24 Hours in Mérida

There had been no escape from the Spanish heat in his little hatchback with its clear windows and an aircon that might turn hostile if we dared to work it too hard. Manu had briefed me on his car’s eccentricities before the trip with an absolutely straight face, “Celeste, I don’t turn the aircon up high because it sometimes throws sponges at my face.” Wary of the aircon, and of the “serious” consequences of messing with his thermostat, I sat with my bare feet pressed against the vent and followed a ferocious schedule of heat-related comments.

So, due to a mix of irritation and, I believe, mild heat injury, by the time we settled into the hotel, our conversation had turned as dry as the landscape of Extremadura. Thankfully, this was something a little food and a watering hole would fix, so we practically ran out into the soft evening gold with nothing but our cameras and a fistful of cash.

Thus began our adventures in Mérida, Spain.

Introduction

In modern times, Mérida is the capital of Extremadura. However, it was a Roman capital, Emerita Augusta, founded in 25 BCE as a town that served to protect a strategic route between the gold mines of Asturica Augusta. It remains the Spanish city with the most impressive and extensive Roman ruins in the country.

Acueducto de los Milagros

The Acueducto de los Milagros (a.k.a Miraculous Aqueduct) is an awe-inspiring three-storied, 830m long and 25m tall roman aqueduct. It fed by a stream around 5km away – based on that, you’ve probably already guessed that only a small segment survived to present day.

Did you notice the white storks? It was the breeding season! Each monogamous pair builds a massive stick nest which might be reused. As the nests are often quite large, they do sometimes cause damage to lighter structures, but the aqueduct should be just fine.Geeky trivia: White storks traditionally spend the winter in Africa before they return to Europe. Some return with embedded tribal spears, having escaped a hunter, giving rise to term Pfeilstorch (arrow stork). These anomalies helped shine a light on avian migration, before which, no one clearly understood where birds disappeared to for the winter.

Teatro Romano de Mérida

Initial construction was completed in 16-15 BCE, although it has undergone renovations in 1-2 ACE. It shares architectural similarities with theatres in Pompeii and Rome. Local folklore refers to the place as “The Seven Chairs” where the Moorish kings sat to decide the fate of the city.

The amphitheatre is still used for performances today. Seriously, the acoustics are amazing, I have no idea how the ancients did it. Do check the events calendar while you’re there, you might be in luck!

Anfiteatro Romano de Mérida

Close to the Roman Theatre of Mérida lies the elliptical Amphitheatre of Mérida that features an arena of 64m x 41m with a fossa bestiaria in the centre to house the animals prior to release. In a time before Netflix (8 BCE), grand spectacles and blood sport, such as gladiator fights, were held in this space. Fortunately, unlike the Roman Theatre and Puente Romano, this place no longer serves its original purpose – unless of course, you get into a tussle with your sibling in the sand. Happens.

Puente Romano

The Roman bridge over the Guadiana River is the world’s longest surviving ancient bridge with an overall length of 755m (+35m, if you include the approaches). Still in use today.

The Alcazaba

A 9th-century Moorish fort built by Emir Abd ar-Rahman II of Córdoba in response to a rebellion. It fortified existing Roman and Roman-Visigothic structures to a 10m height and a 2.7m thickness. For medieval warfare, I suppose that makes it pretty impenetrable.

The most interesting feature is the aljibe, a cistern that collects rainwater and filters water from the nearby river. Located underground, it offers phenomenal relief from the summer heat. The access tunnels are wide and gradual enough to accommodate the pack animals used to transport the water.

Also, note the uncharacteristic columns in the tunnel. The Moorish builders recycled these from pre-existing Roman and Roman-Visigothic structures.

Zona Arqueológica de Morería

A Moorish residential quarter that dates from Roman times. A keystone feature would be the 4m-wide Roman gates, the specific width of an animal-drawn cart. Note the remains of grinding wheels, building foundations, cramped spaces and little passageways where homes blended into streets.

You’re free to wander between the building foundations on the original streets and make clip-clop noises as you drive your imaginary cart through the lane. But, you can’t enter the homes.

Head’s up: A university was built right above it! Some office rooms in the inner atrium had a direct view of the site, rather than to the modern riverside street – bragging points, much?

Casa del Mitreo

A patrician villa with relatively well-preserved structures, mosaics and frescoes, of which, the most memorable is the mosaico cosmológico. It dates around the 1st to 3rd century ACE and was partially destroyed by a fire.

Travel notes

  • Location: Mérida, Spain – the capital of Extremadura
  • Famous for: Roman ruins
  • Population: 58,174
  • Our accommodations: Hostal Las Abadías, Calle Villarta de los Montes, 1, 06800 Mérida, Badajoz, Spain. Recommended for comfort, cleanliness and free street parking and 24/7 front desk.
  • Getting around: We explored on foot as the attractions are in fairly close proximity with minimal inclines. However, this might not be possible in soaring temperatures.
  • Tips: Get the EUR 12 combined ticket from the ticketing booth of any site. It covers you for the Theatre, Amphitheatre, Casa del Mitreo, The Alcazaba and the Zona Arquelógica de Morería. Rest of the sites are free.
  • Other sites: Templo de Diana, Arch of Trajan and Circo Romano Hippodrome. We’d visited these at night when the floodlights made for less than impressive photos. They are conveniently located though, so it’s worth popping by. The Circo Romano Hippodrome, however, looked like a big field of grass to my untrained eyes. Ah well.
  • Next stop: Évora, Portugal, as told in Évora, super fast

Ending note

This location was part of a longer 8D7N road trip through Spain and Portugal that was covered in this post:  Road-tripping the Iberian Peninsula.

Credits

Written and post-processed by Celeste Choo

Photographed by Celeste Choo and Manu HQ

Please refer to each photo’s metadata for details on Rights of Use