B.C. Archaeology

Study Tours of the Ancient World


The B.C. Archaeology tour of Northern Spain for 2015 ran from the 1st to the 23rd September. We crossed northern Spain from Barcelona to Santiago de Compostella, travelling by bus to see the wonderful ancient and medieval heritage of the region. The group included: Veronica McKervey, Prue Innes, Sandra Gillespie, Deborah Russell, Alex Radford and Ailsa Morgan. The tour was led by the author Michael Birrell.

The Sagrada Familia
Tarragona aqueduct

I met my group at Barcelona airport on the 2nd September and we spent the first day of the tour walking around the Gothic Quarter of Barcelona. We went into the Cathedral and saw the impressive crypt of St Eulalia - we also saw the famous swans which live in the Cathedral Cloister. We explored the excavations of the Roman buildings under the Gothic city and saw the Palace of the Kings of Aragon including the beautiful chapel of St Agatha. The following day we went to see the Antoni Gaudi designed basilica known as the Sagrada Familia - this is a stunning piece of organic architecture which is still under construction after many decades. The architects have changed quite a lot since I saw it two years before, with many new metal finials. The interior is something wonderful and always suggests to me of being an ant in a garden. In the afternoon we went to the Catalunya Museum of Art where we saw the impressive Romanesque art collection. The church paintings from the 12th Century were removed from their original chapels and transported to Barcelona to conserve them - they are very beautiful.

On the 4th September we went north by bus to Emporion where we saw the ruins of the ancient Greek and Roman city. It was an overcast day and the rain came in before we had finished which forced us to retreat to the on-site archaeology museum - the statue of the healing god Asclepius is particularly well preserved. We then went to the medieval city of Girona where we walked in the old quarter and had a pleasant lunch in a café. We saw the cathedral and its collection of religious art which includes beautiful Arab caskets. They were filming Game of Thrones in Girona the week of our visit and we saw some of the sets near the medieval Arab baths.

Puenta la reina
Walking on the Camino Trail

The next day we left Barcelona for Tarragona where we explored the Roman ruins including the amazingly well preserved aqueduct and the amphitheatre near the sea. We walked along the ancient walls, which date back to Iberian and Punic times, and then through the medieval town after mohitos (not mentioning names) for lunch. We stopped to see the Roman 'Tomb of the Scipios' before heading on to check in to our hotel in Zaragoza. The 6th September was spent visiting the beautiful Muslim Aljaferia palace in Zaragoza - it dates from the 11th Century and has been magnificently restored. It contains a stunning private oratory and reception room and there is an Arab style garden in the centre. We also saw the ruins of the Roman theatre in Zaragoza and got under the main square to see the remains of the Roman Forum. Then we saw the baroque Cathedral with its superb Flemish tapestries.

Estella monastery
Irache Monastery

It was a beautiful sunny day for our visit to Olite Palace which was built around 1400 by the King of Navarra. It is a Gothic residence which has been well restored. We then headed on to Pamplona where we went for a walk in the historic centre. Pamplona is a pleasant place and we spent a few days exploring the area - on our arrival we saw the cathedral which has a peaceful cloister and an interesting collection of artefacts going back to Roman time. The tomb of Carlos III in the centre of the Cathedral is a stunning piece of Gothic Art. Afterwards we had dinner in a café where Ernest Hemingway often dined.

The following morning, the 8th September, we went for a walk round the medieval walls of Pamplona and down to the river, and then visited the main archaeology museum - I particularly like the Islamic artefacts, Romanesque architectural sculpture and Gothic wall paintings. We did some shopping for a picnic lunch and then drove up through scenic mountain countryside to Roncesvalles at the French border to begin our drive along the Camino de Santiago. We had our picnic near the historic centre of town and were lucky enough to see a musical concert in the Church of Santa Maria, which was an unexpected pleasure. We walked along a short section of the famous Camino Trail and then drove down to Eunate to see the unusual hexagonal chapel of the Knight’s Templar - we encountered a lady who was walking the Camino with her possessions loaded on the back of a donkey! We then did a short walk along the Camino (about 5 km) to the pilgrim town of Puenta la Reina which has a number of beautiful medieval buildings and is famous for its wonderful bridge. When we got back to Pamplona we saw a street procession of people dressed in medieval costumes and period military outfits.

We spent the next morning doing another short walk along part of the Camino Trail. We started in the small town of Cirauqui which has a well preserved section of Roman road and an ancient Roman bridge. It was very pleasant to walk in the open countryside and we crossed a number of medieval bridges. We then spent a few hours in the attractive medieval town of Estella which has a beautiful Cistercian church and cloister. I particularly like the Church of San Miguel which has remarkable Romanesque sculpture around the entrance.

Burgos Cathedral
Olmeda Roman villa

On the 10th September we went to see the Benedictine monastery of Irache, located not far from Estella. This has an attractive simple Romanesque church and attached Gothic cloister. We sampled the wine form the free pilgrim's wine fountain and then spent some time in the small pilgrim town of Los Arcos where there is a remarkably Baroque church. We had a picnic lunch and saw the Knights Templar chapel at Torres del Rio. This has an unusual domed ceiling and sparse decoration. In the afternoon we headed to Logrono where we had a walk in the old town. The following day we drove south to the archaeological site of Numantia - this ancient site is famous as the location where the Celt-Iberians resisted Roman expansion in the 3rd Century BC. A section of ancient Iberians houses has been excavated and reconstructed. On the way back to Logrono we stopped to see some beautiful medieval bridges and we were all fascinated by a mechanical road attendant who kept waving at us.

On the 12th September we drove north to Bilbao, passing through rugged mountain country. We went for a walk in the old quarter of the city and saw the small archaeology museum. In the afternoon, after lunch in the town square, we went to the famous Guggenheim Museum which houses a changing collection of Modern Art - they were showing a Jean-Michel Basquiat exhibition which was of interest. The next day we drove along the north coast of Spain to see the Castillo Cave - this was inhabited by Neanderthals for 60,000 years and is painted with early scenes of animals. The countryside is very beautiful and rugged. We then continued westwards to see the Altamira Cave replica with bison paintings and the associated Museum with early human artefacts.

We spent the next few days in Burgos, the ancient capital of the Kingdom of Castille. The first thing we stopped to see on our arrival was the royal castle on the top of the hill. We also saw the magnificent Cathedral which is a beautiful example of Gothic architecture from the 13th Century. It contains the relics of the famous 11th Century military leader El Cid. We also visited the Carthusian monastery where we saw the tomb of Isabella's parents and brother (and we encountered a witch).

On the 15th September there was a free day in Burgos. Our hotel was in a good location near the old city and this meant that everyone could spend some time exploring the ancient heart of Burgos. The following day we saw the wonderful Museum of Evolution which has a very impressive display of real and replica hominin skeletons, and the fascinating finds from the caves of Atapuerca where remains of Homo antecessor and Homo heidelbergensis have been discovered. It also has an amazing group of dioramas showing the physical forms of the early human types. In the afternoon we went to see the Monastery of Las Huelgas, still a royal establishment and burial site of medieval kings including Alfonso VIII and his wife Eleanor.

We left Burgos on the 17th September and drove parallel with the Camino Trail to Leon making a few diversions to explore along the way. We stopped to see a beautiful 11th Century Romanesque church in Fromista with many modallions (precursors of gargoyles). We also saw a 4th Century Roman villa at Olmeda. This preserves 1500 square metres of mosaic in situ - the main scenes are very impressive and show gladiators killing wild animals. Our final stop for the day before we reached Leon was to see the 10th Century church at San Miguel Escalada - it is a wonderful survival of early church architecture which includes many Moorish elements.

Leon Cathedral
Heading to Oviedo

We spent the next day in Leon exploring the medieval city. We went for a walk along the old Roman walls and saw the impressive Early Medieval Basilica of Isidore with its wonderful painted Romanesque Royal Burial crypt. The collection of medieval artefacts in the Treasury is really something! We then visited the magnificent 13th Century cathedral with its stunning stained glass walls. The Gothic cloister is also very atmospheric.

On the 19th September we had a day trip north of Leon to the early medieval town of Oviedo. It is a spectacular drive over the Cantabrian Mountains with magical vistas and many tunnels. We were interested in exploring early pre-Romanesque monuments dated to the 9th Century including two early frescoed churches (San Juan de los Prados and San Miguel de Lilli) and a royal palace complex overlooking the city (Santa Maria del Naranco) which dates to 850. We had a good lunch in town which included the local cider, traditionally poured from a great height without looking (and not always entirely making it into the glass). We then went to see the Gothic Cathedral - this preserves an historic 9th Century Chapel and many early medieval treasures including a beautiful silver casket. We had a scenic drive back to Leon in the afternoon when our driver took us on a less direct road.

The following day we drove from Leon to Santiago de Compostella. We stopped to see a Roman and medieval bridge, and also had a look at Antoni Gaudi's Bishop House in Astorga. It is a Disneyesque confection but beautiful. The city of Astorga is surrounded by impressive Roman period walls. We had some lunch in the town of Ponferrada and saw the Knights Templar Castle - this is in a commanding location over the local river. The castle had a great display of early illustrated manuscript replicas. In the afternoon we stopped to see the vista of Santiago where pilgrims traditionally bathed and prepared to enter the city. We checked into our hotel and went for a walk in the old quarter - some members of the group ordered seafood paella which was very tasty. We had a cake for Deborah’s birthday and a glass of wine.

In sight of Santiago
Pilgrim's mass in Santiago

The following day, our last of the tour, we explored the cathedral area and managed to see the swinging of the fuming incense boat at the end of the pilgrim mass. This is a wonderful spectacle full of Catholic theatre. We had lunch in the old quarter and then explored some of the historic buildings nearby including the Bishop's Palace and the Museum which has a section of the early medieval stone choir stalls. Our Spanish pilgrimage had now come to an end after our journey across the north of Spain.

Michael Birrell

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