It took the Romans two hundred years to conquer the entire Iberian peninsula, from their landings on the east coast in the late third century bc during the war against Hannibal, to the final capture of the far north-west under Augustus (25–20 bc). With access to plentiful natural resources, inhabitants of the peninsula became peaceful and rich, with Roman citizenship becoming increasingly widespread as time went on.
This tour visits two of the three provinces into which Hispania was divided, namely Baetica in the south, Lusitania in the west and Tarraconensis in the east. We start in Lusitania (roughly modern Portugal and west-central Spain), before crossing into the western part of the province of Baetica, around Seville. Both provinces are home to a series of spectacular Roman sites attesting to the prosperity of the local aristocracies under Roman rule. Many of them are off the beaten track and consequently have not attracted the attention they deserve today.
Two of Rome’s greatest emperors, Trajan (98–117) and Hadrian (117–138) heralded not from Rome but from Baetica. Both were born in Italica, north of Seville, whose ‘Old Town’ (Urbs Vetus) was founded in 206 bc by the great general Publius Cornelius Scipio as a colony for the victorious veterans of the second Punic War. Hadrian expanded the city northwards, tripling it in size and placing at the centre of his ‘New Town’ (Urbs Nova), an immense Temple of Trajan, in honour of his predecessor.
North of Baetica, the capital of Lusitania, Augusta Emerita (present day Mérida), stood on the river Guadiana. Named after its founder, Augustus erected a number of exceptional public buildings and monuments here, many of which survive, including the theatre and amphitheatre, among the finest extant examples in Spain. Three centuries later, by now the central hub of the entire Iberian peninsula, the city was restored under Constantine I.
Conímbriga (modern Condeixa-a-Nova), occupies a long-inhabited site. Though not the largest, this is certainly the best preserved Roman settlement of Lusitania, with walls largely intact and the mosaic floors and foundations of many houses and public buildings visible.
Water was always a scarce resource in this region; the ability to capture, control and use it tell us much. In the baths at Conímbriga, the network of stone heating ducts (the hypocaust) is evident beneath long-vanished floors. Beyond the cities, the incorporation of elaborate water features into the luxurious villas testify to the wealth and sophistication of their owners and the huge Portuguese villa of São Cucufate boasted a large reflecting pool. At the villa of Pisões, an extensive complex with many rooms floored in mosaic, the remains of a dam and lake survive to the north.
Both Baetica and Lusitiania fell to the Visigoths in the course of the fifth century, with Mérida remaining an important Christian centre. In the eighth century, the region was conquered by the Moors from North Africa. The remains of their five centuries of civilisation are also impressively visible today, particularly in Carmona, Mérida and Seville.
Fly at c. 11.45am (TAP Portugal) from London Gatwick to Porto. Drive to Buçaco for one night.
Conímbriga, Évora. Drive south to Portugal’s most important Roman site, Conímbriga, where the modern display places emphasis on private housing and gardens with their layout, planting and use of water. A highlight is the House of the Fountains, an aristocratic residence, where the original hydraulic infrastructure has been preserved, allowing 500 water jets to function, surrounded by well-preserved mosaics depicting monsters and sea creatures. Continue to Évora for two nights.
São Cucufate, Pisões. South of Évora lies the Villa of São Cucufate, the 4th-cent. residence of a wealthy landowner. Used as a convent in the 9th–12th cents., some beautiful frescoes remain in the chapel. The remote Villa of Pisões has particularly well-preserved baths.
Évora, Elvas, Mérida. A morning walk in Évora includes Portugal’s best-preserved Roman temple (2nd or 3rd century ad), and the town museum has a collection of local archaeology. Some free time to explore the cathedral, 16th-cent. Jesuit university or church of São João Evangelista, with some of the finest azulejos in Portugal. Drive to Mérida via Elvas, site of the 16th-cent. Amoreira Aqueduct. First of two nights in Mérida.
Mérida. In addition to the theatre and amphitheatre, the Temple of Diana, parts of the forum and fine houses survive. Outside the walls are the circus, the bridge over the Guadiana, restored under Visigothic rule in the fifth century, and the astonishing ‘Los Milagros’ triple-tiered aqueduct, one of at least three bringing water into the city. The Spanish National Museum of Roman Art, with a collection of international quality, was designed by Rafael Moneo.
Itálica, Carmona. Drive from Mérida to Itálica, near Seville, whose theatre and part of the forum are still visible. Continue to Carmona, whose Roman Necropolis contains more than 300 tombs, mausoleums and crematory ovens. Overnight in Carmona.
Seville. Spend the morning at Seville’s outstanding archaeological museum, which contains a substantial collection of remains from Itálica. Some free time to visit Seville’s Cathedral and Alcázar. Fly from Seville (British Airways) arriving at London Gatwick at c. 9.30pm.
Price – per person
Two sharing: £2,340 or £2,080 without flights. Single occupancy: £2,560 or £2,300 without flights.
Flights (economy class) with TAP (aircraft: Airbus 319) and British Airways (aircraft: Airbus 320); travel by private coach; hotel accommodation as described below; breakfasts; 3 lunches and 4 dinners with wine, water, coffee; all admissions; all tips; all taxes; the services of the lecturer and tour manager.
Buçaco Palace Hotel, Buçaco: grandiose hotel in a former royal hunting lodge with gardens. Mar de Ar Muralhas, Évora: a contemporary 4-star hotel on the edge of the historic centre. Parador de Mérida: a comfortable, centrally-located, 4-star Parador in a former 18th-cent. convent. Hotel Alcázar de la Reina, Carmona: a functional 4-star hotel in the historic centre, comfortable but simple. Single rooms are doubles for sole use throughout.
The tour involves a lot of walking on archaeological sites. Uneven ground, irregular paving, steps and hills are standard. A good level of fitness is essential; unless you are reliably sure-footed, this tour is not for you. Some days involve a lot of driving. Average distance by coach per day: 90 miles.
Between 10 and 22 participants.
Before booking, please refer to the FCO website to ensure you are happy with the travel advice for the destination(s) you are visiting: www.fco.gov.uk.