Roman theatre in Mérida
National Museum of Roman Art in Mérida
Alcazaba citadel, Mérida
Located in the heart of the Silver Route, Mérida is heir to a splendid Roman past. Its theatre, its amphitheatre and its temple dedicated to the goddess Diana make this former capital of Roman Lusitania one of the best conserved archaeological sites in Spain, and has earned it the declaration of World Heritage site.
This immense Roman legacy is documented in the National Museum of Roman Art, where the history of the city can be explored through a priceless collection of artefacts found in Merida and its vicinity. The Extremaduran capital has a cultural calendar filled with interesting activities, including the International Classical Theatre Festival, which takes place every summer and is one of the most significant of its kind in Spain. The history of Merida has close ties to the Roman expansion through the Iberian Peninsula. Its foundation as a city took place in 25 B.C., under the rule of Emperor Augustus, from whom the first name of the city, Emérita Augusta, was taken. There, discharged soldiers from the 5th and 10th Legions settled, after being rewarded by Rome for their participation in the Cantabrian Wars with lands on the fertile plains of the Guadiana River. At the same time, this incipient city had great strategic value, since two different Roman routes met there: the Silver Route (Vía de la Plata), which linked Merida and Astorga and the Roman road that linked Toledo and Lisbon. Mérida was the capital of the Roman province of Lusitania and it became one of the most flourishing cities of the Empire. Likewise, it was an important religious centre during the first years of the spread of Christianity. Under Visigothic rule, the city stayed on the centre stage as capital of the kingdom, but this title was later assigned to Toledo. With the arrival of the Arabs, Merida became a fortress, until the Christian King Alfonso IX reconquered the city in the 13th century, when it then became the base for the Military Order of Saint James of the Sword. The Roman Legacy The splendorous history of Merida can be observed in the monumental and archaeological ensemble that it keeps, one of the best preserved in Spain. Thus, the Roman legacy is still present in almost every little corner of town, the Roman Theatre being one of the most emblematic constructions. Erected in the first century B.C., the theatre can seat 6,000 people. The stage is dominated by two stacked rows of columns, ornamented with sculptures of deities and imperial figures. Next to it is the Amphitheatre, a stage where gladiators wrestled with beasts. This building, contemporary with the previous one, preserves some of its original elements, like the grandstands, the box and the gallery. Both precincts come back to life each summer with the celebration of the Merida Classical Theatre Festival, one of the most important of its kind in Spain. The Temple of Diana and the Arch of Trajan —one of the gates to the city, rising to a height of 15 metres— are located in the city centre. On the outskirts, there are ambitious Roman civil projects such as the Roman Bridge, which crosses the Guadiana River. The bridge stands out for its monumental size —800 metres long, with 60 arches— that made it one of the biggest ones in the Empire at the time. It is also quite worth it to mention the Aqueduct of Los Milagros which crossed the Abarregas River and supplied the city with water from the Roman dam of Proserpina, still preserved. The National Museum of Roman Art, built by Spanish architect, wraps up the journey through Merida's Roman period. Through the more than 36,000 artefacts —all of which were found in Merida and its vicinity— plus the exposed panels, the precinct narrates the history of the city and its Roman legacy and it shows how daily life was at a Roman colony. Also, a few examples of architecture are left from the Muslim rule. Across from the Guadiana River is the most significant of them all, the Alcazaba (Citadel). The interior of the Arab fortress preserves a Roman aljibe (underground reservoir) which was rebuilt and decorated with Visigothic pilasters. Attached to this precinct is the Conventual Santiaguista, built during the time that the city was under the jurisdiction of the Knights of the Order of Saint James of the Word. Nowadays, the building is the site of the Extremaduran Government. Gastronomy and the outskirts The cuisine from Malaga shares many dishes with the rest of the region, such as the lamb caldereta (a stew made with lamb, onions, garlic and peppers) and Iberian pork products, specially sausages and ham. Other typical dishes include gazpacho (a cold soup made with tomato, peppers, cucumber, garlic, etc.), ajoblanco (another could soup, similar to gazpacho but white, made with garlic, almonds and bread), rabbit and partridge. Any of the bars and restaurants in Merida serve these and many more delicacies, some of them as appetisers, like pork ears, wild asparagus and cheese. To go with the food, Badajoz offers excellent wines with the label Designation of Origin - Ribera del Guadiana. When it comes to spending the night, one of the best choices in Merida is the Parador de Turismo, located at the heart of the historic quarter, in an old eighteenth-century convent. The Extremaduran capital is located on the Vía de la Plata (Silver Route). This road, which was a pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostela during the Middle Ages, now takes us to interesting Extremaduran towns such as Zafra, Mérida, Caceres (with a historic quarter that was declared World Heritage) and Plasencia. Not far from this road are the national parks of Monfragüe and Cornalvo, with Nature Centres where one can obtain information about the best trails to follow to explore the parks. Other interesting towns are also found in the vicinity of Merida. To the south is Alange, with a Roman bath and Almendralejo, the capital of the fertile farming region of the Land of Barros. To the east is Medellín, the birthplace of the Spanish conqueror Hernán Cortés, where the remains of an Arab castle are preserved Don Benito, where you can visit the Ethnographic Museum, one of the most important ones in Extremadura and Villanueva de la Serena, with remarkable buildings like the church of Asunción and the Town Hall.