As the expression goes, all roads lead to Rome, though there was a time when this was fact rather than adage. The Romans first landed in Hispania (modern-day Spain, Portugal, Andorra and Southern France) at Empúries in 218 B.C. and stayed for 600 years, giving them more than enough time to endow the peninsular with their famous roads. The main Roman highway to traverse Hispania was the Via Augusta, stretching from Cádiz in the south to Coll de Panissars in the north, where it crossed the Pyrenees and continued on towards the Eternal City. The road was the most important form of trade and communication along the Mediterranean coast and it drove a tidal wave of development. In the towns and cities that were connected by the Via Augusta, this development can still be seen in the footprint the Romans left behind. So let us take you on a tour along this ancient route and discover the places in Catalunya where Roman feet trod 2,000 years ago.
Just as the Romans did, we begin our route at Empúries on the Costa Brava. This coastal settlement, however, was not always Roman—it was founded by the Greeks, who named it Emporion, and is therefore the only place on the Iberian peninsular where both Roman and Ancient Greek remains can be viewed side by side. The once-prosperous city eventually started losing ground to the thriving cities of Barcino and Tàrraco, and in the mid-ninth century, the town was abandoned. Today, around 20 percent of the Roman ruins here have been unearthed and are easily visited from the neighbouring towns of Sant Martí d’Empúries and L’Escala.
Veering slightly inland, we bypass Girona—which has few surviving structures from that period despite its rich Roman history—and instead we stop off at Caldes de Malavella. Known as Aquae Calidae, it was a spa town where the Roman nobility would enjoy the waters. The Roman thermal baths are still in existence today and their ruins can be visited.
Photo by Carol Moran.
Roman Circus, Tarragona
Barcelona may now hoard all the glory, tourists and power, but Tarragona used to be the region’s capital. Known then as Tàrraco, Tarragona was the most important Roman settlement on the Iberian Peninsula and, to this day, architectural monuments dotted across the city stand as testament to its glorious past. The imposing walls carve a line separating the Roman city from its modern counterpart. A thick, ancient gateway leads to sunny terraces that sit on the former site of the Provincial Forum—a huge square that housed the buildings where the economic and political life of the province was administered. In the lower part of the city, the impressively well-preserved local forum, which was the focal point of public life and the seat of local government, can be seen standing proudly above the modern streets that surround it.
The elliptical amphitheatre, built in the second century A.D., along with the Roman circus and theatre, made up a trio of structures designed to entertain the masses with three bloodthirsty forms of spectacle: gladiator combats, wild animal combats and the execution of prisoners. The amphitheatre is located outside the walled city, against the stunning backdrop of the Mediterranean Sea.
Photo by Carol Moran.
Leaving the city, we head four kilometres north to admire the majestic Les Ferreres Aqueduct, a structure which demonstrates the importance the Romans gave to urban infrastructure. The 27-metre-high water conduit was built in the first century A.D., and it funneled water from the Francolí river to water distribution tanks around the city.
Photo by Carol Moran.
Les Ferreres Aqueduct
Tàrraco Viva Festival. May 16th-29th.
Every year since 1999, Tarragona is invaded by the Romans once more as it hosts a cultural festival that educates the public about the city’s Roman history. The aim of the festival is to make history come alive (Tàrraco Viva means ‘Tàrraco lives’), and historical reenactment is therefore used to explore all aspects of Roman life set against the backdrop of Tarragona’s awe-inspiring Roman remains. This year, join reenactment group Thaleia who will demonstrate what life was like in Rome’s first ever fire brigade. Alternatively, get involved with one of the many workshops that are open to the public—join a fresco-painting session or head to the Scriptorium and upgrade your usual handwritten scrawl to ornate Roman calligraphy. If such scholarly pursuits are not your thing, there are plenty of opportunities to learn about (and taste) the food and wine consumed in classical times. All this is combined with performances, ancient music concerts and tours led by characters from Roman Tàrraco.
Six kilometres up the coast from Tarragona sits the first-century Torre dels Escipions, one of the best-preserved Roman funerary towers in the Iberian Peninsular. The tower, situated outside the city limits, as per Roman law, is made up of three stacked, rectangular sections. Inside the middle section is a chamber that would have housed the funerary objects of the deceased, whose identities have been lost.
The triumphal Arc de Berà can be found further along the coast heading north, where it previously straddled the Via Augusta. It was built between 15 and five B.C. in honour of Emperor Augustus, and is thought to delineate the boundary of the Tàrraco district.
Photo by Carol Moran.
Arc de Berà
If you thought the concept of a country getaway was a modern idea, think again. During the Roman period, the high and mighty of Tàrraco were partial to the rustic delights of the country farm house. Two examples of such villae can be seen in the area surrounding Tarragona: Els Munts villa in Altafulla, and the Centcelles villa in Constantí. Originally built as agricultural properties, these villas were soon appropriated by the social elite. The two villas show an interesting mix of agricultural and architectural remains, as well as richly-adorned interior decoration.
Tortosa (or Dertosa as it was once known) marks the end of our journey. Within Tortosa, the columns of the Roman acropolis can be seen inside the grounds of the ninth-century Suda Castle, and the village of El Perrelló—located just northeast of the town—is one of the best places to see remains of the Via Augusta itself. Watch out for traces of it near the Ermita de Sant Cristófol and the bridge located close to the N-340 road.
BACK TO BARCINO
You don’t have to leave Barcelona to discover Catalunya’s Roman heritage. It’s hard not to stumble upon fragments of the Roman walls that once surrounded the Roman city of Barcino (for some good examples, head to Plaça Nova and Plaça Traginers). Carrer Duran i Bas is the site of several arches of a Roman aqueduct incorporated into the wall of a much more recent building. Indeed, many of Barcelona’s Roman gems can be seen shoehorned between, buried underneath or absorbed into more modern buildings.
The Augustus Temple Columns
Dating from the first century B.C., the remarkably intact columns of Barcino’s temple once stood at the forum’s axis, looming over the citizens. Following the decline of the Roman Empire, the columns were absorbed into the construction of medieval buildings and fell into myth and obscurity. At the beginning of the 20th century, the columns and the remaining part of the podium were restored and can now be seen at the tiny Centre Excursionista de Catalunya on Carrer de Paradís.
The Roman Funeral Way
Outside the city walls, along what must have become a rather spooky minor road, lie a collection of funeral monuments. The burial area was in use between the first and third centuries A.D., although it was gradually covered over by river sediments and, in 1588, a convent. During the 20th century, the Necropolis was discovered in Plaça Vila de Madrid and the finds were left in situ, where they can be viewed today.
The Underground City
In Plaça del Rei, roll the clock back 2,000 years at the Museu d'Història de Barcelona, as you descend into an underground world and emerge on the streets of Barcino, where you can amble through the ruins of its bustling centre and learn about the everyday life of the colony.