Mountain memories from the Pyrenees: part 2 - Empordá
An ancient city of two halves
Car keys in hand, maps leading east. To the coast, to another age, of Mediterranean trading, of great empires.
Empúries was first settled by the Greeks, seeking new horizons over two and a half millennia ago. It was a trading port next to where the Fluvià River used to flow into the sea, established to move ceramics, cloth, metal and cereal crops around the Mediterranean. Later it became a walled city of refugees as their motherland empire was felled by Persians.
What makes Empúries unique though is that one can wander from the Greek statues of Aesclepius, from the central agora main square, directly onto the mosaiced floors of a Roman city. The agora is now the forum, the Greek statues now Roman columns.
I remember being somewhere in the middle of it all, looking out at the rows of lush pine trees lolling left and right in the gentle breeze. Behind them, the golden sands of a small Costa Brava beach, the bright blue waters of the Mediterranean sea and the shimmering white façades of a not-so-far-off village which spilled down the hillside. I know that's a lot of adjectives and hyperbole, but I don't know how else to describe it. It really was that beautiful.
History, entwined with nature, under a cloudless sky and a generous autumnal sun. Life in ancient times was no doubt hard for the Greeks and Romans, but boy what a special place to call home.
A first stride away from Spain
It took a century for the Romans properly move in, having secured the area to ward off the threat of the Carthaginians in the Punic Wars in 201 BC. The Greeks aligned themselves with Rome during the battles and were rewarded with their autonomy in the newly-conquered Hispania. That was until they picked the wrong side during the ensuing civil war and Julias Cesar seized command. Latin became the lingua franca and landowners took control of the fertile plains surrounding the city to take over the cultivation of olive oil, wine and cereal crops from their country houses.
It wasn't to be the last time that the inhabitants of Catalonia would pick the wrong side in a war, a history that repeated itself with the defeated Habsburgs in the 18th century, the Carlists in the 19th century and the Republicans in the 20th century.
Back in ancient times, the arrival of the Greeks and then the Romans was perhaps Catalonia's first big stride away from the rest of the peninsula.
Wetlands? That's false advertising
Back to modern day, back on the road.
The residents of Aiguamolls have never had to pick sides of a great battle. They care not whether they are Catalan or Spanish, independent or not. The open floodplains and lagoons suffice. We went off in search of them one sunny afternoon.
Across empty fields we skirted to hides which looked out over scrubby grass that was marked the blue of water on the map. Catalonia's wetlands seemed devoid of life, the long hot summer having left them dry. I had designs on seeing elegant white storks, colourful European bee-eaters, flocks of pink flamingos and, well... some birds. Instead I looked out appreciatively over a grassland meadow carpeted with attractive lilac wildflowers.
From the top of a disused rice silo tower I found signs of life below; wild horses grazing in an open field, joined together in uniformity by their glossy white coats and sandy mains and tails. Little white egrets hopped and skipped around their hooves. In the distance a cormorant flew across the line of wind kites over the sea.
We walked on, driven by sheer bloody-minded optimism, eager not to go home shortchanged. One more field... the end of that path... just round this next corner...
The universe rewarded us, first with a pair of miopic... beavers? No, coipo apparently, once domesticated, now wild having fled their Catalan captivity. A pest they may be to some, but their bright orange teeth and tiny hands are downright adorable. Then, in a tiny pool in the corner of a field, one solitary flamingo dragged its head through the water. I've never seen a flamingo alone and can't help feel a pang of sorrow for his plight.
Then we found water, lots of. It was perhaps the only bit of blue on the map where water actually still existed this late into 2019. We looked out over a substantial lagoon from a bird hide, where more dedicated twitchers - those of the camouflaged clothing, expensive-looking telescopes and dog-eared field guides - were hanging out. Humans watching birds watching humans watching birds. We tried to blend in and not make too much noise.
In front of us, half a dozen cormorants balanced in the trees, clumsily flying into and out of view. A Great egret, all gangly legs and a beak the colour of the sun, stalked its prey among the more humdrum ducks at the fringes of the water. It was a flash of brilliant white in a palette of greens and browns. A heron flew arrow-like overhead and a marsh harrier drifted ominously into the picture.
These are all bird species that I've seen with an hours' drive of my Sussex home. But, added together, chuck in the flamingo, the beaver-like creatures, that meadow and the Costa Brava views stretching out to a deep blue horizon and the scales of exoticism are tilted in favour of a very satisfactory visit, if one that left me wanting to come back in the springtime.