“I saw the great gold plains, the arid and mystical distances, where the sun rose up like a butcher each morning and left curtains of blood each night.” Laurie Lee – ‘As I walked out one Sunny Morning
After seeing all that there was to see in the quiet town of Belmonte, we needed something to do for the afternoon so after consulting the guide book and the information available at the hotel reception we decided to drive to the Roman ruins at Segóbriga about thirty miles away.
I wasn’t especially optimistic that there would be a great deal to see there so I drove deliberately slowly and stopped often for photo opportunities of the fields with their attractive contours and delightful pastel hues. Along the way we looked for somewhere to eat and passed through a couple of villages but as it turned out there was little chance of food and drink because we concluded that the people that lived there probably think that Belmonte is exciting.
Along the way we left the road to follow a track to the Castle of Almenara but it was in a state of extreme disrepair, awaiting restoration and closed to visitors so we returned to the road and carried on. Within a few minutes we spotted the signs to Segóbriga and as we turned into the historic site we were immediately astonished by the size of the place because it turned out that this is the most important Roman archaeological site in all of Central Spain.
Amazing! And I had never even heard of it.
There was a café on site where we had an overpriced bocadillo and a small beer before moving on to the entrance where a Spanish lady seemed genuinely pleased to see visitors from England in early March and gave us some precise and clear instructions to make sure we enjoyed our visit to the full. First of all there was a little film about the Romans in Spain and then a considerable walk to get to the main site and the excavations.
Segóbriga was a textbook designed Roman city – there was a theatre, a five thousand seat amphitheatre, a chariot racetrack a basilica, a temple, public baths, a cistern and a complex system of sewers, everything in fact that you would expect to find in an important city of Rome.
It was wonderful to walk around the old streets, wander through the corridors of the amphitheatre, sit in the seats of the theatre and imagine that in this very place there were gladiators in its arena, actors in its theatre, emperor worshippers in the temples, Roman Legionnaires swaggering through the streets, magistrates in magnificent purple togas parading around importantly, and slaves of course in rags to do all of the dirty work.
Segóbriga was a mining town and the mines brought great wealth and made some of the local families very rich but they weren’t mining for precious metals or for fuel but for a very specialised commodity. What they wanted was plaster, or rather gypsum, which in its crystal state (selenite) is transparent and these rocks could be split into fine sheets to make windows in an age before the Romans had begun to manufacture and use glass.
In ancient Rome buildings had wind eyes, which were square or rectangular holes in walls to let in light and air but without glass panes. To let in the light had the disadvantage of letting in the weather as well so probably most of the time people kept those windows blocked with a curtain or a shutter. The idea to use the sheets of crystal gypsum for window panes came around the turn of the millennium when an architect imported some from Spain and used them as skylights to light the public baths in Rome. This caught on quickly and the rich started doing the same for their houses and villas and in time it was used as wind eye glass and the very best quality gypsum came from right here in Segóbriga.
Because we had to wait so long for uncooperative people to move so that we could take the perfect uncluttered photographs it took almost three hours to explore the site and then to visit the museum and it was a long walk round so what had started out as a planned easy day had turned out instead to be very full and very tiring.
We drove back to Belmonte in the early evening and after a rest and a glass of wine did the same things as the previous night and went to the hotel down the street, where the friendly barman insisted on showing us the downstairs cellar bar and invited us back later and we thanked him for that but what we didn’t tell him was that it didn’t open until way past our bed time, and then we ate again in the hotel restaurant and had a third good traditional style Spanish evening meal.
This was our last night in Belmonte and as we packed our bags so that we could make an early start in the morning we reflected on what had been three excellent days in Castilla-La Mancha and we looked forward to a short drive in the morning to the town of Almagro.
More posts about Roman Ruins: