Mérida: Day 2

Thanks, Fitbit, for letting us know how absurdly long our dear pilgrim slept last night. 10 hours…Mikey, that should be a sin!

As such, we decided to go to the basilica, but – guess what – it wasn’t open. Ha! Well, let’s give you a brief primer on the Basilica of Mérida just in case we can make it for evening mass.

Originally a 1st-century Roman house, by the 4th-century the site became a Christian burial ground before having a church built over it following Constantine’s acceptance of the new religion. (Apparently one can pay to get into the crypt, but not the church. It is only open for mass.)

Ergo, there are original walls of the house abutting 4th-century sarcophagi under 5th-century flooring.

To further complicate matters, the church was taken over by Arab Muslims in the 8th century and then regained by the Christians in the 13th-century during which time they added ornate altars in the crypt and reconsecrated the church before making additions to it. Still, it is believed to be the oldest basilica (if not church) in all of Spain. Yeah, Mikey’s going to have to find the bishop and get a stamp!

Talking about longevity – Mérida has some pretty cool aqueducts. This one is located adjacent to the Circus Maximus.

Now surrounded by a park, the ruins of a once vital part of city operations stand unused except as picturesque backdrops for selfie-obsessed tourists. Still, it was fun to stroll around snapping said photos while morning joggers were just out on their normal runs.

Speaking of running, the Roman Circus was basically the NASCAR of the empire. Chariots were the name of the game and they took up a lot of space. Ergo, lots of stuff has been built over various sections and this one is in more disrepair than other sites and ruins.

After a few laps around the circus, it was time to try migas. Unlike the New World version, Spanish migas in Extremadura are basically day-old bread crumbs soaked in water, garlic, and paprika, and then stir-fried in olive oil with some veggie (in this case, sweet peppers). Think of it as Spanish Stovetop Stuffing. (If you’re wondering about the wine, the migas came free with it and it was already noon by then, so there!)

Next up was the Roman amphitheater. Although a bit smaller than the one we saw in Itálica, it was definitely in better condition.

Also unique to these ruins were the wonderfully grandiose royal entrances. With much of the original stone and brickworks still intact, it was a rather authentic and inspiring experience walking into the arena.

OK, this part had a pretty lousy gladiator poster exhibit, but the information on different types of fighters was interesting. While Russell Crowe would have us believe that they just grabbed any weapon and went at it, there were over a dozen main types of gladiators in Iberia classified by types of armor and weaponry utilized. Moreover, “battles” were staged based on rules of engagement between different types of gladiators.

Ah…finally out on the floor of the amphitheater… “ARE YOU NOT ENTERTAINED?!” Yeah, Mikey really wanted to yell that out ala Gladiator, but we still had to see the Roman Theatre before being asked to leave.

Yep, another cool entryway into the stands. Isn’t it interesting that we still employ the very same “wowing techniques” in our entryways into modern stadiums and arenas?

But this really was a wowing moment! Probably the best preserved Roman theatre in Spain, we were completely shocked by its beauty.

There was an elementary aged school group involved in some kind of performance, so we didn’t have as much free reign as we would have preferred. Still, Mikey mentioned that it was so incredibly amazing that these kids got to perform here for their classmates that he didn’t at all mind their monopolizing the Roman stage!

And to be honest, this theatre was big enough for us all.

This is a close up of the original columned background in front of which the 1st-century Roman actors played. Sorry, but Mikey is having a “thespian moment” right now.

Speaking of theatre, one of the first things a young thespian learns is blocking and how not to “upstage” or outdo the principal characters. Sadly, the National Museum of Roman Art building quite overwhelms its collection.

Yes, it does have many fine specimens of Roman art and architectural pieces, but its vaulted temple-like ceilings far outweigh the few masterpieces chosen for display.

Still, the museum houses antiquarian pieces unique to the Iberian peninsula and the larger empire and, at 3€, it’s a surprisingly affordable museum.

We also saw great examples of mosaic floor pieces and even a section of original Roman road that cuts through the building proper.

Mikey liked this modern wall silhouette with a quote by Henri Cartier-Bresson. The plaque reads, “To photograph is to align the head, the eye, and the heart. It is a lifestyle.”

The well-known photographer also once said, “You just have to live and life will give you pictures.” How fitting as we turned a random corner and stumbled upon this Roman “sacred space” wherein the ancients would gather to pray. Now surrounded by a residential neighborhood, it was quite shocking to see how well preserved these ruins are.

Just 200 meters away stood the colossal Temple of Diana with its massive columned portico still bearing weight after nearly two millennia. (Full disclosure: this structure has been called the Temple of Diana since the 17th-century, but it was actually the heart of the original Roman forum with little to do concerning religious deities or rites.)

Interestingly, in this case, is how the 15th-century addition that can be seen behind the columns actually saved the original Roman edifice. Apparently, hoping to attach his familiar line to that of the Romans, a knight of the Order of Santiago built and connected his palace to the original structure. Although few now remember him, the knight succeeded in protecting the structure from stone pillagers and other forms of degradation.

Speaking of protection, as one entered the city via the Roman bridge, he was met by fortified gates and (later) a fortress.

OK, since it’s the longest Roman bridge in the world, Mikey feels obliged to escort you over it. On a positive note, he shot it as a time-lapse video so it is, thankfully, shorter than the original 10 minutes that it took to walk some 790 meters.

Now that we’ve made it across the bridge, let’s talk about the fortified city entrance. Built during Roman rule, the fortifications we expanded upon by the Visigoths, the Arabs, and then by the Christians. What remains is a hodgepodge of defensive walls and various technologies spanning some 1500 years.

An interesting part of the complex, however, is this nondescript, yet well protected, building.

Upon entering it, one sees a gently sloping ramp leading down to a much cooler (in temperature) part.

Here, below ground, is a pool of fresh water. Initially constructed by the Romans, it was dug deeper than the city walls and allows river water to enter through a section of rocks which act as filters. Yeah, that’s kind of hard to describe, but they basically figured out a way to filter the river water from beyond the city walls and collect it underground and inside the fortress. Pretty cool for 1st-century tech.

Nearby is a more modern amphitheater than what we toured earlier. Built in 1917, this is a great example of a cultural carryover from Roman days.

Although nothing was going on today, we walked through some of the corridors and saw many taxidermied bulls on the walls. Regardless of one’s stance concerning bullfighting (Mikey no longer attends them), it is most definitely a Roman inheritance and a national homage to Spain’s gladiatorial past.

Again, the modern entrances to arenas are quite telling when juxtaposed with those of the ancients.

In this modern tile work, we see the matadors with their theatrical capes in front of the Temple to Diana. Also, notice the purposeful exclusion of the 16th-century palace that was added to the Roman complex. Again, this depiction is intentional in its direct and unadulterated linkage between Roman gladiators and modern Spanish bullfighting culture.

Concerning culture, we did make it into the basilica just before evening mass. As mentioned above, if one goes by the 4th- or 5th-century dates, this is possibly the oldest church in Spain. Still, much of its interior is 13th-century, so it is in appearance newer than some of the 9th- and 10th-century Romanesque churches found in the north of Spain. (You may note that the northern regions were the only parts of Spain not conquered by the Moors in the 8th- and 9th-centuries. Ergo, some original churches remain untouched by invaders.)

We also enjoyed some of the beautiful statues located in the chapels. Some of them are utilized in the pasos which are carried through the streets during Semana Santa or Holy Week.

Oh, and it took some doing, but we did get Mikey’s credential stamped by the bishop’s office at the basilica! (A+ for persistence.)

As we now wandered through the streets like the pasos, Mikey reflected on all that we had experienced today. What a whirlwind! If only we had the time and energy, dear reader, to post all that is seen and done by us each day. But, then again, who would want to read all that?!

As we send this latest installment of our Camino out into the virtual ethos, we thank you for your continued interest and hope to have entertained and (perhaps) educated you in some small way. From Diana’s Temple to wherever you are reading this, we wish you goodnight and godspeed.

Omnia Mea Mecum Porto.