Salted Fish and Roman Cement

At the start of the New Year we rented a van and drove up the Costa Brava, past Sant Feliu de Guíxols, past Aiguablava and Estufadora, to a rented house near Sa Tuna, just outside the medieval town of Begur. The rented house, called Casa del Repos, is owned by an English woman who bought it in 2008 and then conjured up a beautiful restoration. In addition to the relaxed but elegant interior it has a lovely patio, a pool, an outdoor fireplace and amazing views of the sea between two hills.

Stella came with us, riding in the back of the van on her bed atop duffels, and she took an instant liking to the place. She spent days outside, sleeping on the grass, monitoring the driveway gate and patrolling the perimeter. At night she curled up in her bed inside, warmed by the under-floor heating in the living room. She also enjoyed the 15 minute walk down to the beach along neighborhood roads and along a stone path that follows the coast. Lots of new smells everywhere!

Begur

The challenge of the Costa Brava is always picking which beautiful town to stay in or near, and which small coves and beaches to choose for swimming or snorkeling, and which cliffs to hike along. Everyone has opinions on the most beautiful spots. We haven’t settled on one yet, but on this trip we did find some strong contenders.

The town of Begur, a short drive from the house along narrow switchback roads, is built on the side of a hill that is topped by the remnants of an old stone fortress. We walked up to the fortress — there is a gently sloping pathway that circles the hill — and from the top of the ramparts had a panoramic view of beaches, distant hills and the Baix Emporda. The first recorded feudal lord of the fortress, we learned, was Arnust de Begur at the beginning of the 11th century. In 1810 the fortress was mostly destroyed in the Napoleonic wars and has since been owned by the municipality and unoccupied. Heya @Begur, maybe it’s time to flip this fortress!

The town itself is very small and traversed in 20 minutes or so. There’s a small church, a small square and then some picturesque winding streets and steep staircases, with 16th century stone watchtowers (to defend against pirate attacks, natch) making appearances at random intervals. One unusual circumstance: some of the most luxurious older town homes were built by Spaniards returning from Cuba. Apparently a coral blight had caused the Begur economy to collapse in the 1500s, which caused many to emigrate to Cuba where they lived for some time before returning with new wealth.

Sa Tuna

We were fortunate to have blue skies and sunshine and warm days with cool nights. The afternoon temperature was low 70’s f (20’s c), but the water was freezing cold and so the beaches were mostly empty. We did see a few groups of intrepid female swimmers, as well as the obligatory older man, deeply tanned, in a Speedo and smoking a cigarette.

Walking along the coastal trail we passed through the small town of Sa Tuna with its pebbly beach, then climbed up the far hill and along the tops of cliffs to a promontory that gave us a view of Cap Sa Sal to the north and bare cliffs to the south.

Empuries & Roman Cement

About 30 minutes to the north of Begur and just past the town of L’Escala are the ruins of Empuries. The name comes from the Greek “Emporion” meaning “trading place.” Empuries was founded in 575 BC by Greek colonists from Phocea. After Hannibal’s incursion into Spain in 218 BC, the Greek presence declined and eventually the city was occupied by Romans who stuck around for four or five hundred years, fermenting fish in pits, exporting garum and other varietes of fish paste around the empire and generally living the good (but smelly) life. According to the audioguide at the site, one of the wealthy Romans at Empuries dismissed the fish-pit annoyance with the phrase: “Money has no smell.”

And although Mimi and Benji were reluctant visitors to the ruins, it wasn’t long before I was leading them in chants of “I say ‘fun times’ you say ‘fish paste’!” “Fun times!” “Fish paste!” “Fun times!” “Fish paste!”

How good was the good life in 100 AD? Well at the top of the hill we saw the foundations of a 3,000 square foot private villa that had mosaic-tile floors throughout, a large interior courtyard, a private bath and cisterns for collecting rainwater. Nearby were the ruins of a larger, public bath, which featured under-floor heating, a separate section for women, a courtyard for exercise and a room with toilets. And recovered from one of these buildings was an older floor tile marked with the Greek word meaning “the pleasure of lying down.”

The museum for the site — occupying a former convent that was, no doubt, constructed entirely with stone that was pulled from Roman buildings — was closed, but some site artifacts had been placed into a small gallery on the ground floor. These included (see below) clay figures and an urn from a child’s grave from the 5th century BC, phallic rhytons (yes, penis cups with a hole in tip for drinking) from the 1st century BC, and a mosaic showing the sacrifice of Iphigenia also from the 1st century BC.

The museum can be seen in the background of the photo above. In the foreground are two sides of a Roman cistern, lined with cement. I saw this and thought: how could it possibly be that Roman cement has survived for almost 2,000 years here? And then, coincidentally, the next day I saw an article in an MIT journal, reporting on recent scientific research into this very subject. The answer, apparently, is that the Romans had created and perfected a “self-healing” cement using a hot-mix process and a special blend of materials. The journal article is linked below and it’s worth reading!

L’Escala and Salted Fish

After visiting Empuries we made the very short drive into L’Escala for lunch by the water. And . . . surprise! The view from Plaza de la Sardana across the Bay of Roses is shockingly beautiful. So beautiful it’s been listed by UNESCO as one of the 30 most beautiful bays in the world (who knew that was a thing, but after seeing this I’m glad someone put it on a list somewhere). The bay has multiple beaches, but what makes it so distinctive is that because of the curvature of the coastline you see, across the brilliant blue water, the wildness and green of the Empuries ruins and behind them, in a slight haze, the snowy Pyrenees. Wow.

Also Wow is that L’Escala has, since the 1600s, built its economy on salting fish — very much like their old, near neighbors, the Romans! There are many anchovy salting and packing plants in town, and just on the outskirts a Museum of Anchovies and Salt. I bought a jar of delicious anchovies from one of the plants. My one regret from our trip is that we didn’t have time to see the museum. But . . . that’s why we’ll be pulled back again!

Links and References

Casa del Repos (https://abnb.me/HfpzsmDB7vb) – A great rental house near Sa Tuna and Begur. Sleeps 11 and has outdoor fireplace grill and pool.

Hotel Spa Empuries (http://hostalempuries.com/en/index-en/) – A beautiful hotel near the Greek and Roman ruins of Empuries. Free yoga classes!

Empuries Ruins (http://www.macempuries.cat/) – Information on visiting the ruins and the museum on site. Entrance tickets are 4 to 6 Euros depending on age, with 12 and under free.

The Anchovy and Salt Museum in L’Escala (https://museudelescala.cat/en/museu/museu-de-lanxova-i-de-la-sal/) – Enough said.

Article on Self-Healing Roman Concrete (https://news.mit.edu/2023/roman-concrete-durability-lime-casts-0106) – Super interesting. I didn’t appreciate that cement mixing was an ancient art, or that it was lost for centuries and rediscovered, or that we are still mixing a product inferior to that of the Romans during the reign of Hadrian.

2 thoughts on “Salted Fish and Roman Cement

  1. STELLA!!!! Best dog ever! Stella went on vacation! It’s nice to see photos of all of you (especially the “see no evil” picture) and hear of your travels. But…Stella!

    Like

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