted the attacks of recent centuries.
In 1757, the building of the new church of San Vicente commenced with the entire population of Tossa involved. Twenty years later, the church was completed and opened on 29 November 1777. The church is still a sight to behold and should be visited for its amazing architecture and profound atmosphere.
In 1773, the Hospital of Sant Miquel was founded as a refuge for the poor. Tomàs Vidal i Rey, a man of Tossa, sailed off to America and brought back with him many riches, enabling him to fund the building of this hospital. The building has two floors and a courtyard in the middle, which is now used for celebrations during fiesta times. Next to the hospital is the chapel of Sant Miquel, with its beautiful baroque altar. Tomàs Vidal i Rey was buried in this chapel when he died. The chapel and hospital building can be seen opposite the ruins of the Vila Romana.
Trade and industry
The port of Barcelona saw a steady increase in trade from 1778 when Catalonia was allowed to trade with the Americas for the first time. The shipping industry received a boost and Catalonia was able to export its goods to a wider market.
The other great export was wine, whose widespread production in the region also dates from this period. A chamber of commerce was founded in Barcelona in 1758 to cope with the increasing commercial interests.
During this time, Tossa was a bustling port, trading with other countries of the Mediterranean. Tossa’s abundant agricultural produce and fine fish that graced its waters propelled it onto a considerably important place on the trading map.
This was to be a prosperous time for the region.
The 19th and 20th Centuries
As confidence grew, buildings were erected further away from the walls of the fortified village. Now this walled area was becoming known as ‘the old town’ or the Vila Vella, and the area beyond as ‘the new town’ or the Vila Nova.
Houses, hostels, taverns and shops spilled out into the cradle of the valley, protected by the mountainous surround.
Some notable buildings were erected during these times.
One of which was the Sans House, currently the Hotel Diana, which was built in 1906. Joan Sans commissioned the building. He was a cork trader who went off to Colombia and returned a rich man.
Antoni de Falguera, architect and one time pupil of Puig i Cadafalch and Doménech i Muntaner, two notable architects of the Catalan modernist style, was responsible for its design.
It incorporates an inner patio area with a water feature, an upstairs terrace with delightful tiling, and inside, an amazing stone fireplace, and charming décor. Non-residents are welcome to drink in the hotel bar, on the terrace overlooking the Vila Vella and Playa Gran, and at night to join the clapping and dancing that befits the live entertainment on the patio.
Industry forces locals to move to the towns
In the mid-nineteenth century, Spain’s first railway was built from Barcelona to Mataró, and later extended south to Tarragona, and north to Girona and the French border. Manufacturing industries started to appear and people started to move and settle in the towns rather than the villages where agriculture was the tradition.
One highly important industry of Tossa was cork, which was of great importance to a large part of the Costa Brava in general. The Costa Brava cork was renowned for its use in one of the most famous brands of French champagne.
Over the years, local industries started to expand - for example, cava production was introduced in the late nineteenth century, closely supported by the cork industry of the Catalan forests. Hydroelectric power was harnessed from the Pyrenees and by the end of the 19th century, Barcelona was the fastest growing city in Spain.
During these times, many of Tossa’s inhabitants moved away and settled in other parts of Catalonia. And of those who didn’t leave for Barcelona or other manufacturing industries of the area, many made for American shores to seek their fortunes in pastures new.
The population was waning, always bad news for a village. That was until the tourist industry took off in the 1950s, after the village became the scene for the acclaimed film, Pandora and the Flying Dutchman. In 1950, Tossa de Mar was graced with the presence of Ava Gardner who took the starring role in the film and was much-loved by the Spanish people. When the film was released in 1951, Tossa became a renowned tourist attraction. Read more about Pandora and the Flying Dutchman on our dedicated page.
Waning fishing village meets tourist boom
The positive effect of the influx of thousands of tourists meant that Tossa could expand. It was transformed into a modern town, good news for its inhabitants, and thankfully the old charm and character was maintained so Tossa’s people gained an improved village whilst keeping the old magic which was to become its magnetising strength over the years.
By the late 1970s and early 1980s, the Costa Brava was the most popular destination for tourists. Millions left the dank grey skies and rain-sodden beaches of England in search of two weeks rest and relaxation on a sun-drenched, sea-lapped beach, somewhere only two hours away but so far removed from the dismal scene left behind on the tarmac.
The present and the future
In Tossa, the path of time has had only a positive effect. Where neighbouring resorts were infiltrated and negatively altered by the booming tourist trade, Tossa’s transformation was subtle and subdued. Here, there is a wonderful lack of commercialisation. Of course, the resort caters for the thousands of tourists that arrive every year from all over the world. However, Visitors to Tossa are traditionally the more discerning traveller and want more for its mysterious ambience, intoxicating atmosphere, and of course, naturally stunning scenery punctuated by it’s globally renowned historic monuments.
Planning regulations still in force today mean that developments must be in-keeping with the town’s important and celebrated cultural heritage. No high rise buildings are permitted, so thankfully views from the countless ‘miradors’ (viewpoints) of Tossa remain unspoilt.
Still, visitors will find numerous hotels, hostels, bars and restaurants to choose from, as well us plenty of activities, shops and services.
Although the number of UK bookings to Spain has dropped by 25% in the past decade, Spain remains the favourite destination of British holidaymakers, and with one of the main reasons given for the decline in visitors being the desire for a more unspoilt, under-commercialised destination, Tossa de Mar may well be safer than its boisterous neighbouring resorts.
The ‘discerning tourist’ is emerging. The traveller who turns their nose up at the package tour is the independent type who arranges their holiday to suit themselves, hand-picking their accommodation and board, selecting their means of travel from the various on offer and choosing the dates, times and length of stay that suits them. This is the type of tourist that Tossa de Mar is now attracting, and with low cost airlines offering several flights seven days a week to Girona, this beautiful resort will continue to thrive and please its visitors for more centuries to come.