Holiday itineraries of ‘Essential Spain’ rarely include the far-flung city of Merida. Merida’s nightlife is practically nonexistent compared to cosmopolitan Madrid while shopping is centred on life’s necessities unlike fashionable Barcelona. Its streets are filled with Spaniards, not American tourists like Toledo and it lacks the ambience and sophistication of Seville. There’s not a Flamenco dancer in sight and it’s definitely nowhere near a beach. So what is so ‘essential’ about Merida?
Merida is the capital of the aptly named Spanish region of Extremadorra, 282 kilometres west of Madrid not far from the Portuguese border. A World Heritage Site, Merida has by far the most Roman ruins in Spain, an outstanding Roman art museum and a modest laid back Spanish provincial charm. Merida’s lack of pretensions allows you to experience an authentic Spanish city containing significant Roman, Visigoth, Christian and Moorish buildings without the usual tourist crush and hullabaloo.
It is difficult to miss your first encounter with Merida’s Roman heritage on arrival. The 60 arches of the 792-metre-long Roman Bridge have spanned the River Guadiana for over 2,000 years. It’s an impressively long structure. Today, the bridge only accepts pedestrians and bicycle riders while Merida’s joggers take over the bridge at dusk.
Merida began life as the Roman city of Emerita Augusta. Founded in 25 B.C. for veterans of the Roman legions, it was the capital of the province of Lusitania. By this time, virtually the whole of the Iberian peninsula (consisting today of Modern Spain and Portugal) had been Romanised. The years that followed the defeat of the Carthaginians in the 2nd century B.C. had gradually brought stability and prosperity to the Spanish provinces.
Roman Merida’s significant public buildings such as its theatre, amphitheatre and circus are well preserved, while impressive remains of its aqueducts, temples, houses and streets are part of modern Merida’s tourist trail. A good start is to buy a ticket which allows entry to the seven most important and significant sites.
Theatre and Amphitheatre
The most obvious place to begin is the theatre and amphitheatre precinct. Inaugurated around 15 BC, the 6,000-seat theatre is today the highlight of classical Roman architecture in Merida. Its stage façade is almost totally restored. Its splendour is derived from the interplay of two tiers of blue-tinged marble Corinthian columns set against red marble-clad walls and base.
The adjacent amphitheatre made up part of the Merida’s public entertainment precinct reflecting the city’s status as a political and administrative capital. Completed in 8 B.C., it staged entertainment typically appreciated by the Roman populace such as gladiatorial and animal contests as well as circus performances.
Next to the amphitheatre lies what is known today as the Amphitheatre House. This large complex contains vestiges of city wall, aqueduct and exquisite mosaic tiling of which the most notable example being the Wine Harvest depicting three men crushing grapes.
Not far away is another large villa, the House of Mithraeum. It has been well excavated and is now totally protected by an enormous roof. An elevated walk way with display boards of reconstructions allow you to navigate around the villa and gain an excellent appreciation of its original construction as well as its mosaics and frescoes.
Located opposite the amphitheatre, the National Museum of Roman Art contains an outstanding collection of Roman exhibits. Its cavernous main hall, with nine great arches, is reminiscent of a large Roman bath complex. The museum is sectionalised into various categories including statues, coins and pottery while huge mosaics hang from its lofty walls. Restored frescoes from Merida’s Villas are displayed in reconstructed Roman rooms which reinforce the high standard of artistry in the provinces.
Merida’s Circus and Aqueducts are impressive for their sheer size and state of preservation. The stands of the Circus accommodated an estimated 30,000 spectators. No less than three aqueducts supplied Merida’s water. Originating at a reservoir some five kilometres from town, the Los Milagros Aqueduct, complete with nesting Storks, is the most spectacular with 73 pillars still remaining.
The church of Saint Eulalia is dedicated to the patron saint of Merida who legend has it, was martyred on the site by order of Diocletian in 304 AD. The church became the site of major archaeological works in 1990. A tour of the excavations below the surface of the church reveal several layers of history including Roman houses, a 4th century Christian cemetery and an earlier Basilica also dedicated to the martyred saint. The Basilica was abandoned in the 8th century after the Moorish invasion but was totally rebuilt following the city’s re-conquest in 1230.
The Moorish castle or Alcazaba was completed in 835 A.D. on the site of Roman and Visigoth buildings in the 8th century and is interestingly the only surviving Muslim building left standing in the city. The archaeological site within the walls of the Alcazaba contains traces of Roman houses, baths, shops and an excellent section of road. The high walls which incorporate sections of Roman city wall, afford superb views of the river and Roman Bridge.
Outside the Alcazaba’s walls in the middle of a roundabout, stands a replica statue of the Roman She Wolf suckled by Romulus and Remus. Gleaming in the late afternoon sun, it’s a fitting symbol for Merida. By turning back to evoke and celebrate its Roman heritage, Merida is certain to ensure its prosperity and perhaps in the future, be included in itineraries of ‘essential Spain’.