The Castle of Sagunto—It draws our eyes up the hillside above the small city of Sagunto every time we take the train between Valencia and Barcelona. We go by in a few seconds, but that’s long enough to inspire wonder in us passengers.
Sagunto is an easy day trip from Valencia. It is only about 35 minutes by train and local trains leave from the Estació del Nord train station every half hour or so (Renfe Cercanías Valencia C5, C6 lines). With American friends by our side, we headed to the station, bought tickets at one of the ticket machines, and caught an early morning train to Sagunto.
Sagunto was an important city in ancient history. The Iberians settled the area in 6th century BC. Hannibal’s siege of the city in 219 BC started the Second Punic War, a battle between Carthage and Rome for control in the Mediterranean. The castle has been protecting the city and looking out to the Mediterranean sea for 2000 years.
Okay, Okay. I know I’m supposed to be writing about food, but here I am blathering on about a bloody castle. Well, sometimes we feel the need to find a cultural reason to eat and drink. Food and culture go together, right? I promise that there is plenty of food porn at the bottom of the post for those of you looking for food. But for now, about that castle…
From the Sagunto train station, it should be a 15 to 20 minute walk to the castle…if you don’t get lost. We tried to follow our instinct to get to the top by taking the roads that went “up”. We wound through picturesque streets that twisted and turned up the hill, but didn’t get closer to our goal. Eventually, a guy out walking his dog pointed us in the right direction, the complete opposite of where our instinct was taking us. Now we know—Carrer Vell del Castell takes you to the castle entrance.
The Sagunto Castle
The base of the castle is strewn with small artificial caves, called hypogenous, that were part of the medieval Jewish Cemetery. The cemetery was built under the protection of the castle walls in 1328. After the Jewish population was expelled in 1492, the hypogenous were plundered and forgotten.
At the castle entrance, we were greeted by an empty trailer that looked like an abandoned ticket office. Check the Sagunto Castle website for hours. (Spoiler alert: the castle is closed on Mondays). A man on the porch of the Plaza de Armas building gave us a ticket, although there was no fee to enter. It became clear that there are no facilities up there, meaning no restrooms, no drinking water, nada.
Next to the Plaza de Armas, the first area that you come to is the Roman Forum. This was the center of city life in Roman times. The oldest Iberian and Roman ruins are in this area and archaeological excavation and research is still actively underway.
The Antiquari epigrafic (Epigraphic Antiques) building in the Plaza de San Fernando, houses a collection of Latin epigraphy, Hebrew inscriptions, and Roman architectural elements.
The castle is divided into seven plazas, covering almost one kilometer from end to end. We could have spent hours up there wandering through the ruins, but heat, thirst, and hunger took its toll. We abandoned our explorations and headed down the hill to visit the Roman Theatre (and the closest public rest rooms).
The Roman Theatre
Built on the Castle hillside near the Roman Forum in the 1st century, Sagunto’s Roman Theatre was declared a National Monument in 1896. Recently the theatre has been the center of much controversy. In the early 1990’s, extreme renovations were made to transform the 2000 year old crumbling ruin into a functional theatre.
The results are beautiful to some, but others lament the destruction of a historical site. This NY Times article from 1993 even suggested throwing the architects to the lions. Nonetheless, the theatre is now a center of activity, as it would have been in Roman times. It’s stage holds concerts and theatre productions and it is open for the public to visit. Entrance was free, but they asked if we had been to the castle and wanted to see our tickets. I don’t know why. Check the Roman Theatre website for hours. Guess what? It’s closed on Mondays.
The Sagunto Archaeology Museum
We wound our way down the narrow streets of the Jewish Quarter of Sagunto toward the center of town, where we found the Sagunto Archaeology Museum. Entrance was free, although again they asked if we had visited the castle and then wanted to see our tickets. Again, I don’t know why. The museum was lovely. It occupies a historic building that was an exchange market in the 14th century. We browsed through the sculptures, architectural elements and items from everyday life in ancient Sagunto. By the way, the museum is closed on Mondays.
It wasn’t quite late enough for lunch (by Spanish time), so we paused for a cold beer and some bravas at one of the restaurants across from the museum. We could have stayed and eaten lunch at one of these restaurants in the city center, but instead we went on another hike to the backside of the castle. We had lunch reservations!
Restaurante El Mirador de Sagunto
Restaurante El Mirador de Sagunto was a twenty minute walk, which would have been pleasant in cooler weather. Our friends may have been questioning our decision at this point. Directions got iffy at times, but signs to the restaurant pointed the way. The restaurant is tucked behind an industrial park on a hill at the base of the castle. Now we know—seek out a taxi for this part of the journey.
The decor of El Mirador is a tribute to the industrial railroads of 19th century Sagunto. Combined with wedding ceremony romance, this was a bit confusing at first. What we didn’t realize was that El Mirador is a popular spot for events, with a large terrace and gardens that have views up to the castle.
I could imagine Sagunto’s families and friends celebrating their weddings and birthdays on the terrace and couples kissing under the floral arch. On those days, I bet this place is one big party, but on a steamy hot summer day the air-conditioned dining room was more inviting.
El Mirador’s menu contains a tempting selection of classic Mediterranean dishes. There were two Menus del Dia available, one for €11 (which we selected for the table) and an upgraded menu that included drinks for €25.
The meal started with three shared appetizers for the table: ensalada (green salad with cheese and honey mustard vinaigrette), habas salteadas con bacon (beans sauteed with bacon), and patatas confitadas con virutas de carrillada (confit potatoes with shaved pork cheeks).
The salad was fresh and crisp and a necessity when eating heavy food. Having eaten our required veggies, we dug into the rich and satisfying bacony beans (how can that be bad?) and cheeky potatoes (you really gotta love the cheeks) that were topped with a sweet tomato jam. That was just the appetizers—we forgot to save room for the main courses!
There were five dishes to chooose from for our principal plates. Around the table, everyone was very pleased with their selection. The confit de pato (duck confit) was picture perfect, with tender flavorful meat under a crispy skin. A cherry sauce and some fresh cherries were a nice complement.
Lubina plancha (grilled sea bass) was also cooked to perfection, the fish melting in the mouth like butter. An almond pesto topping and herbed veggies added complexity to this otherwise simple preparation.
The Arroz meloso de marisco (creamy rice with seafood) was rich and creamy with bits of calamari, shrimp, and fish. The rice still had good bite to the grains, with lots of saffron and seafood flavor.
Oh yeah, then there was dessert. Did I mention we were already full from the appetizers?Desserts included Hojaldre relleno de chocolate served with vanilla ice cream; and a refreshing sorbete de mojito.
Of course, a long lunch in Spain is not complete without chupitos—small glasses of some kind of liquor as a digestive. Sometimes they come for free, sometimes there is a small charge. Here there was a small charge of €1.20 each but the bottle of aguardiente was left on the table. I’m sure they knew there was no danger of us downing the whole thing.
With two bottles of wine included, four people had a hearty and delicious meal for just €82 euros. Not bad! With so many other good looking things on the menu, I would be willing to walk back around that hill again for this meal. We trudged our full bellies back down to the train station to catch whatever train was coming by next in the direction of Valencia. We were home in time for a siesta – you can’t beat a day trip like that.