On this day, we decided to ride a bus. Not a tourist bus, an actual city bus with a city bus route. While walking to the station, we got talking about the last time we’d ridden a bus, not including those airport rental car buses but buses that required sitting with other people, interacting with the driver and going to a place that was not guaranteed (unlike the Hertz counter.) My Lovely Wife decided her last bus ride was from her college in Fort Collins to Denver when she swore she would never ride a bus again. That was the golden age of bus travel, when you sat next to people in the station who were talking to themselves and when you had to discard your clothing after the ride because it stank of lavatory disinfectant. She allowed that she might have ridden some buses in Mexico with her Uncle Ike, but the Fort Collins ride was so bad everything else has become a repressed memory, I had many bus rides during my college career including the one where an older woman sat next to me and pulled bras and panties out of her purse, gently lying them out in her lap and asking me which choices I liked. I remember running away from that bus station the minute we arrived. I also had several Beijing Capital Airport to Beijing Old Airport bus rides and we debated whether they counted and I successfully argued that they did because they left the airport grounds and careened through city seats. Those were cool because the driver was too lazy to put the luggage in the luggage bin, preferring to continue to smoke cigarettes and read the newspaper while we the travelers figured out a way to climb over the bags that were choking the aisles.
All this reminiscing filled the two blocks worth of time it took to get from our apartment to the station. I was moderately sure we bought the ticket on the bus but no so much so that I was going to risk it. The bus we wanted was leaving in 5 minutes and I didn’t want to wait an additional half hour so I forced My Lovely Wife to go to the information booth to seek confirmation. The gal inside, a very stylish middle-aged Spanish woman was too busy on the phone to answer immediately, preferring to make us wait. When she did deign to interact, it was with the pronounced smile that said, “You’re a moron tourist” but that didn’t matter because we discovered what we wanted to know.
Now the bus we were supposed to take was line M-172 and for some odd reason the appropriate schedule showed M-170B leaving for our destination at the time we wanted. So not only were we going to ride a bus, we were going to ride the wrong bus, in direct conflict with every single guidebook I had read. This, was turning out to be my kind of adventure.
We found M-170B on the platform, mostly through luck since the buses were only displaying their designations for perhaps 3 seconds at a time. We took our place in line and when I asked the driver if this was the bus and the answer was “yes” so I paid our 3€ and we took seats about midway back. The ride out of town was wonderful, we got to cross a main bridge, go past a Carrefour super-center called “Carrefour Planet,” past lots of interesting factories and auto repair shops and a mess of regular stuff. We went went through the village of Camas, the road was lined with azulejadores, factories producing tile in the Sevilla style. Tile reproduction is a big business here, with these companies producing tiles that are exact copies of those used in the Moorish and Mudejar architecture of the region. Each factory had examples of their wares mounted on the walls by their entrances, and it was cool to point out the ones we’d during our explorations.
We passed an enormous convent as we came to the town of Santiponce, and while stopping nearby the driver said something that led the other non-Spanish speakers to try to get off the bus. He assured them we were not there yet and so they returned to their seats.
By now you might be wondering where we were headed – Italica, some of the finest Roman ruins in all of Spain.
Italica was founded in 206BC by Scipio Africanus as a recuperation spot for veterans of the just completed Punic Wars. The Romans liked what they saw so they came back and conquered all of the Iberian Peninsula, remaining for another 7 centuries until a melange of barbarian tribes came and put an end to that. Spain during this time was the primary agricultural provider for the rest of the empire, making many Roman wealthy through the production of of olives, grapes and wheat. Italica eventually grew to have a population of nearly a half million, making it the 2nd or 3rd largest city in the empire. The Emperor Trajan was born here – the first from the provinces – and he bestowed a great deal of largess on his birthplace, adding many temples, homes, baths, and a amphitheater that was among the largest int the Empire, holding more than 30,000 spectators. The growth of the city continued under Trajan’s son Hadrian, also born there, and continued until it was abandoned when Rome fell.
Today, most of the site is still underground, both in the countryside surrounding Santiponce and under the town itself. What has been dug up and restored is remarkable. You enter through a grove of trees and top first at the amphitheater, now mostly decayed but still stunning. The center ring is filled with the characteristic yellow clay of Andalusia and the seating, all done in dark gray stone rises up to perhaps 50 feet above the ground. A well preserved set of tunnels, the galleries where the Gladiators waited to fight circles below the seating on both sides of the ring. Tall brick pillars rise in a center pit, called the hypogeum. The pillars supported a moveable, sand covered platform which was punctuated by smaller elevator platforms that delivered wild animals from the cages in the basement to the fights in the rings. Standing in the middle of the ring was quite a humbling experience, the scale of the place was so big.
The rest of the site is limited to the foundations of villas and temples and some truly amazing mosaics including one that depicts 30 species of local birds. The roads, still paved in their big bumpy flagstones went to the four cardinal points at perfect right angles to each other lined by brick cubes that must have supported columns at one point. Standing at the high point of Italica, you’re less impressed by what’s there than what remains to be uncovered. The archeologists did a nice thing, scraping off and restoring the roads but leaving mounds between them, covered with purple and yellow wildflowers, piquing your curiosity about what lies below. In a large corner section, Trajan’s Baths have been mostly opened up, and a series of signs shows photographs using ground penetrating radar. What’s below seems to go on forever.
When done, we took a stroll into town to find a well preserved Roman theater but there wasn’t much to see at ground level and neither of us felt like climbing a hill in the heat to find a purported overlook. We headed back to the bus stop and while grabbing a seat in the shade, My Lovely Wife spotted our bus just up the road at the actual bus stop. That was a remarkably good catch because it would have been quite unfortunate to stand by the road and wave as it went by.
It was 5 minutes before scheduled departure and the driver sat in his driver’s seat and went through his pre-launch checklist, refusing to open the door 30 seconds early. He finally did, we got on and took the long ride home, exactly reversing the trip out, stop by stop.
One photo here, rest will be posted in a dedicated gallery.