Friday, 8 July 2016

Mérida, day one: Memoirs of a Zumo Wrestler

Mérida, Spain (Mérida, España)
November 2015
We had become so accustomed to the awesomeness of having freshly squeezed orange juice every morning with breakfast in Liencres that after our departure we had immediately invested in a portable squeezer for ourselves. It was possibly the most rewarding €2 I've spent in my whole life! Our first day in Mérida, we awoke in our heavily classical Roman themed hotel (with fake marble statues of lithe young women in the lobby) and partook in the zumo de naranja. Yannick deemed us zumo wrestlers as it takes some elbow grease to get all that goodly juice from the oranges. 
Our main goal in visiting Mérida was to experience many Roman sites, and that's just what we did! Down the street from our hotel was the Casa del Mitreo, where we procured the €12 combined ticket, which allowed us access to the main archaeological sites. The cool thing was that it didn't have an expiry date - we could have seen half the sites and come back a year later to see the rest! I mean, we were only there for two days, but we could have done that.

The casa was a 1st- or 2nd-century villa owned by a wealthy Roman family. Many of the rooms' floor mosaics were intact, and even some frescoes could still be seen. One that stood out to me was a mosaic of a chubby cherub delicately holding a bird. Evidence of the cult of Mithras was found nearby, which is why archaeologists named the house Casa de Mitreo. Mithras was a mysterious figure who may have been the Roman form of the Indo-Persian deity Mitra. He was born from a rock and slaughtered a bull, then feasted on the carcass with his new pal, the sun.
Along a dusty pathway the casa was connected to another site, Los Columbarios, which is a 4th-century necropolis containing two families' crypts (also with sweet frescoes inside). 

Just down the road we found the amphitheatre, which was surprisingly touristy compared to the last two sites we saw (where there was only one other visiting couple). Touters were foisting flyers at us left, right and centre. Interestingly, they seemed to be aimed at Spanish tourists rather than foreigners.
Once we entered through the iron gate of the site, we were allowed peace and quiet once more, with a few tourist comrades admiring the ancient stones. Boasting a capacity of 15,000 spectators, some epic gladiatorial fights were undoubtedly had in the eras of emperors.

Standing adjacent to the amphitheatre was the theatre, where plays would be staged. Drama was a central part of Roman life, and this theatre was constructed less than ten years after the city of Emerita Augusta was founded. Augustus, first emperor of the Roman Empire, founded the city in 25BC for veteran soldiers and ensured they had all amenities every Roman would expect - the theatre, the amphitheatre, the circus, and the baths.

During the reign of Constantine, when Christianity spread far and wide through the empire, drama was seen as unholy and the theatre was covered in earth. Up until the late 1800's, the very tops of the stands could be seen and excavations began around 1910. Since the 1930's, the theatre has been utilised as a real theatre, holding performances, and is the most visited site in the city.

I suppose being covered in earth preserved the theatre quite well, as we were able to use the same tunnels under the seats as Roman spectators would have used to avoid stepping on people's toes two thousand years ago. Metal braziers burned on the walls, throwing flickering light down the dark passages.
With the afternoon wearing on, we made to leave but could not find the blasted exit. We followed the signs, but no salida! We tried to leave the same way we came in, but an officious Spaniard told us we couldn't go that way. So we walked back across the site and found ourselves hemmed in by fencing once again. The signs were wildly misleading! We asked a kindly looking man who was spraying weeds with death potion, and he told us to exit the way we had entered. I knew it!

After briefly checking out the Temple of Diana, we feasted on another 3-course lunch menu with wine, this time for only €12! We were dreadfully full (and in want of a siesta), but we were near to the Roman bridge (el Puente Romano) so popped on over for a teacup themed photo. We watched a girl nearby for a while as she took what I can only imagine were hundreds of selfies of her and the bridge. She still wasn't done when we had finished walking back across the 750-metre long puente.
The only non-Roman site we saw that day was the alcazaba, a Moorish castle that had been built in 835 and was now left in ruins. We took a walk along the ramparts to avoid a howling group of schoolchildren and enjoyed the views over the river as we waited for their excitable shrieking to move elsewhere. Who should we encounter there but selfie girl! She had caught up to us, hopped up on the crenelations and was posing for more selfies.

Eventually the courtyard below us was child-free, so we went to investigate the cistern, which sounds like a toilet but apparently is an underground water reservoir. Aside from the walls, it was pretty much the only part of the alcazaba left standing. The water was probably no longer used for drinking, as several goldfish lazily swam around in it! Godrays from the little window shone down and made the whole scene very atmospheric.
We didn't notice how close we were to the child horde as we were exiting the alcazaba and we became stuck in a traffic jam as two teachers performed a headcount. School trips are not fun for anyone except the kids, who are only happy because they don't have to be trapped in a classroom all day. They didn't care about the history! They were all babbling to each other the whole time.
Once we staggered back to our hotel, we decided we quite liked Mérida and should stay one extra night. But the receptionist told us that they were booked out, so with heavy hearts knowing we had but one day left in the city, we collapsed and fell into a lunch-induced coma for four hours.