Our nearest beaches are on the Mediterranean – it’s only a 30-minute drive to the Costa del Sol from Gaucín. But with time in hand we often drive a little bit further south to the Atlantic coast and the aptly named Costa de la Luz. The light here really does have a magical quality, rendering everything clear, bright, and in fully-saturated colour. The sand is fine and white, and gathers in rippled dunes, the sea could be described as tropical…although perhaps not in temperature.
Shh…come a bit closer…the unknown and unspoiled Costa de la Luz is Spain’s great secret: when you mention Bolonia most people assume you must mean its near-namesake Bologna in Italy. And indeed these two locations have a common origin: both began life as Roman settlements.
Spain was an important part of the Roman empire. Romans first invaded in 218 BCE, although its conquest was only completed by Augustus in 19 BCE. They named it Hispania, which is where the country’s present name comes from. There is no firm agreement on the derivation, but it may well come from the Phoenician word for rabbit – we have quite a lot, apparently.
Rome ruled Spain until 472, when it fell to a collection of Germanic tribes, the Buri, the Suevi, and of course the Vandals. At 690 years, the period of Roman rule was shorter than that of the Moors, but none too shabby.
Spain provided Rome with three of her greatest emperors – Trajan, Hadrian, and Marcus Aurelius, and supplied her with metals (especially gold), olives, oil, wine, salted fish, and garum, of which more later. One of the main sources of garum was Baelo Claudia, which is considered to be the most complete Roman town in all of Spain. It lies 100 km from Gaucín, 90 minutes by car, on the northern shore of the Strait of Gibraltar.
Neighbouring the ruins is the town of Bolonia, home to a little over 100 people, and 2.4 miles of wonderfully sandy beach, which would be heavenly if it weren’t so damn windy. However the hoards of windsurfers and kitesurfers in nearby Tarifa may beg to differ.
The ruins are extensive and impressive, with two main streets, a public square, or forum, no fewer than four temples, and a theatre which seated 2,000 people. Thanks to specially constructed walkways which protect the antiquities, you can stroll around the remains, and rather quaintly, entrance is free to people who can prove they are citizens of the EU.
Arguably, the jewel of the site is the museum, designed by the notable Spanish architect Guillermo Vázquez Consuegra. Its clean, modernist lines harmonise remarkably well with the ruins and the beach; the artefacts are beautifully displayed, the site’s history is helpfully explained – and it is a welcome respite from the wind.
The Romans settled Baelo Claudia fairly soon after they arrived in Spain, but the town enjoyed its heyday a couple of centuries later, when it was famous for its sauce (another parallel with Bologna and its salsa bolognesa). Garum is a spicy sauce made from fish heads, blood, intestines and salt, providing the flavour known as umami, or savoury – one of the five basic tastes, along with sweet, sour, bitter and salt. Whereas salt extracts moisture from foods, garum moisturises them. The best garum fetched high prices in ancient Rome, and you can view the remains of a garum factory in the ruins here.
The town’s good fortune didn’t last. In the middle of the second century AD, an earthquake destroyed much of it, and the following century it was raided repeatedly by pirates. It lingered on, but was abandoned by the sixth century.
Excavation at the site began in earnest in 1917, and the museum was opened in 2007. Situating the museum was not straightforward, as the authorities wanted to place it as close as possible to the ruins without driving foundations through any potential new archaeological finds.
The village includes several fine, simple beach restaurants which serve morning-fresh fish. The views back to the ruins and forward to Morocco are wonderful, and the restaurateurs know to seat you in the lee of the perpetual wind.
Postscript: how to ruin a great day out at Bolonia
Step 1. Go on a Monday. Baelo Claudia is closed. Aaargh.
Step 2. Drive a little beyond the entrance to the archaeological site and turn onto a quiet side road for lunch. The elderly owners, a spiderish woman and a Gandalf-esque man, seem friendly enough, and they promise you a meal of surpassing excellence. This proves to be something of an exaggeration.
Step 3. Be very explicit when ordering that two of your party are vegetarians and don’t eat any meat. Order salmarejo, a cold puree made of tomato and bread – similar to a thick tomato soup. Double-check this is a meat-free option.
Step 4. Be too polite (or just too damn timid) to send it back when it arrives covered in small chunks of ham; comply with the proprietor/chef’s solution to scrape it off.
Step 5. Be surprised, but again over-polite, when the giant prawns arrive cold, and giving every sign of having just been de-frosted.
Step 6. Be surprised, but again over-polite, when the albondigas arrives fifteen minutes later, and is clearly a microwaved set of inexpensive balls of reconstituted meat.
Step 7. Go to the toilet. The outer door of this facility slams shut – and locks – when you’re inside, and there is no handle on the inside of the door. Plan your escape while you wonder how the toilet is supposed to flush in the absence of any handle, string, button, etc. Because you are still in over-polite mode, lift the cistern lid to see if there is a working mechanism inside, only to find an un-inviting assembly of unconnected pieces, like a toxic Meccano set, floating in the tank. Decline the invitation, and shout for help. To be fair, this does actually arrive. Obviously the proprietors keep an eye out for those lost at wee. Perhaps it is a game for them.
Step 8. When the bill arrives and is exorbitant (easily twice what a much better meal in Gaucin would cost), nod politely and pay it anyway.
Step 9. Drive away, having had half a meal and paid for two, and wondering whether the proprietors are staging some form of performance art.