On a sunny Saturday near the Spanish coastal city of Tarragona, my husband and I stood in a small building with a rounded ceiling, gazing at a finely crafted mosaic that’s said to be about 1,500 years old. The building is surrounded by an empty field and has a small paved parking lot, also empty.
It quickly became clear that on this day, we were the only tourists there. Surely there had been others the day before? One of the two curators on the site shrugged, paused a moment, and then gave his answer. “Quizas tres,” he said, with a shrug. Maybe three.
Really? Only three people had come out to see this extraordinary Roman-Christian relic, known as Centcelles? Many art historians say that it’s among the world’s finest examples of a ceiling mosaic, crafted long before Michelangelo lay on his back to paint the Sistine Chapel. We had it all to ourselves.
The Centcelles mosaic portrays hunting scenes with wild animals, including lions, as well as Bible stories, and other scenes still defying interpretation. It is at least 30 feet above the ground, a tribute to both artistry and engineering. How did the artist get up there and stay there? There’s plenty of time to contemplate that in the quiet inside the building. As was the case with most of our other visits to many of Spain’s carefully preserved Roman sites, we were able to enjoy Centcelles virtually alone. There were no other visitors muscling us aside for a better view, or disturbing the peace by answering ringing cellphones.
A year earlier, on the hunt for Roman ruins in Italy, we’d found ourselves in different circumstances. Many of the houses in Pompeii were closed, with no sign of when or whether they would ever reopen, and what we were able to see wasn’t exactly awe-inspiring. In Naples, there was so much trash in the street near the train station that I assumed (wrongly) that there was a garbage strike. One day, the commuter train from the coastal town my husband and I were using as our base just didn’t show up. And in Rome, major sites such as the Colosseum and the Forum were so packed with tourists that it was tough to absorb the splendor of the surroundings.
Spain attracts more than 50 million visitors annually, according to government data. But the vast majority strike out for the cities and beaches and never make it to some of the country’s lesser-known but well-protected Roman ruins, thereby missing out on opportunities to delve into world history, examine architectural marvels and see some great works of art in the open air — in many cases, in better condition than in Italy. Add to that the economics of visiting Spain — where a tapas snack and a drink in a restaurant can be had for about $9 or less — and the ease of traveling on Spanish trains and buses, and it’s tough to find a reason to stay away.
We reached Centcelles on a public bus from Tarragona (about $4 round trip) and then walked to the site. A few years earlier, we’d visited Italica, a Roman site with good mosaics and a coliseum near Sevilla, also getting there on the city bus. In Mérida, which Rafael Sabio, a curator at the National Museum of Roman Art, says is “Spain’s Pompeii,” we arrived after a four-hour bus ride from Madrid and made our way on foot to the well-preserved theater, the Circus Maximus or racetrack, and an aqueduct, as well as to the museum, which has one of Spain’s deepest collections of Roman artifacts.
Despite the Crisis, as Spaniards call their wrenching economic downturn, Spain and its local governments have managed to protect many Roman ruins and to safeguard many relics in nearby museums, sometimes right on site. And by doing so, they’ve also preserved numerous examples of the long-lasting effect the Romans had on civic society for centuries after the empire collapsed.
Not only did the Romans in Spain have glass, fine jewels and beautiful mosaics, but they also built fancy thermal baths, figured out how to provide running water and developed sewage and central heating systems. They built huge aqueducts without using cement, fitting the pieces together without any bonding material. They built bridges still open to pedestrians today in Cordoba and Salamanca and in the province of Burgos, using a design that’s replicated on structures such as Washington’s Arlington Memorial Bridge. They designed coliseums, many still well preserved, such as the ones in Italica, Segobriga (about an hour’s drive from Madrid) and Tarragona, where the coliseum overlooking the Mediterranean is a short walk from the train station.
Spain is essentially one big archaeological site, much of it dating from the Roman era. Entire cities, such as Barcelona and Valencia, were built over Roman ruins, which are still viewable in museums that allow visitors to walk along glass-bottomed walkways to see the remains of small shops, public baths and city houses. The small city of Antequera, accessible by the AVE train or an hour’s bus ride from Malaga, has one of the world’s best statues of a Roman boy, the Ephebus of Antequera. Museums in Cordoba and Sevilla have extensive Roman collections.
We began our most recent quest for Roman ruins in Madrid, where the treasure-filled National Archaeological Museum reopened in early April after being closed for six years. It’s a good starting point for gaining an understanding of Roman Spain, with its cache of mosaics, jewelry, sculptures, vases, glass containers and Roman tablets spelling out laws.
Then, with Madrid as a base, it’s easy to make day trips or longer journeys to the dozens of Roman sites across Spain, for centuries one of Rome’s most remote but thriving outposts. Many local museums have extensive collections of Roman relics, including jewelry, ornately carved marble sarcophagi and bronze and marble statues. In almost every municipality, there’s a local tourist office — often more than one — usually with a young Spaniard eager to test out his or her English, and with brochures in several languages.
A few days after we spent several hours in the Madrid museum, we rented a car and drove about an hour to Carranque. The sprawling site just outside the town of the same name includes the remains of three buildings, including what appears to have been a 20-room Roman villa whose wealthy owner commissioned dozens of mosaics for the floors and walls. The mosaics are in their original locations in the villa, viewable from a walkway constructed about six feet above. The curators at the site rely largely on natural light to show them off, which makes close inspection a bit difficult.
Still, Carranque offers one of Spain’s most easily accessible on-site examples of what life might have been like for the rich and famous in Roman Spain in the late 4th century A.D. Carranque, it turned out, foreshadowed the end of an era; it was built about 100 years before decadence, bad crops and invasions from the north helped spark the decline of Rome’s Spanish outposts, and eventually of the entire empire.
When we arrived at Carranque about 10:30 a.m. on a Saturday, we found ourselves alone in the empty parking lot. By 11 a.m., when an hour-long tour in Spanish was to begin, perhaps a dozen people had shown up. Once we completed the tour, helped out by a free brochure in English, most of the others took off, leaving us nearly alone. We took our time going through the villa again, pausing for as long as we wanted to admire the mosaics, which include a stunning piece with a large head of Oceanus. We examined the artistic flourishes, including what our guide had said was the artist’s signature, and a geometric design said to be the symbol of the homeowner, whose name, the experts believe, was Materno.
As we were preparing to leave, a young Spanish couple with two small children stopped us to ask what we thought of Carranque. Like many Spaniards, they were proud of their heritage and worried about what the world was thinking about the economic downturn and its effect on tourist sites. We spoke enthusiastically about Carranque, but the man told us that the site was nothing like it had been before the Crisis. Then there was a restaurant, now only a small vending machine with mediocre coffee. The mosaics, he said, were once easier to view because there was better lighting. And the site used to be open year-round, not just in the warmer months. Then he reeled off the names of other sites that he said were much more worth our time.
Could there be something better than the 20 detailed mosaics at Carranque? A few weeks later, we decided to find out, renting a car for the trip to north-central Spain.
First we visited Numancia, a valiant hilltop outpost where the residents fought off the Romans for two decades before succumbing. Several families were visiting the place during Holy Week, but it was hardly overrun.
Many visitors are intrigued by the site’s rebuilt Celtiberian and Roman houses, which are furnished with bedding, kitchen equipment and even a loom that preservationists believe are historically accurate. Admission was a whopping 0.60 euros, or about $1. Then it was on to La Olmeda, outside Saldaña , a site discovered in 1968 by local farmer Javier Cortes, who had turned over mosaics while tilling his land. For about a decade, he took care of the site, which has a rare mosaic of Achilles dressed as a girl as his mother tries to protect him from Ulysses’s effort to get him back to fight in the Trojan War. Though La Olmeda gets a good number of visitors, reporting about 2,500 during Holy Week this year, we were once again alone when we toured it toward the end of that week.
The next day, we drove to Clunia, a well-preserved Roman city that was once a regional capital and boasted about 30,000 residents. It was Easter Sunday and a bit rainy, so this time we weren’t surprised to be by ourselves.
We first took a look at the majestic theater, which had a larger capacity than the one in Mérida, we were told. Then we walked around to see several stunning mosaics with some geometric patterns that we hadn’t seen before. Because it was Sunday, Clunia was shutting down at 2 p.m. After checking out the mosaics, we just had time to see the short film about the site and then to wander through the small museum, which held some remnants of Roman statues and pottery. Afterward, we drove down the hill to the only bar open in town, appropriately named El Mosaico, where we had a few tapas.
Heading back to Madrid a few days later, we stopped at La Villa Romana de Almenara-Puras, about 90 minutes north of the city. It was 4:30 p.m., and the place, surrounded by cultivated flatland, was deserted. It was cold and people were at work, one of the curators said, trying to explain the lack of visitors. We toured the museum with an English audioguide, listening to a detailed discussion of Roman life. Alone, we walked on the walkways above the mosaics, getting close views of the highly detailed and well-preserved collection, which includes a rare mosaic showing Pegasus in two different scenes.
Eventually, a few families showed up. After giving us all as much time as we wanted to view the villa and the mosaics, the curators gathered us for a guided tour in Spanish of a full-scale model of a Roman villa, constructed by the government next to the real thing. It seemed like a life-size playhouse, complete with an interior courtyard, kitchens and bedrooms, spa rooms with neatly folded towels, and communal latrines, typical of the Romans.
The model offers a chance for visitors to fully visualize how the low stone walls on the actual site would have looked had they been completely preserved. The guide spoke in detail and entertained all questions and then left us alone.
As the other visitors headed back to the main site, we paused to take in our surroundings. Only the wind over the nearby fields, which are said to look the same as they did 1,500 years ago, broke the silence.
Spivack, a former Washington Post reporter, is living temporarily in Spain.