Baelo Claudia, which dates back to the second century BC, is one of the most well-preserved Roman sites in Andalucía.
With its enviable position between Bolonia beach and the pine forests of the Parque Natural del Estrecho on the Costa de la Luz, the city built its wealth on tuna fishing, fish salting and the production of garum (a fermented fish sauce) and held a strategic position for trading between Europe and North Africa.
However, by the middle of the second century AD it had started to decline thanks to natural disasters (an earthquake and, later, a tsunami). Invasions by pirates were another nail in Baelo Claudia’s coffin and the city was eventually abandoned during the sixth century AD.
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Exploring the ruins of Baelo Claudia
Entering the Visitor’s Centre the first thing you’ll notice is the view from the atrium, perfectly framed by the glass balcony – the long stretch of beach with Bolonia’s famed sand dune at one end.
Due to Covid restrictions the usual museum displays in the visitor’s centre aren’t open to the public.
There’s a signposted route around the ruins with information boards providing detailed explanations of the archaeological excavations.
These are some of the highlights of Baelo Claudia.
As well as providing drinking water, the aqueducts also channelled water for the baths and the salt factory. The aqueduct that you see as you first enter the site was originally over 5 kms in length.
The Decumanus Maximus, or Main Street, is clearly visible between the East and West Gates. From here the inhabitants would have been able to access the baths, market, and basilica.
The economic success of Baelo Claudia can be attributed to the tuna which travel from the Atlantic Ocean to the Mediterranean Sea to spawn. The tuna was salted in the factory and its offal, along with other small fish, was used to make garum. There was a temporary exhibition inside the Visitor’s Centre when we visited showing how garum was made. It even included an exhibit that you could sniff for the authentic garum experience – it wasn’t pleasant!
Forum and Basilica
The forum in Roman cities was the centre of all activities – a public gathering place surrounded by shops and other public buildings.
The forum in Baelo Claudia is home to the Basilica, probably the most recognisable part of the ruins with the sculpture of Emperor Trajan and the Insta worthy backdrop of the Bolonia sand dune.
The remains of the thermal baths are well preserved with the separate rooms and arches clearly visible. Water to the baths would have been carried via one of the aqueducts and heated in ovens.
The amphitheatre sits to the north of Baelo Claudia in a naturally sloping area. Parts of the amphitheatre have been restored and seating and staging added for use by modern audiences. I’m adding this to my bucket list – even if I have no idea what’s happening on stage I can’t imagine a better setting to watch a theatre performance.
Temples of the Capitol
There are three temples in the Capitol dedicated to Jupiter, Juno, and Minerva and in front of them is the forum where religious services would have been held.
It’s fascinating to wander round Baelo Claudia and imagine what it must have been like over 2000 years ago. Even now, archaeologists are still uncovering new areas and making new discoveries.
Current opening hours are:
Monday – Closed
Tuesday to Saturday – 9am to 5.30pm
Sunday – 9am to 2.30pm
Entry is €1.50 per person or free to EU citizens on production of a passport or ID card.
If you’re heading from Tarifa take the N340 towards Vejer de la Frontera and, after around 15 kms, turn off onto CA8202 (it’s well signposted). The road continues between two rocky outcrops until you reach Bolonia. Rather than turning left to the beach, continue on the main road for about 500m until you reach the Visitor’s Centre on the left-hand side. There’s plenty of parking available.