Limin Hersonissou (Chersonesus)

Hersonnisou is something of a surprise. Known mostly as a tourist resort and modern town, few of the foreign visitors seem to be aware that they are amid the ruins of an ancient Cretan, then Greek. then Roman, then Byzantine town. Indeed, it only lost a level of precedence when the Arabs invaded and founded Heraklion (Chandax).

Chersonesus was clearly a thriving city even before th Roman era, and only increased in population  and importance throughout Roman history and into the Byzantine era, when the place was a bishopric. When the Arabs invaded and founded Chandax down the coast a little way, Chersonesus quickly faded from the scene, spending a long time as a tiny, coastal town, ony growing to prominence again in the 20th century.

There are three levels of remains to be seen in Hersonissou. The first are the famous things, mentioned on maps and signs. These include a well-preserved fountain next to the seafront with fish designs picked out in mosaic, the stonework of the Roman port, visible just below the waterline close to said fountain, and the late Roman/Byzantine basilica on the headland above the harbour. This last was dusty and overgrown during my 2003 visit, but was sealed of for work in 2015, so should soon be well looked after.

The second level are the things you can find out if you do some research. The Roman theatre is visible on Dimokratias street. It is rather hard to make sense of until you look at it on google earth, but when work is complete here, it should be an impressive monument. Some miles inland, in the valley on the way to Potamies, you can discern the remains of the aqueduct that fed the city, including ruined bridges crossing the valley. At the far (eastern end of the city) the small church of Agios Nikolaos sits amid hotels and waterparks, but amid the low preserved ruins of a Byzantine basilica.

The third level is the most fascinating for me. Wherever there is a vacant lot or scrub land in the town, work has been done over the last half century to bring the civic remains to light. There are at least half a dozen overgrown areas of ruins that clearly display streets, houses, bath suites, shops, basilicas and the like. There are numerous of these at the town’s western end, mostly around Dimokratias, Sanoudaki and Dedalou streets. Basically, anywhere at the northwest end of the town, between the main drag and the sea, you will find fascinating areas of consolidated ruins just between hotels by the side of the road.

Limin Hersonissou is a town with a secret. Go there and stay there. It makes a good base to visit the ruins of the island, and a few days there will allow you plenty of time to explore the interesting byways of the time, and walk among the ruins.

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

Bearsden

The fort at Bearsden, of whose Roman name we are unaware, lies buried beneath housing. It was a fort with a turf rampart, and a turf wall also divided the enclosure into a main fort and an annexe. The fort’s north wall was the Antonine wall itself. Internal buildings were of both stone and timber.

One edifice has survived, though, and has survived well, remaining one of Scotland’s best preserved Roman sites. In the fort’s annexe was a bathhouse and latrine, constructed of both stone and timber. This has been excavated and consolidated and sits sandwiched by housing blocks by the appropriately named ‘Roman Road’. It is a lovely site and well maintained. Moreover, despite being on the edge of the Glasgow conurb, Bearsden is actually rather pleasant. All in all, Bearsden is one of the best sites to visit on the Antonine wall.

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

Girona (Gerunda)

One of the four regional capitals of Cataluyna, Girona (or Gerona) is a beautiful city – the old part, anyway. Full of Jewish and Medieval remains with an enchanting arab bathhouse, breathtaking painted houses along the Riu Onyar, there are a thousand reasons to visit the town.

As Gerunda, the city was a Roman foundation upon an existing Ausetani tribal settlement. Pompey created fortress here in the Sertorian war. The city flourished as a civil settlement and continued to grow into late Rome and beyond. It had an atypical plan, largely due to the early military foundation being limited by topography. Rather than the traditional ‘playing card’ shape, Gerunda was limited by walls in a roughly triangular shape, with the base of the triangle being the river and the upper point at the top of the hill.

No interior buildings remain of the Roman city, buried as they are under other historic structures, but two facets remain to thrill the Roman fan. The first is the museums – the city’s History museum close to the cathedral and the Archaeological museum in the monastery of St Pere de Galligants, at the northern edge of the city, outside the walls. Both contain a wealth of artefacts, including fabulous mosaics, lapidary delights and an excellent corn measure.

And then there are the walls. The medieval walls follow the Roman line for some of their circuit. Start at the city’s north gate on the Carrer de la Fora, near the cathedral. From the northern side of the gate, follow the outer edge of the walls up the slope past the cathedral complex up to the ruined fortress complex known as the Gardens of Germany. All this way, the medieval walls are built upon the Roman ones, using them as foundations. At the gardens, find the full-height walls again and follow them south along the edge of the city. This section is medieval, but from it, looking back towards the cathedral, you can see a fine section of the earlier Roman walls rising above the roofs and gardens. You can get to the bottom of those walls through a car park if you wish. They, with the north gate, are the most impressive remains in the city. In the meantime, complete the circuit of the later walls, and then find the plaça sant domenec, where the last Roman fragments can be found. Here, if you examine the walls to the side of the street, you will see the stonework of the Roman gate known as the Porta Rufina within the later walls.

Girona is one of Catalunya’s most stunning cities and the atmosphere is remarkable. Go to Girona. Go for the Roman remains. Stay for the rest.

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

Piercebridge (Morbium?)

The pretty little village of Piercebridge in County Durham sits atop a fort originally of late 1st century date, which may be the ‘Morbium’ mentioned in the Ravenna Cosmography.

The fort here guarded Dere Street’s crossing of the Tees, and the impressive remains of the bridge abutment on the south bank can still be seen. Piercebridge is a sleep little village and pleasant to stroll around. Park up in the village centre. Beneath the village green are the central range of buildings (headquarters, CO’s house and granaries.) Look for the small, interesting church and take the alleyway  one house to the right of it. This brings you to the main area of excavations.

Here you can see the east wall and gate of the fort, with some lilia pits (for defensive spikes) marked outside it, an impressive section of defensive ditch with a causeway, a few internal buildings, including a late Roman courtyard house with heating or drainage channels, and a few parts of civilian buildings across the ditch. It is an interesting set of ruins despite the minimal excavations. At the far end, looking over a house’s back wall, you can see stonework that apparently belonged to a bath house.

Across the causeway and out past the wall, stop and look across the hedge in front of you. This is the area of the vicus (civilian settlement.) Turn left from here and walk along the path past the farm. If you are very lucky you will be able to get into the field behind the barn and explore the fort’s corner tower and a latrine. When I was last there it was so overgrown my photos look like shots of deepest Borneo and show no stonework at all.

From there, head back into the village, and then leave southwards, over the bridge and past the pub (I know…. past the pub, not into it. You can always come back.) Park up in the big car park just before the bend and look for the signs for the footpath leading towards the river. This will take you to the bridge abutment which, along with Willowford and Chesters on the wall, is one of the three best in Britain. This gives you some idea of the impressive scale of the bridge in its day.

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