Merida has some amazing Roman ruins – not surprising as it was once the third largest city in the Roman Empire. Today, Merida has a range of ancient buildings from the Roman era and forward into the Moorish occupation. If you like Roman ruins, a visit to Merida is worth the effort.
As Extremadura’s regional capital, Merida has many fine examples of Roman occupation. Yet, as a city, it is simple, letting its Roman and Moorish architecture jumbled into a living streetscape speak for itself. Roman ruins, particularly, appear almost casually on an otherwise unremarkable urban landscape with the bridge, for example, traversing the broad Guadiana River and incorporated into everyday life.
The Roman theatre looks as if it could have been built in the latest Spanish building boom, it’s so well preserved. The Teatro Romano is Merida’s most spectacular 15BC Roman monument and still hosts performances. The centrepiece is the well preserved central stage, with its large Corinthian columns, and the facade with the statues of gods framed within the arches.
In addition to the theatre, the site also houses the anfiteatro, which was used to stage gladiatorial fights. It looks like pretty much many other gladiatorial arena, the Verona arena comes to mind, but on a significantly smaller scale. Walking amongst the seating, through the tunnels and onto the arena, you soon realise that you walk in the steps that gladiators would have walked down to enter the arena.
A little further afield, the Roman bridge (Puente Romano) is still very much intact. At nearly a kilometre long, it arches over the Rio Guadiana and is a long lasting monument to Rome’s imperial confidence. The long, wide and car-free bridge is a great place for a walk, with beautiful views of the nearby Alcazaba fortress and its walls. And the bridge’s own reflection in the water is special.
Just past the bright red Plaza del Toros is the House of Mitreo and Columbarium. The Casa del Mitreo contains the remains of what once was a large Roman villa which would have certainly belonged to a noble or wealthy family. Today, mosaics, thermal baths, ruined walls and frescos remain, including one special mosaic depicting the cosmos. To see such well preserved flooring is astounding. You stare at the intricacy of the mosaics and imagine life in such a house.
Another ruin that you can see up close without actually going into the heart of the city, is the remains of an aqueduct running through the city. The San Lazaro Aqueduct is one that can be easily visited, nearby the Circus of Merida (Circo Romano). It was pretty amazing to see these structures still in place.
There are many other Roman ruins left standing in and around Merida, including the Circo Romano, which once held chariot races. This site was uncovered during excavations associated with the widening of a nearby road.
But, to explore some of Merida’s history post-Roman empire, you’ll want to head to the Alcazaba, a Moorish fortification built from existing Roman ruins. The Alcazaba would have been an impressive fortress. It looks out over Puente Romano and the river.
Merida is a nice, low key city and is worth visiting. For us, it was a base to visit other cities across the Extremadura region. If you have lots of time in Spain and enjoy Roman history, then you certainly won’t be disappointed by time spent in Merida.