Have Bag, Will Travel
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Tag Archives: Empúries
Yellow – The Colour of Sunshine…
I don’t know what it is about sunflowers but they do seem to excite visitors from Northern Europe, it is probably the spectacle of thousands of happy waving heads in contrast to the solitary one or two that we grow in our own gardens usually with disappointing weedy results. This is because as their name suggests they need the sun and that is something that is not too plentiful or reliable in England.
“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’
The Ancient City of Empúries in Catalonia…
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.
Deconstructing the Roman empire…
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!”
Spanish highway prostitution…
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.
It is easy to oversleep behind wooden shutters that blot out all daylight and the next morning we woke way beyond our normal wake up time and had breakfast on the pavement as the temperature began steadily to rise.
Even in Spain it seems it can be difficult to make plans based on the weather but with the benefit of hindsight we would probably have organised this trip in reverse because for the first few days when we visited the beaches there was a lot of cloud and temperatures were little more than average but now that we proposing to visit the cities the temperatures were predicted to reach almost forty degrees.
So we decided to rearrange the itinerary and return again to the seaside and this time visit L’Escala at the southern end of the Bay of Roses. L’Escala is the town that I had dismissed as the Farol of Norman Lewis so it would be interesting to test my theory because at another time it may have possible to find evidence that points towards this alternative suggestion.
It was only a short journey to the coast and almost completely uneventful until we spotted a field of sunflowers that Kim wanted to stop and photograph. I don’t know what it is about sunflowers but they do seem to excite visitors from Northern Europe, it is probably the spectacle of thousands of happy waving heads in contrast to the solitary one or two that we grow in our own gardens usually with disappointing weedy results. This is because as their name suggests they need the sun and that is something that is not too plentiful or reliable in England.
I left the road and parked the car on a dirt track and I didn’t see a problem with that because it didn’t appear to go anywhere in particular and then we disappeared into the field to take our pictures. Suddenly there was an almighty commotion and an irate woman was shouting and gesticulating and demanding that we move the car.
Wow, she was in a real temper and only after I had apologised several times, bent myself double in a penitent sort of way and beamed at her with a cheerful face as big as any of the sunflowers in the field did her fierce countenance break into a reluctant and belated smile as I moved over and let her pass. For the next few minutes my ears were burning and I don’t think that it had anything to do with the sun.
Satisfied with our photographic efforts we completed the last few kilometres to L’Escala, parked the car and walked through the tangled knot of narrow streets of what I imagine was once the old town towards the seafront. It was quiet and it was relaxed and I knew immediately that I liked the place and we came to the sea with a statue commemorating what L’Escala was once famous for – sardine fishing because before tourism and hotels, before glass bottomed boats and pedalos, before yachts and marinas this was once a thriving fishing village and the most important catch was the sardine or the anchovy.
From the statue we walked along a causeway overlooking a rocky sealine where gulls and cormorants searched for fish and fishermen snorkelled with nasty looking harpoons which I imagine made this a no go area for recreational swimming and on towards the sandy beach and the marina to the south where to my horror Kim spotted a street market and I knew that we would be sucked right in.
It was horrible in there, really horrible, with rows and rows of stalls that went on seemingly forever with people pushing and shoving and traders shouting and bullying and there was no way out left or right and so feeling giddy and the palms of my hands sweating with fear I just had to keep going . Eventually we broke through the overhead canopies into daylight and I thought maybe it was all over but this respite was only temporary and after a short break it carried on. At this point however Kim excused me from the ordeal so I went and found a bar at the edge of the sand and twenty minutes later we were both happy because I had enjoyed a cool Estrella and Kim had bagged a couple of bargains.
It seemed only right now to find somewhere for a plate of sardines so we left the busy tourist beach and made our way back to the old town where we found a suitable looking place and a plate of the local speciality before returning to the car and moving north a little way along the coast to the small village of Sant Martí d’Empúries.
Being the weekend this delightful place was absolutely swarming with people and I am sure that most of the population of nearby Figueres had left the city for a day at the beach. It was a good thing that we had eaten in L’Escala because there was no chance of a table in the busy Plaza Mayor but we managed to grab a table at a lively beach bar to have a cold drink before taking a short swim in the sea. To be honest it was far too crowded to be comfortable so we didn’t stay long and after we had brushed the sand from our burning feet we returned to the small village and its handful of sights.
Some say that this is the earliest inhabited place along the Costa Brava but the real reason it seems that it all looks so immaculate is because it was given a serious makeover in preparation for the Barcelona Olympics when Sant Martí d’Empúries was the place that received the Olympic Flame that was brought in from the sea, I assume directly from Mount Olympus.
On the subject of Greece, very close by here is the archaeological site of Empúries that was established here in the sixth century B.C. by Greek traders and settlers but I wasn’t that confident of getting to see it because of Kim’s recent travelling revelation that she doesn’t really like ancient ruins so I chose not to mention it and I caught the suggestion in the back of my throat before it came spilling out.