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Wednesday, 12 June 2013

Empuries and the Citadel of Roses

When we travelled around Greece many years ago we found that the ancient sites were a great place for bird watching. And so it was that we decided on the way up the coast to Roses, to stop by an archaelogical site that we had visited three years ago. Not so much because we wanted to see the site again, but for the sole reason that we had seen a colony of Bee-eaters there before!

It's worth noting that there is more to the Costa Brava than sun, sea and sand, but even as far as that goes, it is not the package resort nightmare that guide books seem to make out that it is. We travelled the beautiful corniche road northwards from Tossa de Mar three years ago, and visited most of the little coastal towns. Granted it was in late April but for the most part these little places were scenic, quite sleepy and not at all ruined by tourism. 

However, there were people coming to settle here long before the 1970s package holiday invasion. Along this coast there were both Greek and Roman cities and there is a fantastic site at Empuries, close to the little village of St Marti near to the larger town of L'Escala. We'd found it fascinating before, particularly the Roman ruins, as there are practically entire mosaic floors there. It's well worth a visit and there is a pleasant garden in between the Greek and Roman areas; the Roman town being higher up on a hill just inland from the Greek settlement.

Roman ruins at Empuries

Unfortunately we were not to see a Blue Rock Thrush like we'd seen at so many of the ancient sites in Greece, but we were not disappointed by the Bee-eaters!

Bee-eaters (Merops apiaster) and nest hole

They nest in holes in sandy banks like this

It's quite astounding the amount of mosaic floors here in really good condition

My OH was in his element, being addicted to the TV series 'Time Team'. He was wandering around looking at the ground, as there were pieces of Roman pottery, tiles and tesserae everywhere in amongst the rough ground of the hillside beside the excavations. That suited me fine as I didn't have to feel guilty for going off looking at wildflowers and bugs!

Here in northern Catalonia on the coastal plains there's more arable
farming of the kind of crops we see at home: barley, wheat and maize

This is the only place that I saw this glorious wildflower - Asphodelus fistulosis.
Native to the Mediterranean, it is known as Onion Weed
and is an invasive noxious weed in the USA!

The image below, clockwise from top left:
A distant Serin (Serinus serinus) singing
Urospermum dalechampii The wildflower that I saw all over the place, that I finally managed to ID after seeing it in the botanical garden in Rennes! 
Plaintain flowers, which were surprisingly covered with these pretty little snails
A male Common Blue butterfly (Polyommatus icarus), and yet more snails.

Little things which caught my eye

Hoorah at last a butterfly!
This is a male Common Blue

The Citadel at Roses

Roses is situated at the northern end of Catalonia, close to the border with France. We stayed in the same hotel as before because we liked it and revisited several places we'd visited before, notably another wetland bird habitat which will be another post. The one place in the town itself which we had not had time previously to explore was the citadel. This is the remains of an imposing military fortress dating from the 16th century, where within the immense area of the pentagonal perimeter walls are archeological excavations of the original Greek colony of 'Rhode', from where the town gets its name, plus later Roman occupation. More info on the citadel and a brief covering of its history from the Spanish tourism site here. There is a museum showing the history of the settlement through Greek to Roman times, with many finds from the archaelogical digs, and the history through later centuries to when it was last used as a military fort. More detailed info on this site related to fortified places - unfortunately the info sheets we were given whilst wandering around the museum and the fortress site were handed back at the end of the visit, so I don't have that info to hand any more!

The museum, a modern addition built beside the walls of the fortification,
with some of the excavations in the foreground.

A screenshot from Google Maps of the Citadel site

Also within the site are the remains of a Visigothic Christian church from the 4th-7th centuries and a Romanesque church and monastery of Santa Maria, from the 11th century. Everything here is crumbling, even the later buildings from more recent centuries. What was notable is that the later buildings were built using a mix of building materials that were available here from previous remains, even down to mixing in Roman roof tiles into the masonry!  

Hard to remember what was what here, let's just say this is a view of old and new,
with the hotels and buildings of modern Roses viewable in the distance!

Buildings from later eras, some of which have been partially rebuilt

This green roof caught my eye. I'm not sure what the building was beneath, something more modern and maybe for temporary exhibitions or seminars, but I just loved how the planting on the roof blended in with the environment so well.

A green roof planted with sedums and other low growing plants

Even here there were a few bird watching opportunities. At first we only saw Seagulls and a few Wood Pigeons, like this one who was not remotely bothered by us being close to it.

Wood Pigeon happy to pose mid preen

However there was later excitement when several green birds of some sort flew by us and landed on the ground a little way away. They were perfectly camouflaged against the green vegetation. Can you even spot it in the picture below?!

If you can you'll see it's colourful - now what is it?

Of all things, it's a Monk Parakeet!

I actually knew what they were the moment I saw them, because I had that morning re-read the info in my bird book as to the kind of species we may expect to see around the Roses area. These birds, originally from South America, are escapees which have adapted to live independently in the wild. It was rather exciting to see them!

Whilst having a coffee later outside the museum,
Mr Black Redstart (Phoenicurus ochruros)
came fairly close and perched on a tree tie!


  1. A wonderful travelogue! The birds you encountered are fantastic....especially the Bee-eater and what a treat to see it nesting.

    Very interesting regarding your Onion Weed! We have 12 species of Allium (wild onion) native to Arizona and I love photographing them. The two I see most often are the Desert Onion (Allium macropetalum)which grows at my elevation (2500ft) and Geyer's Onion (Allium geyeri) which grows in Sedona and Flagstaff (5000-10,000ft) which I visit in the Summer.

    Now I wonder if I've ever seen this Mediterranean visitor and mistaken it for a native. I better memorize the differences :-)

    1. Thanks very much Marianne! We saw some more Bee-eaters at another place where a sand bank had been created for them and it was absolutely full of nest holes - unfortunately it was drizzling so not very good for photographing. I love your alliums - I would love to find wild ones like that. 12 species is a lot! According to Wikipedia this Aphodel has 'significant infestations' in Arizona so you never know, you may well see it!

  2. Just like Marianne I loved that Bee-Eater and where it nested in amongst all of those wild poppies.

    +Dusty Gedge would love to see that green roof!

    1. Thanks Rosie! There were tons of poppies flowering all over the place in Spain but they are only just starting to flower in my garden! I will have to share my photos of that green roof with Mr Gedge. :-)

  3. WOW, wonderful place, beautiful photographs!!!..

    1. Thanks very much Blu! They were great places to visit and makes a nice change as very different from here. :-)