All Roads Lead to Rome in Spain’s Best Kept Secret
If you’d asked me about Merida a few years ago, I’d have said it was a great place to stay in Mexico. Little did I know that the original in Spain is filled with wonders.
The Romans, the Goths, the Muslims and, of course, the Christians. They’re all still here more than 2,000 years after the first of them arrived to found the city of Emerita Augusta. Today, only 60,000 people live in Merida, Spain, located not far from the Portugal border in the region of Extremadura. Most guidebooks on Spain give Merida only a page or two despite the fact that in one day you can visit within easy walking distance an ancient coliseum, theater, villa, temple, bridge, aqueduct, cemetery, baths and a stadium that captured my boyhood fantasies of Charlton Heston and Stephen Boyd dueling it out with chariots in Ben-Hur. In other words, Merida offers the most important ancient Roman monuments of any city in Spain. And to top that fact, the town’s National Museum of Roman Art contains the largest collection of Roman artefacts outside Italy.
Editor's Note: This is the latest in our series on underrated destinations, It's Still a Big World.
Despite several trips to Spain, I didn’t know of Merida until recently. If you’d asked me about the town a few years ago, I’d have said that Merida is a great place to stay in Mexico if you want to make day trips to the Mayan ruins of Uxmal and Chichen Itza. Of course, Merida, Spain, came first, founded as a Roman colony in 25 BC under Emperor Augustus. After the Visigoths (the Germanic people) took over, then came the Muslim army of Musa bin Nusair in 713, and, finally, the Christians conquered the place in 1230, owing to the might of Alfonso IX of Leon.
Despite its well-preserved former glories, why does Merida, Spain, remain a travel afterthought? It must be the location. If you have a car, it’s about a three-hour drive from either Madrid or Cordoba. But it’s a slow five hours by train, and requires a stopover in the industrial town of Puertollano if you’re traveling to or from Cordoba. It’s a direct train from Madrid, but I nearly missed my mid-morning departure, which would have been a disaster since there were no other trains that day. Same thing with leaving Merida to get to Cordoba. An early-morning train was my one and only shot out of town.
The train station at Merida is so untraveled there were no taxis waiting for us arriving passengers.. My hotel was up the stairs outside the station and only two blocks up Calle Almendralejo toward the Rio Guadiana. Almost any hotel in town would be under a 30-minute walk.
The Paradores (56 Calle Almendralejo) calls itself an old “convento,” but as I’ve learned from traveling in Latin America, “convento” can also translate as “monastery,” and the Franciscans built this one in the 15th Century. Especially impressive is the hotel’s lounge, the monastery’s erstwhile chapel. The Paradores reminded me of the famed Santa Clara convent hotel in Cartagena, Colombia, only smaller and much less “restored.” In other words, it’s charmingly cozy in a very Catholic way.
The following day I made the 15-minute walk across town to the ancient coliseum and theater, known as the Anfiteatro Romano and Teatro Romano, respectively. Along the way, I crossed the remains of a Roman baths, tucked away in the corner of a relatively new V-shaped apartment building. While Merida features well-preserved architectural relics, the town itself appeared rather Alphaville at first glance, as if I’d been dropped into some Godard or Antonioni movie about 1960’s alienation. The streets are narrow and undulating, the buildings appropriately low-scale, and yet there’s a renovated uniformity that puts up a chilly barrier between the town’s glorious past and its more mundane present.
Fifteen Euros gets you entrance to all the major sites, and it’s another three Euros for the National Museum, located just outside the small valley the contains both the Anfiteatro and the Teatro. The former is not as big as the Colosseum, but it’s just as elliptical and nearly as colossal at 413 by 335 feet, compared to the 615 by 510 feet of the one in Rome.
Because of those surrounding slopes, Merida’s Anfiteatro doesn’t have the immediate wow factor of Rome’s freestanding Colosseum. The hills, however, provide the required foundation for its next-door neighbor, the Teatro, which you can enter within a few steps of leaving the Anfiteatro. In all my travels, I’ve never experienced two like structures in such close proximity. Similar to the Herodeon at the Acropolis in Athens, this outdoor theater retains its magnificent stone backdrop, featuring both statues and columns, for the actors. Even though it’s technically the upstage wall, they call this two-story structure the “front wall.”
Next up on the 15-Euro tour is the nearby Casa de Mitreo and the Funeraria de los Colombarios, or cemetery. The two are connected by a dusty cypress-lined path, the Funeraria small but filled with well-preserved urns, tombstones, and mausoleums. The villa is named after the Temple of Mitre, now buried around the town’s bullring. Not to denigrate the Casa de Mitreo, still under excavation, with its three patios, basement bedroom, sauna and mosaics depicting the four seasons.
I also found the nearby Plaza de Toros to be worthy of exploration. Built high up on a tree-lined hill in 1902, this bullring appears nicely neglected, a theatrical patina of dust and grime covering its red and yellow stucco façade; and even more atmospheric, an interior corridor is a veritable gallery of politically incorrect bulls’ heads. I walked around the small building in a matter of a few minutes, so was surprised to learn that the Plaza de Toros holds up to 8,000 spectators. Eight thousand, however, is only a third of what Madrid’s bullring holds. Unfortunately, Merida’s Plaza de Toros was closed the day I visited, although a restaurant inside served lunch, its walls festooned with antique bullfighting posters.
I returned to the Teatro and Anfiteatro to walk another fifteen minutes through a new residential district, which is where I came face to face with the towering Milagros Aqueduct. Still standing are 38 arches at 82 feet of granite blocks interspersed with red bricks. Rafael Moneo’s design for the town’s National Museum of Roman Art replicates these grand arches in its main gallery.
No doubt the least visited site on the 15-Euro tour happened to be my personal favorite. Then again, the Circo Romano would enchant any kid who saw the original run of William Wyler’s Ben-Hur in 1959 and remains transfixed years later by the film’s nine-minute chariot race. All that remains of the Circo, located across the highway from the Milagros Aqueduct, are the rock foundations where the spectator stands and the interior longitudinal wall once loomed. Even so, the sheer suggestion of expanse here validated everything I’d seen in that Oscar-winning epic. Only later, when researching this article, did I learn that the Circo held 30,000 fans, compared to the 150,000 capacity at the Circus Maximus in Rome.
Back to the center of town, I followed the sign on Calle Sagasta to turn left to get a look at the Portico del Foro (the front piece of the no-longer-standing Forum) and its nearby historic neighbor, the incorrectly named Temple of Diana. The Romans dedicated it at the turn of the millennium to the goddess Roma and the Emperor Augustus. Anyone expecting to see a statue of Diana or anything else will be disappointed. Otherwise, it’s a mammoth temple, set atop a rectangular granite platform and surrounded by a colonnade with an additional half dozen columns in front. It’s impressive during the day, utterly enchanting at night due to the dramatic lighting.
In 2007, the city of Merida constructed an L-shape two-story cement structure to the left and back of the temple. According to its architect, Jose Maria Sanchez Garcia, the new building re-establishes the temple’s original square. The day I visited unused tables and chairs littered the ground level and second-story balcony. Had someone attempted to turn this drab building into an eatery and failed? Two outdoor cafes directly in front of the temple were fully booked and added a needed festive note to the area.
I continued on toward the river to the town’s fortress or Alcazaba. Unexpectedly for me, two blocks after the temple, the streets opened on to the grand Plaza de Espana. It’s here that the city’s renovated architecture completely sheds its modern austerity to reveal a beautifully preserved late 19th Century square. The area brought back fond memories of a favorite square in Latin America, the Central Plaza in Granada, Nicaragua. Many buildings on the Plaza de Espana proudly display various dates from the 1890’s, commemorating their construction. Two notable exceptions are the Palace Hotel and the neoclassical Concatedral de Santa Maria, built in the late 18th Century over an existing 16th Century church. The cathedral’s bell tower holds a 16th Century music box with 10 bells and a clock.
The Palace Hotel (19 Plaza de Espana), next door to the cathedral, boasts 14th Century origins, but the royal name dates back half a millennium later when it was the Palace of the Mendozas. I took a peek inside the lobby only to be slightly disappointed. Its soaring atrium and balconies create a far less inviting space than the intimate network of rooms at the old convent-hotel where I was staying.
On to the Rio Guadiana and its historic Puente Romano, only two blocks away. At just under 2,500 feet with 62 spans, the Puente is the world’s longest extant bridge from ancient times. It’s open only to pedestrian traffic and worth a walk, but the best way to see it is from the Alcazaba on the Merida centro side of the Guadiana. Abd Al Rahman, the fourth Umayyad Emir of Cordoba, built the Alcazaba in 835 AD to defend the city. He did a good job. Each of its four sides measures 425 feet in length and 32 feet in height, and there are no fewer than 25 towers. The wall along the river, reconstructed from the original granite Roman and Visigoth walls, is open for foot traffic, and affords excellent views of the Puente Romano.
Tourists’ reviews on the Internet tend to be rather dismissive of the Alcazaba, its scrubby fields lined with rock foundations. In addition to the sheer size of its walls, however, the Alcazaba delivers one surprise that I almost overlooked: a reconstructed “aljibe,” or cistern. This unimpressive little box of a building (once a mosque, later a church) doesn’t call out to be visited, but once inside, you’re immediately lured into exploring its twin underground staircases. They descend rapidly to the level of the river, where water flows and fish swim. A continuous dripping sound compliments this decidedly damp, slippery, sepulchral experience.
Returning to my convent-hotel, I walked passed the Plaza de Espana and turned left onto Calle Trajano, named after the imposing Trajan Arch. Two smaller gateways originally framed this 50-foot semicircular arch, the erstwhile entrance to a temple, now destroyed. Today this granite structure stands alone, where it completely dwarfs the surrounding buildings, as well as a tiny tree-shaded square. It’s an ideal spot for restaurants, and there are no fewer than three. As recommended, I lunched late in the day on queso con trufa at the A de Arco restaurant. I didn’t stuff myself. The restaurant at the Paradores had also come highly recommended, and I dined there later that night on bacalao, which also did not disappoint.
After my initial stroll through Merida to see the Anfiteatro and Teatro, this second cut through town proved much more impressive. The farther I moved away from the railroad tracks and the closer I got to the river, the more the streets resembled those in Cordoba, where the entire historic district has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. However, I found no square more charming in either city than the one in front of the Trajan Arch in Merida.
Robert Hofler is the lead theater critic for TheWrap. His most recent book is the biography Money, Murder, and Dominick Dunne: A Life in Several Acts.