Dine lying down at Aqua Libera. Above: Try ancient Roman cuisine. // © 2017 Deborah Dimond
Feature image (above): Merida’s amphitheater is well-preserved. // © 2017 Getty Images
It’s a toss-up when it comes to what I enjoyed more — bathing in the Roman baths or seeing where lions used to be kept in a 2-millennia-old arena. I was smack-dab in the heart of Spain, and both felt surreal.
The autonomous community of Extremadura, which sits in the southwestern corner of the country, is steeped in history. After navigating the tourist-packed streets and attractions of Madrid and Barcelona, travelers will love a detour here, with its clean air; rolling pastoral landscapes and rich, fertile farmland; acorn-feed jamon (cured ham); and beautifully preserved historic villages.
One of the area’s many gems is Merida, Extremadura’s capital. The vibrant city was founded in 25 B.C. by Augustus, the first Roman emperor. Merida prides itself on preserving a collection of more ancient Roman monuments than any other city in Spain, and its major landmark, the Archaeological Ensemble of Merida, was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1993.
The Theater and Amphitheater
Even in 8 B.C., trips to the theater were essential for cultured city dwellers. Early Merida inhabitants consisted mostly of retired Roman soldiers and veterans of the Cantabrian Wars, and they were hungry for entertainment. The Archaeological Ensemble of Merida complex includes an amphitheater that was the former site of gladiator fights, as well as a place where men fought lions or animals fought one another. Those who preferred drama without the bloodshed could attend a play at the complex’s theater or walk over to the circus to cheer at chariot races.
These days, the venues are still mostly intact and feel reminiscent of modern theaters and sports arenas. The theater features original Corinthian columns as well as reproductions of original sculptures (now housed in a nearby museum). As you wander through its corridors to find a seat for a modern play or dance show — produced annually in July and August during the Merida Classical Theatre Festival — it’s easy to imagine what life was like for ancient theatergoers.
Meanwhile, I found the neighboring amphitheater chilling because of the loss of life that happened in the name of entertainment. However, I was fascinated by the area in which they had kept lions, and the small hole in the wall of their habitat specifically designed to allow people to feed the cats without losing a hand.
The National Museum of Roman Art
They say all roads lead to Rome; well, one of those roads runs right through Merida’s Museo Nacional de Arte Romano (National Museum of Roman Art). The road has been preserved on the first floor of the museum and is flanked by ancient tombs. Visitors can progress to the second and third floors to see more than 35,000 artifacts that were invaluable in the daily lives of early urban dwellers. Artifacts span the gamut, from enormous mosaic floors, portraits and statues to ceramics, tools and currency.
I found it both amusing and practical that most statues from this time period had interchangeable heads, so that when one ruler died, the statue’s head was lifted off and replaced with the sculpted head of the new ruler.
History on Every Corner
Visitors don’t need to buy a ticket to see a plethora of ancient architecture throughout Merida. The Roman Provincial Forum, for example, is a public area of the city that was built in the first century. And walking down Calle de Santa Catalina, clients will pass by the impressive granite columns adorning the Temple of Diana. A short walk from the temple leads to the Arch of Trajan, which is now nestled between two modern buildings.
But no tour of the city would be complete without seeing Puente Romano. The nearly 2,600-foot bridge spans the Guadiana River and is one of the longest-surviving bridges built by ancient Romans.
Living Like a Roman
It’s one thing to travel to a different country; it’s another to travel through time. Termas Aqua Libera — a small hotel built in the style of a typical ancient Roman house — brings to life the frivolity of ancient Rome. The property, which features re-created Roman baths and ancient Roman cuisine, is located in Aljucen, about a 20-minute drive from Merida.
Eager to get into character, I first stopped at the baths. I soaked in the marble pools bedecked with candles and intricate mosaic tile floors. After making my way through the warm, piping-hot and ice-cold plunge pools, I was dressed for dinner by the proprietor, who selected a Roman frock and coordinating floral crown for me. I then proceeded to the garden triclinium (an ancient Roman dining table), where we drank honeyed wines (and took decidedly non-ancient selfies by the reflection pool and small temple).
We ate dinner atop couches while lying on our stomachs and propped on our elbows. Dishes, which were based on those documented in ancient Roman texts, were served on a floating wooden boat in a small pool of water at the center of our table. I feasted on delicacies such as shrimp, stuffed dates and roasted grapes served on wooden skewers.
Sleep in a Palace
Book a room in Merida at Hotel Ilunion Merida Palace, located in the center of town. Formerly a palace, the five-star hotel has 76 rooms, a rooftop pool, a fully equipped gym and a restaurant.
Merida is still under the radar for many Western travelers, but it’s a unique destination worth visiting — especially for clients looking to immerse in history. A day in Merida spent wandering through time will not soon be forgotten.