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The Roman Theatre and Amphitheatre Province: Badajoz / Autonomous Region: Extremadura
Tourist Office: Paseo José Alvares Sáenz de Buruaga, s/n - 06800 Mérida (Badajoz)
Tel. +34 924009730 Fax +34 924009731 Mérida is the capital of the autonomous community of Extremadura, Spain. It has a population of 53,915 (2006).It was founded in the year 25 BC, with the name of Emerita Augusta (the name Mérida is an evolution of this) by order of Emperor Augustus, to protect a pass and a bridge over the Guadiana river. Two veteran legions were the former settlers: V Alaudae and X Gémina. The city became the capital of Lusitania province, and one of the most important cities in the Roman empire. Mérida preserves more important ancient Roman monuments than any other city in Spain (including a triumphal arch of the age of Trajan); because of this, the "Archaeological Ensemble of Mérida" is a World Heritage site.
During the Visigothic period it maintained much of its splendour, especially under the sixth-century domination of the bishops. Bishop Paul brought the diocese great wealth, making it the wealthiest diocese in Spain. Bishop Fidelis rebuilt the cathedral and under the bishop Masona it became the site of the first recorded hospital in Spain.
Among the remaining Roman monuments are the Puente Romano, a bridge over the Guadiana river that is still used by pedestrians; an important fortification to defend the bridge, lately used by the Moors, called Alcazaba; the Temple of Diana; the remains of the Forum, including the Arch of Trajan; the remains of the Circus Maximus; the Acueducto de los Milagros (aqueduct); a villa called the Mitreo; the Embalse de Proserpina and Cornalvo reservoirs; the Circus, the Amphitheatre and the Roman Theatre where a summer festival of Classical theatre is presented, usually with versions of Greco-Roman classics or modern plays located in ancient times. One can also visit the Morerías archaeological site and many others all around the city, and watch digging in progress, as well as the Museo Nacional de Arte Romano (by Rafael Moneo). There are several buildings of contemporary age as Escuela de la Administración Pública (Public Administration College), Consejerías y Asamblea de Junta de Extremadura (councils and parlament of Extremadura), Agencía de la Vivienda de Extremadura (Housing Agency of Extremadura), Biblioteca del Estado (State Library) , Palacio de Congresos y Exposiciones (auditorium), Factoría de Ocio y Creación Joven (cultural and leisure center for young), Complejo Cultural Hernán Cortés (cultural center), Ciudad Deportiva (sport's city), Universidad de Mérida (Mérida University), Confederación Hidrografica del Guadiana (Guadiana Hydrografic Confederation from Rafael Moneo), Puente Lusitania (Lusitania Bridge over Guadiana River from Santiago Calatrava), Palacio de Justicia (Justice Hall)...
It is necessary to visit also the Santa Maria's Cathedral and the Santa Eulalia's Basilic.
The theatre dates back to 16/15 B.C. Seating in the Roman Theatre was determined by one's status in society. The "orchestra pit" was reserved for only those of the highest class, senators and high officials. The top rows (very deteriorated and in the photo below, appear to look like a back wall) were for the slaves and the very poor.While there were paid gladiators (ex-soldiers), most participants in the arena were either condemned prisoners or servants.
A view of the second gladiators' entrance and the "fossa arenaria." The "fossa arenaia" is the large cross shape depression in the center of the arena. In Roman times, this area would have been covered with wooden planking and stored the caged animals and equipment for staged presentations. Under a renovation, this area received a waterproof lining and then apparently was flooded with water for some events.
While death was the central theme of the amphitheatre, make no mistake about it, it was also about theater (and making money). Wild animals from Asia and Africa were imported to make spectacular entertainment. Gladiators who fought animals were given the special name of "Venator."
By the late 400's A.D. the amphitheatre was no longer in use, and its wall became the source for the raw material to construct other buildings.
One time capital of Lusitania (combined kingdoms of Spain and Portugal), at the crossroads of the Roman roads from Toledo, Salamanca, Seville and Lisbon, Merida was founded in 25BC. It boasts some of the finest Roman ruins in the whole of Spain and possibly the world. Merida is described as being the tourist capital of Extremadura. It has also been described as a 'mini version of Rome'. The longest Roman bridge in Spain is just one monument worth seeing.
Getting to Merida
Trains: The RENFE station in Merida is located on Calle Cardero. There are four trains to and from Cáceres (trip time: 1 hr.), five trains to and from Madrid (4.5-6 hours), one to and from Seville (3 hr.), and seven to and from Badajoz (1 hr.)
Bus: The bus station is located on Avenida de la Libertad near the train station. There are fewer buses to Madrid, but connections to Seville (6-8 buses per day) are much better.
Car: the N-V motorway passes through Merida from Madrid or Lisbon.
Sights to see in Merida
The Roman Theatre
This is the jewel of Merida's Roman heritage. It was built by Agrippa in 18 B.C. when 6000 people could be seated in the theatre. In June and July plays are still staged here. Tickets are priced at 5€ (June 2003). This includes a visit to the Theatre and Amphitheatre.
There is over 5 miles of aqueduct running though Merida, although there isn't a section as complete as the one at Segovia. The Acueducto de los Milagros on the northwest side of town is the most complete, and feeds two nearby man made lakes.
This immense Roman legacy is documented in the National Museum of Roman Art, where the history of the city can be explored through a priceless collection of artefacts found in Merida and its vicinity.
The Extremaduran capital has a cultural calendar filled with interesting activities, including the International Classical Theatre Festival, which takes place every summer and is one of the most significant of its kind in Spain.
The history of Merida has close ties to the Roman expansion through the Iberian Peninsula. Its foundation as a city took place in 25 B.C., under the rule of Emperor Augustus, from whom the first name of the city, Emérita Augusta, was taken.
There, discharged soldiers from the 5th and 10th Legions settled, after being rewarded by Rome for their participation in the Cantabrian Wars with lands on the fertile plains of the Guadiana River. At the same time, this incipient city had great strategic value, since two different Roman routes met there: the Silver Route (Vía de la Plata), which linked Merida and Astorga and the Roman road that linked Toledo and Lisbon.
Mérida was the capital of the Roman province of Lusitania and it became one of the most flourishing cities of the Empire. Likewise, it was an important religious centre during the first years of the spread of Christianity.
Under Visigothic rule, the city stayed on the centre stage as capital of the kingdom, but this title was later assigned to Toledo. With the arrival of the Arabs, Merida became a fortress, until the Christian King Alfonso IX reconquered the city in the 13th century, when it then became the base for the Military Order of Saint James of the Sword.
The Roman Legacy
The splendorous history of Merida can be observed in the monumental and archaeological ensemble that it keeps, one of the best preserved in Spain.
Thus, the Roman legacy is still present in almost every little corner of town, the Roman Theatre being one of the most emblematic constructions. Erected in the first century B.C., the theatre can seat 6,000 people. The stage is dominated by two stacked rows of columns, ornamented with sculptures of deities and imperial figures. Next to it is the Amphitheatre, a stage where gladiators wrestled with beasts. This building, contemporary with the previous one, preserves some of its original elements, like the grandstands, the box and the gallery.
Both precincts come back to life each summer with the celebration of the Merida Classical Theatre Festival, one of the most important of its kind in Spain.
The Temple of Diana and the Arch of Trajan —one of the gates to the city, rising to a height of 15 metres— are located in the city centre.
On the outskirts, there are ambitious Roman civil projects such as the Roman Bridge, which crosses the Guadiana River. The bridge stands out for its monumental size —800 metres long, with 60 arches— that made it one of the biggest ones in the Empire at the time. It is also quite worth it to mention the Aqueduct of Los Milagros which crossed the Abarregas River and supplied the city with water from the Roman dam of Proserpina, still preserved.
The National Museum of Roman Art, built by Spanish architect, wraps up the journey through Merida's Roman period. Through the more than 36,000 artefacts —all of which were found in Merida and its vicinity— plus the exposed panels, the precinct narrates the history of the city and its Roman legacy and it shows how daily life was at a Roman colony.
Also, a few examples of architecture are left from the Muslim rule. Across from the Guadiana River is the most significant of them all, the Alcazaba (Citadel). The interior of the Arab fortress preserves a Roman aljibe (underground reservoir) which was rebuilt and decorated with Visigothic pilasters.
Attached to this precinct is the Conventual Santiaguista, built during the time that the city was under the jurisdiction of the Knights of the Order of Saint James of the Word. Nowadays, the building is the site of the Extremaduran Government.
Gastronomy and the outskirts
The cuisine from Malaga shares many dishes with the rest of the region, such as the lamb caldereta (a stew made with lamb, onions, garlic and peppers) and Iberian pork products, specially sausages and ham. Other typical dishes include gazpacho (a cold soup made with tomato, peppers, cucumber, garlic, etc.), ajoblanco (another could soup, similar to gazpacho but white, made with garlic, almonds and bread), rabbit and partridge.
Any of the bars and restaurants in Merida serve these and many more delicacies, some of them as appetisers, like pork ears, wild asparagus and cheese. To go with the food, Badajoz offers excellent wines with the label Designation of Origin - Ribera del Guadiana.
When it comes to spending the night, one of the best choices in Merida is the Parador de Turismo, located at the heart of the historic quarter, in an old eighteenth-century convent.
The Extremaduran capital is located on the Vía de la Plata (Silver Route). This road, which was a pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostela during the Middle Ages, now takes us to interesting Extremaduran towns such as Zafra, Mérida, Caceres (with a historic quarter that was declared World Heritage) and Plasencia. Not far from this road are the national parks of Monfragüe and Cornalvo, with Nature Centres where one can obtain information about the best trails to follow to explore the parks.
Other interesting towns are also found in the vicinity of Merida. To the south is Alange, with a Roman bath and Almendralejo, the capital of the fertile farming region of the Land of Barros. To the east is Medellín, the birthplace of the Spanish conqueror Hernán Cortés, where the remains of an Arab castle are preserved Don Benito, where you can visit the Ethnographic Museum, one of the most important ones in Extremadura and Villanueva de la Serena, with remarkable buildings like the church of Asunción and the Town Hall.
Museo Nacional de Arte Romano de Mérida (Mérida)
Anfiteatro de Mérida (Mérida)
Teatro romano de Mérida (Mérida)
Templo de Diana (Mérida) (Mérida)
Arco de Trajano (Mérida) (Mérida)
La Alcazaba (Mérida) (Mérida)
Acueducto "de los Milagros"(Mérida) (Mérida)
Iglesia Arciprestal de Santa María (Mérida) (Mérida)
Nature areas Mérida Classical Theatre Festival
Parque Natural de Cornalvo
Club de Golf de Merida Don Tello (Mérida)
The orchards of Guadiana grow excellent produce and the pasturel and gives great Iberian meats, from Retinto and Merino-breed livestock. Also of great quality is the wild produce, like asparagus, truffle and thistle. The selection of sausages and cheeses is unsurpassable. Excellent wines.