Empuries, Greek Jewel of the Costa Brava

The Beachside Town of L'escala stands less than a kilometer away from the ruins of Empuries, a port city of similar size some millenia ago
The Beachside Town of L’escala stands less than a kilometer away from the ruins of Empuries, a port city of similar size some millennia ago

The sleepy town of L’escala, a small domain of a few thousand inhabitants, is hardly on the beaten tourist track. Adorning Spain’s gorgeous Costa Brava, it is often considered by many to be simply one of dozens of little coastal villages dotting the region, so many of which are flooded by sun-seeking tourists. To get here from Barcelona, one must take a train northward to an equally unpretentious countryside village, from which point the only way to reach L’escala is to hire a taxi to take you the remaining 12 kilometers. This lack of accessible public transportation to the town makes it all the more remarkable that L’escala is not only a charming beach location, but also home to one of the most impressive sets of classical ruins in the entire Mediterranean: the remnants of the Greek trading port of Empuries.

The sprawling ruins of Empuries are very impressive: buildings of all sorts, rather than solely monumental structures, can be found intact inside the city walls.
The sprawling ruins of Empuries are very impressive: buildings of all sorts, rather than solely monumental structures, can be found intact inside the city walls.

The name of Empuries may not be spoken of in the same breath as sites such as Pompeii or Ephesus, but the ruins that stand here, along with their accompanying museum, are some of the most awe-inspiring in the Mediterranean. The bases of immense fortress walls loom around the edges of the site where the foundations of an entire city lie unearthed. Pieces of temples, aristocratic mansions, and smaller establishments are all identifiable in the incredibly intact ancient site, among the best preserved in all of Spain. In the adjoining museum, one is granted insight into how this town had an existence of many centuries, even though it would never reach the size or significance of larger maritime cities such as Tarragona and Cartagena and, unlike those other sites, was originally a colony of settlers hailing from distant Greece. Here in Empuries, gods such as Serapis and Ascelpius, who would only take on a meaningful presence in Rome during the Imperial Period, were worshiped as patron deities from an early date, and a merchant elite prospered, technically independent of Roman control until the establishment of the Spanish provinces of the Republic. This community thrived for centuries uninterrupted, even as its Hellenistic roots were gradually subsumed by Roman settlers and influence. Testament to its lengthy, if small-scale, success is evident in the wealth of artifacts that we have inherited from the site, spanning across the centuries.

Empuries' idyllic beachfront location and natural harbor make it easy to see why the site would have held such appeal to ancient colonists.
Empuries’ idyllic beachfront location and natural harbor make it easy to see why the site would have held such appeal to ancient colonists.

Bringing it back to Hannibal, in the context of the Second Punic War  Empuries played a significant role as well. In 219 BC, it is altogether likely that Hannibal passed along the Costa Brava as he headed north from Barcino toward the Pyrenees. While neither Livy nor Polybius provides us any interactions between Hannibal and the locals, it seems probable that with an army the size of Hannibal’s, those occupying the town would have been hard pressed to refuse him supplies or shelter along the way, especially given that Rome’s forces were still nowhere in sight. However, the texts state in far less uncertain terms that some months later, in 218 BC, Roman legions would clank ashore here and open the Spanish theater of operations for the Second Punic War, in order to maintain Roman control over northern Spain and prevent Hannibal from receiving any supplies or reinforcements from his brother Hadsrubal, left in charge of Carthaginian Spain in Hannibal’s absence – a critical endeavor which ultimately proved quite effective in weakening Hannibal’s position in Italy over the years.

L’escala may be off the beaten path, but that makes it no less  a place worth exploring. From gorgeous Mediterranean coast and beaches, to a remarkable set of classical remains, this unassuming town has been one of the most delightful we have had the opportunity to visit

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