My adventures in southern France travel blog

Entry to church in Empuriabrava, Spaiin

Closeup of a saint flanking the entry to a church in Empuriabrava,...

Closeup of a pair of saints flanking the entry to a church...

The remains of the Greco-Roman ruins at Empuries, Spain

The museum at the Greco-Roman site of Empuries in Spain

A sandaled foot sculpture recovered at the Roman site of Empuries

A statue of Asclepius, the Roman god of healing recovered at Empuries

A jointed terracotta doll recovered from a child's tomb at Empuries

Sculpture of a Roman woman recovered at Empuriies

A working copy of a mosaic of Iphigenia being taken to the...

A beautiful mosaic of a bird recovered at Empuries

A Roman water filtration system at Empuries

The remains of the Cathar stronghold of Queribus in the Pyranees Mountains

A beautiful old-fashioned windmill in a village in the Pyranees Mountains


We left early today to drive south to Spain to explore the remains of the city of Empuries founded in 575 BC by Greek colonists from Phocaea then later occupied by the Romans. We took our passports although no one was manning the border crossing booths when we crossed over into Spain so we didn't have to produce them after all.

It was interesting that the architecture changed almost immediately when we crossed the border. In southern France most homes are either a tan stone or stucco structures often with a veneer of stone to match the surrounding residences and tile roofs. When we crosssed into Spain the homes were either adobe or stucco often painted a brilliant white with tile roofs. It's almost as if the Spanish were making a clear statement that you were now in another culture.

Another thing I noticed was the difference in vegetation. When you cross the border you are in the foothills of the Pyranees Mountains and there are forests of these strange trees with their vegetation clustered in bunches. They were a broadleaf tree but they still reminded me of the Joshua Tree National Forest in southern California. I also saw what looked like huge sagebrushes as tall as a house.

We stopped in the coastal city of Empuriabrava to get directions to the Roman ruins and came across a beautiful old church with saints carved on either side of an arched main entry door. Unlike the exterior carvings of the churches I have seen in southern France, these carvings were still relatively sharp. It must be the difference in the stone they are using. In southern France many of the churches are constructed of limestone, a relatively soft stone, so it is not surprising that carved surfaces exposed to the weather are quite eroded. The Spanish church was constructed of a yellow stone that looked similar to the French churches but maybe it was similarly colored granite. I bet the interior of of the church was beautiful but I couldn't find out because people were gathering for a funeral there.

It was close to lunch time so we found a little restaurant for a bite to eat. I was always curious if Spanish food was anything like Mexican food but it definitely isn't. The menu included steaks, fish and a rice dish with seafood that I would have liked to have ordered but they only made it for a minimum of two people and neither of my English friends were interested. I thought about ordering giant prawns in a coconut curry but was hesiitant. I was pretty hungry and if I didn't like it, it would be a long time until dinner. So I chickened out and Cecelia and I both ordered what I thought would be a burger and fries. It was a burger patty cooked really rare (I was awfully nervous about ecoli but at least it was hot all the way through) topped with melted white cheese and served open-faced on a slice of toasted bread with a fried egg (???). At least the fries looked like what I expected. Richard ordered a Spanish omelette but it didn't appear to have anything in it but maybe cheese and egg. Oh well, you win some and you lose some.

As it turned out we had to drive another 20 miles or so further south to get to the Roman archaeological site. Empúries was founded on a small island at the mouth of the river Fluvià in northeastern Spain by Greek colonists from Phocaea in 575 BCE. Prior to that time the area was predominatly inhabited by an early Iberian tribe known as the Indigetes. In 550 BCE the inhabitants of the small island city moved to the mainland and expanded from an influx of refugees after the mother country of Phocaea was conquered by Persian king Cyrus II in 530 BCE. Before long it was a thriving trade center and the largest Greek colony on the Iberian peninsula.

But with its choice location on the shores of the Mediterranean, it was pressured by the two super-powers of the day, Carthage and Rome.

When the Second Punic War erupted between Carthage and Rome, Empúries (known as Emporion by the Greeks) allied itself with Rome and served as Publius Cornelius Scipio's launching point for his eventual conquest of Iberia in 218 BCE. Although the city remained independent until the 1st century BCE, it eventually became the focus of a contest between Julius Caesar and Pompey the Great during the last civil war of the Roman Republican period. Unfortunately, this time, it sided with Pompey, the eventual loser in the conflict and a victorious Julius Caesar stripped the city of its autonomy and made it a colony for his Roman veterans, renaming it Emporiae.

The Romans built a new city center apart from the former Greek settlement and erected a forum, baths, a curia, a small amphitheater and a paleoChristian basilica on a nearby hill.

I wish I had studied this history before visiting the site as the guided tours don't start until June. We wandered around what I now know to be the early Greek ruins (excavations began in 1908), not realizing the Roman ruins are up the hill a short distance.

A small but very nicely organized museum is situated in the middle of the Greek ruins surrounded by the remains of homes, shops and a temple erected for the healing god Asclepius. A reproduction of a statue of Asclepius marks the temple's former location.

I also saw a large geometric mosaic pavement in situ as well as an interesting terracotta water filtration system. I was a little disappointed that only about 1/3 of the structures' walls were intact but, of course, Empúries did not have a protective layer of volcanic ash like Pompeii. I do wish I had seen the Roman ruins, though, as I have since learned they have many more mosaics still in place. It's my understanding only 20% of the Roman site has, as yet, been excavated, though.

In the museum we found the original statue of Asclepius made from expensive imported Greek Pentelic and Parian marble. The museum also displays several mosaics discovered at the site. A mosaic depicting a scene of Iphigenia from Homer's Iliad was particularly nice - intricate and very colorful. There was also a wonderful partially completed mosaic of a bird and another depicting a rather wicked-looking theater mask.

The city's necropolis that was in use from the 7th century BCE up to the Middle Ages has yielded a variety of black and red-figured Greek ceramics despite extensive looting over the centuries. The grave of a Roman child contained a little jointed doll that is also on display. It reminded me very much of the ancient Roman jointed dolls I saw at the Palazzo Massimo the last time I was in Rome.

In one house the marble head of a lady was discovered that resembles the first Roman empress Livia, wife of Augustus. The jury's still out, though, trying to decide if it was her or the matron of the household, who was merely emulating Livia's hairstyle.

A marvelous marble herm carved to depict the god Dionysus (Bacchus to the Romans) was found in the Roman ruins as well as a beautiful bronze oil lamp. I thought the lamp looked very much like a satyr because of its comical expression although the ears are not particularly pointed.

The site overlooks a beautiful beach although it appeared to be cordoned off. So, we left Empuries and drove to the next town and found a public beach. There, we kicked off our shoes and went wading in the Mediterranean. The weather has been so cool I'm afraid it wasn't all that warm but at least I can say I have waded in it. The beach was quite gravelly so it wasn't particularly comfortable to walk barefoot. My feet have always been tender though.

Then, we finally headed back toward France but Richard decided to take back roads through the mountains rather than the motorway so we'd have more to look at. The next three hours was white knuckle time for me. The back roads were really only wide enough for one car so if you met another car you had to hold your breath to barely squeak by. The roads were also very crooked and full of hairpin curves. Needless to say I didn't have much chance to enjoy the scenery because of sheer terror! At one point we ended up in the vicinity of the so-called four castles of the Cathars. They are all just crumbling ruins perched high atop almost inaccessible rocky peaks. I know people visit them but it looks to me like you would need climbing ropes and a fistful of pitons to get up there! Needless to say I wasn't in the mood for that so I just used my zoom lens at the maximum setting to get some pictures and call it good!

At least we found a little village with a beautiful old fashioned wind mill. I told Cecelia that was the only thing that gave her back some of her navigator points!

We didn't get home until almost 9 p.m. Needless to say I ate a quick meal and fell into bed!

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