The marvel of Mérida

Mérida is an archaeologist’s dream – and much of it remains to be discovered

A two-tier colonnade stands amongst the ruins of a Roman amphitheatre in Merida. Photograph: Adam Woolfitt/CORBIS

The city of Mérida – once Augusta Emerita, capital of the Roman province of Lusitania – has more Roman ruins than anywhere else in Spain. It has sometimes been called an open-air museum: prepare to reel at the number and variety of its remains.

There are remnants of Rome scattered throughout the town that can be seen by the most casual passersby. The Roman bridge across the river, for instance; the aqueducts; the Circo Romano, or racetrack, which now looks rather like an empty football pitch; and sections of Roman road that can be glimpsed from today’s pavements.

However, it is the big beasts that really stun the visitor here, with the amphitheatre and the theatre still in startlingly good condition. Both were planned at similar times (in the first century BC), with the amphitheatre built slightly later.

The Roman theatre began to be excavated as recently as 1910 and, following restoration, is used every summer for the Festival of Classical Theatre. The two storeys of columns over the stage, the stage itself, and many of the theatre buildings, remain in terrific shape. It’s a grand place: the audioguide tells me that 6,000 people could be seated, with everyone’s places allocated according to rank. Women did not fare well: along with slaves, they sat on the very high and narrow seats right at the top.

The elliptically shaped amphitheatre was used for gladiatorial combats, fights between animals, and animals and humans, and circus performances – entertainment that was hugely popular with the public. About 14,000 people could be accommodated, with everyone sitting according to their rank, the most important in private boxes next to the stage.

Out of the centre slightly, by a busy main road and next to the bullring built in 1915, is Mithreo’s House. This is the ruin of a noble family’s home, based around three patios. The ruin contains one room where some painted walls still stand, and others with well-kept mosaic floors (including one of Eros). The most impressive mosaic is the Cosmological Mosaic, where the elements – such as the sea and air – are laid out on a blue background.

That is by no means all there is to see in Mérida, and there’s plenty more to come, with much of Mérida still being excavated. Who knows what visitors will be able to see in 50 years’ time?
Mérida’s Parador

“You’re going to love the Parador in Mérida,” said the man when I booked. He’s not wrong.

The white-fronted hotel sits on the elegant Plaza Constitución and has the air of a once-religious building. Indeed, it was built as a convent. But before that, there had been a Roman temple dedicated to the Concord of Augustus on the site. The temple was turned into a Visigoth basilica and then a mosque, according to the wishes of the relevant conquerors.

At the beginning of the 17th century, it was rebuilt as the convent of Jesus for use as a hospice. A special room was designed so that patients could follow mass from their beds. This room, Salon Capilla, is now a peaceful lounge, but its religious background is hinted at with the high windows and raised area at the back.

Later, in the 18th century, part of the building became an antiques garden, with fragments of Roman statuary and plaques arranged for the delight of visitors. The original artefacts are now in the National Museum of Roman Art, but copies are still on display here and there – particularly in the garden, near the Moorish water fountain.

The religious order later abandoned the convent, and it subsequently became a home for the poor, a hospital, and an asylum. It was opened as a Parador in 1933, at the same time as the first summer festival in the Roman theatre.

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