At the end of 2012, I lived for three months in Mérida, a small city in the region of Extremadura, Spain, teaching English. It’s a place I’d never heard of before getting a job offer there through various teaching contacts, though I had heard of its much bigger namesake in Mexico. Mérida in Extremadura, of course, is the original (there’s actually also a Mérida in Venezuela and the Philippines).
Mérida lies on the Vía de la Plata, a pilgrimage route from Seville to Santiago de Compostela, and is for many a highlight of the month-long trek from Andalucia to Galicia. It is also approximately half way between Madrid and Lisbon, making it an excellent stop over point on a tour of the Iberian peninsula. And don’t forget to try some typical foods from Spain while there!
The main reason to visit this city of 57,000 people is for its Roman ruins, which are very accessible and many of which are right in the centre of the town, something which is not easy to find in Spain.
The Roman Theatre is easily the most famous sight of Mérida, and it’s often used as a symbol for the city anywhere that it’s being promoted. Similar to the library at Ephesus to the untrained observer (that’s me), it’s easy to see why this is the sight the locals are most proud of. It’s also easy to imagine how it was originally used and what the atmosphere must have been like during Roman times. In summer, there are occasionally concerts held in the theatre, and during the first weekend of October, during the city’s Roman Festival, even dramatised gladiator fights!
- Open during daylight hours
- Entrance is €12
- Location: at the end of José Ramón Melida street
Not being a huge fan of museums myself, I wasn’t expecting much from this place, but I was pleasantly surprised. I suppose it’s more of an art gallery than a museum in its layout and in that there isn’t a huge amount of text to read. The majority of items on display are sculptures and mosaics, along side some coins, pottery and glassware. The impressive modern building that houses the displays is noteworthy in itself, and serves as a nice, non-distracting backdrop to the art on display.
- Open: Tues – Sat 09:30 – 20:00 (1st Oct – 31st Mar, closes at 18:30), Sun 10:00 – 15:00
- Entrance is €3, or free on Saturday afternoons and all days Sunday
- Location: on the same square as the entrance to the theatre at the end of José Ramón Melida street
Acueducto de los Milágros
Possibly my favourite ruin in Mérida, this aqueduct (whose name means aqueduct of miracles, apparently because it’s a miracle that it’s still standing!) is the second most complete in all of Spain, after that in Segovia. It stands in a pleasant park, straddling a small canal connected to Mérida’s river, which is a pleasant place to spend an hour or two lounging around on a lazy summer day. It’s also a great place to spot storks which nest atop the pillars of the aqueduct.
- Open all day, all year
- Entrance is free; it’s completely open to the elements; walk up and give it a hug if you like
- Location: between Avenida Marquesa de Pinares and Avenida de los Milagros, just north of the train station
Templo de Diana
The most accessible ruin in the whole city is definitely the Temple of Diana, who was an important goddess in the cult of Lusitania, which was practiced in this part of the Roman Empire. It sits in a simple square, surrounded by modern buildings onto which it is rumoured an observation deck will be added to give views of the temple from some elevation.
- Open all day, all year
- Entrance is free; just walk up to it
- Location: at the corner of Calle Catalina and Calle Romero Leal
There are four bridges that cross the river Guadiana at Mérida, of which the Roman bridge is both the only pedestrian one and the most pleasant place to cross the river. It also serves as an access point to the island in the middle of the river, which was once used as a playground for the Roman inhabitants of the city. Today is a place to see people running, cycling, walking their dogs, playing with children or just relaxing in the sun or under the shade of the many trees.
- Open all day, all year
- Entrance is free; you may even walk upon it by accident
- Location: at the end of Calle Puente
Proserpina is a Roman built reservoir, approximately 9km north of the city which used to serve as the city’s main source of water. Nowadays, the main activities that happen here are fishing, swimming, pedal boating and walking. One side of the lake is quite developed, with holiday homes and a few restaurants, while the other side is much more rugged. Walking around the lake takes about one hour, and it’s a lovely place to cool down outside of the city on a hot sunny day.
Another, but much more recently built and much bigger reservoir is at Alange, approximately 25km south of Mérida. There is a small town with some places to eat, sleep and in summer time, a thermal bath. The reservoir itself is enormous and in summer, is a popular place to go windsurfing, swimming or lying on the artificial beach. Above the lake is a hill with a ruined castle on top, which can be reached in an easy 30 minute walk from the town, and is worth it for the wonderful views over the lake, especially at sunset.
60km south of Mérida, also on the Vía de la Plata is the pleasant town of Zafra. The old, historical centre is built around the 15th century castle, which is now a upscale hotel, and also serves as one of the main tourist information points. Wandering around the old town is a nice way to spend an afternoon, and there are plenty of cafés lining the many pedestrian only squares to stop for a drink.
If you’re craving a bit of the big city lights, Cáceres is the closest thing you’ll find to it in Extremadura. As the biggest city in the region with 95,000 people, it’s the place to come for shopping, nightlife and anything you can’t find in Mérida. The charming old town is a labyrinth of narrow cobbled streets, intimate squares, gothic and baroque churches and cute cafés.
180km northeast of Mérida is Monfragüe national park, a great place for spotting some regional wildlife such as vultures, eagles, deer and foxes. The deer are especially friendly and curious and may even approach you if it seems that you have food for them. From the main road through the park, there are several well marked circular walking paths of different levels of difficulty. There is one town in the park, Villareal de San Carlos with a few shops and a hotel, but you can easily make the trip from Mérida as a day trip.
Mérida is well connected by public transport to major cities in Spain to the north and south, as well as to Madrid in the east and to Portugal in the west. Other, smaller destinations require your own transport. Mérida has both a bus and a train station, and while there are several trains to Cáceres, Madrid and Seville, they are usually slower and more expensive than buses.
The train station is on Calle Carderos, just behind Calle Marquesa de Pinares.
The bus station is on Avenida Libertad, just across Lusitania bridge from the old town.
The closest international airports to Mérida are Seville San Pablo (195km), Lisbon Portela (290km) and Madrid Barajas (360km).
There is one airport in Extremadura, Badajoz Airport (50km west of Mérida), which has domestic flights to Madrid, Málaga, Barcelona and in the high season, to the Balearic islands.