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

Reims (Durocortorum)

The history of Reims begins with the very people from whom the modern city is named: the Remi – the only tribe in Gaul to have consistently supported Caesar throughout the Gallic Wars and therefore to have gained great advantage and favour from Rome after the wars. Succeeding the Gallic oppidum of Durocorteron, Reims was a tribal civitas which thrived for centuries, enduring destruction by both Vandals and Huns in the 5th century and remaining important and strong enough that it was of vital importance to a millenium or more of royalty in the land.

Though it is now a sprawling city full of baroque, 19th and 20th century architecture, known mostly for its champagne houses, there are still two fragments of Roman Durocortorum to be found, and they are pretty impressive ones, too. One is a cryptoporticus that seems to have formed part of the forum and which may have been used to store grain. This is an impressive site in the rather appropriately named Place de Forum. When we visited it was not open the the public, since it is only open during the summer months, though it is free when open. In addition to this site, in the parkland at the northern end of the old town stands the remains of a triumphal arch known as the Porte de Mars, after a temple that once stood in the vicinity. This is an exceptionally well-preserved triple gated arch with a great deal of intricate stonework, and is one of the premier sites in north/central France.

Reims is a pleasant city for a short stay, though a little busy for me for longer. But it is well worth a visit just to see its two Roman survivals.

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

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

Les Fontaines Salées

The Fontaines Salées (Salt fountains) is the site of natural salt springs that have been utilised since the neolithic era. In the days of the pre-Roman Gallic tribes the site was expanded to become a sacred area with numerous wells and a circular sanctuary surrounding them for the healing of the sick. The central, main, well at the heart of that circular sanctuary still produces effervescent water, loaded with argon.

In the Roman era, the site was vastly expanded again to include a massive thermal bath complex, which was further altered in the 2nd century to include separate facilities for men and women and a large palaestra or exercise compound, attached to the main Celtic spring sanctuary. This still contains traces of underfloor heating and is well preserved. The Roman complex also included a second sanctuary located to the west of the original circular enclosure.

Following the site’s destruction during the 3rd century invasion of the Alemanni, the site was used as a centre of salt refining. The site once more became a healing centre in the 4th century, and new buildings date from that period. This new site remained in use until the Carolingian era, when it became a private villa.

From the Burgundian (glorious) city of Vezelay, pass southeast through the lovely village of Saint-Pere (which has a museum containing some items from the site) and follow the D598 for less than a mile and look for a sign that leads off down a track through the fields to the left.

The site is in the idyllic French countryside and could not be more picturesque. It is a fabulous place for a picnic and a small kiosk asks for only a modest entry fee. Even at the height of summer it was far from busy, with perhaps four lots of visitors. The remains are well kept and well-presented and quite extensive. Simply, it is a perfect half-day out in the area, and will please most people, let alone the die-hard Roman fans.

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

Philae

 

It’s an odd thing, but it’s common to picture Roman architecture as exactly the same in all regions and over all periods – a sort of standardised brick structure sheathed in marble and with arches and columns. And, of course, that’s ridiculous. Take Philae, near Aswan in Egypt, for example. Several of the structures on the island belong to the Roman era, and yet to the everyday visitor, it would be hard to think of them as anything other than ancient Egyptian.

Philae had been a holy island (actually a pair of islands forming one civic group) throughout the days of the Hellenistic Pharaohs . In its heyday it was the home only of temples and priests and everyone else was forbidden entry. That changed over the Greek and Roman eras, and the place became something of a pilgrimage centre. The Roman buildings there date numerous periods. The Byzantine empire also held Philae converting some of the religious structures to churches, though pagan worship seems to have remained in practice at Philae until 550AD, when Justinian ordered the closure of the pagan sites.

  • Hadrian is accredited with the gate on the north side of the island.
  • The Temple of Horus Avenger was built by Claudius.
  • The Mammisi was finished and decorated by Tiberius.
  • The Temple of Augustus was constructed for that emperor.
  • The triumphal arch and quay are said to be Diocletianic.
  • The famous ‘Trajan’s Kiosk’ is an Ulpian monument.
  • Several coptic churches existed but are now gone beneath the water.

Visit to Philae is only possible by boat. It lies on the island to where it was moved after the building of the High Aswan Dam and the flooding of Lake Nasser. Trips are easy to arrange from Aswan. The island is stunning and contains more than just the Roman remains. Highly recommended for a visit.

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