B.C. Archaeology

Study Tours of the Ancient World


During April 2012 I went to Spain, accompanied by my able assistant and some additional travelling companions, for a reconnaissance of ancient and medieval sites in preparation for the upcoming B.C Archaeology tours of Spain in 2013 and 2014. The aim was to see as much as possible in a month, and to visit as many hotels and agencies in order to get the best combination of sites for our future tours.

I flew into Barcelona on the 5th April and spent 6 nights there. This gave me plenty of time to get a feel for the city, its history and culture. Barcelona has a wonderful feel about it which incorporates the sea and a multi-faceted sense of history. Our hotel was located in the Gothic quarter which meant we were never far from the sites. A short walk away was Le Seu, the wonderful Gothic Cathedral with its remarkable Baroque shrines. I was there for the Easter procession which came to a halt in the Cathedral cloisters where geese have been kept for 500 years.

I also saw the Museum of the History of Catalunya with an interesting collection of ancient and medieval artefacts, the archaeological Museum with numerous Roman artefacts, the mediaeval palace with a fascinating excavation underneath of Roman Barcelona and the very grand Santa Maria del Mar Gothic church. Over the next few days we went to see the wonderful National Museum of Art of Catalunya with superb Romanesque and Gothic art. We also went by cable car to the top of Montjuic Hill to see the Castle, and visited the Sagrada Familia church designed and built by Antoni Gaudi. This is a huge, fantastic structure which has a remarkable interior. We also saw the Gaudi designed houses and follies in Park Guell.

From Barcelona we went for a day trip south to Tarragona, the ancient Roman capital of this part of Spain. The city preserves rich remains of the period including the ancient walls, a very well preserved aqueduct and a wonderful amphitheatre beside the beach.

From Barcelona we travelled by high speed train to Madrid - this was a wonderful trip and we often reached speeds of 330 km per hour. We stayed a few days in the historic quarter not far from Plaza Mayor with its grand 17th Century façade. Nearby was the wonderful Mercado de San Miguel, the old markets which have been turned into an upmarket tapas eatery. We visited the Royal palace, a monumental 18th Century structure with lavish interiors, saw the Temple of Dabod (an Egyptian shrine gifted to Spain for its help in the rescue of monuments caused by the construction of the Aswan Dam), spent a morning in the Museo del Prado with its astonishing collection of art from Spain and Europe (I particularly liked the work of Goya, Velasquez, and Ribera but am not so keen on El Greco). We also visited the Queen Sofia Gallery, a modern art museum which is home to the famous Picasso painting 'Guernica', and other works by Miro and Dali. A morning spent in the Retiro Park was also very pleasant.

The Santa Maria del Mar basilica in Barcelona
The walls of Avila

From Madrid we headed north to the mediaeval town of Avila where we stayed a few days. Here we enjoyed crisp spring weather and even some snow. The 11th Century walls of the city with their 88 towers are very imposing, and the 12th Century Cathedral is actually incorporated into the structure, the apse forming one of the towers. We visited some of the monasteries around the town including Santo Tomas which was established by Ferdinand and Isabella in the late 15th Century, the Convent of Saint Teresa, and the beautiful 12th Century Romanesque basilica of San Vincente.

We also took a day trip from Avila to Segovia, a small town to the east. It contains a wonderful collection of ancient and mediaeval monuments. We started with the beautiful Romanesque basilica of San Milan with fascinating frescoes and carved capitals. The most impressive sight in the town is the well preserved Roman aqueduct which extends for over 800 m and has 166 arches. Rising from the centre of the city is the cathedral of Segovia which was started in the mid-16th Century but was not completed for 200 years, making it the last major Gothic building in Spain. Perched on the North West tip of the city is the fantasy castle, called the Alcazar (used as the model for Disney’s castle). Largely rebuilt in the 19th Century, it still preserves its superb renaissance decoration. The well-presented local Museum contained a fascinating collection of Visigothic artefacts.

We hired a car in Avila and drove for the rest of the trip - the roads in Spain are excellent but surprisingly empty. We first headed south to the wonderful medieval city of Toledo, one of the highlights of the trip. We stayed in the historical old quarter a short distance from the Cathedral. This splendid Gothic building was erected from 1227-1493 and is a masterpiece of its kind. We also explored the small 11th century mosque, the Sinagoga del Transito constructed in 1366 which includes a museum of Sephardic Jews, the 13th Century Sinagoga de Santa Maria la Blanco, and the amazing Church of San Roman which as decorated in Muslim style and is today a museum of Visigothic art. The wonderful Monastery of San Juan was a breathtaking lace-like building. This last structure was built in the 15th Century by the 'Catholic Monarchs' Ferdinand and Isabella and has the most superb double storey Gothic cloisters and chapel. A drive around the city gave us some superb views of the ancient city and the bridges across the Tajo River, a view made famous by Goya.

The aqueduct of Segovia
The theatre of Merida

We then drove through the open country of Extremadura, dotted with castles, and stayed in the small city of Merida. This small place was known to the Romans as Augusta Emerita, the capital of the Province of Lusitania. It preserves a wonderful array of monuments from the Roman period. We saw the Roman Bridge down by the River Guadiana and the Moslem fortress, the Temple of Diana (which was converted into a Renaissance mansion), the Museum of Visigothic art, the Roman aqueduct and the National Museum of Roman Art with an amazing collection of sculpture and other finds from the site. A highlight, however, was the Roman theatre and amphitheatre which are well restored and give the visitor an impression of their original condition.

From Merida we headed south to Seville which would be our base for four nights. This is a wonderful place to visit and we enjoyed its many charms. In the old quarter of the city we visited the remarkable 15th Century Cathedral, the largest Gothic church in the world, which contains the tomb of Columbus - we climbed the 34 ramps to the top of the famous Giralda Tower, originally the minaret of the Muslim Mosque which was later converted into the Cathedral bell-tower.

The fabulous Alcazar of Seville was an undoubted highlight of the trip to Spain. This was the 14th Century royal palace constructed by Pedro the Cruel. It contains some of the best preserved examples of mudejar architecture (work done by Muslim artists under Christian rule) including delicate plaster work and inlaid wooden ceilings. The adjoining gardens are a peaceful retreat and include a number of Muslim style pavilions. We also very much enjoyed seeing a performance of flamenco in the old quarter, and saw am atmospheric evening of bullfighting - this was much more impressive and exciting than expected and really brought the feel of the ancient Roman arena alive.

Other sites we visited in Seville included the impressive Plaza de Espana pavilion, constructed for a Spanish fair in the 1920s, and the Archaeological Museum which contains an astonishingly rich collection of artefacts and statuary from the nearby Roman site of Italica. We subsequently drove to Italica to see the impressive ruins of the Roman amphitheatre, the Roman bath complex and the numerous house mosaics which have been left in situ.

From Seville we headed south to the port city of Cadiz, located on the Atlantic shore just outside the Straits of Gibraltar. The city had a completely different feel to what we had previously experienced of Spain - it is a real port city. The local archaeological museum contains a fascinating collection of Phoenician and Roman artefacts, since this site is by tradition dated back to 1100 BC.

The Alcazar of Seville
The Forum of Baelo Claudia

We travelled along the coast to the ancient Roman site of Baelo Claudia, located close to the beach and within sight of Morocco across the Straits. This compact site has an impressive forum with four temples and a basilica, as well as a theatre and a number of houses and industrial structures for making garum, a fish sauce favoured by the Romans. We had a night on the island of Gibraltar and went on a tour of 'the Rock' which included a visit to St Michael’s Cave, and saw the 18th Century tunnels which were created by the British as emplacements for cannons to defend Gibraltar from the Spanish. The apes were particularly feisty and one of them tried to steal my (very English) sausage roll!

Our travels next took us north from Gibraltar into the hills of Andalusia, famous for their white washed villages perched on the tops of hills for protection. We spent 2 nights in the picturesque little village of Ronda. This was originally a Moorish settlement and it still preserves a wonderful 13th Century bath complex and two mosque minarets. The city is famous for its precipitous location on a plateau overlooking green farmland, and in particular its 18th Century bridge across a deep gorge. The local museum is housed in a Moorish Palace with wonderful stucco work and carved ceilings (we decided it would be suitable as our Spanish holiday home but they wouldn’t sell!). We took the opportunity to visit the Cueva de la Pileta, a deep cave with Palaeolithic paintings of bison and fish, seen only by lamplight.

From Ronda we headed through the mountains, stopping to see the antiquities of Antequerra. These consist of a number of prehistoric dolmen tombs dating from around 2500 BC. These impressive structures are fashioned from colossal stones forming a massive roofed chamber where the local rulers were buried. As we drove northwards we saw extensive olive groves until we reached Cordoba, a little town located on the upper reaches of the Guadalquivir River.

Cordoba is most famous for its fabulous 9th and 10th Century mosque (la Mezquita) with its vast forest of 1300 marble columns and spectacular mithrab, or prayer niche. There is a sense of infinity, as you look down the arcades of red and white arches, which is most impressive. Almost insignificant, and taking up a fraction of the ground plan, is the 16th Century Gothic cathedral which was imposed in the centre of the mosque during the reign of Charles V. The belfry of the church was originally the minaret of the mosque.

A short walk from the Mezquita, over the old Roman Bridge, brought us to the Tower of Calahorra, a museum of Spanish culture explaining Arab and Christian philosophy - the view of the city from the summit is wonderful. We also saw the Alcazar, the Muslim Palace which was rebuilt in the 15th Century and acted as the residence of the Inquisition during the Renaissance. The gardens around the palace were a riot of colour full of the sound of fountains. In a nearby arena we enjoyed an evening performance of the Royal Cavaliers who, despite the rain, put on a wonderful exhibition of horsemanship. We also saw the Synagogue, one of the few to survive the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492. The Archaeological Museum of Cordoba contained artefacts from the local area which give a good overview of the history of the region.

The dolmens of Antequera
The Mesquita of Cordoba

Not far to the north west of Cordoba, lies the impressive palace complex of the Caliph Abd el Rahman III, built in the 10th Century. The entire city was constructed to house the Caliph and his family, including administrative offices, reception rooms, and wonderful gardens. We explored the restored buildings and enjoyed the onsite museum with its interesting collection of Muslim plaster, wood and metal work. In the afternoon we visited Almadovar del Rio Castle which towers above the surrounding village and has spectacular views over the Guadalquivir River Valley.

From Cordoba we travelled east and south through huge groves of olives, stopping at the small town of Jaen to see the spectacular castle, and we also couldn’t resist a look at the 17th Century Cathedral. Our journey then took us southwards to Granada.

A compact city, Granada has a colourful history and preserves many wonderful monuments. The highlight of our visit was of course the spectacular Alhambra palace complex which is draped over a low lying hill. We decided to go twice, at different times of the day, so that we could really appreciate the wonderful Moorish buildings. At the prow of the hill lies the impressive Alcazaba fortress which preserves huge red towers overlooking the city (and which give the fortress its name: the 'Red One'). On the central part of the hill are the Nasrid Palaces, a collection of lavishly decorated buildings which were erected by various Muslim rulers from 1365 to 1492. The walls are decorating with intricate plaster work and tiles. Interspersed between the various palace rooms are shady gardens with fountains, and around the edge of the complex are a series of wonderful decorated pavilions and reflecting pools which look out over the city of Granada.

Other remarkable areas of the Alhambra we explored included the Palace of Charles V, a large 16th Century structure with impressive circular court, which is used to display a collection of Muslim artefacts and the gardens of the Generalife, the summer palace of the Sultans. The walled terraces have pools and fountains, and there are a number of airy pavilions which look down over the valley. The plaster work and wooden ceilings are truly beautiful.

In addition to the vast Alhambra complex, we spent a number of days enjoying the other sights of Granada. We went for a walk through the Albaicin district, a section of the walled town with many historic buildings including a wonderfully preserved Moorish bath complex. We also saw the 16th Century Cathedral of Granada and the impressive Royal Chapel which contains the tombs of Isabella and Ferdinand, the monarchs who expelled the Moors in 1492. The 16th Century Convent of St Jerome has two cloisters and the most astonishing Baroque church.

The Alhambra Palace
The delicate plaster work of the Alhambr

From Granada we did a day trip south into the Province of Almeria. Our journey took us around the northern edge of the picturesque snow covered Sierra Nevada mountain range past yet more castles, and gave us glimpses of the film sets used in a number of 1960s spaghetti westerns. Almeria is a small town with laid back feel, the dominating feature being the impressive 11th Century Moorish castle. Today it houses a series of peaceful gardens and the various towers offer a wonderful view over the modern town.

Our month in Spain had certainly been a busy one and we saw so much. From Palaeolithic cave paintings, megalithic dolmens, Roman ruins, Visigothic artefacts, Moorish castles and palaces, and the superb Romanesque Basilicas and Gothic Cathedrals of the 12-16th Centuries. We were rather sad to be leaving - we do have an excuse to visit Spain again in the future to explore the northern part of the country!

Michael Birrell

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