It was surprisingly easy to walk across the border from Gibraltar to Spain and pick up a hire car. We were now in Andalucia, an area variously colonised by the Phoenecians, the Romans and the Moors. And our destination was two ancient Roman towns: Baelo Claudia and Carteia.
The Roman Town of Baelo Claudia
Baelo Claudia is one of the best preserved Roman cities in Spain. The Romans founded it in the 2nd century BC, but the most important buildings here date from the time of the Emperor Claudius two hundred years later. The town was important for fish processing and as a trading centre with the nearby North African ports. Baelo Claudia was partly destroyed by an earthquake in the 2nd century AD, and completely abandoned by the 6th century.
One the southernmost coast of Spain, and close to the town of Tarifa, Baelo Claudia has a spectacular setting, with hills on one side and the sea on the other. It is well excavated and easy to explore, and there is a purpose built museum and visitor centre. An added bonus is that entrance is free for EU citizens and a nominal €1.50 for everyone else.
Baelo Claudia was built in the classic Roman urban style, surrounded by a wall and crossed by straight, perpendicular streets. There were three main zones, with the port and fish processing beside the water; a central civic, commercial and social area; and a residential area further up the hill. Today you can see remains of the roads, the fish factory and the aqueduct that supplied the town with water. You can walk through the forum, dominated by a statue of the Emperor Trajan, and past temples and shops. At the top of the central area is the amphitheatre, now used once again for the occasional live performance.
Carteia, the First Roman Colonia
Although Carteia might have been similar to Baelo Claudia in Roman times (a port with fish processing), visiting it today is a very different experience. For one thing it is beside a large oil refinery, and some of the unexcavated part is within the refinery itself. And it hasn’t received as much attention as Baelo Claudia, so the excavations are much less complete. But don’t let any of this put you off: it is an extensive and interesting site. Entrance is by guided tour only (it is free, and our offer to make a donation was refused). Our guide spoke excellent English and had a wealth of information about the site and its history.
Unlike Baelo Claudia, Carteia was occupied during several different periods of history. First developed by the Phoenicians as a port, it later became a Roman town. The Romans moved the site of the port, so that it was near to the houses and the fish processing plant. Carteia is historically significant because it was the first Roman colonia. Here, for the first time, non Romans were permitted to become Roman citizens.
The area was destroyed by the Visigoths around 409 AD, but later Christian and Byzantine remains have been found. There was also a 16th century lookout tower, and a farmhouse and private residence stood here in the 18th and 19th centuries. A bunker on the site was used during the Second World War.
Other Roman Sites in Andalucia
In fact, this part of Spain is full of Roman sites. There are baths, a theatre and an aqueduct near Malaga, and a necropolis at Cadiz. Then there is the Roman town of Italica near Seville, with its magnificent mosaic flooring. I could have spent many more days exploring: hopefully it won’t be too long before the return visit.