Wednesday, 13 July 2016

Mérida, day two: Necia, Necia! (Spurring the Chariot of Discovery)

Mérida, Spain (Mérida, España)
November 2015
On our second and last full day in the archaeological zone of Mérida, we tried to fit in as much as we could to make use of our sightseeing ticket.
Before all else, we took a trip to the circus, where horse and chariot races would have been held. As the Roman structures fell into ruin over the centuries, the circus was covered in earth and used as fields for growing crops. It was only properly excavated in the early 1900's, and remains one of the best preserved Roman circuses. Admittedly, it wasn't much to look at as it was just an oblong field with remnants of stonework, but it was interesting.

As we capered down the road towards a basilica, we stopped to admire a small bath complex and an aqueduct. Seriously, ancient stuff is sprung on you every whichway you turn in Mérida! The storks clearly enjoyed the aqueduct too, as we could see their huge floppy nests all over the top of it.

The basilica itself is closed to the public, but the Cripta de Santa Eulalia is open for all to see (with a ticket). It was quite dark down there in the crypt, but we were able to see fragments of wall from an old Roman house that the church had been built atop, and even some more frescoes! Are you getting sick of me talking about frescoes? Well, be prepared for mosaics!

Very near the river, and pretty much across the street from the alcazaba was the Zona Arqueológica de Morería. On show were ruins dating back to Roman times, but also more recently - the Moorish quarter had been built atop that. Having dug deep enough, archaeologists had uncovered an original Roman road. Just imagine the bustle of two thousand years ago - bakers hauling their carts of bread, craftsmen calling out "two for one deal!" and hundreds of besandalled citizens skipping on their merry way to the baths or the theatre. And have we changed all that much? Now we have motorised bread carts, sure, but there's always a two for one deal.

Nexton our whirlwind tour came the Museo de Arte Visigodo, or museum for Visigoth art. However, the most interesting piece of art we saw there was not Visigoth, but rather Moorish. A friendly elderly staff member began to explain histories to us in Spanish, but we confessed we couldn't understand him. He suggested French, Italian or German, as he spoke all three as well as Spanish. So he told us (in French) that the stone inscription was from the foundation of the alcazaba and a crucial part of Mérida's history. As we left, he said "farewell, goodbye!" showing proficiency in a language he professed not to speak. What a guy.

After spying Trajan's Arch, which was once the entrance to a large temple complex, we went on a bakery quest. Having seen two people walk past clutching baguettes, we knew there had to be one around. Down a busy pedestrian street we were surrounded by people and their tiny dogs, some in pink jackets (the dogs, not the people). Having finally found a little bakery, Yannick ignored the baguette after all and nommed on doughnuts. The Spanish know their doughnuts. 
For some reason, the Museo Nacional de Arte Romano offered free entry after 14:00, so we waited a little while outside under the blue sky and windswept palm trees. Here another tiny dog came into our line of vision, drawing our attention by yapping incessantly. When his owner picked him up placatingly, he writhed like a demonic squid until he was placed back down. His yapping was somewhat stymied when he became aware of a nearby leaf that he found offensive in some way. Attempting to savagely attack said leaf, the leash constricted against his throat and the profuse production of saliva led the tiny canine to look positively rabid. His owners ignored him.

At last the hour of entrada gratis was upon us, and we were immediately blown away by the museum. Even simply the building itself was modern and yet reminded you of a Roman construction with thin bricks and airy archways.

It held a fascinating collection including some huge and stunning mosaics. Unfortunately every single one of them had damage which looked like the result of some issues with ripping up the delicately placed tiles so that some aristocrat of yesteryear could show it off over his mantlepiece. 

Some had great big patches missing entirely, or segments that were filled in later by artists trying to recreate the scene. The methods used today for mosaic extraction are much more sophisticated than in the early 20th-century, when much of Mérida was excavated. Regardless, these were some of the most impressive mosaics we had ever seen and we marvelled at the thought of the huge rooms they would have decorated. As well as mosaics, we perused an assortment of sculptures, coins (I spotted a Hadrian!) and frescoes. 

One of particular interest to me was a mosaic showing a chariot pulled by four horses. In the top right, you can see the word "nicha", which was used as a driving word to spur the horses on. Nicha! Necia! Is me!We had been roamin' the museum for hours and at last were too weary to continue. Our explorations had taken us to every site on our combined tickets, and more! While Mérida may not be as thrilling as the Brave Pixar Princess of DunBroch, our expectations of the city were far exceeded. 
We soaked in the Roman history and the warmth of the sun as well. I can honestly say that Mérida is one of the best Roman archaeological zones I've visited outside Italy. (Except for Hadrian's wall, because Hadrian!)

Today's post was almost called: Follow That Breadstick!