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  • Roman Theatre in Mérida © Turespaña

    Roman Theatre in Mérida © Turespaña

  • Roman Amphitheatre in Mérida © Turespaña

    Roman Amphitheatre in Mérida © Turespaña

  • National Museum of Roman Art. Mérida © Turespaña

    National Museum of Roman Art. Mérida © Turespaña

Badajoz, Extremadura

Located in the heart of the Silver Route, Mérida is heir to a splendid Roman past. Its theatre, its amphitheatre and its temple dedicated to the goddess Diana make this former capital of Roman Lusitania one of the best conserved archaeological sites in Spain, and has earned it the declaration of World Heritage site.

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This immense Roman legacy is now housed in the National Museum of Roman Art, where visitors can discover the city's past through this valuable collection of objects from Mérida and the surrounding area.

The capital of Extremadura offers a full programme of interesting cultural events, which includes particularly the Festival of Classical Theatre in Mérida, one of the most important festivals organised in Spain.

Mérida's history is closely linked to the Roman expansion throughout the Iberian Peninsula. Its foundation as a city took place in the year 25 B.C. in the reign of the Emperor Augustus, from whom it took its original name of Emérita Augusta.

It was initially a place for the retirement of soldiers on completing their military service in the 5th and 10th legions, who were rewarded by Rome with land in the Guadiana river valley after the Cantabrian wars. This early enclave was also of great strategic value, as it was the site where two of the main Roman highways converged: the Silver Route, which linked Mérida and Astorga, and the Roman road which connected Toledo with Lisbon.

Mérida was the capital of the Roman province of Lusitania and became one of the most flourishing cities of the Empire. It was also an important religious centre throughout the early years of the spread of Christianity.

Under the reign of the Visigoths, the city for a time maintained its key role as the capital of the kingdom, which was subsequently moved to Toledo. With the arrival of the Arabs, Mérida was transformed into a stronghold, until the Christian king Alfonso IX reconquered the city in the 13th century, when it became the seat of the Order of Santiago.

The remnants of the Roman era

The splendid past of the capital of Mérida can today be seen in one of the best conserved monumental and archaeological sites in Spain.

The mark of the Romans can still be seen in every corner of the city, with the Roman Theatre as one of its most emblematic constructions. Built in the first century B.C., it had capacity for 6,000 spectators. The stage was presided by two rows of superimposed columns decorated with sculptures of divinities and imperial personages. Beside it stood the amphitheatre, the site of fights between gladiators and wild beasts. This construction, which was contemporary with the theatre, still conserves some of its original elements, including the stands, the boxes and the tribunes.

Both venues come to life again every summer with the celebration of the Mérida Classical Theatre Festival, one of the most important festivals organised in Spain.

The centre of the town is the site of the Temple of Diana and Trajan's Arch, which is 15 metres tall and one of the gateways into the city.

The outskirts of the city are home to evidence of the ambitious civil engineering projects of the time, such as the Roman Bridge crossing the Guadiana river. The monumental structure of this bridge is particularly worth noting, as its over 800 metres in length and 60 arches make it one of the largest of its day. It is also worth mentioning the Los Milagros aqueduct which spans the difference in level along the Albarregas river, and served to supply the city with water from the neighbouring reservoir of Proserpina, whose Roman dam still survives.

The National Museum of Roman Art, the work of the Spanish architect Rafael Moneo, is a fitting complement to any visit to the Roman constructions around the city. Through over 36,000 exhibits –all of them from Mérida and the surrounding region– and the explanatory panels, the museum offers the chance to find out all about the legacy of the city, and provides a glimpse of daily life in the Roman colony.

Various examples of architecture still remain from the Muslim era. Beside the Guadiana river stands the most notable of these structures, the Alcazaba citadel. The interior of the Arab fortress is home to a typical cistern known as an aljibe dating from Roman times, which was subsequently rebuilt and decorated with Visigoth pilasters.

Beside this defensive fortress is the Santiaguista convent church, built during the period in which the city was under the jurisdiction of the Knights of the Order of Santiago. Currently the building is the site of the presidency of the regional government of Extremadura.

Gastronomy and the surroundings

The gastronomy of Mérida shares various dishes with the rest of the region, such as the lamb stew (a casserole made with lamb, onion, garlic and peppers) and its pork products, particularly the sausages and cured hams made with Iberico pork. Also typical are the cold soups, gazpacho and the white garlic soup known as ajoblanco , rabbit and partridge.

Any of the bars and restaurants in Mérida offer the chance to try these and other delicacies, some of them in the form of appetisers (small portions of food) such as pig's ears, green asparagus and cheese. To accompany these dishes, the province of Badajoz is home to wines with the Ribera del Guadiana Designation of Origin.

One of the options for staying the night in Mérida is the Parador hotel, located in an old 18th-century convent in the historic centre of the city.

The capital of Extremadura stands on what is known as the Silver Route. In the Middle Ages, this Roman road was used as a pilgrims route to Santiago de Compostela, and today leads to interesting towns and villages in Extremadura such as Zafra, Cáceres (its old city has been declared a World Heritage site by the UNESCO) and Plasencia. Not far from this route are the national parks of Monfragüe and Cornalvo, whose visitor centres are happy to offer advice on the best routes for exploring these natural areas.

Just a few kilometres from Mérida there are various other sites of interest. Towards the south is Alange, with a spa dating from Roman times, and Almendralejo, the fertile capital of the farming area of Tierra de Barros. Heading eastwards, the options include Medellín, birthplace of the Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés and the site of the remains of a castle dating from Muslim times; Don Benito, with its Ethnographic Museum, one of the most important in Extremadura; and Villanueva de la Serena, with notable buildings such as the church of La Asunción and the town hall.


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«Bacantes» © Festival Internacional de Teatro Clásico de Mérida

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Roman Theatre in Mérida - Mérida
Mérida Classical Theatre Festival

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Centro Cultural Alcazaba - Mérida
Unreleased Film Festival

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