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New Newport News News: Empúries edition

     Up early and down to breakfast buffet: “lunch” meats, regional breads [yum!], eggs, fruit, really quite lavish. And the view over Cap Roig Bay incredible! Like at our home, our heads were turned to one side for the whole meal, looking out the window.
The drive to Empúries was a little confusing, but once we got the hang of the signs and compass direction, we did fine. Ron’s excellent driving skills and unusually quick reaction time served us well, but on the whole, the drivers were calm and not frantic, though it was rush hour on a weekday. Looking out the windows, it was sometimes difficult to realize we were in Spain, not California. Except when castles came into view atop the hills!
     Empúries was utterly abandoned, except for 1 bus load of middle school age kids. Somehow they figured out we were American tourists and began saying, “Hello” instead of, “Hola.” We avoided where they were going for the most part, but we met up with them at the bathrooms, where one cheeky fellow offered me some of his cookies. [I should have accepted, but Southern Lady training runs deep.]
This ancient trading port takes its name from the Greek “emporion” which translates as “marketplace.” In Virginia, there is a town called Emporia—same meaning. The 3 bays it overlooks are perfect half-moon harbors, with jutting headlands. It was not hard to visualize the biremes and other trading ships arrayed in the harbors and tied to wooden docks. A river used to run into the largest of the bays. The large bay, of which Empúries faced is called The Bay of Roses. Not in Spanish.
     Of course, there were people living there since Noah, but the Greeks began the port town when they began to challenge the Phoenicians for the trading rights to the Mediterranean. [Note: literally this name means “in the middle of the land.] roughly mid 6th century BC. Part of the huge “cyclopean” wall remains; this style of building with very large stones meant that only a Cyclops could lift the blocks. Inside the walls is a hodge-podge of the foundations of temples and homes. Of special interest to me were the cisterns and drains beneath the structures; water and sewage control are real measures of the level of civilization of any town. Right within the walls were 2 temples, one to Serapis [Egyptian] and one to Asclepios [Greek], both gods of healing. It is easy to imagine the sailors putting into port and going right to worship, either giving thanks or praying for recovery. [One thing I developed on this trip was the appreciation of the raw nerve it took for sailors on the Med in olden times. Even in our 13-stories-above-the-waterline ship this sea was a force to be reckoned with.]
     We tromped all over “Greek Town”, disappointed only in that the mosaics were covered with tarps and dirt for the winter. The museum there is small but excellent and is housed in what appears to be a medieval basilica. [We could find nothing about the structure, so it may be gothic revival.]
     The highlight inside was a marble statue of Asklepios found in 1909 in remarkably good condition. He had been kept in Barcelona for years and had just recently been returned to his home turf. Lucky for us. Ironically, the figure is perpetually giving the one-finger salute.
     Utterly famished and exhausted…well, hungry and tired… we went over to the snack shack, which commands a view that would fetch a quadrillion dollars. The charming and motherly counter lady cut a fresh lemon for our Cokes. I had bagetta con chorizo [a hard mild sausage, cut lengthwise, on a crusty roll] and Ron ate uno hamburguesa con queso, which he declared to be the best hamburger he EVER had [thick, juicy, rare and peppery] I told him it had fought in the bullring just the day before, with the meat tenderized by terror and rage. Fortunately I didn’t say this until he was done eating.
     As we ate, four 6-month kittens wandered over to supervise. They looked quite healthy and I suspect the counter lady takes care of them. They sat in chairs nearby, dozing, until we were done. I had saved a scrap of chorizo for each, which they caught from the air with their paws before eating. Much chop-licking.
     From lunch, we strolled up the hill to “Roman Town.” The Romans always laid out towns on a grid system and this was no exception. There were several large villas, with gardens, as well as temples, a forum, gymnasium, baths and theater, all essential to the Roman lifestyle. The archaeologists have excavated the foundations, reset a number of columns, exposed the hypocaust [forced hot air] floor of the baths, but had left for lunch and a nap while we visited. The guidebooks say they think they have only excavated ¼ of the Roman site. I will never smell alyssum again without thinking of the hillside, with its ruined splendor and incomparable view.
     Visit www.bucklesfamily.net for photos


[12-11-09]

PS—We drove to Pals, a medieval hill town this same day, but I shall write that separately.