Tag Archives: Mérida

Travels in Spain, Mérida in Extremadura

Extremadura

“Sometimes the Spaniard will resent your attempts to use it (Spanish).  Sometimes he believes it to physically impossible for an alien to understand it.  Sometimes he cannot actually convince himself that you are speaking it…”   Jan Morris – ‘Spain’

Mérida is the capital city of the Autonomous region of Extremadura and is set in the heart of the Province of Badajoz. One of the most important Roman capital cities at the height of Roman occupation of Spain, the city today has one of the best preserved collections of Roman monuments anywhere in Europe and UNESCO World Heritage status.

This is why we were here of course but right now all we wanted was a table in the early evening sunshine, a drink and a plate of olives so after we had approved the room we left immediately to the Plaza Mayor right outside the front door.

The Plaza was vibrant and busy with families enjoying the weather (it had rained the day before, the receptionist told us), young boys playing football and girls running and skipping.  In the centre was an extravagant fountain and it was surrounded by arcades, shopping streets leaking away into shadows and tall colourful buildings decorated with palms and exotic plants.  At each corner was a covered café so we choose one in the sun, next to some boys playing football who were using palm trees for goalposts and sat and simply enjoyed the atmosphere.

What was noticeable was how well behaved the children were, how well dressed everyone was and how this seemed like one giant drawing room where an extended family was meeting up at the end of the day and having a sociable hour or two together before dinner.

As the afternoon slipped effortlessly into early evening we remembered that we needed some supplies for the room because being a five star hotel there was no way we were going anywhere near the mini-bar and its inflated prices.  There were no shops around the square so we finished our drinks and joined the crowds of people walking through the main shopping street of the city.  There were all kinds of shops but no mini-markets and we walked until we came to a busy main road where we were certain there would be a shop because we had seen people with carrier bags, but being unsure which we to turn, left or right, it was time to ask directions.

There was a man on the pavement just watching the world go by and minding his own business so I asked him a straightforward one word question, “¿Supermercardo?”  He took a step backwards as though he thought I might have an infectious disease and his face went curiously blank.  He looked around for help but there was none so he shrugged his shoulders and rattled off some words in Spanish at machine gun speed which I took to mean that he wasn’t sure, he was uncomfortable being accosted by foreigners and that we should leave him alone.

We decided to walk on and within twenty metres we were outside a huge ‘Discount Supermercardo’ and I don’t think I could have been so unintelligible that he couldn’t have understood that this was exactly what we were looking for.

It was getting late by the time we had finished off a bottle of Rioja and were ready to go out so being unfamiliar with the city we didn’t walk too far and found a restaurant close by that seemed just about right.  Actually it turned out not to be very thrilling and there was an elderly English couple in there complaining about the food and the service and although I wouldn’t have gone back it really wasn’t that bad and I enjoyed a Extremadura lamb stew and Kim a beef steak.  We declared it delicious, there were no complaints from us!

One of the reasons that I like Spain so much is its diversity, no region, city or town is much like another, each has a special unique quality and Extremadura and Mérida was proving to be no exception.

Extremadura Map

Even in Spain Extremadura has a very distinct character, in the summer it is sun-baked and unforgiving, in the winter it is cold and unrelenting.  Much of the land has no agricultural value, there are no industrial centres.  Bordering to its west is Portugal and it is and has long been the poorest region in Spain, in the past, its poverty led to many of its population fleeing elsewhere in search of better fortune.

Geographically it is the fifth largest of the Autonomous Communities of Spain but it has the lowest population density of all.  There is no international airport and no AVE high speed train link, it is the least visited region in Spain by tourists.  Mérida is the smallest of all seventeen capitals of the Autonomous Communities.

As we left the restaurant we strolled through the Plaza Mayor which was still vibrant and busy. As so often in Spain, there was a sense simultaneously of gravitas, fragile grandeur and impending festivity. Spanish people really know how to colonise urban space, and at all hours. We liked Mérida.

Merida 10

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Travels in Spain, Roman Ruins and a Bodega in Carmona

Carmona Street 01

“For almost the first time I felt I was really in Spain, in a country that I had longed my whole life to visit. In the quiet back streets of I seemed to catch a momentary glimpse, a sort of far-off rumour of the Spain that dwells in everyone’s imagination. White sierras, goatheards, dungeons of the Inquisition, Moorish palaces, black winding trains of mules, grey olive trees and groves of lemon, girls in black mantillas,  cathedrals, cardinals, bullfights, gypsies, serenades – in short, Spain.”  –  George Orwell

I have seen Roman ruins advertised before and sometimes they can be quite disappointing so I didn’t have high expectations of those in Carmona but they turned out to be a real surprise.  It wasn’t the Aqueduct of Segovia or anything of the scale of Segóbriga  or Mérida of course but there were extensive excavations and a museum with an informative film about the Romans in Andalusia and the significance of this place.

It was principally an ancient Roman burial site or necropolis near the Seville road that was discovered in 1881 and there was also the site of what had been a rather large amphitheatre.  The best part of all was that there was free admission and we spent well over an hour to look around the site.

It seemed that we had underestimated the town of Carmona and there was a great deal more to do here than we had originally thought.

Close to the fortress gate there was a little bodega that we had picked out earlier for lunch.  The Abacería L’Antiqua was full to overflowing and heaving with activity and just as we were pondering whether or not to stay a table became available and we elbowed our way through the wall of people and made ourselves comfortable. The food looked good and the bar was doing brisk trade so we selected some items from the tapas menu and waited for our food to arrive.

All around the bar there were barrels of sherry and this is something else that Andalusia is famous for.

Sherry is a fortified wine made from white grapes that are grown near the town of Jerez on the coast. In Spanish, it is called Vino de Jerez and according to Spanish law, sherry must come from the small triangular area of the province of Cádiz between Jerez, Sanlúcar de Barrameda, and El Puerto de Santa María.  After fermentation is complete, sherry is fortified with brandy and because the fortification takes place after fermentation, most sherries are initially dry, with any sweetness being added later. In contrast, port wine is fortified halfway through its fermentation, which stops the process so that not all of the sugar is turned into alcohol.  So now you know!

The food arrived quickly and it was delicious and we enjoyed it so much that we ordered second plates of those we liked best and more drinks.  The bodega was a vibrant and effervescent place with people of all age groups and whole families enjoying their Sunday lunchtime gathering and we enjoyed the garrulous atmosphere and just being a part of it all.

But we couldn’t stay all afternoon because there were still things to see.

At the fortress we fished around in our pockets for the admission fee only to be told that today the entrance was free, so how glad we were that we hadn’t visited yesterday.  It wasn’t a big castle but it was a good place to visit with commanding views in all directions across the Andalusian plain.   This place had been chosen well as a castle of strategic importance.  It had been restored and modernised of course, some time in the 1970s, but that didn’t spoil it one little bit.  The sky was blue and it was warmer today so we had a good time climbing the towers and taking in the breathtaking views

I especially wanted to retrace our car journey of the first evening and we found the very narrow street and wondered just how we had managed to negotiate it without adding to the cars dents and scratches.

Practically every car in the town had some form of damage either from scraping past walls or from other cars squeezing past and a very high proportion of them had had their wing mirrors removed and were now only kept in place with sticky tape.  This wasn’t the sort of place to live if you are at all fussy about the appearance of your car.

We found Micky in San Fernando Square sitting on a bench in the sunshine with a red nose and flu weary eyes and looking very forlorn.  The man from Bar Plaza saw us and told us he had prepared paella for this evening but unfortunately for him we were determined to return to the Abacería L’Antiqua and so he had missed his opportunity.

We went first to the Forum Bar, which was busy and then walked to the Bodega, which was empty.  The contrast from the lunchtime bustle made the place almost unrecognisable and although other diners began to drift in the place never achieved the sociable levels of lunchtime.  We ordered some repeat dishes and experimented with some different ones and the food was equally as good and we stayed all evening before going back to the hotel for our final night at the San Fernando.

Travels in Spain, The Romans

Merida Roman Theatre

Segobriga was a surprise discovery and we enjoyed our afternoon at the archaeological site.

There are many more Roman remains in Spain, these pictures are from the city of Mérida in Extremadura.

Emerita Augusta  was the capital city of the most westerly Roman Province of the Empire in Lusitania and the most important Roman city in Iberia.

Today, on account of its past, Mérida is a sister city of Rome.

A Virtual Ancient City

Aqueduct of Segovia

It was a long tedious drive from Ephesus to Pamukkale and thinking about the Ephesus experience I thought it would be fun to recall all of the other ancient sites that I have visited and assemble a near perfect virtual ancient city.

Approaching the city the first thing to be seen would be the aqueduct bringing fresh water to the citizens.  The finest aqueduct must surely be that in Segovia in central Spain.  It was built at the end of first to early second century AD by the Romans to bring water from the Río Frío about eighteen kilometres away and requiring an elevated section in its final kilometre from the Sierra de Guadarrama to the walls of the old town.

This is supported by an engineering achievement of one hundred and sixty-six arches and one hundred and twenty pillars constructed on two levels. It is twenty eight metres high and constructed with over twenty thousand large granite blocks, which are joined without mortar or clamps and have remained in place for two thousand years.

Split, Diocletian's Palace

After passing through the arches of the aqueduct the road would lead to a Palace – Diocletian’s Palace from Split in Croatia.  The palace was built as a Roman military fortress with walls two hundred metres long and twenty metres high, enclosing an area of thirty-eight thousand square metres and it is one of the best preserved Roman palaces in existence because after the fall of the Romans within the defensive walls it effectively became the city of Spalatum which eventually evolved and became the modern city of Split.

Herculaneum

Inside the city walls there would be the houses of the people who lived in the city, the houses of Herculaneum  near Pompeii in Italy that was destroyed in the same Vesuvius eruption.  But in a different way because where Pompeii was buried in ash, Herculaneum was destroyed by a pyroclastic flow which is  a ground-hugging avalanche of hot ash, pumice, rock fragments, and volcanic gas that rushes down the side of a volcano.  Although it killed all of the inhabitants this flow did little damage to the structures, instead slowly filling them from the bottom up and preserving them perfectly without destroying them altogether.

Volubilis Morocco

After passing through the residential area there would be a magnificent triumphal arch marking the entrance to the civic and public areas.  I think it would be very much like the arch at Voloubilis in Morocco.

Volubilis  was the Roman capital of the Province of Mauritania and was founded in the third century B.C., it became an important outpost of the Roman Empire and was graced with many fine buildings.  Extensive remains of these survive in the archaeological site, located in the middle of this fertile agricultural area.  The city continued to be occupied long after the Romans had gone and at some point converted to Islam and Volubilis was later briefly to become the capital of Idris I, founder of the Idrisid dynasty, who is buried at nearby Moulay Idris.   It is now of course a UNESCO World Heritage Site, admitted to the list in 1997.

Rome The Forum

Once through the Arch into the Forum which for the Romans was the centre of political, commercial and judicial life. This has to be the Forum in Rome.

According to the playwright Plautus the area ‘teemed with lawyers and litigants, bankers and brokers, shopkeepers and strumpets’.  As the city grew  successive Emperors increasingly extended the Forum and in turn built bigger temples, larger basilicas, higher triumphal columns and more lavish commemorative arches.  Here is the Temple of Romulus and the house of the Vestal Virgins and then the Temple of Julius Caesar erected on the very spot that he was cremated following his assassination in 44 BC.

Hierapolis Pamukkale Turkey

Every ancient city needs a theatre and at the end of the forum in this virtual city is the theatre of  Hierapolis at Pamukkale in Turkey, a restored ancient theatre that surely has to be amongst the best that I have ever seen and that includes Segesta in Sicily and Merida in Spain and also (again in my opinion) the ruins that we had visited yesterday at Ephesus.

Temple of Apollo Didyma

Next to the Theatre is the Temple and I am happy to include in this virtual city the Temple of Apollo in Didyma just down the road from Ephesus.  This place would have been huge, one hundred and twenty columns, fifteen metres high and each taking an estimated twenty thousand man days to cut and erect.  It was never completely finished because during the construction process the money kept running out but if it had been then it is said that this would have been one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World in precedence over the Temple of Artemis at nearby Ephesus.

Arles France Amphitheatre

Finally there would be an Amphitheatre and whilst it may seem like madness not to include the Colosseum in Rome I am going to overlook it and include instead the Amphitheatre at Arles in Southern France.  It could also have been the the Amphitheatre in  Pula in Croatia or,Mérida in Spain but there is something majestic about about Arles which just fascinates me.  No one can be absolutely sure about which was the largest in terms of capacity and it is generally agreed that this was the Colosseum but we can be more certain about physical size and there was a plaque nearby that claimed that this was the twelfth largest in the Roman Empire.  Interestingly using this criteria the plaque only listed the Colosseum as second largest but it’s like I have always said size isn’t the most important thing!

So there it is, my virtual Ancient City, just my personal choices and I would be more than happy to consider any alternative suggestions for inclusion.

Ancient Rome

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My blogging pal Wil sent me this in an email and I am delighted to add it to my city…

… thought I would share this picture of the colonnaded street and forum at Jerash. It would definitely be in my fantasy Roman city!

Jerash Jordon Picture_0438

Check out Wil’s blog here …  Wilbur’s Travels

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Related Posts:

Spartacus the Gladiator

Rome

The Roman City of Pompeii

The Roman City of Herculaneum

The Roman Amphitheatre at Pula

The Aqueduct of Segovia

The Roman Buildings at Mérida

The Roman Ruins at Segóbriga

Diocletian’s Palace at Split

The Roman Buildings at Arles

Verona

The Greek and Roman Ruins at Empuria, Catalonia

The Palace of Knossos in Crete

Athens and Ancient Greece

The Acropolis Museum in Athens

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Travels in Spain – Wall Tiles

Spain Wall Tiles 01Spain Merida Wall TilesSpain Wall TilesTalavera de la Reina Spain wall TilesSpain Wall Tiles 02Spain Wall Tiles 03Ronda Tiles Picture

Travels in Spain – Extremadura and Cáceres

Cáceres Extrmadura

“Extremadura was pre-eminently the country of the adventurers for many of them went to the New World… and often returned rich and the region is full of their memorials…. The old part of Cáceres is embellished everywhere with the heraldry of imperial nouveaux-riches, whose principal object of retirement seems to have been to bask in titled superiority to the family next door”            Jan Morris – ‘Spain’

As we walked into the city we passed into the old town through one of the eight- hundred year old Muslim gates.

The city has an eclectic blend of Roman, Islamic, Northern Gothic and Italian Renaissance styles, the result of many tug-of-war battles fought here throughout history and because of this Cáceres was declared a World Heritage City by UNESCO in 1986.

Saint George is the patron saint of the city and the story goes that he knew that there was a dragon terrorizing the population of Cáceres, so he captured it and brought it to the city; he told the citizens that if they all converted from Muslims to Christians he would kill the dragon. Fifteen thousand men converted (the women weren’t so important it seems) so he slayed the dragon and Cáceres lived in peace.

St George

The route from the splendid gate took us to the immaculate Plaza Mayor which had recently been resurfaced and tidied up in preparation for a submission to be considered as Spain’s representative as the 2016 European capital of Culture. (Ultimately not successful – pipped at the post by San Sebastián in the Basque Region).

It was hot now under a clear blue sky so after we had walked the circumference of the square we took a table at the Meson ‘Los Portales’ and ordered drinks and tapas.  Because of a communication problem (We can’t speak Spanish, the waiter couldn’t understand English) we didn’t get the one that we ordered but it was nice enough and we enjoyed it anyway.

After Alfonso IX of Leon conquered Cáceres in 1227 it flourished during the Reconquest and the Discovery of America, as influential Spanish families and nobles built homes and small palaces here, and many members of families from Extremadura participated in voyages to America where they made their fortune and then returned home to enjoy it.

The colour of the walls was of the richest golden brown to be found anywhere in Spain, as though drenched, steeped, saturated with all the sunlight of centuries of summers.”  –  Ted Walker – ‘In Spain’

The old quarter, with its numerous palaces, churches and convents is enclosed by the city wall, most of it Moorish in construction, many of the defence towers are still standing and there are even a few Roman stone blocks visible.  From the Plaza Mayor we walked up the steps and through the Estrella de Churriguer archway.

From there we entered the Plaza de Santa Maria where close by is the Palacio De Los Toledo-Moctezuma, which is a vivid reminder of the importance of Cáceres in the conquest of the Americas because it was built for Techichpotzin  by one of her three Spanish husbands.  Who was  Techichpotzin? I hear you ask, well, let me tell you, she was no less than the daughter of the Aztec ruler Montezuma!

Dominating the square was the Iglesia de Santa Maria so we slipped inside and took a look around carefully remembering to avoid the image of the Cristo de los Blázquez, also known as the Cristo Negro or Black Christ which, tradition has it, brought death to all those who looked at, or touched it.

It cost just €1 to climb to the top of the bell tower so we paid and took the stone spiral staircase to the top where there were good views of the old town and beyond which we shared with all of the Storks that had built their untidy nests at the highest possible points.

Caceres Spain

From here we walked the old narrow streets. Past the Palacio De Los Golfines De Abajo, with its spectacular and architecturally important façade in a style that was widely used in Spain and in South America throughout the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. This Palacio was where the house the Catholics Kings stayed when they visited Cáceres, as guests of the Golfin family, the most important people in town, and the royal crest is carved above the doorway to prove it.

From the old town we came back to the square and walked into the shopping streets and around the old town walls from the outside and then with the afternoon slipping quickly away we returned to the Plaza Mayor and to the car.  If I was planning this trip again I would have stayed for a night in Cáceres but it was too late now and our accommodation was booked in Mérida about fifty kilometres south.

We estimated that we would be there in a little under an hour and at first all went according to plan until suddenly the motorway was closed and there was a diversion.   I took a decision to take the Badajoz road because although it wasn’t on the route to Mérida it was at least going south and I was confident that there would somewhere be a minor road to make the correction.

Extremadura Map

We started to travel south-west and because this is such a sparsely populated region of Spain it turns out that there are not a lot of roads at all so we just kept going relentlessly towards Badajoz and further and further away from our intended destination.  Eventually after quite a lengthy detour we came across a road that was so new that it wasn’t on the map but it said Mérida so we trusted to luck and took it and started to drive in roughly the right direction

The journey that should have taken under an hour took nearly two and it was very late afternoon/early evening when we arrived at the Hotel Mérida Palace, parked the car and presented ourselves at reception for check in.

Cáceres Extrmadura

Travels in Spain – Almagro, The Plaza Mayor and Flamenco

Seville Flamenco

“We are in the Spanish south.  The castanets click from coast to coast, the cicada hum through the night, the air is heavy with jasmine and orange blossom… the girls have black eyes and undulating carriages.”  –  Jan Morris,  ‘Spain’

We were staying at the Hotel Retiro del Maestre, a renovated old Spanish nobleman’s house on a dusty street leading to the main square of Almagro.  It was a friendly family run hotel with spacious and comfortable public rooms, a large outside terrace basking in the pleasant sun and was a nice room for us with a view over the garden.

It was late afternoon by this time and with the sun beginning to dip we didn’t linger long but made our way quickly to the Plaza Mayor to find a bar.  On the way we passed by the equestrian statue of the Conquistador Diego de Almagro and then entered the rectangular Plaza.

Almagro Plaza Mayor Spain

At a hundred metres long and forty metres wide it is flanked on both sides by arcades of cream Tuscan columns, weathered by the years, supporting overhead galleries all painted a uniform shade of botella verde and fully glazed in a central European style that makes this place truly unique in all of Spain.  These galleries were originally open and used as grandstands for public events, religious festivals and even bullfights that were held here until 1785, when they were finally banned by King Carlos III.

We choose a table on the sunny side of the Plaza, ordered beer and wine and just sat and watched the activity while we nibbled the inevitable olives.  The bar owner shooed away some small boys playing football, telling them to play elsewhere as families began to arrive and the bar quickly filled up with chattering customers enjoying the late afternoon sunshine.

Plaza Mayor Siguenza Castilla-La Mancha

The Plaza Mayor is the most important part of a Spanish town or city and I really cannot think of an equivalent in the United Kingdom where we have public squares but use them in an entirely different way.  This is the place where people meet, relax and enjoy themselves; it is generally flanked with shops and restaurants and usually has the town hall and the main church somewhere close by.  In the centre sits a military veteran with only one arm selling Spanish lottery tickets.

When we arrive somewhere new it is usually the first place we make for because sitting with a glass of wine and a complimentary tapas it is the best place to be to get a feeling for the character of the town and its people.

In the search for real Spain  we have visited and enjoyed dozens of Plaza Mayors; Madrid, the largest, Salamanca, the second largest, Toledo, next to its towering cathedral and the tiled Plaza de España in Seville.  We liked them all and we began now to compile a list with a view to choosing our top five favourites.

We considered ÁvilaMérida and ValladolidCáceres and Santiago de Compostella in Galicia but after a lively debate weighing up the pros and cons and putting forward the case for each one in turn we finally agreed on the top five but could not reach absolute consensus on the actual order.

So this is our list: Segovia in Castilla y Leon because of the Cathedral and the architecture and the little streets running away from it like spokes from a wheel, Trujillo, where we had been only today, because of its unspoilt medieval charm, the unpretentious and functional Ciudad Rodrigo,  Chinchón with its open balconies and bullfights and although we had only just arrived we liked this place so much that we both agreed to include Almagro in the list.

  

After a second leisurely drink we paid up and left the square and strolled back to our hotel where we asked for some dining recommendations and the receptionist convinced us to go to her favourite restaurant just a couple of streets away so after we had rested and changed we took her advice and found the place in a side street off the main square.

Although it wasn’t especially late when we finished the meal we were tired after a long day that had started three hundred kilometres away in Mérida, taken us to Trujillo and then a three hour drive to Almagro and we were ready for bed.  We walked back through the Plaza Mayor that was lively in a subdued sort of way (if that makes sense) and then to the street to the hotel.

Spain Flamenco Dancer

About half way along the route back to the hotel we heard the lyrical sound of Spanish guitars, clacking castanets, the rhythmic stamping of Cuban heels and clicking stilettos, rather like the sound of an approaching steam train and we wondered where it was coming from and then through the pavement level window of a cellar we could see a dancing class in full swing.

Spain Flamenco

Some local people suggested that it would be quite all right to go inside and watch so we did just that and before the lesson ended we enjoyed fifteen minutes of genuine Spanish music played by an assembly of musicians and a group of young people dancing the flamenco; stamping, posturing and pouting in a rapid, aggressive, staccato style – wonderful vivacious movement, flicking to the left and prancing to the right and  accompanied all the time by the sound of chattering music like a machine gun firing into the sky.

It was a wonderful way to end the evening!

Almagro Spain Plaza Mayor