“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.
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.