The Amphitheatre in Italica

Santiponce: Ruins Under Smoky Skies

  |   Spain   |   21 Comments

My visit to Italica taught me to never ever underestimate a destination. I challenge you to visit a place first before you pass judgment. Why? Because in Italica, I almost made the mistake of dismissing the Roman sites – there are so many around the Mediterranean, you lose interest at some stage – but then I was indeed caught by surprise.

What I found was a magnificent Roman theatre that was glowing under the smoky skies of an early summer morning. The scene was set in an atmosphere of smoke and ashes that was befitting for the new life that the theatre had recently been given thanks to TV show Game of Thrones.

What more, I enjoyed the site without the crowds and on a day that couldn’t have been more perfect even if it tried.

Remains of the Amphitheatre

A Day of Smoke and Fire

The little town of Santiponce was just 9km from the centre of Seville. What made it special was the Roman ruins on which the town was built – a place called Italica. Not much was left of the ancient city, hence my reserved excitement of visiting Italica in the early morning hours.

When we woke up the following morning in the hotel opposite the excavation site I was still clueless as to the grandeur and beauty that I was encounter later on. But what struck me was that there was smoke in the air. It was summer in the south of Spain, and it was the season of wildfires.

The smoke changed the early morning light to a weak orange glow, adding an aroma of burned wood. The taste of roasted pine needles lingered in the air, spicy and aromatic. The smoke had come quickly and soundless – an interesting contrast to the fresh, cool morning air that had been there just a minute ago.

The catacombs under the arena

The Rise and Fall of Italica

Italica was of course not just any place in the Roman empire. The city used to be a thriving trading community that was benefitting from easy access to the Guadalquivir River. Two emperors were born here, Trajan and Hadrian, which shows how powerful the elite in this city had been at the time.

Unfortunately, after years of prosperity, the banks of the river shifted and Italica lost power, wealth, and influence. Soon it went into decline, making way to the rise of nearby Seville which still had a strong river port. Over the centuries, the city deteriorated to the point that it was nothing more than a convenient quarry for the people of Santiponce.

Today, only two big structures remained, the Amphitheatre and the Small Baths. The rest was mostly a mix of foundations, fragments, and well-preserved floor mosaics.

The old excavation site with mosaics in Italica

The Dragon Pit in Santiponce

It struck me the second we walked into the Amphitheatre of Italica: This was not just an amphitheatre but also the backdrop of a scene I had watched only a couple of days earlier on TV. This was also the Dragon Pit in Game of Thrones. The site where the powerful parties of Westeros would come together to meet their mutual enemy, the White Walkers.

I was elated, so much so that I performed a little happy dance in the centre of the arena. But what impressed me just the same was the size of the theatre and it’s rather well-preserved condition. The amphitheatre of Italica was the third-largest theatre in the Roman Empire, offering space to some 25,000 spectators. Considering that Italica only had a population of 8,000 people this really was quite remarkable.

Under the filtered light of the hazy sun the oval arena, the patched-up upper ranks, the arched walkways under the stands revealed an unexpected aesthetics that was a joy to explore.

The Dragon Pit under a hazy sky

As it turned out, Italica was more than just another Roman site. There was history here, of course. But there was also a particular atmosphere of grandeur and class which was reflected in the few remains that had survived troubled times.

This was when I learned never to dismiss a location just by its name. Always give it a go, see it for yourself. Only then you can say that a visit was not worth the trouble. How true that is for travelling, but also for so many other things in life.

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The walkway under the standBeautiful floor mosaics in the amphitheatreThe Dragon PitExploring the towering ruinsRoad leading into the ancient cityThe ruins of ItalicaItalica in Santiponce

Silke Elzner

AUTHOR - Silke Elzner

Hello! My name is Silke. Happiness and Things is a travelogue about amazing European destinations and beautiful places around the world. I believe that beauty is even in the smallest things and I want to inspire you to see the world differently. Read more about it here.

  • Hannah | Oct 28, 2017 at 23:17

    I love the way you describe the ‘feel’ of Italica instead of just the sight itself. The orange glow really does make it look magical and other-worldly. You are very right, never underestimate a place – so often it will surprise you! I’ve not watched Game of Thrones, but do want to see Italica now because it’s gorgeous!

    • Silke Elzner

      Silke Elzner | Oct 29, 2017 at 1:26

      Hi Hannah, Thanks for your comment. Yes, there is much more to it than the fact that it features in a TV show. I always find it said when people visit places just because of that. I am sure you would love the amphitheatre of Italica as much as I did!

  • Dinh-Long Pham | Oct 29, 2017 at 13:08

    Wow, I didn’t know that existed. Thank you for the historical insight and very beautiful pictures. I really like your narrative; the way you describe your experience, it’s like reading a novel! Looks like you were the only visitor there!

    • Silke Elzner

      Silke Elzner | Oct 30, 2017 at 0:26

      Hi Dinh-Long, thanks for your comment. As you can see, I was just as surprised myself. It’s definitely a worthwhile destination, in particular if you are lucky and have the same kind of mysterious atmosphere like we did on that day. Thanks for commenting 🙂

  • Megan Jerrard | Oct 30, 2017 at 14:47

    I totally agree about not passing judgement before traveling somewhere yourself – I’ve been pleasantly surprised many times! The ruins of Italica do look quite spectacular indeed – I’m amazed to look back through history at the rise and fall of thriving cities like this, and think which bustling cities in todays day might fall victim to the same fate.

    I haven’t seen Game of Thrones (blasphemy I know!) but I can totally see form our photos how it would be a great backdrop to what I know of the TV show. What has struck me too about this Roman site is that you appear to have it to yourself free of other tourists! Which is rare these days.

    • Silke Elzner

      Silke Elzner | Oct 30, 2017 at 18:53

      Hi Megan, I think we were quite lucky because we stayed at a hotel just across the road, so we were almost alone in the morning. Most visitors would visit coming from Seville on a day trip, which means they show up a tad bit later. When we left the site we were greeted by the first (modest) crowds. I wouldn’t be surprised if Italica would get more visitors next season due to the Game of Thrones popularity.

  • Sneha S | Oct 30, 2017 at 17:57

    Loved how you have described the site. Frankly, I didn’t know such a place existed but it is now in my bucket list. Great photos too.

    • Silke Elzner

      Silke Elzner | Oct 30, 2017 at 18:54

      Thanks Sneha, Glad you enjoyed the post! 🙂

  • Punita Malhotra | Oct 31, 2017 at 18:30

    Italica is a beautiful place and I would love to include this in my itinerary when in that part of the world, since I am something of a history geek. I was struck by the fact that the amphitheatre could seat as many as 25,000 spectators, while its population was only 8,000. Curious how they would have ‘advertised’ such mega events in those days, without advanced communication facilities 🙂

    • Silke Elzner

      Silke Elzner | Oct 31, 2017 at 18:37

      Hi Punita, That’s a good question! But then, the Romans didn’t build an empire without reason. There were in most things on top of their game and I am sure this included spreading news as quickly as possible. It is definitely an intriguing fact about Italica.

  • Elisa | Oct 31, 2017 at 23:11

    What a wonderful travel lesson, not to underestimate and dismiss a place before actually visiting. Its so true and so easy these days to make calls about places due to the availability of information on the net but I am glad it paid off for you. I’ll certainly be remembering as we are planning our next trip and deciding what places are worth our time. Also thanks for the reminder again that I should start watching GoT. Looks like they are onto something :p

    • Silke Elzner

      Silke Elzner | Oct 31, 2017 at 23:26

      Yes, give GoT a go… not a fantasy fan myself but the characters are complex and the story is unpredictable. Happy travels xox

    • Silke Elzner

      Silke Elzner | Nov 1, 2017 at 3:06

      Good luck with the travel planning! And yes, I think you should start watching the show 🙂

  • Anita Hendrieka | Nov 1, 2017 at 2:06

    This looks like a truly fascinating place. As I live in Albania at the moment I definitely understand the availability of information can put you off visiting but glad you took a chance and got to explore these beautiful ruins!

  • Efthimis K. | Nov 1, 2017 at 4:20

    As a Greek, I am not a huge fan of ruins because it is something that I am really used to seeing here. However, your narrative has really drawn me into the story and I would love to explore Italica in the future. The pictures are awesome and the fact that Italica is close to Sevilla makes it perfect for a day trip!

    • Silke Elzner

      Silke Elzner | Nov 1, 2017 at 4:30

      I do understand what you mean. All these ruins around the Mediterranean can be… overwhelming. It helps to have some background to it or to find a particular quality in them. If you happen to be in the area I am sure you would enjoy a visit to Italica too.

  • Elisa | Nov 1, 2017 at 6:34

    I think that the idea of visiting Italica came into my mind while I was in Sevilla but it was so hot that probably I decided to drink some sangria on a shady bar instead. It looks quite interesting (the site itself and its history) though so I will keep in mind next time I go south . .

    • Silke Elzner

      Silke Elzner | Nov 2, 2017 at 22:34

      Haha, I hear you! Sangria in a bar in Seville sounds like a good excuse. Maybe next time…

  • Rahul Khurana | Nov 1, 2017 at 23:15

    I like exploring ruins and historical sites. This one looks so vast. I always wonder what would it feel like to be present at such places when they were full of life. it also reminded me of my visit to the Most Haunted Fort in India ‘Bhangarh Fort’.

    • Silke Elzner

      Silke Elzner | Nov 2, 2017 at 20:21

      It’s the same for me. I always wonder about times gone by. I have never been to India but I’d love to one day so that I can see places like Bhangarh Fort too. All the best!

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