“here then, is the proper setting for things Roman, – not Hadrians’s Wall or Bath or St. Albans in cold, wet Britain at the outer edge of the civilised world, but Empúries… on the edge of the great tideless sea – Mare Nostrum.” John Payne – ‘Catalonia, History and Culture’
As I said, I had no real expectation of seeing the excavations at Empúries but then Kim took me by surprise and without any prompting suggested a visit. I expressed my astonishment and reminded her that only recently she had told me that she didn’t especially like ancient ruins but then she corrected me on this point and being more specific told me that she didn’t mind visiting archaeological sites but she would prefer not to go every day!
So with that misunderstanding sorted out we drove to the entrance and paid the very reasonable admission price of €2.40 – so reasonable in fact that it didn’t raise my expectations very much above zero!
How wrong I was however, because this was a very impressive site indeed. At the lower level we walked through the two thousand five hundred year old Greek city which turns out to be the most important Greek archaeological site anywhere in Spain so rather surprising then that it is not a UNESCO World Heritage Site and remains for the time being on the tentative list already having been rejected once.
After the Greeks came the Romans and they made some improvements and adapted the city to their own preferences and style and later when militarising the peninsula built a whole new city further inland and here we walked around the remains of the Forum, the Temples, the Amphitheatre and sections of the old city wall and inside these the public baths and the once grand villas of the city patricians. It wasn’t on the scale of Pompeii or Herculaneum of course but as only an estimated 20% of the site has been excavated then who knows what treasures lay buried under the parched dusty fields.
Between the Greek and the Roman cities there was a small but informative museum with a chronological history of the site and several display cases with largely unimportant finds on account of the fact that all the interesting stuff is in a museum in Girona.
After the Romans left the city was occupied by the Franks, the Visigoths and the Moors and then in the Middle Ages it began to be dismantled and used as a quarry and a convenient source of building materials for new towns and villages springing up along the coastline.
This is something that has always perplexed me. The Romans built a great city with roads and aqueducts, fresh water, sewage and waste disposal systems, palaces and gardens grand villas decorated with mosaics and statues and then medieval man came along during the dark ages and tore them down – not to build something better but to construct something significantly inferior.
I would like to have overheard the town planning debates and the rationale applied to do this. “We don’t need stone roads”, they’d probably say “a muddy track will do just as well because we don’t need chariots and trucks either.” “We don’t need all these fancy sewers, we’ll dig a hole in the middle of the village to take a crap!” “We can’t really see the point of all these aqueducts and fresh water filtration systems, we’ll just drink the dirty river water! “And finally we don’t need all of these fine villas with their air conditioning and shady gardens, we’ll take them down and use the stone to make the foundations for some mud huts!”
After an hour or so walking around in the blistering heat of the afternoon we left Empúries and set off back on the road towards Figueres along some busy main roads. At a roundabout Kim spotted a young girl dressed all in white and looking like the women in the eighties pop group Boney M with thigh high boots, a mini skirt so short it was almost superfluous and a tight top at least two sizes too small to accentuate her bust.
“What on earth is she doing?”, asked Kim and I told her that she was a prostitute, “No”, said Kim, “Yes”, said I, “No”, she repeated as she twisted around in her seat to look out of the rear window “Yes”, I said again and then told her the sordid story of roadside prostitution in Spain which for some is a real problem.
Well, I say a problem but it depends I suppose on your perspective. It doesn’t seem to be a problem to the authorities who do nothing about it, it doesn’t seem to be a problem to the sex tourists who come to Spain to find a prostitute by the roadside and it isn’t a problem to the organised crime gangs who control this lucrative business and is probably the reason the authorities cannot stop it.
It certainly is a problem however for the girls, many of whom come from Eastern Europe and have been lured here by the promise of housing and employment and then find themselves trapped into sex slavery repaying their travel and accommodation costs, being kept permanently short of cash so that the debt never gets repaid and living in fear of beatings and abuse.
Here in Catholic Spain, in a country that prides itself on conservative family values, the country of the evening paseo in the Plaza Mayor and where children’s clothes shops are full of expensive embroidery and lace this nasty business all seems so grossly hypocritical, where people turn a blind eye to something that they cannot possibly approve of.
I can’t imagine anyone, except Xaviera Hollander perhaps, choosing prostitution as a career but to quote Thomas Hobbes life for these unfortunate women can be “nasty, brutish and short” and in the twenty-first century in mainland Europe it is something we should be collectively ashamed of.
I must confess to being a sort of Dorling-Kindersley tourist flitting between palaces and museums, historical centres and plaza mayors, beaches and mountains – picking out the best and turning a blind eye to the crime and the grime but there was no way of missing it here. To be fair I have never seen that much of this roundabout prostitution in other parts of Spain but here in Catalonia it seems to be a particular issue that surely needs urgent attention.
I read once that the police in Llieda have addressed the problem by requiring the women to wear yellow hi-viz jackets so that they do not present a hazard to motorists and I have to say, come on Spain – I don’t think that that is adequately dealing with it!
Sadly of course it won’t get dealt with quickly because as we know prostitution has been around for a long time and a visit to a Roman antiquity such as nearby Empúries with their well advertised brothels is ample evidence of that.
Spartacus the Gladiator
The Roman City of Pompeii
The Roman City of Herculaneum
The Roman Amphitheatre at Pula
The Aqueduct of Segovia
The Roman Buildings at Mérida
The Roman Ruins at Segóbriga
Diocletian’s Palace at Split
The Roman Buildings at Arles