After lunch the antiquities were all closed for the siesta and wouldn’t open again for a couple of hours so we went back to the Mérida Palace. It was hot and the sun was shining so it our intention to sit on the sun terrace on the roof, read a book, have a glass of wine and do a bit of lazy sitting about.
For no good reason (as far as I could make out) the sun terrace was closed and when I enquired at reception the receptionist said that they were unable to open it because it was too early in the year and it wasn’t warm enough! I was perplexed by that, in England we will sit on beaches in May even though the temperature is just a fraction above zero!
Kim rested in the room and in search of sun I sat on the patio at the front of the hotel and sneaked a can of Mahou beer down from the room so that I didn’t have to pay the inflated hotel prices. It was nice just sitting and enjoying the vibrant atmosphere of the square but with the sun moving behind the hotel and throwing us quickly into shadow it was time to resume our sightseeing and to use the rest of our entrance tickets.
We walked towards the River Guadiana because our first destination was the original Roman Bridge built over two thousand years ago.
At five hundred miles long, the River Guadiana is the fourth longest in the Iberian Peninsula and for part of its course marks the boundary between Spain and Portugal. At this point the river is about five hundred yards wide and spanning it is the sixty arch Roman Bridge that remained the principal road for traffic entering the city until as recently as 1993.
Mérida was proving to be a really fascinating place with the oldest this, the biggest that, the best preserved, the most unique and now was added the longest remaining Roman bridge. It is pedestrianised now and we walked away across towards the centre and looked over the sides into the muddy brown water of the river below.
We didn’t all the way across to the other side but stopped and returned to the east bank because next we were visiting the Alcazaba, a ninth century Muslim fortification located near the bridge that was built in 835 to command the city. It was the first (here we go again) Muslim Alcazaba, and includes a big squared line of walls, every side measuring one hundred yards in length, twenty foot high, nearly two feet thick and incorporating twenty-five towers all built re-using Roman walls and Roman-Visigothic edifices in granite.
The Plaza Mayor was busy but quieter tonight mostly because there weren’t any football matches taking place but the fountain which had been dry the previous evening was now erupting with water and sending magnificent plumes high into the blue sky. We sat at the same table and had San Miguel and wine and olives and we reflected on a busy day of rewarding sightseeing and some amazing places.
The meal the previous evening had been satisfactory but we had no plans to return there because we had seen a little place around the corner from the hotel where there were some pavement tables where it was warm and sheltered enough to dine out in the street and we had a pleasant, simple and unhurried meal before returning to the Plaza Mayor for a final drink. As the light began to fade we made a summary of what had been an excellent day in a Spanish city, which only a few years ago I would never have remotely thought of visiting.
The next day we had a final few hours in Mérida.
The reason that the modern city has so many Roman antiquities is that it was a very important place in the Empire. The Roman conquest started as early as year 19 B.C. with the invasion of the Carthaginian region and ended with the last resistance being overcome in the north-west in the same year. The south soon came under the Roman Empire’s growing domination with a framework of roads connecting towns and strategic bridges and Iberian cities including Mérida, Cordoba, Seville and Cartagena passed into the hands of the Romans.
The economy flourished under Roman rule and, along with North Africa, served as a bread basket for the Roman market and as well as grain it provided gold, wool, olive oil, and wine. Agricultural production increased with the introduction of irrigation projects, some of which remain in use even today and much of daily life consisted of agricultural work under which the region flourished, especially the cultivation of grapes and olives.
Silver mining within the Guadalquivir River valley became an integral part of the Iberian economy and some of the Empire’s most important metal resources were in Hispania where gold, iron, tin, copper and lead were also all mined in abundance and shipped back to Rome.
Spain also has historical and political significance for the Roman Empire because it was the birthplace of the Emperors Hadrian, Marcus Aurelius, Trajan, Theodosius I and the philosopher Seneca. Luckily, when the Roman Empire fell, it didn’t create such a major crisis or havoc in Spain as it did in other western countries like Gaul, Germany and Britain and thus much of its essential infrastructure remained intact.
Next to the river there were some excavations but to be honest we found these rather disappointing so we hurried through them and walked to the water and walked along a pedestrian walkway to the stout, reliable and weather-beaten Roman bridge and then back towards the main square.
We were looking now for the Temple of Diana and we found it tucked away behind the main shopping street and next to a small museum. The Temple was a sacred site constructed by the Romans in the first century A.D. and remains well preserved mostly because in the sixteenth century some local big-wig built a palace inside the rectangular ring of Corinthian columns. There has been some recent debate about removing the palace structure but as this is over five-hundred years old as well the archaeologists and the authorities have agreed that it should stay.
We were over an hour ahead of schedule so we had a last drink in the main square while we waited for the car to be returned from the out of town car park and when it was there we went back to the hotel and checked out.
We drove out of the city through fields of golden corn and verges decorated with scarlet poppies. We were heading for Trujillo.