While there is plenty in Valencia to keep you entertained for days, those keen to explore further can find many other interesting destinations in the surrounding countryside. Historic towns, colourful festivals, wineries or outdoor sports are all within easy reach of the city. The town of Sagunto, distinguished for its remarkable Roman heritage and significant place in ancient history, is one of the easiest day trips from Valencia.
Just about half an hour north of Valencia, Sagunto, like many other Spanish coastal towns, is split in two. Inland, the imposing silhouette of the hilltop castle over the main town dominates the horizon as you approach. On the other side of the Mediterranean Highway, you find the Port of Sagunto and its long sandy beaches. Getting there is easy, whether it is hiring your own car or by public transport. Or even better, every Thursday during August and September there are guided day tours departing from the Plaza del Ayuntamiento in Valencia, for a more comprehensive insight into the town’s history.
Sagunto was an important and prosperous Iberian settlement in the 5th century BC, with the (rather unfortunate) name of Arse – to the amusement of many an English-speaking tourist. It sided with Rome against Carthage, attracting the attention of the Carthaginian general Hannibal, who laid siege to the town for eight months with his army of elephants. After fierce local resistance, Hannibal conquered Sagunto and most of the population was put to death (many killing themselves and destroying their wealth rather than surrender). This tragic episode gave way to the Second Punic War between Carthage and Rome.
Following the Roman victory, Sagunto prospered once again as a Roman town, and the heritage can still be seen today. The castle contains the remains of the forum, walls, and a Roman theatre, which was – not without some controversy – rehabilitated in the 1990s with the addition of a modern stage and cladding partially covering the ancient seats. The theatre preserves its design and special atmosphere though, and is now, as it was in Roman times, once again used for open air performances. Every summer, the Sagunt a Scena festival features a programme of evening concerts, dance and theatre in this remarkable setting.
Besides the castle, Roman remains can be found throughout the town, and more and more are unveiled everytime there is any digging. You can see the ruins of the Temple of Diana, the gate of the Roman Circus, and a good section of the ancient Via Augusta, the road that crossed the whole of Hispania, for example. In 2002, the demolition of a cinema unveiled the well preserved foundations of several houses, now the museum of the Domus dels Peixos. Like in Pompeii – though without any volcanic eruption involved – you can get a feeling of the old Roman city layout and everyday life.
There are also the remains of a Roman bridge, aqueduct, necropolis, mausoleum, port… in a word, anywhere you look in Sagunto you will find some of its rich Roman heritage. And in its Archaeological Museum you can learn more about the town’s history and see findings from the various excavations.
If you’ve had enough of ancient history, just enjoy wandering through the city centre, exploring the old Jewish quarter, the porticoed Plaza Mayor, the churches… Or simply pop into any of the many bars and tabernas for some tapas and a chat with the locals. Sagunto is an unpretentious, very Spanish town, and a great place to enjoy a slice of everyday life in the Valencia province.
One final tip: Sagunto is also the gateway to what is known as Costa Azahar, the Orange Blossom Coast. This not only means that its beaches are well worth a stop, but also – the clue is in the name – that in spring the air is filled with the sweet aroma of the orange blossom from the surrounding groves. And if you visit Sagunto between November and February you may see bags of oranges or mandarins outside people’s houses in the centre. That signals that they are selling their own crop, so don’t be afraid to call in to buy a bag, and enjoy the true taste of Valencia!