Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Mérida, Spain: Extremadura’s Living Reminder of Rome

On my way between moving out of Úbeda and going up north to hike the Camino de Santiago this June, I stopped off for two nights in Mérida, the capital city of the westerly Extremadura region. For the longest time I had wanted to visit this town because of its well-preserved Roman ruins. After all, Mérida, or Emerita Augusta in Latin, was once the capital of the Lusitania imperial province that included most of modern-day Portugal as well as west-central Spain. Because of that status, it was bestowed with all the standard things you’d expect out of a Roman city: buildings like theaters, forums, arenas, and temples. Despite 2,000 years of history passing through the region, much of Mérida’s ruins are surprisingly still intact.

Mérida, Spain
Toga-wearing tourists at the theater

Aqueduct

Mérida, Spain
The aqueduct from the train window
Train pass between the Los Milagros Aqueduct as they leave the train station going west. Although they aren’t nearly as impressive as, say, Segovia’s aqueduct, it’s still a reminder that Romans were able to bring fresh water from a lake 5km away into town every day.

Alcazaba

Mérida, Spain
Alcazaba de Mérida
On a commanding position next to the Guadiana River sits Mérida’s Alcazaba, or Moorish-era citadel. It was the first such Moorish castle to be built in Spain, for not long after the Arab invasion of the Iberian Peninsula in 711, Mérida revolted against the new Moorish regime. In the early 9th century CE, these rebellions were put down and the emir Abd al-Rahman II ordered an alcazaba to be built along the river; the Roman wall was torn down and its stones were used to construct the castle. Although this fortress came long after the Romans had left, I’ve included it on this post because its construction material is directly linked to the city’s Roman past. If stones could talk, as they say, these guys would have an earful for us!

Amphitheatre

Mérida, Spain
Anfiteatro romano
Think of the local Amphitheater as Spain’s miniature Colosseum. This arena would have seated 14,000 people for gladiator fights typical of the era. What I loved about this was that you could crawl all around the grounds, across the sandy field and into the spooky galleries. Obviously, much of the upper seating has vanished over the centuries, but it’s not that hard to envision wild, raucous crowds lining the elliptical structure.

Arch of Trajan

Mérida, Spain
Arco de Trajano
This great Arch dedicated to Emperor Trajan would have been the entrance to the provincial forum, which would have been the administrative complex for the province of Lusitania.

Circus

Mérida, Spain
Circo romano
No, not that kind of circus, silly; think less Ringling Bros. and more NASCAR. In Roman times, this hippodrome would have been the site for Mérida’s chariot races. They probably were not as exciting as the Daytona 500, but if you’ve ever seen the movie Ben-Hur, they still would have been far from boring. The Roman Circus was built outside the ancient city walls, but even today it’s a good hike from the center of town. Although plain and relatively empty, it’s eerie to walk out onto the grassy track, climb up onto the spina or median, and be taken back twenty centuries to a boisterous horse-and-chariot competition.

Forum portico

Mérida, Spain
Pórtico del foro
As Mérida was a provincial capital, it had not one but two forums—a provincial one and a municipal one. The Arch of Trajan that I mentioned above would have led into the provincial forum, whereas the paltry remains of the Forum’s portico are a small cross-section of what would have surrounded the municipal forum. What we can see today is the corner of a long, colonnaded hallway that wrapped around a vast gathering space.

Roman bridge

Mérida, Spain
Puente romano
Everything else I’ve listed on this post pales when you compare them with the Roman Bridge. A half-mile long (!), it was the longest such bridge in Roman times and is still astounding today. The undulating surface spans the Guadiana River and can let you off at an island park via a ramp for a pitstop. A total of 60 arches links the original Roman settlement with the new town on the other side of the river.

Theater

Mérida, Spain
Teatro romano
The star of the show is Mérida’s Roman Theater. While Greeks built their theaters into the sides of hills, the Romans constructed free-standing, walled semicircles, and Mérida’s was no different. It vies for attention with the neighboring amphitheater but only the theater has been put back to use for its original purpose; every year a Classical Theater Festival is held in the (slightly-renovated) theatrum. It’s really remarkable that most of the original façade still stands today.

Temple of Diana

Mérida, Spain
Templo de Diana
In the eastern side of the old town where the municipal forum would have been, you can find the Temple of Diana, although in reality it was probably dedicated to the imperial cult instead of the goddess Diana. Graceful Corinthian columns hold up a slender entablature and continue partway along the sides, where a Renaissance-era palace enters in. There’s not much to see, but some helpful plaques scattered around the temple grounds help give you an idea of what it was supposed to look like.

National Museum of Roman Art

Mérida, Spain
Museo Nacional de Arte Romano
Just across the street from both the theater and the amphitheater is the National Museum of Roman Art, a massive brick structure that houses statues, mosaics, coins, and inscriptions that have been found from excavations done in town. Visiting Mérida felt much more complete after I explored the three levels of artifacts gathered from the city.

Have you ever been to Mérida before? What other cities outside of Rome offer well-preserved buildings like Mérida has? Comment below!

For more pictures, check out my set on Flickr here.
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