Bern

It’s a little misleading, really. This is not so much Bern, but a spur of land surrounded by loops of river next to the village of Bremgarten, on the very edge of Bern. This was a Helvetian oppidum and became a Romano-Celtic settlement following Caesar’s invasion and settlement of the land. As the Romanisation of the area went on, this settlement seems to have flourished, with a temple district of impressive dimensions (sadly not visible.) What is visible is two areas of consolidated remains that hint as to the level of sophistication this site attained.

The bath complex is partially consolidated and on display in woodland under a roofed shelter. It consists of several rooms with surviving hypocaust floor of tile stacks. Nearby, at the woods’ edge where civiliation begins, are the remains of a small amphitheatre with stone revetment, which probably consisted largely of earth and timber seating cavea.

There are more impressive extant remains in Switzerland, but there is just something about the Bern-Bremgarten (Engehalbinsel) site that makes it special. Travel to Bremarten and head down to the picturesque church. Then take a walk down to the river bank and follow it upstream. The wooded hill across the river is the Gallo-Roman site. As you walk upriver you are following the flow around the site. There are several crossings you can take. When I was there a decade ago there was a quaint rope-hauled ferry at the northern-most point. There will then follow some wandering in the woods looking for the Roman ruins. There are many sign posts, though. This is Switerland, after all, and is therefore organised. From the baths you can find the amphitheatre easily enough. Then you are back in civilization. From there, make your way back into Bern and to the ‘Tram Depot’ for a well-deserved beer.

Remains: 2/5    Atmosphere: 4/5   Access: 3/5    Overall: 3/5

Carthage

I have visited three of what I consider the ‘great cities’ of the Roman world. Clearly, the top two on that list are Rome and ‘the New Rome’ of Istanbul. But the third is Carthage. And Carthage is not a place to even consider attempting with less than a day to play with. I added the Bardo museum in. Tunis to my schedule and because of that I missed two of Carthage’s sights, even though we stayed until sunset.

Carthage was founded, according to legend, by Queen Dido and Phoenician colonists in the earlt 1st millennium BC. It was most certainly a Phoenician colony, heavily populaced by local Berber peoples. Within a few centuries, it had become the centre of the most powerful sea empire in the Mediterranean. For over a century, from 264 to 136 BC Carthage and Rome fought a war for control and dominance, ending with the fall of Hannibal and the destruction of the city in 146.

Rome has a history of razing the site of its worst enemies. The people of Corinth knew this in spades, when their city vanished from the face of the earth when Rome beat them, and a new Roman city sprang up higher up the hill. Carthage suffered destruction, and it took some time for it to begin to resemble a city again, but Rome hated waste, and so from the ruins of the great Punic city sprang its Roman successor, founded by Julius Caesar during the civil wars.

Carthage survived throughout the Roman era and passed through an era of Vandal control into the hands of the Byzantine emperors. Its prominence only began to decline around 700 AD following the Arab conquest, when it was largely replaced by the new city and port of Tunis.

There are a few relics of ancient Punic Carthage still visible. The Byrsa ruins below the cathedral, the ports – a marvel that could easily have rivalled the seven wonders of the ancient world – and the Tophet (one of the sights I sadly missed.)

Roman Carthage has bequeathed us some astounding treasures. A fascinating amphitheatre, a largely-restored theatre and the sparse foundations of an odeon still exist. The end of the same aqueduct that begins at Zaghouan and passes Oudna terminates near a well preserved huge, multi-chambered cisterns of La Malga. Like most sites in Carthage, tourists usually turn up in coaches, park up by the side of the road above the cisterns and look at the roof for a while before moving on. A little investigation turns up all sorts. Workers on the site might show you round the generally closed areas of the site, including the interior of the cistern. They might try to sell you Roman coins too! The archaeological park that contains the Antonine baths is phenomenal, and the baths themselves are some impressive remains. The Magon quarter is interesting (closed by the time I got there.) The museum by the cathedral contains some excellent items. The Roman and early Christian museum I missed too.

Then there’s the late Roman and Byzantine ruins, including some wonderul basilicas scattered about, mostly in the north area, and the Baths of Gargilius, famed for their connection with St Augustine and the early Christian church.

It is quite simply folly to attempt a thorough visit of Carthage without a plan. Acquire a map of the ancient sites and plan a route. I would recommend taking the local metro from Tunis out to Sidi Bou Said and working back towards the Tunis end, probably visiting the Basilica of Saint Cyprien first and then arcing out towards the cisterns and amphithetare before working back towards the theatre and the Antonine baths. Definitely the best way to visit will be from Tunis by the metro and a lot of walking. Car will almost certainly involve driving either through Tunis or around the edge, and neither can be highly recommended. On another logistical note, unless you eat well before you go, your only real chance to eat will be at the start in Sidi Bou Said. The ruins of Carthage occupy an almost entirely residential area. If this doesn’t suit, take a packed lunch. Whatever happens take plenty of water.

And if you get around the sites and the sun is still up, try and visit the Bardo in Tunis on the way home.

Tunisia is, at the time of writing in 2016, not the most stable country to visit, but I am hoping that soon the mindless lunatics who have brought destruction and violence to a country that I found to be full of friendly, welcoming people will be driven out and tourism will return. When it does, and you feel safe to do so, go to Tunisia. Go to Carthage. Your reward will be memories to keep for a lifetime.

Remains: 5/5    Atmosphere: 5/5   Access: 4/5    Overall: 5/5

Augst (Augusta Raurica) & KaiserAugst

The twin sites of Augst and Kaiseraugst sit at the northern end of Switzerland, close to Basel. Founded during Caesar’s Gallic wars by his lieutenant Plancus – yes, sorry Augst, but I made Plancus an insufferable a-hole in my Marius’ Mules books – Augst is one of the most impressive Roman sites this side of the Alps. The city thrived as a trade hub on the majot mercantile route that runs from Italy to northern France and Germany. Sitting on the bank of the Rhine, and at a navigable level, goods shipped from Rome could be moved from Augst downstream, and vice verse. In the late third or early fourth century, the constant threat of barbarian violence and economic and farming difficulties led to the abandonment of the great city and the creation of an impressively heavily walled fortress beside the river, which could shelter the civilians.

The remains of Augst (and Kaiseraugst, which is the name applied to the district that contains the late fortress) are the most impressive in Switzerland, and in fianact some of the best I have ever visited. Beginning at Kaiseraugst, it is possible to visit the walls of the fortress along good lengths and standing quite high, and a bath suite and later early Christian church in a curious little doorway on the riverbank and underneath a building, lit rather eerily.

From there, you could take a taxi or a bus, but you can easily walk. There are some hostelries along the way, one of which I visited with a friend and was rather pleasant. It is less than a mile from the riverside fortress to the ruins of the city, and half way, there are the preserved remains of a Roman house with a workshop and shop attached, which are excellent. Arriving at the Roman city, you will first find the theatre (rather obvious) and the museum. Visit the museum first, then the stunning theatre and the schönbühl temple opposite, which affords great views of the former. From there, explore the capitol and forum and the baths.

Augusta Raurica is a sprawling site of hidden surprises. Beyond what I’ve mentioned above, there are many, many places to visit, including other temples, gates, the amphitheatre, the aqueduct. All I can suggest is plan it all very well beforehand. The official website has a nice map and guide, and go here to find it. I spent half a day at Augst and as the sun began to sink I regretted not having longer. I would say make a whole day of Augst. It deserves it. If you love your Roman sites, do NOT miss Augst.

Remains: 5/5    Atmosphere: 5/5   Access: 5/5    Overall: 5/5

Oudna (Uthina)

Tunisia abounds with Roman sites. Some are obscure and small (Pupput) – some are immense and famouse (Dougga). And then there are a few that are simply astounding places that are virtually unknown to tourists. Such is Dougga. We spent several hours there and the only other living things we saw were a small team of archeologists and a recalcitrant donkey.

In Tunisia, Roman sites whose Latin names start with ‘Th’ (and particularly ‘Thu’) are names that have come down from earlier Numidian settlements, and so their origin is obvious. See Thugga, Thuburbo Maius, Thubursicum etc. Thus Oudna might be seen as a later settlement. There is evidence that Oudna was originally a fountation of settled veterans the 3rd legion, given a stone that references them visible at the Oudna farmhouse and the Augustan name ‘Colonia Pietas Iulia Tertiadecimanorum Uthina‘. The city grew in prominence until the third century when it was attacked and never fully recovered. In the Byzantine era, the capitol was formed into a powerful fortress.

Oudna’s most notable attraction is its amphitheatre, which is being reconstructed with relative sympathy compared with, say Istanbul’s walls. The amphitheatre is a stunning sight and makes the visit worthwhile just on its own. Add to that several townhouses with mosaics and baths, a theatre currently little more than a depression in the ground, a ruined cistern or two, the capitol and forum buildings, two public baths and various odd ruins jutting from the undergrowth, and Oudna is a joy to explore. The forum/capitol area is an impressive survival. The ‘Great baths’ were closed for excavation while I was there, but their scale is impressive, especially given that what is left is the fragments after a stray bomb strike in world war 2.

Not far from the site itself is the line of one of the most intact and impressive aqueducts I have seen. This channel, which ran from Zaghouan in the south to Carthage in the north, over 80 kilometers, is at its most impressive around Oudna.

The loneliness of the site adds to its draw. Never devote less than half a day to it. You cold wander the place for hours, finding fascinating nooks and crannies. And the rural setting is beautiful, with the Djebel Zaghouan rising blue-gray in the distance above the fields. Oudna is a highlight of Tunisia for me. It’s only negative is ease of visiting. Taxi, Louage or hire car is the only feasible possibility.

Remains: 5/5    Atmosphere: 5/5   Access: 2/5    Overall: 5/5

 

Caerleon (Isca Silurum)

Caerleon (Isca Silurum) was the home fortress of the 2nd Augusta Legion from the Flavian era to the early 4th century, replacing the earlier fortresses of Gloucester and then Usk. The area belonged to the Silures tribe and the base provided a centre of operations that, with the 20th at Chester and the 9th then 6th at York, effectively cut off the more mountainous and troublesome extremities of the province (Wales & the north), placing them under solid military control, while the south and the midlands settled as a rich civil land.

In terms of remains, Caerleon has some of the best in the country, and yet what exists is still only a tantalising taste of what there is yet to be excavated, even just the area not covered by the later town’s buildings.

Caerleon’s great draw is its amphitheatre, one of the best preserved in Britain, and the only consolidated stone amphitheatre to have survived in its full circuit. Close by a small set of baths stands. Near the entrance to the amphitheatre, next to the sports fields, are the remains of a series of barrack blocks, along with the corner turret, latrines and a set of ovens. These are low-lying stonework but are excellent for trying to imagine the layout of such a fortress and the space allocated for contubernia of eight men.

In the centre of the town is the excellent Roman Legion Museum, which contains some of the best exhibits to be found across the country, especially in terms of military accoutrements. And close by is the Roman Baths Museum, enclosed and covering the excavated remains of an impressive fortress bath complex.

The stretch of fortress walls that runs from the west gate to the south gate is still impressive, strong and very visible as mortared ‘wall core’ the height of a man. Recent excavation past the amphitheatre and down towards the river has located a major harbour and civil/economic development.

The only sites in Caerleon that require payment to enter are the two museums. The rest are freely visible. There is something rather pleasant about wandering around Caerleon and I would heartily recommend a visit. And if you’re in the area, don’t miss the chance to combine a trip with a visit to Caerwent site a little to the east too.

Remains: 4/5    Atmosphere: 3/5   Access: 5/5    Overall: 4/5

Carmarthen (Moridunum)

The South Wales county town of Carmarthen holds precious little evidence of its Roman past. A fort existed here with an associated civil settlement, and later a sizeable tribal capital, yet only one Roman monument remains above ground. Impressively, though, that monument is one of few of its kind preserved well in the country: the amphitheatre.

Moridunum (possibly meaning Sea Fort, the site being at the Towy estuary’s tidal limit) began as a fort in the Flavian era in 74AD, controlling the lands of the Demetae tribe. A civilian settlement continued to grow into at least the 4th century, forming the new Romanised tribal capital of the Demetae. The fort, and later the town, sat at a meeting of major roads reaching south to Neath (Nidum), east to Llandovery (Alabum), and north to Llanio (Bremia).

The amphitheatre is surprisingly large for the size of the civil settlement or fort, and was constructed with stone revetments supporting earth banks and wooden seating. Now, since excavation, the interior arena walls have been reconstructed, and some 60-70% of the site is uncovered and consolidated.

The site is well upkept and very pleasant to visit. Crossing the river from the south, enter the town, turning right up the hill past the castle. Follow the road through the town, bearing right after the church onto Priory Street. Park up just beyond the high green bank on your left to visit the amphitheatre. The town is pleasant, with a number of medieval buildings, but for the Roman fan only the amphitheatre and small exhibits in the nearby museum at Abergwili remain to visit.

Remains: 2/5    Atmosphere: 3/5   Access: 3/5    Overall: 3/5