In the 40+ years I'd spent living on this planet before moving to Europe I never once thought to myself, "Someday I hope I'll travel to Spain so that I can see some cool ancient Greek and Roman stuff!"
Which begs the question... "Are there ancient Greek and Roman ruins worth seeing in Spain?"
For those of us who grew up 6,000 miles away this is a real query, not a joke.
When most Americans think of touring the ancient Mediterranean world to interact with history, we typically think of visiting modern Greece, Italy or Egypt. Spain is not usually the first country that pops to mind... mostly because Americans in general don't seem to know as much about Spain as they do about some of the other Mediterranean countries.
As it turns out though, Spain has A LOT to offer in the way of incredible ancient sites colonized thousands of years ago by Greeks and Romans.
It's almost unbelievable how many beautiful, well-preserved ruins remain intact along the northeast coast of Spain... inside or nearby Barcelona, Valencia and Tarragona.
"If you are spending any time on the Costa Brava," my Spanish friend Viva explained, "You must take your children to visit the ruins at Empúries! They are unbelievable."
Viva is a fountain of incredible information and recommendations. She never gets it wrong, so I didn't need much more convincing.
"Honey," I told Señor Aventura, "While we are staying in Tamariu, I'd like to drive north to see Empúries. We can make a day of it!"
Neither my husband nor I knew anything about Empúries... we'd never heard of it before! That said, we always love a new adventure.
"Sounds great!" Señor Aventura replied. "Why not?"
"Can I bring my phone today, Mom?" asked The Scientist. "I'd like to take pictures to share with my friends back in California."
"Absolutely! It's sunny and beautiful, I'm sure you'll get some nice photos."
Within short order the children were strapped into their seatbelts, relaxing and gazing out the window as we drove again through the exquisite Catalan countryside.
"How long is the drive today?" asked Little Angel.
"Not too far... about 45 minutes."
"Okay," nodded The Scientist, putting in his ear buds and revealing the true reason he wanted to bring his phone. "I think I'll listen to music along the way." He smiled and began to hum along.
"Look Mom!" added Soccer Dude. "I keep seeing more of these white flowers. What are they?"
"Gosh, I'm really not sure. They sure are growing a lot of them!"
By the time we reached the exit for Empúries the children's stomachs had begun to rumble.
"Mommy, can we get lunch?" Little Angel asked. "I'm SO hungry!"
"Absolutely," I replied. "Viva says there is a good restaurant at the Hostal Spa Empúries. Let's check there."
We pulled off of the road and into a spacious dirt parking lot with simple signage. To the right, various cars and vans appeared to be camping. To the left, a more elegant looking white building rose in front of the beach with its own parking lot.
The children clambered out of the car. "Food!" they exclaimed and pressed forward.
When I hear the world 'hostel' I typically think of a 'vacation on a shoestring'. For example, "Hostelling International" hosts backpackers from across the world. Twenty years ago, I typically stayed in hostels while traveling.
That did little to prepare me for the Hostal Spa Empúries though, which turned out to be a four star LEED certified, sustainable luxury hotel.
When we walked through its sliding glass doors I was immediately surprised to see a sophisticated, modern zone of beiges, linens and flowers.
"May I help you?" asked the smiling, well-groomed young woman at the front desk.
"We were told you have a restaurant here?" .
"Of course! Go through those doors and to the left."
As it turned out, the Hostal Spa Empúries actually had three different dining options for visitors and guests. First, there was the expensive and elegant Restaurante Villa Teresita with meals around $28.00 a plate. Lovely ambiance and perfect for an anniversary getaway... but not the most economical with three hungry kids!
A few steps away there was an outdoor patio restaurant that offered a middle range menu including drinks and several different types of dishes in a more casual environment. This was more accessible for us but the tables were all outside and I was feeling a little chilly in the afternoon breeze.
"How about that one?" The Scientist suggested, pointing to a series of tables resting on the sand next to a stand that appeared to be serving lunch options.
It was much sunnier at this new spot our eldest son suggested, and looked a bit warmer..
"That looks much better! The food is also reasonably priced," we agreed. We headed down to the little tables and found a nice one with a view of both the sea and the hotel.
The children filled up on traditional Tortilla Espanyola (like an egg and potato bake) and hummus, along with some bocadillos de jamon y queso (ham and cheese sandwiches). Then they ran to play with rocks and shells on the beach, excited to test out the soft sand.
"Are we ready?" I asked my husband. "Is it time to go and see Empúries?"
"Yes," he agreed. "Let's go now so we can enjoy it and still return home with plenty of time for dinner."
We packed up, paid the bill, gathered the children and began to make our way to the official entrance for the Empúries ruins. They were mainly hidden behind a fence and wall, so I had no clue what to expect.
On approach the site entrance seemed subtle and understated, even modern in its presentation. "I guess this will be a tiny exhibit," I thought, "But that's okay! We're having fun together."
After accepting our payment and giving us audio tours, a friendly woman ushered us through double doors leading outside. We entered a dark room where a short film gave us context for the exhibit, teaching us about the early inhabitants of the area and their way of life.
Then we walked as a family through the gates of the actual exhibition. Collectively, we gasped. We were stunned and mesmerized.
Two ancient cities spread out before us... or at least, the ghosts of two ancient cities. Their remains stretched toward the horizon.
We were looking at Empúries, or what is left of it.
Originally settled in the year 575 BC, Empúries has been inhabited (incredibly!) for almost 2,600 years. Greek colonists discovered the territory and created a settlement on an island at the mouth of the river Fluviá, calling it "Emporion" which meant "trading place".
Emporion had a desirable coastal position that left it easily accessible for trade... but also wide open for attack!
Around 550 BC the residents decided to move to the mainland, where they created a different city. They called this place "Neapolis", which literally translates to 'new city'!
Twenty years later the new city was flooded with Phocaean refugees after the Persian army had conquered their Greek city on the west coast of Turkey. Sailing for safety and freedom, the Phocaeans ended up founding two cities along the Mediterranean... Massalia (later became Marseilles) in France and Emporion in Spain. The refugees helped to establish Emporion as the then-largest Greek colony on the Iberian peninsula!
Hundreds of years later Empúries allied itself with Rome during the Punic Wars, which explains why there are ruins of a sizeable Roman colony on the same piece of land with the original Greek town. In the 3rd Century AD locals finally abandoned the Greek town altogether, living and working instead in the Roman city. It survived in different incarnations until Vikings began to raid the region in the mid-9th Century AD.
We learned all of this from little headsets given to us by the woman at the admissions desk. With the headsets firmly attached to our heads, our family set about exploring all of the many incredible, jaw-dropping sights that remain in Empúries today.
Wow! We had to pinch ourselves. We were standing in the heart of a city over 2,000 years old... a city which had been inhabited by various groups of people for over a thousand years!!!
To put that into perspective our hometown of San Diego, California was founded in 1769 by Gaspar de Portolá, making it a grand total of 248 years old. San Diego is about 10x younger than Empúries!
Yet here we were... five native San Diegans gently touching stones that had been carved by men just like Señor Aventura, looking at hearths that had been swept by women just like me.
We checked out the storage lockers used by members of the Roman baths and gym... thousands of years ago!
"I'm looking out at the sea exactly as a woman my age must have looked at it two thousand years ago," I mused while staring at the gray-blue Mediterranean. Amazing.
We laughed and also felt sad and thoughtful when listening to stories told on our headsets about the actual people who may have lived in the ruined homes whose floors we admired.
Our family spent three more hours walking through the remains of temples, hospitals, fancy villas, gymnasiums (with spa!) and hot and cold baths. We admired the exquisite mosaic tile floors, sophisticated fish storage system and underground plumbing. We explored every nook and cranny, soaking it all in!
We dallied in the impressive central Archaeology Museum of Catalonia-Empúries that houses the most priceless treasures they've discovered while carefully uncovering the ruins, inch by inch. Some of the mosaics, sculptures, jewelry and glassware they've dug up are incredible and in perfect condition - almost as though their owner's just commissioned them yesterday.
After all this we were overwhelmed to learn that despite the enormous size of the ruins we'd traversed - a long afternoon's walk - only about 20% of the actual ancient cities at Empúries have actually been excavated so far. Eighty percent of the historical ruins still remain hidden under its vast green lawns and rolling slopes!
"Imagine!" I turned to Soccer Dude. "Honey, you could come back here in twenty years and there will be so many new things uncovered for you to see!"
"That would be cool," he agreed. "This place is actually pretty interesting. It's not as big as the Colosseum we saw in Rome but I've learned a lot about Roman and Greek history today."
"Yeah," The Scientist chimed in. "The audio tour was really detailed. Also, I never knew that Greek and Roman ruins could be in the exact same place."
"Mommy, I want to dance in that big field over there," Little Angel chimed in.
"The circus?" I asked, pointing toward the circular ring outside the thick Roman city wall where gladiators had likely fought and chariots had raced.
"Yep!" she giggled and skipped off.
As the sun began to set, The Scientist and I watched Little Angel twirl in circles around the beautiful empty space. She danced and did cartwheels... filling the ancient, sleeping arena with young, vital energy.
"It's almost like we've gone back in time," The Scientist whispered and took a photo of his little sister swaying in the late afternoon sun.
A light breeze whipped through the grasses and I stretched out my legs.
"Yes," I nodded. "I agree."
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