You would think that walking from Seville in southern Spain to Santiago de Compostela in north-western Spain would be MORE than enough walking, but there has never been a better city to explore on foot than the UNESCO World Heritage city of Mérida.
Mérida is around 200km due north of Seville, or eight days walk. I entered the city over the bridge built in 25BC, made up of 60 perfect consecutive arches, and I knew I was in for something special.
In desperate need of coffee, I followed winding, cobbled streets and emerged into Plaza de España to be greeted by not only copious amounts of tasty and reviving coffee, but the heart of the city. The plaza was just coming to life – yes, it was pretty early, but the throng grew and it became a hub of chatter and gossip. Even the ubiquitous Spanish storks thought it was the best place to reside.
I think that Australia has a lot to learn from countries such as Spain. Either by good luck, good management or tradition, towns, cities and even the smallest villages in Spain have incorporated central spaces for people to meet and socialise. This has to be good for the soul as well as building a strong sense of community. It also gives the areas a warm, bubbling vibe. It attracts tourists like me and we stay and spend money. What is not to love?
Anyway, back to the history…
Mérida was established in the first century BC as Emérita Augusta, the capital of Roman Lusitania. It occupies a prominent position on the Silver Route (Ruta de la Plata), the main transport route for moving goods (especially silver) from southern Spain to the north, and is the basis for the 1000km-long Camino Via de la Plata trail. The Romans left behind lasting reminders of their occupation which are a feast for both the eyes and minds of amateur historians like me.
With only one and a half rest days in Mérida, I had to be selective about how I was going to spend my time. There is so much history, I simple couldn’t see it all.
The Tourist Office in Plaza de España sells tickets that include entry to many of the archaeological sites. For €12 you can access the Theatre and Amphitheatre, the Alcazaba, Circus and more. It comes with a handy map which shows you how to navigate the city to reach these sites.
My first stop was the Amphitheatre, a stage where burly gladiators wrestled with beasts. This building preserves some of its original elements, like the grandstands, the box and the gallery. I could almost hear the roar of both the audience and the ferocious animals fighting for their lives.
The Teatro Romano right next door to the Amphitheatre was erected between 15 and 16BC and can seat 6000 people. The original stage area is dominated by two rows of columns, decorated with the remains of sculptures of deities and imperial figures. When I visited, workers were busily constructing temporary stages and sound systems. I am not sure what performance was planned but I suspect it was opera. How cool would it be to watch any show against such a historic backdrop? Each Summer they hold the Mérida Classical Theatre Festival, apparently one of the most important of its kind in Spain. Now that would be something to see and a perfect excuse for me to return.
On the same site are a number of gardens and excavations revealing detailed friezes and parts of Roman buildings. It must be a nightmare to build anything in this city. As soon as you start digging a footing or similar, you find yet another Roman, Visigoth or Moorish relic. What I don’t get is where all the dirt comes from that hides the generations of construction? These are big buildings, how do they get buried so deep underground? Obviously more research is required on my part.
Back to the map again and off to the Roman Circus. Again, my imagination ran wild with the roars of the crowd and the pounding of the horse’s hooves. This is one of the best preserved circuses to be found and also one of the largest at 403m long and 96m wide. The stands could hold 30 000 spectators. What a sound they would have made when their charioteer was winning.
The Aqueduct of the Milagros is simply gobsmacking. How something so large and so old can remain standing for so long, I will never know. It is commonly known as ‘Los Milagros’, or the miracles, because of its ability to withstand the tests of time. More than 800metres of the aqueduct have been preserved and some sections are 27m high.
The Diana Temple was similarly astounding. An awesome piece of architecture squeezed into the Mérida CBD. I love how such history is juxtaposed with modern buildings right next door.
If I had had more time I would have liked to visit the National Museum of Roman Art. With more than 36 000 artefacts – all of which were found in Mérida and its vicinity – apparently it is an excellent snapshot of the history of the city and its Roman legacy. Again, that will have to wait until next time.
As I explored the city, I bumped into a few of my fellow walkers. Andrea from Italy was equally impressed with Mérida and he thought it contained the best range of Roman ruins outside of Rome. High praise indeed.
There were arches and forums and Christian churches and bridges and Moslem citadels. My brain hurt, my feet hurt and I simply couldn’t take more in. I suspect it is possible to spend days in this magical city and still not feel like you have seen it all. Even with a flying visit to the Arab fortress, the Alcazaba, I felt I didn’t even start to get my head around that period of history which followed Roman occupation.
Time and energy beat me, and with a flattened camera battery, I retreated to Plaza de España. Sitting there, I started to wonder what it would feel like to grow up and live, amongst such significant history. Would the locals become a bit blasé about it all as they stroll past yet another 4th BC dig site on their way to the supermarket?
How good would it be to go to school in Mérida and study ancient history at the same time? Not only could you study history but you would walk past it on your way to school. Or maybe I would be just another bored school kid, more interested in the playground and Pokemon Go than a pile of dusty stones.
More things to ponder as I shouldered my backpack and stepped out into the dawn, northbound once more …
What: Mérida is a city of around 60 000 people strategically placed eight walking days north of Seville. I had a rest day there as part of the Camino Via de la Plata and stayed at a nice little hotel called Hostal Senero, tucked in a small street near Plaza de España.
Where: Mérida – is about 200km north of Seville.
When: A rest day, so two nights in September 2014. Cool mornings and beautiful blue sky days.
Why: I had done some research before leaving Australia and all the forums etc raved about Merida as a perfect place to rest and soak up some ancient history.
How: I walked into town but it is also accessible by train, regular buses, or you can fly into Badajoz (about 50 km to the west of Mérida).
Who: Myself, and two hardy and inspiring Canadians.