Las Medulas Roman Gold Mine in El Bierzo, Castilla y Leon, Spain
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Roman Gold I
More than 2000 years ago the Romans wrought Spain’s largest man-made ecological disaster in the mountains of northwestern Castilla y Leon – Las Medulas. Streams and rivers were rerouted, aqueducts were built, and water channels cut into the solid rock to wash away whole mountainsides just to retrieve the gold they hid.
The mining left an uninhabitable moonscape that, today, is stunningly beautiful! The erosion and re-greening over the centuries created an otherworldly landscape recognized by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site. From the viewing platform, the view out over the majestic but humbled mountains is dramatic, with hiking trails through the water tunnels and along the aqueducts just begging to be followed.
Roman Gold II
Getting to this remote corner of Castilla y Leon takes some time. Finally, we proceeded to drive up a steep mountain road until, partway to the summit, we parked and began our hike. We planned it in two phases. The first part was to climb up to the distant viewpoint to see a panorama of the ruined mountains below us.
Standing at the top, the striking view out over the (now recovered) landscape showed the massive scale of destruction by the Romans to access the gold. Were we not looking at it, the scope would be impossible to comprehend. That most of a whole mountain range could be washed away by millions of gallons of water just to enrich Roman carpetbaggers was inconceivable – yet there was the proof!
But that’s thinking in today’s standards. At the time, their efforts to create the largest open-pit mine in the world were an engineering marvel, with the environmental consequences unknown or even considered. The Latin quote “Veni, Vidi, veci” led a boastful Roman Emperor across the known world to take what he wanted, and leave the mess for others to clean up – or admire.
Hiking Las Medulas
The second part of our planned hike had to be somewhat curtailed because there wasn’t enough daylight left to climb down through the old gold mine to the bottom. Our compromise meant donning hardhats and following a water tunnel down through the mountain to a viewing platform suspended over the cliff. The first time I hit my head on the tunnel’s low ceiling I learned what the hardhats were for!
After that, we carefully descended through the dim light until we came to the platform. It offered a completely different perspective of the mining operation, one that better showed what a huge area had been excavated. I was sad to have come so far and have to leave before completing the hike, but the sun was setting, and the red clay hills soon swallowed the waning light.
Should you ever find yourself in Castilla y Leon, Spain, with a spirit of adventure and the time and inclination to exercise it, get yourself to Las Medulas early enough in the day to fully enjoy this marvelous landscape. It is a wonder of the modern world that remains a legacy of the Holy Roman Empire.
Las Medulas Travel and Tour Packages
Searching for the best Las Medulas hotels, resorts, and affordable flights in the nearby Cities? Check out our list of affordable hotels and resorts via Agoda, or you may also see available Airbnb properties in the city.