Despite a fine collection of Roman antiquities, Mérida is one of those cities that doesn’t draw many tourists. It’s located in the Spanish communidad (state) of Extremadura in the remote west of Spain, adjacent to the border with Portugal. We visited the Évora district of Portugal, just across the border, four years ago. Geographically they are mirror images of each other. No surprise that they were once one region in the Roman province of Lusitania. Mérida was its capital.
The landscape of Extremadura is every bit as barren as its name suggests. Not much grows in the dust here except boulders. I have never seen rocks so large and round and smooth! I was looking for someplace different to break up the drive from Sevilla to Madrid, and Mérida seemed to fit the bill nicely.
I am just enthralled by these ancient Roman cities in Spain. I can only guess at their grandeur back in the day. Mérida, named for Caesar Augustus, was called Augusta Emerita, and was quite the place. Expansive ruins have been excavated, and they continue to unearth more. There is a gorgeous circus maximus, the first one I have seen outside of Rome. There is a theater with two tiers of exquisite slender arches that is still used for performances. It’s located next to the ruins of a sprawling amphitheater. There is an old Roman bridge that crosses the Río Guadiana, and two (count them: one, two!) aqueducts.
Our host referred to the aqueduct outside our apartment window as the “ugly” one. Although not as captivating as Segovia’s aqueduct, I thought it was beautiful and had high expectations for the “prettier” one. I was disappointed to find that it’s just a small section of the original structure. It’s built in alternating rows of red and white brick, which makes it appear even shorter and stockier. To me, the beauty of an aqueduct is its length. I love the perspective of arch after arch diminishing into the horizon. That the Romans (or their slaves) could even build these engineering marvels is a wonder. That they actually supplied fresh, mountain water to an entire city—even more so.
As if Mérida needed one more gorgeous antiquity, there’s also the Alcazaba, or Moorish fortress. Built on the old Roman city walls four centuries after the Romans pulled out of Hispania, it overlooks the river. The shady side has several café tables on its pathway serviced by establishments across the street—a lovely spot to kick back and relax!
What a shame that the city doesn’t do more to promote itself. The modern city enveloping the ruins looks pretty rundown, and my guess is that unemployment is quite high, as is typical in Extremadura through the ages. But if you use your imagination, it’s not too difficult to find the diamond beneath all that dust.