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Sagunto, Hannibal, and Children
by Don and Peg Doman
In our hasty-night-before planning we voted to go to Valencia with a stopover (for me) in Sagunto, which no one had heard of and Rick Steves merely shows it as a blip on a map in his Spain book. Valencia had to wait a day, however.
One year for Christmas my wife Peg gave me a brown paper bag fill with books written on ancient world history. My favorite was written by Livy and concerned the Second Punic War, which featured Rome vs. Carthage and the master strategist Hannibal.
As we traveled by ferry from Civitecchia to Barcelona aboard the Eurostar Roma I looked over the book on Spain by Rick Steves. I was delighted to see the town of Sagunto noted on the map of Spain about an hour south of Peniscola where we were staying. I didn’t really have much hope of finding any information about Hannibal there, however.
In Rick’s book on Italy he mentioned Hannibal’s victory over the Romans at Lake Trasimine, but when we stopped there we could find no one who had even heard of Hannibal. Reluctantly I took a photograph of Rob and Vickie wading in the waters that Hannibal had once turned blood red in his second greatest victory in Italy. I just knew I would have the same luck in Spain.
We guessed at the distance from Peniscola to Sagunto as we drove down the east coast towards Valencia. It seems like Spain from Barcelona south is one giant building boom of resorts taking advantage of the unending beaches. Looking down the coast from the Knights Templar castle at Peniscola the hotels seemed as unending as the light-golden-brown-sugar Spanish beach. From the activity and the amount of cranes we saw later, Sagunto is now part of that boom.
It was fun clomping around the castle and looking down on the town, the sea, and the coast. The castle would have had a commanding view to save them from surprise attack. We walked up the narrow roads and walkways, but residents were able to drive their cars well into the castle to supply their homes. This would have been by donkey in the old days. Today it's done by Jetta.
We were absolutely thrilled when we saw a walled city dominating a hilltop AND freeway signs leading us to Sagunto. Although I knew that Hannibal had destroyed the original city, I figured it must have been rebuilt. It was.
We made our way through the narrow city roads following “Historic Center” and “Information” signs. We gave up when we came to the market day bazaar. Quite often we would get a glimpse of the walled city above the old new cities, but we couldn't seem to get any nearer to them. The closed streets for the booths and stalls stopped us cold. We detoured and parked in a huge underground parking garage near a small river. Then we walked to the market.
At the very first stall Peg bought a small purse/tablet holder. We all agreed to meet at the same place an hour later. I set off looking for historical locations. I tried following the signs but stopped after seeing nothing of interest. (Little did I know that I had been so close.) I retraced my steps and rejoined Peg.
I love the colors of the market. The purple of the eggplants and the greens of the squash are eye candy. The smell of fresh bell peppers and citrus seems to wake me up. We bought a handful of apricots and some orange colored plums, which were very tart and interesting for our tongue, nose, and eyes.
Peg saw a lady at one of the stalls whom she thought was a nice representation of the people running the booths. The lady agreed to have her picture taken. She was almost imperial in her simple nod giving us permission.
We then met up with Jan and Mike who also had been hot on the information and historic center trail and went nowhere. There were just so many people and action everywhere. We all went our separate ways again.
I found my way back to the first stall and ran into Donn and Debbie followed shortly by Jan and Mike. While talking to Donn I looked beyond the fence we were leaning on. The curtains on the fence partially hid repair work on the corner lot. Upon closer inspection I realized it was an archeological dig. I asked Donn to reach inside and get me a rock from the dig. He refused, but offered to hold my feet and dangle me over the fence. I refused, but I did take some photographs.
Once we all gathered, we headed back towards the parking garage and chose a rest stop. The San Jose Bar, where we made plans.
We ordered coffee, beer, and cold chocolate drinks. I looked over the tapas offerings on the bar, but saw nothing of interest. The smell of cooking onions caught my attention, however. Jan translated and I soon had a sandwich of good bread with onions and pork ladled on the bottom slice. I shared.
Peg and I held down the fort, while the search began in earnest for the information office. The market was closing soon and the upper/ancient city was closed until 2:00 pm. Our scouts returned with huge smiles on their faces. As the vendors and crowds thinned the information office was easier to find. With maps and pamphlets in hand we headed towards the old walled city.
I sensed Peg wasn’t up to the walk and showed her the hilltop city way above us. I said, “That’s where they are going.” We looked over the historical map and chose a restaurant to meet at in the old city, but below the walled city.
Peg and I sat down on a bench near the town square and a children’s playground. A friend of mine once told me of her experience in the Soviet Union. As a black person she attracted crowds of people just as if she was Michael Jackson. We were soon to have the same experience.
About twenty children aged 10 – 13 surrounded and pressed against us forming a tight circle. They were there from Valencia visiting Sagunto for a test. Their teacher had given them permission to find anyone who spoke English so they could try out their language skills. The children were delightful.
Although they had all studied English the more outgoing students took it upon themselves to represent the group. They laughed and asked questions and sometimes mimed the question when we didn’t quite understand them.
One precocious young girl wearing sunglasses asked if we had children and then acted out giving birth to our slight embarrassment and peels of laughter. Donn said later that he could hear children shrieking as he explored the walled city, but couldn’t figure out what was going on. Donn said, “I could hear children laughing and yelling inside the walls, but I couldn’t figure out where they were coming from.” It was just us and our new friends.
One boy had frosted hair and one or two girl friends with him. An admiring younger boy confessed that the older one was “cold.” Someone corrected him and said, “You mean he’s cool.” There were giggles and whoops.
The girls declared Peggy pretty with her red hair and blue eyes. We showed photographs of our grandchildren. When the teacher came back, the children reported that we had ten daughters! No wonder one of the girls drew a picture of me presenting flowers to Peg.
The children wanted to share the moment. The girl with the sunglasses asked for a drink of water from out bottle as she fanned herself with her fingers and her friend with a colorful set of bracelets sat between Peg and I while friends took her picture with a cellphone.
The teacher thanked us for our patience and rounded up his students for the return trip to Valencia. We all waved goodbye . . . several times.
Feeling rejuvenated Peg and I started following the historic map up the hill. Peg didn't mind that I was looking for historical sites, she was busy looking at the houses with their well-kept gardens and trees with beautiful blossoms. After reading the map and looking over the landmarks I realized that I had come so close to what I was looking for. My earlier walk had finished right at the bar where we were meeting with our group and that was physically only about thirty yards from the main Hannibal historical site.
Hannibal had been wounded and insulted during the latter stages of the siege. He ordered the town destroyed. The only thing left standing was the Temple of Diana. The base of the temple is still there and was declared a national monument in 1963.
I saw the construction area and security fence and still passed on. I just wasn’t sure. There are absolutely no markings at any site I saw. Peg and I walked around the entire old city area with our historic map and came back to the temple base from a different route verifying the location. The street was correct, but it just didn't look real. Then I noticed that the stones forming the foundation were much larger than those above them. They were "cyclopean." This is the type of stonework usually found in Mycenaean architecture with huge limestone boulders, which are roughly fitted together. Cyclopean is also how the foundation of the Temple of Diana was described. I had found it after all. So much for my career in archeology.
Peg never even looked at the Hannibal site. She sat drawing many architectural features of nearby buildings and even peered through the keyhole of an ancient church. No one was home.
We ventured over to our meeting place and had Coca-Cola Lights outside and watched a family with a three-year old running up and down on the cobblestones. Peg sketched while I read the historic brochure from cover to cover. Soon our friends returned. They were extremely happy with their trip inside the walls. They had enjoyed the Roman amphitheatre which had been rebuilt just outside the walled city. Donn also enjoyed looking down from the walls and imagining Hannibal at the gates and how scary that must have been.
They had experienced one disappointment. While talking to some other visitors they mentioned that we were Americans. At that comment the other visitors just shutdown and ignored them after that.
Casa Felipe was closing down their outside operations and so we all moved indoors. It was actually siesta time, but the waitress, bartender and cook were nice enough to accommodate us, and our strange ways. We all poured over the menu while the young waitress tried to answer our many questions. Finally a fellow patron was introduced. She had volunteered to help. She was in the bar with her husband and young son. She answered our questions and finally agreed to just order for us. We told her we didn’t care what she ordered and we ended up with a nice cross-section of tapas and combination plates. We ate everything from escargot to French fries.
In our conversation with her we found that she had been involved with tourism for Valencia and now was in business for herself as a massage and reflexology therapist. She had studied English a short time in Great Britain. She thought we were English!
Her husband was a sculptor from Cuba. There was nothing we could do for her, but for her husband Donn offered him a Cuban cigar. It turned out to be his birthday and he was overwhelmed. We took his picture with his happy family and then he went to the bar and got a little glass of cognac to dip the end of his cigar in. With the cigar lit he relaxed in his chair. His head tilted back. Smoke lazily crawled to the ceiling and he left for the Caribbean. The rest of us had dessert.
After dinner we made our way through the narrow streets. We stopped at a small notions store run by Chinese and bought postcards. I also bought international stamps. I sent myself one with a picture of Sagunto. I wrote a note and signed it Hannibal.
We soon came back to the underground parking garage, but I had two more photographs to take. In the historic brochure I had found a mention of two pillars from an ancient Roman bridge that were still standing after two thousands years and the remains of the door of the Roman amphitheatre in its original location.
As we stood on the roof of the parking garage we turned our heads to take in the view and there a stone’s throw away were the supports for the Roman bridge. It's good to know what you're looking for, otherwise you might not realize what you're seeing.
I was almost jogging as I left the group and scurried off to find the Roman Door, which looked really close to the San Jose Bar. It was.
The Roman door was the very first construction project we had seen . . . right next to the first stall at the farmer’s market. How appropriate. I already had pictures.
Leaving town took a little bit of time. Our two car caravan retraced some of our footsteps . . . several times. The second time this happened Mike began a commentary, “Let me tell you about a day I spent here in Sagunto. Off to the left is Don and Peg’s favorite bar.” As we came back the commentary change slightly, “Off to the right is Don and Peg’s favorite bar.
Mike was close . . . but no cigar. Sagunto was our favorite experience in Spain. We enjoyed the people we met. We enjoyed the sights we saw, and we really, really, really enjoyed the history we saw, read about, and touched. This one day adventure was truly rewarding in and of itself. For me it was worth the entire cost of our trip.
We drove back to Peniscola and saved Valencia for another trip.
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