Merida was the largest Roman city in Iberia which is manifested today in the finest ruins remaining in Spain. Most of the main sights are within easy walking distance of the beautiful Plaza de España in the centre of town. As one of the strongholds of the Roman Empire as it made its way through Europe, the town of Merida has many tales to tell in its buildings and architecture. Indeed, with it being so close to the Portuguese border, its history found the town being in the control of not only Rome, but Portugal as well.
Since it is such a peaceful town, far away from the usual holidaymaking hordes that clutter up the beaches of the coastal areas, Merida allows you to explore its vast history at your own leisure. And what a history it is to explore.
One of the landmarks of the town is its Roman amphitheatre, which dates back to before the birth of Christ, and was built by the famous architect, Agrippa. Such is the condition of it today that there are still plays held there every summer during the popular Festival of Merida which takes place annually in July and August attracting many visitors. As well as classic plays it consists mainly of music and dance events staged not only in the amphitheatre but in the Roman theatre itself. This dates back to 15BC and maintains its well preserved stone columns.
A little further out of town is the Circo Romano which originally had a capacity for 30,000 people. It is the only remaining hippodrome in Spain which dates back to Roman times. If you don’t wish to stray too far from the town centre then Merida still offers you a wonderful sight with the Temple of Diana. The temple ruins have actually been incorporated into a house built in the 17th century, with four of the temple’s columns being used as a kind of fence – certainly different!
Famous for their trade routes and how they moved supplies between armies, the Romansbrought the idea of aqueducts to Europe and the five miles of aqueducts still running through Merida today show this. Although they vary in structure, two of the lakes are still fed water by the Aqueducto de los Milagroson.
Other notable buildings you may wish to visit while in Merida are the Alcazaba which was constructed around the ruins of an original Roman fort; the sensational National Museum of Roman Art which houses some of the best-kept statues and art of ancient Rome; the Iglesia de Santa Eulalia; and the Roman bridge which actually serves as a footbridge these days to let you cross the Guadiana river. Look further down the river to see the remarkable contrast with the Puente Lusitania a modern creation designed by the celebrated architect, Santiago Calatrava.
It’s a good idea to buy a combined ticket which provides access to most of the city’s main sites rather than buying individual tickets.
The Merida Parador was formerly an 18th century convent which was situated on the remains of a temple dedicated to the Concordia de Augusto. It offers visitors the opportunity to experience the rich heritage of this historic city. Its gardens are a fascinating archeological ensemble of Roman, Mudejar and Visigothic features. Try the ‘caldereta extremeña’ (local stew) in its excellent restaurant.
A number of more modern Merida hotels are available. Also there’s an excellent campsite (Complejo Merida) with a large swimming pool just 5km east of the city on the old N5 road.
Spanish food has a reputation as being some of the finest in Europe and the choices available in Merida only go to heighten that. Whether it’s a light snack of tapas between the main meal or an evening dinner you’ll be well catered for. The Restaurante Rafael II (Santa Eulalia, 13) is a good choice for trying quality roast meats whilst Restaurante Nicolás (c/ Felix Valverde Lillio, 13) is a good quality place frequented by locals. For tapas try Casa Benito (c/ San Francisco, 3), a traditional old, bullfighting bar.
Summer is probably not the best time to visit Merida as the temperature often reaches 40ºC or above.