Spain probably isn’t the first country that springs to mind if you’re planning to explore the legacy of the Romans, but their empire encircled the Mediterranean (and beyond). In Spain, in addition to better known sights like Segovia’s aqueduct and Cordoba’s old bridge, Mérida is one of the best places to see some of the structures left from that age.
The modern city of Mérida has developed around and on top of the Roman colony of Augusta Emerita. It was built around 25BC and was the capital of Lusitana, located the furthest west of the Roman provinces. I began my exploration at the amphitheatre.
Though not as well preserved as others I’d visited – Tunisia’s El Djem, Nîmes in France and of course Rome’s Colosseum spring to mind – it had a certain charm. Being a weekday in the height of summer, visitors were thin on the ground, giving me a place free of tour groups to savour at a leisurely pace.
The amphitheatre itself was built about 8BC, designed to stage gladiatorial fights and other such spectacles. It would have had a capacity of around 15000 people, making it considerably smaller than the Colosseum which could seat almost four times that number. Adjacent to the amphitheatre is the theatre. More impressive, in my opinion, it’s a few years older than its neighbour, though back then, it wouldn’t have been nearly as popular. Give the Romans a choice between a bloodthirsty fight and a stage play and the fight would win every time.
Six thousand people would have been able to watch the proceedings. These days, the theatre is still in use; the Festival de Mérida takes full advantage of the atmospheric setting for a summer of plays. My schedule didn’t coincide, so I had to content myself with sitting on the front row in front of an empty stage gazing up at statues of deified emperors.
Perhaps the most impressive structure in the city is that of the Temple of Diana.
Its Corinthian columns make it an impressive sight. Behind, lies the Palace of the Duke of Corbis, into which the temple was absorbed in the 16th Century. The temple lies on one of Mérida’s main streets and there’s a cafe next to it, which makes it a surreal sight. Nearby, is the Forum, again surrounded by the town’s modern buildings.
Strolling downhill, it’s not long before you reach the Guadiana river and there, you find the old bridge. Built in two sections, it links the river’s banks via an island. Sixty of its original sixty two spans still exist, and wisely the bridge was pedestrianised over two decades ago.
Following the river bank from the bridge, after exploring the 9th Century Moorish Alcazaba that abuts its western bank, I headed to the Casa del Mitreo. There, Mérida’s most beautiful mosaics can be found. Best known is the mosaico cosmológico, laid in the 3rd Century and partially intact today.
The city also has a Hippodrome, but I made a conscious decision not to go. I could blame the weather – who wants to do such a walk when the temperature is still 40°C at six in the evening – but actually it was to avoid comparisons with the excellent experience I had at Jerash in Jordan. Its Hippodrome is used for the wonderfully entertaining RACE project.
You can read about it here:
Extremadura isn’t on most people’s radar when it comes to holidaying in Spain, overshadowed by its popular neighbour Andalusia. That doesn’t mean it’s got nothing to offer, however, and this region has proved to be one of the most diverse and interesting parts of Spain that I’ve visited.
Getting there from the UK
There aren’t any direct flights from the UK to Extremaduran towns so realistically, the choice is between Seville to the south of the region and Madrid to the north east. Ryanair fly to Seville from London’s Stansted airport, BA, Ryanair and easyJet from Gatwick. If you’re wondering why Iberia’s missing from the list, it codeshares with BA on their LGW flight. From regional airports, you’ll have to connect as there are no direct routes.
Those same airlines will also carry you to Madrid, plus Norwegian, a low-cost carrier operating out of Gatwick, as well as Iberia Express and Air Europa also from Gatwick.
Getting to and from the airport
I flew into Seville and out of Madrid on this trip but there’s no reason why you can’t do a round trip route or reverse the itinerary. To get into Seville from the airport I caught the airport bus, buying a ticket while I queued up for a few euros. It stops at the train station Santa Justa, skirts the old town and ends up at the main bus station, making it a convenient option wherever you’re staying.
In Madrid, my train’s final destination was Chamartin station to the north of the city centre but I bailed at Atocha. Getting to the airport was straightforward; the cercanias or stopping trains are quickest but go to Terminal 4. I’d opted to fly Ryanair which left from Terminal 1 and so I connected to the airport using metro line 8.
Whether or not you’ll need to rent a car depends on whether you wish to explore the region’s attractive countryside and villages or stick to the main towns. There are a few train connections, such as between Badajoz to the west and the Spanish capital, but for me, on many of the routes I wanted to use, buses operated to a more convenient schedule. Operators include LEDA, ALSA and Avanza.
I caught the bus from Seville to Zafra; you can buy a ticket to Mérida for around 10 euros. Although it’s possible to alight at Zafra, as far as I could work out, I couldn’t buy a ticket to Zafra online (you can in person) so I needed a separate ticket from Zafra to Mérida. Book online at http://www.alsa.es. It was just a few euros – well worth it for the chance to see this charming little town.
From Mérida to Cáceres, an hour or so further north, I used LEDA; find them at http://www.leda.es where they also offer online booking. A single ticket costs just under 6 euros. From Cáceres, I made a sideways hop to atmospheric Trujillo for under 4 euros each way, leaving my bag in a locker at the bus station back at Cáceres. Tickets from the brand new and barely open bus station in Trujillo only go on sale fifteen minutes before the bus departs with Avanza but the buses weren’t full.
To explore Monfragüe National Park and the La Vera valley in a day, there was no alternative to hiring a car. I used Europcar as its office was an easy walk from my Plaza Mayor base and also a straightforward and mercifully short drive to the ring road, easing the pain of town traffic. I did get a tiny bit lost getting the car back but I was only a few blocks out.
To get from Cáceres to the capital Madrid, I figured a train might be more reliable (it wasn’t – we were 40 minutes late getting in) and the train ticket on one of RENFE’s Media Distancia trains was also considerably more expensive than the buses I’d taken – around 32 euros.
Where to go
Where to start? There are so many incredible destinations that it’s hard to whittle them down. In order, here are the places I visited during my Extremaduran holiday.
This small town felt more like an Andalusian town than an Extremaduran one, though as it was the first stop on my itinerary, I hadn’t at that point worked out what an Extremaduran town might feel like. It has a pretty double square with lots of pavement cafes and tapas bars. I was there just for the day but I am told the food scene is good there – something for next time. The town also has a castle, now converted into a parador, and plenty whitewashed alleyways adorned with window boxes stuffed full of geraniums.
This town is supposed to have the best preserved Roman remains in Spain. The sheer number of ruins was impressive, but some sights had more of the wow factor than others. There’s a partially reconstructed amphitheatre next to a fantastic open air theatre. Then there’s the breathtaking Temple of Diana which is literally plonked halfway along the main street with shops and cafes either side; OK technically it was there first but it does look so out of place it’s a bizarre sight. A restored Roman bridge, old fort with atmospheric cistern, Moorish remains and Forum are also easily accessible within the town centre.
This charming town was my favourite, home to conquistador Pizarro whose statue dominates the main square. Actually, that statue was supposed to be of Cortes, but the Mexicans didn’t want it so it was re-purposed as a Pizarro statue instead. The historic centre of Trujillo is packed full of mansions, including Pizarro’s, as well as myriad churches, towers to climb, a museum about the conquest of Peru and a hilltop castle.
The main attraction of this large town is its Ciudad Monumental, a walled old town which is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Just wandering amongst its alleyways late in the day was a delight; the addition of a very talented flamenco singer playing Spanish guitar was the icing on the cake. Outside the Ciudad Monumental, the Plaza Mayor was the centre of the action when it came to food and drink, though nearby San Juan had better food. The town also has a hammam with the usual hot, warm and cold baths – massage optional.
Monfragüe National Park
This, I read, was Spain’s 14th national park but it was the one place I visited that made me gasp. At the Salta del Gitano lookout in the centre of the park, the River Tajo meanders between a couple of rocky outcrops. I visited in the morning and the water was a vivid green – a spectacle in itself but even for someone who can’t see the point of birdwatching, the sight of a black vulture close up was pretty impressive. The winding drive through the park was very pleasant and, if you don’t visit in the height of summer when the temperatures soar, the area is great for hiking.
This valley connects a series of pretty little villages, many of them worth a stop. Pasarón de la Vera was my first stop, its setting the main draw. From there, a short drive took me to Jaraíz de la Vera, known for its peppers, and then to Cuacos de Yuste, where the monastery housed the Spanish King Carlos V towards the end of his life. I drove on as far as Jarandilla de la Vera where there was an impressive Roman bridge and several natural swimming pools (a big thing in these parts) before backtracking to Garganta de Olla, a quaint little village with a plethora of half-timbered houses overhanging its narrow streets. Taking the mountain route via Piornal provided the adrenaline rush to end the day – though fortunately by that I mean returning to Cáceres and not going over the cliff edge.
The ones that got away…
This was my first trip to this region and there were quite a few places I didn’t have time to visit – this time! I’ll be back, one day, to visit Alcántara and its bridge as well as to Montánchez, Monesterio and to Casar de Cáceres for the food.
Watch out for more blogs covering Extremadura in the near future for more on these fantastic places.