It was my final day on the Costa Brava. I awoke to rays peeking in from tiny crevices around the windows, assuring me that a sunny day awaited. As I slipped open the latch and was momentarily blinded, I imagined the light forcibly throwing back the shutters, rushing past the thick stone walls of my hotel and into the previously dark space.
Glorious, sunny day confirmed, all that remained was to decide how to spend it. During the trip I had already passed a weekend with Ben in colorful Girona at a travel bloggers’ conference, spent days cycling from the mountains to the sea, tiptoed on the stomping grounds of Salvador Dali, explored natural parks and medieval villages, and eaten far more than I care to remember.
What called to me now was the shore and beaches. But where? With over 200 kilometers of tantalizing coast in this northeastern corner of Spain offering up seemingly infinite sandy stretches as well as hidden coves protected by the rocky promontories which give the Costa Brava its name, a decision wouldn’t be easy.
That’s when I remembered a cardinal rule of travel (well, according to the list compiled by Ben and me, anyway):
When in doubt, follow the Greeks.
– Ben and Jenna’s Cardinal Rules of Travel
Think about it. Those Greeks really knew how to pick some prime locations. Have you seen the amphitheater of Taormina, with the Mediterranean glistening below and Mt. Etna smoking in the distance?
Or the views from Santorini?
Believe me, the list continues. Yet in the interests of conserving bandwidth, let’s cut to the point where I make up my mind to visit the Greek and Roman ruins of Empúries, the largest colony on the Iberian Peninsula.
What’s so special about Empuries?
In all fairness, there was another cardinal rule at work here: listen to the locals. A great friend of mine (and Catalan resident) makes a pilgrimage to this spot every year, and offered it up as his top recommendation in the region.
The Empuries ruins rest on a long crescent of beach halfway between the city of L’Escala and the village of St. Marti de Empuries, and can be reached by car, via a tram from L’Escala, or by foot along the coastal path. And the view? Yes: spectacular. The Greeks have done it again.
My friend’s reasoning has less to do with the magnificent view (after all, he lives here) than with the unique and well-preserved character of these ruins. Unlike other famous archaeological sites, where one civilization built atop another (excavations at Jericho have unearthed over twenty layers), the Romans here built next to the Greek site, so that both are now accessible.
Empúries, previously known as Ampurias (Spanish) and originally as Emporion (or “market” in Greek), was founded in 575 BCE on a natural harbor (now filled with silt). According to CapCreus online, the Greeks tended to adapt construction to the terrain, while the Romans “made the land accommodate their chessboard-similar” city plans. Currently less than a quarter of the Roman city, which was larger and built behind the shore-hugging Greek city, has been unearthed, but excavations continue.
As the name would imply, the Greek market town was a prominent site of seafaring commerce. The Romans arrived in 218 BCE, and a couple centuries later the Emperor Augusta embarked on a major infrastructure project, repairing and restoring old roads. His project turned into the Via Augusta, a main thoroughfare and trade route of the Mediterranean, which ran slightly inland from Empuries and linked up with other roads in modern-day France and Italy. In its entirety, the route ran from Rome to Cadiz (2,725 kilometers), and today is being restored by the European Union as walking/cycling path.
It seems the Romans also approved of the climate and view from Empuries, because Julius Caesar chose this spot to construct homes for war veterans. Remnants of these mansions with their mosaic-decorated floors can be seen throughout the site, as well as in the museum.
Once you’ve explored the sister cities, consider strolling down the coastal path to the picturesque village of St. Marti de Empuries, the site of the original Greek settlement (an island at the time). There you can take a dip in the sea, break bread, pour wine, and – after a bit more wine – ponder the philosophical absolutes of beauty, truth, and the cosmos around you. After all, that’s what the Greeks would have done.
[learn_more caption=”Practical Tips” state=”open”]
- At the time of this writing, the archaeological site is open daily in summer from 10 a.m. until 6 p.m. From November 15 through February 15, the site is closed on Monday and open 10 a.m. until 5 p.m.
- Choose between a self-guided tour, an official tour (in summer), or purchase a guidebook. There are also “theatrical visits” on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays on summer evenings. See the official site for details.
- Leave at least a couple hours to walk the grounds, and bring your sunscreen!
- Continue down the coastal path to St. Marti de Empuries for lunch and a dip in the sea. This small village was the site of the original settlement (an island at the time).
**Special thanks to the Costa Brava Tourism Board for inviting me to extend my stay in their beautiful region and to Hotel del Teatre for providing me with dream accommodations. Also, a special shout-out to Josh for his years of helping me navigate everything from Roman ruins to salt mines.