Mérida Guide Extremadura Spain | Portugal Visitor
Mérida (Extremadura, Spain)
Mérida is a jewel. 60 km east of Badajoz on the A-5 the town is full of Roman remains. These include a Roman theatre (a UNESCO World Heritage Site), aqueduct, amphitheater, bridge, circus and temple. The town’s various museums have extensive exhibits of its rich Roman past.
Located in Badajoz province, and capital of the autonomous community of Extremadura, the city has a population of over 59,000 people.
Mérida along with Badajoz, Trujillo, and Cáceres forms a rough rectangle of historic towns all with good transport links with the Spanish capital of Madrid.
The city was founded during the Roman period in 25 BCE. It was named Emerita Augusta (“veterans of the army of Augustus”) and was constructed on a strategic site guarding the Guadiana River. At its height historians believe Emerita Augusta had a population of 40,000 ex-soldiers, their families and other townspeople (artisans, laborers, traders, shopkeepers, prostitutes, slaves etc), not far short of its present total.
The city grew to become the most important settlement in Roman Hispania and indeed the wider Roman Empire connected to the mines around Asturica Augusta (present-day) Astorga by the Vía de la Plata. It became the capital of the Roman province of Lusitania.
The city continued to prosper and thrive under the Visigoths before it was taken by the Moors in the early 8th century.
During the period of Islamic control of the Iberian Peninsula, Mérida was part of a Moorish kingdom, the Taifa of Badajoz which extended into present-day Portugal including Lisbon and parts of the Alto Alentejo region.
In 1230 the city fell to the Christian monarch Alfonso IX of León along with nearby Badajoz. The religious and military Order of Santiago held great sway in the area.
During the Peninsula War (1807-1814) the city was damaged by invading French forces.
During the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939), the town fell to the Nationalists under the command of Juan Yagüe, the so-called “Butcher of Badajoz,” in 1936 following the Battle of Mérida.
The main attraction in Mérida is, of course, its Roman and to a lesser extent its Islamic architecture.
The Puente Romana that spans the Guadiana River is the longest of all Roman bridges in the world. The 721 meter-long bridge has 60 spans (3 buried) and is still in use as a pedestrians-only crossing. It dates from 25 BCE when the city was first founded. The sleek Puente Lusitania by Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava carries road traffic and was constructed in 1991.
Next to the bridge on the northern bank is the Alcazaba of Mérida constructed in 831. Built over Roman and later Visigothic origins, the Moors added the ramparts and a cistern (aljibe) – now full of goldfish. The Order of Santiago reinforced the structure after the city fell during the Reconquista.
Pride of place in the city is probably the Teatro Romano, which could accommodate 6,000 spectators. The impressive Corinthian columns of the double-tier stage building still stand and during the summer months of July and August outdoor performances are held as part of the Festival del Teatro Clásico de Mérida. The adjacent Anfiteatro (Amphitheatre) staged gladiatorial contests before eager crowds of 14,000 people. Nearby is the third-century Casa del Anfiteatro with well-preserved floor mosaics. The Tourist Office (Tel: 924 330 722) is here close to the Teatro Romano at Plaza Margarita Xirgu.
Los Columbarios and the nearby Casa del Mitreo are a Roman cemetery and a second-century Roman mansion with stunning mosaics in particular the Mosaico cosmológico del Mitreo.
The site of Los Columbarios holds the remains of two Roman families the Julios and the Voconios which were cremated and deposited in urns. The inscriptions on the tombs tells us much about them. The surrounding funerary garden has species of trees such as fir and cypress and plants related to Roman funerals. A modern, open-air Interpretation Center has information in Spanish and English on the site.
The Arco de Trajano stands at 15 meters though experts say it has nothing to do with the Emperor Trajan. It is a semicircular triumphal arch constructed in granite, once covered in marble. The loss of its marble coating and thus any inscriptions make it difficult to date.
The Temple of Diana (Templo de Diana) is despite its name dedicated to the Imperial cult. Built in the first century during the reign of Augustus in local granite, it stands impressively in what was the old Roman forum.
The Acueducto de los Milagros (Aqueduct of the Miracles) is a Roman period aqueduct which brought water to the city from the dam at Largo Proserpina, five miles distant. Another smaller aqueduct is the Acueducto de San Lázaro near the Circo Romano.
The ruined Circo Romano (Roman Circus) is the only surviving Hippodrome in Iberia. 30,000 people would gather here to see the chariot races. A copy of the Circus Maximus in Rome, the track is 400 meters long and 30 meters wide. The main entrance (Porta Pompae), the triumphal gate (Porta Triumphalis) parts of the stands and other structures are all still visible. A museum on site explains the history of chariot racing and the chariot racers in ancient Rome.
The Museo Nacional de Arte Romano is a must-see. Housed in a wonderful brick building by architect Rafael Moneo, the vast collection of Roman artefacts includes amphoras, ceramics, coins, figures, mosaics, reliefs and some superb statues. Part of a Roman road is outside in the garden. The museum opened in 1986 and is one of if not the best museum of Roman artefacts in Spain.
The Zona Arqueologica de Morería close to the river and the Puente Lusitania has remains of houses, walls, roads and a cemetery from the Roman through to the Islamic period.
The Iglesia de Nuestra Señora de la Antigua was once a Franciscan convent founded in the 15th century. As it lies outside the city walls it suffered from a lack of funds and was abandoned in the 18th century. The city council has restored the building and it now functions again as a church.
The free Museo de Arte Visigoto displays remains from the period of the Visigoths largely the 4th to 8th centuries. The museum is housed in the Convent of Santa Clara, a Baroque building built in the first half of the 17th century.
The Basilica de Santa Eulalia is believed to have been one of the first Christian churches built in Spain and dates from the 4th century. The early church was built over the grave of Saint Eulalia, a Roman Christian youth martyred in Augusta Emerita. Mystery surrounds the young girl’s life and she may be the same person as Saint Eulalia of Barcelona, whose story is remarkably similar. The present church dates from the 13th century. The votive chapel dedicated to Eulalia reuses parts of a Roman temple and it was and still is an important place of pilgrimage.
The Santa Iglesia Catedral Metropolitana de Santa María la Mayor aka the Concatedral Metropolitana de San Maria la Mayor (Co-Cathedral of Mérida) in Plaza de España is along together with the Metropolitan Cathedral of Saint John the Baptist of Badajoz, the seat of the Archdiocese of Mérida-Badajoz. The present church dates from the 13th century after the Reconquest and was constructed over a previous Visigothic church. The splendid interior is full of priceless religious sculptures and paintings.
The city has a wide selection of hotels, guest houses and pensions.
The Hotel Ilunion Mérida Palace in Plaza de España offers an outdoor pool and rooftop terrace in a restored 15th century palace.
The four-star Hotel Ilunion Las Lomas slightly outside the center has an outdoor pool, a bar and restaurant.
The Hotel Velada Mérida is also four-star. Facilities include a pool and cafe-bar.
Other places to stay in this lovely city include the luxury Parador de Mérida once an 18th century convent. Enjoy the traditional-style inner courtyard and beautiful gardens and dine at the hotel restaurant.
Hotel Cervantes is a budget two-star property for travelers on a tighter budget.
Mérida is connected by train and bus to other parts of Spain and is an important railway hub. There are rail connections to Madrid-Atocha, Badajoz (46 minutes), Cáceres (50 minutes), and Sevilla.
From Badajoz Station in Badajoz on the border there are trains to Entroncamento in Portugal, with connections from there to Lisbon and Porto.
Buses operated either by Alsa or Avanza run to Cáceres (50 minutes), Trujillo (75 minutes), Badajoz (1 hour), Madrid (4 hours+), and Sevilla via Zafra (2 hours, 30 minutes). To get to Salamanca bus is also the best option, a lengthy five hours. The bus station is on the opposite side of the river from the old town on Av. de la Libertad close to the Lusitania Bridge.