Wednesday, 01-04-2015. Day 224.
Gladiators, Theaters, Aqueducts.
We had a little time before we had to check out of our apartment in Toledo, so we went across the street to the café above the Biblioteca de Castilla-La Mancha, which was inside the Alcazár. People told us there it had great views of Toledo in general and the Toledo Cathedral in particular. They were right, the views were pretty fantastic.
Then we grabbed a little breakfast at a nearby café, checked out of our great apartment in Toledo, and started the four-and-a-half-hour journey to Seville. We were driving along, enjoying the scenery—the Spanish countryside felt similar to Southern California, only greener—when suddenly a cry of "I'm hungry" came up from the back seat.
We already had a hotel room in Seville, so we weren't really in any sort of hurry to get there, so I started looking for a place nearby where we could stop and get some lunch. And that's when the town of Mérida and the Archaeological Ensemble of Mérida, a UNESCO World Heritage site made themselves known to us.
The Spanish city of Mérida dates back to 25 BC, when it was known as Augusta Emerita, so named by Emperor Augustus himself. Apparently he liked the city enough to make it the capital of the Roman province Lusitania in 23 BC. Amazingly enough, a lot of the old Roman-built structures are still standing around the town.
One of the most obvious, and one that you can see up close without actually going into the heart of the city, are the remains of three aqueducts that run into the village. Yet somehow we missed the grandest of these, the tri-tiered arched pillars of Milagros Aqueduct. But we did get to see the San Lázaro Aqueduct up close. It was pretty amazing (okay, so I've got a thing for aqueducts), and we decided to check out some of the other archaeological ensemble sights in town—and this meant driving into the center of Mérida.
Navigating the back streets of Madrid had been a little challenging, but Mérida kicked this difficulty up a notch. The narrow, twisted, frequently one-way cobblestone streets were lined with parked cars. It was only mildly stressful and we managed to find a parking spot just down the hill from the entrance to the ruins.
Fortunately, there were a few restaurants near the ruins so we were able to get a little food into us before heading in to see the gladiatorial arena (which they call the amphitheater) and the Teatro Romana.
Amphitheater (Gladiatorial Arena)
The amphitheater at Mérida dates back to 8 BC and is still in relatively remarkable condition. It looks like pretty much what you think a gladiatorial arena would look like and in its prime had enough seats for 15,000 spectators (a small fraction of what could sit in the Hippodrome of Constantinople). We got to walk around among the seats and through the hallways leading to an outside pathway. Design-wise, it wasn't all that different from a modern sports stadium.
Along the steps that gladiators would have walked down to enter the arena, there were descriptions and illustrations of the most common types of gladiators spectators would have seen fight here (yes, lions were one of them).
As we walked down these steps and out onto the floor of the arena, you could really feel how exciting it must have been to walk out from a darkened archway into the view of thousands of screaming Romans.
The Teatro Romana, a huge open-air theater, is located right next to the amphitheater. It's even older than the amphitheater, dating back to 15 BC, and could seat up to 6,000 eager theater-goers.
Eventually, after Christianity became the only Roman religion and theater performances were outlawed due to their immorality, this theater was abandoned, probably sometime in the mid third century. As it languished over the years, it slowly filled with earth until it was excavated starting in 1910.
There are many other Roman ruins left standing in and around Mérida, including the Circus of Mérida (Circo Romano), which once held chariot races; a Roman bridge over the Guadiana river, the crypt of Saint Eulalia, the temple of Diana, and even an Alcazaba, built when Mérida was under Moorish rule. If you like Roman ruins, a visit to Mérida is definitely worth your time.
After our stop at Mérida, which took longer than we'd anticipated, we got back on the road and headed toward Seville where, unbeknownst to us, forces had been set into motion that would work hard to keep us from getting to our hotel.