Scratch the ground in Merida and you’ll uncover Roman ruins. The architecture of modern Merida doesn’t thrill me, but the density of spectacular remains from the Roman era is a breathtaking testimony to the importance and wealth of Merida during that era. The museums of Roman and Visigoth art (especially the Roman one) are also excellent.
Before my sightseeing, however, I needed to take care of a couple of things: First, a visit to the co-cathedral of Santa Maria, immediately next to my hotel. I felt a bit of a fraud, showing up just after mass had ended, but the priest very graciously provided me with a new credencial and stamped it. Next, I checked the status of the package that I had sent from Córdoba. Merida’s post office held it for two weeks it should be delivered the hotel tomorrow. Hooray.
With those two tasks out of the way, I went to see the “jewels” of Roman Merida – the theatre and amphitheatre. The theatre is where gladiators duked it out with each other and with wild animals. The amphitheatre saw theatrical and musical performances. It was a thrill to walk up a 2000 year-old staircase and be gobsmacked by the sight of these extraordinary performance spaces. (I’m not sure whether it’s appropriate to call the spectacle of deadly combat a performance, but that’s the best I could come up with).
Of course, you can put on a play just about anywhere. In my youth, I performed in several modern, brick, theatres, in a converted warehouse, on the gardens of a Manor House, and other places. But there’s something about a theatre that makes a dramatic statement by itself, that quickens my pulse. I first felt it when I looked up from the stage of the Theatre Royal in Newcastle and understood that the velvet-covered seats in the tiers of balconies, the boxes, and the stalls would be filled with people whose focus would be on the space where I was standing. Merida’s amphitheatre took my breath away. It’s terrifying.
Merida’s museums of Roman and Visigoth art close at 3pm on Sundays and they don’t open again until Tuesday, so I did a rather hurried tour of both. One could easily spend a day in the national museum of Roman Art. It is vast and its collection is extraordinary. The high walls allow the museum to display a series of huge mosaics to visitors who are walking on balconies. This provides a perspective as if they were floating above and looking down at mosaic floors. These mosaics provide a backdrop to the impressive permanent collection of sculpture and other artefacts that came from the excavation of the amphitheatre and theatre. The building itself is airy, well lit, understated. It’s wonderful.
Who were the Visigoths? They were Germanic tribes who warred with Rome. At some point they found their way to Spain and stayed, much as Germans still do today. After occupying the Iberian peninsular, they converted to Christianity. Spain was a Visigoth Kingdom from the C5th to C8th, when the Moors arrived. My reading of Asterix and the Goths did not prepare me for the delicate, decorative art that they produced, with decorative motifs that drew on geometry and nature. It has always struck me as odd that the techniques and capabilities that the Romans had for creating life-like sculpture were “lost” during this era – not only in Spain but all over Europe. The collection of mostly marble pillars and stone carvings from Visigoth churches is far smaller than the collection of Roman art (which seems to lie mere inches under every street in this city). But this is one of only two museums in Spain, dedicated to Visigoth art. I am pleased that I visited it.
I had lunch at a cafe in the shadow of Diana’s Temple. Fortunately, “pickled quail salad,” turned out to be salad with quail and pickles. Whoever approved the “floating concrete slab” building on two sides of the temple made an “interesting” decision, but I guess a modern city with limited resources needs to function and can’t afford to be so precious about every street. Nonetheless, it’s a shock to come across fenced off, semi-derelict sites that contain the remains of Roman gardens, Roman baths, or … the main temple to the emperor cult that was situated behind Trajan’s arch. The temple foundations can now be seen in the gap created by a couple of demolished houses on the Calle de Holguin. You can see the steps and walls and a couple of column capitals by looking through the steel grille.
For the longest time, the Roman ruins provided no income to the city and people must have seen little reason to preserve them. Like Vogon bureaucrats, the planners of the 1860 highway from Madrid to Lisbon cut straight through the immense Roman circus, which had hosted chariot races. Why would they put a kink in the road to take traffic around the former home of Formula One chariot racing? After all, until the archeological studies of the early C20th, and subsequent recognition of the touristic potential, the area was used to grow barley. I decided to make a silly time lapse film of myself doing a circuit of the circus. I was surprised to find that it was “helpful” to my understanding of how a chariot race (seven laps of the circus in a bone-shaking box, dragged around right corners by a team of horses) might have felt.
After my day at the races, I stopped at the crypt of the martyred saint Eulalia. Who was Saint Eulalia? As far as I can tell, she was a fourth century Rosa Parks, who got herself killed for an act of civil disobedience. She was immortalised a century later in a poem by Prudentius – a kind of fifth century Leon Rosselson, writing storming songs about yesterday’s crushed political movements and heroes. The shrine outside Saint Eulalia’s still attracts a small crowd of devotees and the crypt below the church is an extraordinary space to explore – with stone coffins and ancient foundations below the more recent church.
So much excitement in one day. After this, I walked to chapatapa, by the Rambla of Eulalia – It’s the bar by the park that I stopped at when I arrived here yesterday. It seems to be a happy place for me. I had a goat kid’s leg for dinner. Perhaps my first experience of goat? (But then again, I must have had it in a tagine at some point). It went well with the oddly named “Nadir” wine.
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