You will travel in a land of marvels – Mérida
Hands up, who has ever heard of Mérida? I’ll take my hat off to you if you have! We stumbled upon it by accident when researching a route north from the Algarve. Google Maps suggested we drive back towards Seville then north from there, and, although we chose to drive north in Portugal for a bit longer, we still cut across to Mérida as it was en route, and when I found out it had outstanding Roman remains, then it became a must see destination.
My fascination with all things Roman began in earnest around 1976 with the screening of the BBC drama, I Claudius, starring Derek Jacobi as Claudius, with a stellar cast including, Siân Phillips, Brian Blessed, George Baker, Margaret Tyzack, John Hurt, Patricia Quinn, Ian Ogilvy, Kevin McNally, Patrick Stewart, and John Rhys-Davies. The series covered the history of the early Roman Empire, told from the perspective of the elderly Emperor Claudius who narrates the course of events. The series, and the actors, won many awards for this production, and, in 2000, I Claudius was placed 12th in a list of the 100 Greatest British Television Programmes. Later that year we went on our first ever foreign holiday, a week in Rome and a week in Sorrento, where we visited all the major sites in Rome, as well as Pompeii near Sorrento, to see where that period of history was played out.
The motorhome Aire we stayed at in Mérida was right in the centre of the city and we could see the foundations of what looked like Roman buildings from the van, but the major sites were only a few minutes walk away.
We had a full Sunday to explore so we set off around 10ish, and the first ruins we saw were under a large low metal roof although they looked as though they were still being excavated.
To give you some background, the city, originally named Emerita Augusta, was founded in 25 BC by the first Roman Emperor, Emperor Augustus, to resettle soldiers honourably discharged from the Roman army from two veteran legions of the Cantabrian Wars. What is now left of the Roman city forms one of the largest and most extensive archaeological sites in Spain, and Mérida was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1993.
Two of the major sites are side by side and this is where we bought our pensioner tickets for the attractions. It was a bit disconcerting just how readily we were accepted as being over 65, but half price is half price, so no arguments from us! Once you enter the complex the first site to be seen is the amphitheatre which was completed in 8 BC for gladiatorial contests and was intended for matches between gladiators, or gladiators and wild beasts.
This was obviously a popular pastime for the citizens as the seating capacity of the building is estimated to be 14,000, and, although the building is now a ruin, the gladiator-versus-lion fresco in the Museo Nacional de Arte Romano was taken from here to be conserved. You follow a route laid out around the outside, then into the tiered seating area, then down onto the floor of the amphitheatre itself where you to get a flavour of the surroundings, and, with a bit of imagination, lose yourself in the events of 2,000 years ago.
From the amphitheatre the pathway leads you the short distance to Mérida’s most spectacular Roman monument, and the only one to still fulfil its original function – by hosting performances during the summer months – the Teatro Romano is the city’s indisputable highlight.
The theatre was located on the edge of the Roman city adjacent the city walls. Some of the seating was built into a hill and was built around 15 BC to seat 6,000 spectators.
The centrepiece of the theatre is the dramatic and well-preserved two-tier stage building of Corinthian columns; the stage’s facade was not inaugurated until AD 105. Statues of gods frame its central entryway, with the right-hand figure being interpreted as both the Graeco-Egyptian god Serapis and Pluto, and the left-hand one considered to be either a muse or Proserpina.
Behind the stage lie peaceful gardens, more statues, and water features.
On this Sunday there was a race taking place around the city and the runners passed through the gardens and theatre complex at one point.
Even if you have time to only visit a handful of Mérida’s sights, make sure one of them is the fabulous museum, the National Museum of Roman Art which has a superb three-floor collection of statues, busts, mosaics, frescoes, coins, pottery and other Roman artefacts, all beautifully displayed alongside information panels in Spanish and English.
The soaring arched brick structure makes a stunning home for the collection, its walls hung with some of the largest, most beautiful mosaics.
Arches have long been used to mark the greatest achievements of Roman civilization. Constantine, Titus, and Septimus Severus built them to commemorate their military victories and they were also incorporated into their revolutionary aqueducts. Fifteen hundred years after the Fall of Rome, the architect, Rafael Moneo gave a modern touch to the ancient structure in this breathtaking National Museum of Roman Art, with a historical, but contemporary design.
The race we saw earlier was over and by the time we made it to the main square the prize giving ceremony was well under way, with many people in Roman costume adding to the occasion.
After a busy and fascinating few hours it was time for lunch so we googled the whereabouts of the nearest 100 Montaditos and headed there for another great value for money meal. Close by, and next on our list to see was Trajan’s Arch.
The Trajan Arch of Mérida is part of UNESCO’s Archaeological Ensemble of Mérida and has in the past been said to have been a triumphal arch to the Emperor Trajan. However, this has been cast into doubt and historians now think it may have been the entry gate to the nearby Forum and Temple of Diana. A rounded, fifteen metre high arch made of granite and probably once lined with marble, the Trajan Arch of Mérida is inconspicuously located on a normal pedestrian street still in use today, a testimony to the expertise of the builders. The arch was believed to be the central opening in a gateway consisting of three arches, of which the side arches were smaller and flatter.
If we are talking about building expertise, the Puente Romano bridge is an extraordinarily powerful spectacle as it spans the Río Guadiana river. At 792m in length with 60 granite arches, it’s one of the longest bridges built by the Romans, and is the longest surviving Roman bridge in the world, still in use today for pedestrians, cyclists and chariots only!
It was constructed in 25 BC when Emerita Augusta (modern-day Mérida) was founded, to strategically protect the colony from possible attacks and then partly restored in the 17th century. The location of the bridge was carefully selected at a ford of the river Guadiana, which offered as a support a central island which divides the river into two channels. The best Roman bridge views are from the Alcazaba’s southwestern ramparts, where we headed next.
This large Islamic fort was built in the mid-9th century on a site already occupied by the Romans and Visigoths, probably becoming the first ever Alcazaba in Al-Andalus. Overlookin the Roman bridge over the Guadiana river, the Puente Romano was built by emir Abd ar-Rahman II of Córdoba in 835 to command the city, which had rebelled in 805.
It was the first Muslim Alcazaba, and includes a big squared line of walls, every side measuring 130 metres in length, 10m high and 2.7m thick, built re-using Roman walls and Roman-Visigothic edifices in granite. The walls include 25 towers and inside is an aljibe, a rainwater tank including a cistern to collect and filter water from the river.
From the Alcazaba we walked up a slight incline back towards the city centre and found the site of the Roman Forum and the so called, Temple of Diana, a 1st-century-BC temple that stood in the municipal forum, where the city government was based and it is one of the few buildings of a religious character preserved in a satisfactory state. Despite its name, wrongly assigned on its discovery, the building was dedicated to the Imperial cult. It was built in the late 1st century BC or early in the Augustan era. Later in the 16th century it was partly re-used for the palace of the Count of Corbos, part of which you can see through the columns.
By this time it was late afternoon and we were flagging so a reviving cuppa was required and we sat on a tree lined street and gave our aching feet a much needed rest. It was also threatening to rain so we headed back to the van, just in time.
We were due to head off on Monday morning but our parking ticket was valid until lunchtime, so, as there was a brief respite in the torrential rain, we headed for the two Roman sites we didn’t get round to visiting yesterday, the Circus Maximus and the Miraculous Aqueduct, or, as the Spanish say, Acueducto de los Milagros.
Mérida’s circus remains very well preserved. Over the years most Roman circus structures have been destroyed as the area they occupied was great and often in very flat land near their respective cities. The Mérida circus however has kept numerous structures, including the Porta Pompae (“main entrance”), the Porta Triumphalis (“triumph gate”), the spina (the longitudinal wall), the tribunal iudicium (“tribune of the judges”).
The 1st-century Circo Romano could accommodate 30,000 spectators. Discovered in the 16th century, its remains represent the only surviving hippodrome of its kind in Spain. In the attached interpretive centre you can read (in Spanish) all about Diocles, a champion auriga (horse and chariot racer) who served his apprenticeship in Mérida before going on to the big league in Rome.
After the fall of the Western Roman Empire, and the rise of Christianity in Spain, the circus saw more use than the other Roman structures of Mérida, since racing was considered less sinful than the spectacles performed in the Theatre and Amphitheatre.
The Acueducto de los Milagros as the Spanish call it, or Miraculous Aqueduct, are the ruins of a Roman aqueduct bridge, part of the structure built to supply water to the Roman colony.
Only a relatively small stretch of the aqueduct still stands, consisting of 38 arched pillars standing 25 metres (82 ft) high along a course of some 830 metres (2,720 ft). It is constructed from granite blocks interspersed with red brick. The structure originally brought water to the city from a reservoir which was fed by a stream around 5 km (3.1 mi) to the north-west of Mérida. Where it ends today are the remains of a Roman bath-house.
The Aqueduct is thought to have been constructed during the 1st century AD, with a second phase of building (or renovations) around 300 AD. In later centuries, the inhabitants of Mérida dubbed it the “Miraculous Aqueduct” for the awe that it evoked. The aqueduct, like all the featured Roman remains we visited are preserved as part of the Archaeological Ensemble of Mérida.
And that was it – our time was up in Mérida. We went back to the van as the sky was getting blacker and blacker and within 10 minutes of taking the above picture, I was taking the next picture, ironically as we were filling up the water tanks!
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