B.C. Archaeology

Study Tours of the Ancient World


The B.C. Archaeology Tour of Ancient and Moorish Spain for June 2013 ran from 2nd June till the 24th June. The group included Lidia Peruzzi, Betty Elphinstone, Margaret Weisman, Ian and Kay Freedman, and Philip and Naida Lawrence. The Australian archaeological guide was the author, Michael Birrell.

I had just led a tour of Spain before this tour and had a few days in Madrid before the group arrived. I enjoyed a visit to the house of the early 20th Century artist Joaquin Sorolla which maintains his workshop and is set in a wonderful garden. I also went to the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum which has a stunning collection of art, particularly early European art. The group arrived on the 3rd June and I met them at the airport for the transfer to the Europa Hotel in the Plaza del Sol. Having got access to all our rooms, we then went for a walk in the heart of Madrid. We explored the Temple of Dabod which lies in a wonderful park overlooking the river. We also saw the Muslim walls of the old city. In the evening we had dinner in the wonderful Mercado San Miguel, a tapas venue with many different foods to choose from. The following day we went to the Prado Museum. I particularly like the Velasquez portraits of the royal family including the famous Las Meninas. In the afternoon we went for a visit to the magnificent 18th Century Royal Palace which is lavishly decorated.

Our road then took us from Madrid to the picturesque city of Segovia. The aqueduct is perhaps the most famous monument, built in the 2nd Century AD to bring water to the walled city and almost perfectly maintained. We walked into the old quarter where we saw the Gothic Cathedral and the stunning Alcazar, a 14th Century castle with stunning views over the rural landscape. In the afternoon we headed westwards to Avila, stopping to take a few photos of the remarkable town walls which are amongst the best preserved in Europe. We went for a walk in the evening and saw the most stunning sunset - the sky went bright azure behind mackerel clouds.

In the morning we explored the medieval quarter of Avila. The Church of San Vincente and the Cathedral are magnificent, the later guarded by strange figures of wild men. We also saw the San Tomas Monastery which was home to Isabella and Ferdinand for some years. In the afternoon we drove down to Toledo, stopping to look at the magnificent view from across the river and looking at the 13th Century San Miguel Bridge which crosses the Tagus River. We checked into our hotel which would be our base for 2 nights.

Toledo is a stunning medieval town with remarkable heritage. On Friday 7th June we walked up through the Gate of Alfonso VI to see the Church of San Roman, decorated in a combination of Arabic and Christian styles. We visited the Gothic Cathedral with its delicately carved choir stalls representing the defeat of Muslim cities during the Reconquista, and also saw the two Jewish synagogues. The 15th Century Monastery of St John is a wonderful example of the florid Gothic created during the later years of the reign of Queen Isabella.

The Muslim inspired San Roman Church
The Roman theatre at Merida

The following day we headed south towards Merida, stopping for an unscheduled break in Talavera to see the walled Muslim city and its few surviving monuments (the famous Napoleonic battle site lay nearby). When we got to Merida we walked through the old quarter, stopping to see the wonderfully well preserved 'Temple of Diana' and exploring the Roman theatre and amphitheatre. The Museum of Roman Antiquities is a wonderful building and contains a good collection of Roman sculpture. Our hotel in Merida was an old parador, a converted monastery. On the 9th June we went down to the river's edge to see the old Islamic fortress of Merida - it was a very cold misty morning considering it was June!

We then headed south stopping to Italica, the home town of the Emperors Trajan and Hadrian. We had a pleasant lunch in a café and then went inside to see the magnificent amphitheatre and the Roman era houses which retain their mosaic floors in situ. In the late afternoon we headed across the river to Seville where we checked into our hotel. In the morning we went to see the Roman houses which are displayed in the centre of town underneath the remarkable 'parasol'. We also saw the Gothic Cathedral. In the afternoon there was free time – I went to see the impressive Museum of the Inquisition across the river which has heart rending stories of persecution. In the evening we went to see the flamenco performance.
On the 12th June we walked through town to the Plaza de Espana - an exotic looking creation designed for a trade fair which is covered in tiles representing the history of the Spanish provinces. We then went to the Alcazares Reales, the splendid royal palace built by Pedro the Cruel in the 14th Century using Muslim artisans from the Kingdom of Granada. The Hall of the Ambassadors is wonderfully rich in ornate plaster work. The following day was a free day - I was happy to explore the old walls of the city. The following day we headed south to Cadiz. On the way we made an unscheduled stop at Jerez where we had a coffee and bought some sherry from one of the local distilleries. We also walked around the walls of the Muslim fortress overlooking the river. In Cadiz we went to see the excellent Archaeological Museum with its interesting collection of Punic and Roman remains and after checking into the hotel had a nice fish lunch overlooking the Atlantic. We then walked into town to have a look at the Cathedral and the city walls.

On the 14th of June we were lucky to have a member of the local archaeological mission, Juan Miguel pajuelo, show us around part of the walls of the city. We then left Cadiz and headed along the coast to Bolonia to see the ruins of the ancient Roman town of Baelo Claudia. The ruins are extensive and include the civic forum with the remains of 4 ancient temples including one to Isis. The onsite Museum contains an interesting display of material from the site including Punic coins. We had our lunch in a café overlooking the Straits of Gibraltar and had an exceptionally clear view to Morocco (which I’m looking forward to visiting very much). We then stopped briefly to catch a glimpse of Gibraltar before heading up into the hills to Ronda, passing many 'white villages' on our route. Having checked in to our hotel, the very pleasant San Gabriel Hotel, we had dinner overlooking the spectacular gorge which bisects the city.

The choir stalls in Toledo Cathedral
The hill town of Ronda

We spent a day exploring Ronda. We went for a walk around the old quarter, stopping to get a good view of the magnificent 18th Century bridge across the Tajo Gorge. The Mondragon House contains a very good little exhibition of artifacts from the local area. We walked down to the Arab Baths and then had some free time - I went to see the Bullring which has an excellent Museum of Bull Fighting. The next day we drove through mountainous country to Antequera where we saw the impressive megalithic tombs (or 'dolmens'). These were built in the 3rd Millennium BC as communal burial grounds for the leading families of the area.

Our road then took us to Cordoba, the ancient capital of Andalusia and the grandest city in Western Europe in the 10th Century. On our arrival we went to see the performance of the Royal Cavaliers who are famous for their horsemanship. On the 17th June we went to see the magnificent Mezquita, the heart of ancient Cordoba. This was the largest mosque in the Islamic world and remains as a masterpiece of architecture. We also walked across the Roman Bridge to see the Calahorra Tower and explored the Alcazar, the royal palace and home of the Inquisition.

We then travelled the short distance to Medinet Az-Zahara, the Moorish palace complex which was surrounded by an impressive wall. In the afternoon we travelled southwards to Granada where we checked into our hotel and went for a walk along the river. The following day we walked through the old quarter of Granada, visiting the well preserved 11th Century Arab Baths, the cathedral with its exquisite Gothic burial chapel for Isabella and Ferdinand, and the old madrasa which has recently reopened to the public. We also walked up to the Albaicin district for a wonderful view of the Alhambra.

The following day was devoted to the Alhambra palace and the Generalife Gardens. The palace spreads over the summit of a low hill and is surrounded by impressive walls. The Nasrid Palaces are delicately worked in lace like plaster panels and the tiles and woodwork are magnificent examples of Islamic art. In the afternoon we saw the beautiful gardens of the Generalife - there are a private pleasure garden of the Nasrid Sultans. The following morning we headed down to the coast to catch our flight to Barcelona.

The Roman bridge at Cordoba
The Generalife gardens at the Alhambra

On arrival in Barcelona we checked into our hotel, the Banys Oriental, and went for a walk in the Gothic Quarter of the city. A highlight is the impressive royal palace complex which lies over a series of ancient Roman houses and industrial buildings. There is an excellent collection of artefacts from the excavations. We also saw the stunning 13th Century Gothic cathedral, and the impressive Santa Maria del Mar Cathedral, my favourite church in Spain, much improved for the removal of all baroque additions. Our last day of the tour was Saturday 22nd June. We went over to the Sagrada Familia church, a stunning piece of 20th Century architecture by Antoni Gaudi. The building never fails to impress and gives one the impression of being an ant in a field of sunflowers. Some free time in the afternoon enabled some of the group to explore the Gaudi buildings nearby including Park Guell, his famous flight of fancy.

Michael Birrell

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