Sagunto, The Arse-end of the world

The owner of the ceramic shop at the bottom of the steep incline up to Sagunto Castle probably wonders why he sees so many white-kneed Brits giggling and taking photos of his shop sign, much in the way they snigger behind their hand when they order fartons, the sponge biscuit that accompanies the delicious Valenciano drink horchata. In uneven hand-written lettering, the sign tells you that the shop is called Ceramicas Arse. Giggleworthy it may be to the Brit with a limited knowledge of Spanish history – in other words, practically everyone – but Arse was the name that modern-day Sagunto was known by when it was an Iberian settlement – and there weren’t many tourists to laugh at the name then!

These days Sagunto is a busy city which owes much of its recent growth to its proximity to Valencia. But the former is much more ancient than the latter, and remains of settlements as far back as 1,500 BC have been found. Name an invader; Moors, Romans, Visigoths, and old Hannibal himself – they have all stamped their mark on its history, and much of it still lives on in the narrow, meandering alleyways of the old town.

As I approach the city from the south my eye is drawn to the Castillo, which crawls along the hill overlooking Sagunto like a languid serpent, the towers giving the appearance of a spiky spine. To get there, though, I have to start beside the elegant Modernista town hall, on the side of which a thermometer for Volk Insecticide tells me that it’s 28º – and that’s in the shade. It’s just as well the narrow streets provide plenty of it, at least until I get to the Teatro Romano and Castillo, where all is laid bare.

The original Plaza Mayor is surrounded by arched colonnaded walkways with overhanging accommodation known as calles partidas. This was designed to give extra space above street level but also provides much needed shade during the searing summer months. As I stand making notes I hear the chatter of elderly ladies and blowing of a hairdryer coming from behinds a small, beaten up old doorway that that suddenly opens to reveal a hairdresser, who seems to be using all sorts of bits and pieces discarded from other places when they modernised. Still, the ladies seem happy.

In one of those delightful ‘Valencia moments’, I spot a couple of ladies in full ornate fiesta get-up, rich brocaded silk dresses covered over with heavily embroidered aprons, said to be fashioned on the working clothes of a couple of centuries ago. Try as I might, I can’t imagine the ladies picking oranges in a year’s earnings-worth of frock like these. And besides, a local historian told me that the low neckline would once have identified the lady as being a prostitute, but I’m not going to impart that bit of knowledge to the two glamorous maids in front of me.

The casco antiguo is full of wiggly streets and arches, the best known being the Portalet de la Jueria, which gives access to the area known as the Jewry. It is also known as the Portalet de la Sang, the Little Gate of Blood, which may say something about the bloody history of Jewish oppression in Spain.

Little has changed in the topography of the streets of the Jewry since their expulsion by the Catholic Monarchs in 1492 – at the same time as ‘Columbus sailed the ocean blue’ – but the streets are enlivened in that personally artistic way that people use to bring beauty to even the smallest of spaces; the lady with the extraordinarily fake red hair who has created a tiny garden on the steps outside her front door; the house owner who has laid decorative tiles under his balcony which illustrate ancient tradesmen at work; or the couple, apparently a teacher and an architect, who use two illustrated tiles to tell of their own employment.

The area also has more churches and ermita’s than you could shake a rosary at, although in that time-honoured Spanish fashion, you can’t get in to see the stunningly decorated interiors except at mass times or during fiestas. A shame, really, because most of the churches in the Valencian region have been totally restored at vast expense using European money, i.e. we paid, but they won’t allow us to see where our money went.

However, you can get a glimpse inside the Ermita de la Sangre, conveniently placed on Calle de Nueva Sangre, (I did say Sagunto had a bloody history), on Saturday mornings, when the Confradia de la Purísima Sangre de Nuestro Señor opens the doors to display twenty gloriously gilded, painted, carved and ornately adorned ceremonial images that are carried through the streets of Sagunto during the liturgical parades of Semana Santa.

These carrozes, floats on which stand images of Mary, Jesus and a host of heavenly attendants, need up to twenty hearty young men to carry them, each dressed in a flowing monk-like robe and wearing a tall conical hat that totally covers the head, with only holes for the eyes and mouth. The most important is La Soledad, a great gilded platform on which the Virgin stands, draped in rich dark velvet, covered in curlicued gold embroidery, and shaded from the elements by a star-studded canopy of the same material. Sixty thousand euros worth – minus the lady.

As practice for the hill climb to the castle I take a walk up the calvario, the stations of the cross that leads up to the 19th-century Ermita de Santísimo Cristo. On a bright blue summer’s day vapour trails from jets outward bound from Valencia airport form a network of fake clouds, criss-crossing to create a delightful marble effect.

The calvario is an easy and beautiful clamber up the hillside. Bare of anything but cypress trees, that ubiquitous Spanish identifier of ermitas and graveyards, and the small cross-topped niches containing tiled images of Christ’s journey to his crucifixion, it has a rough-hewn look totally in keeping with the severity of the event it symbolises. Brilliantly white painted at every season, I have the image of a chap with a bucket of whitewash starting at one end and laboriously continuing until he reaches the other, then beginning again in a Forth Road Bridge-ish way.

There has been so much debate about the reconstruction of the Teatro Romano, the Roman amphitheatre that I obviously have to go and see to add my two pen’orth. Two very pretty young girls sat in the kiosk at the entrance and as soon as they see me approach they jump up with alacrity to attend to my every whim – information-wise, anyway. I’m probably the only person to have passed their post in the last hour.

When I enter the Teatro through the dark, narrow corridors of ancient stone I can almost hear the rumble of the crowd of two millennia ago, waiting for a performance to begin. When I emerge into daylight, though, all sense of antiquity disappears.

The top of the scaenae frons, the back wall of the performance area, was totally destroyed during the War of Independence in the early years of the 19th century to make a clear shot for the canons from the Castillo above. Heavy-handed restoration at various times during the 20th century did little to achieve an accurate image of the Roman theatre and only served to distort its original structure.

In front of me is a two-storey wall of pale cream brick with a few elements of the Roman construction fixed to the wall with metal clamps. Only about a quarter of the seating original remains on either side of the amphitheatre, but these sections are roped off. The performance area is a strange layout of curved walls, terraces, walkways and pillars, but without seeing a performance it is impossible to tell how good the acoustic is, although as a young couple walk across the gravel-covered area in front of the stage I hear the footsteps of a cohort of legionnaires on the move. Demolish it or leave it? On a beautiful early summer’s day, with only the sound of a light breeze blowing through the trees and the twittering of birds, all thoughts of architectural debate fall into nothingness.

Having girded up my loins with a beer and bocadillo, I set off up the steep slope toward the castle. An ancient set of stone steps provide a short cut but disintegrate into avalanche-strewn rubble half way up, making me think that the long route might have been best after all.

Unkempt, rubble-strewn, over-laden with cement in places the Castillo may be, but there is no doubting how mightily impressive it is. At almost a kilometre long, you can’t but be in awe of the sheer effort that went into its construction.

You could say that this is the Arse end of Sagunto civilisation because it was here that the first Iberian settlement began. The existing  perimeter is mainly that of the Islamic fortress, but successive conquerors added and subtracted until now it is an architectural rag-bag of styles, the most important section of which is the Plaza de Armas, where remains of the Roman municipal forum, public and religious buildings and some of the original Roman buttressing remains.

Like in some mythical labyrinth, you are drawn through portal after portal, the urge to see what’s around the next kink in the wall irresistible. The reality is that there isn’t much else to see, just more cactus plants and mounds of rubble, but don’t let that put you off.

As I sit on a mound of rough grass in the Plaza de Dos de Mayo at the eastern end of the castle, a helicopter that I’ve seen giving joy rides from a park in the town below suddenly rises over the ruined castle ramparts like a chopper in some war-time B movie. There’s nothing up here to conquer anymore so, with a wave from the nervous looking riders inside, it heads off toward the Mediterranean, leaving me to enjoy the quiet, and the view way out over the countryside.