Exploring Mérida & Trujillo in Extremadura

Thursday 15 to Sunday 18 September

We had enjoyed touring in the region of Andalucía, so now, on Andrea’s advice we headed north to the region of Extremadura, which borders Portugal.

First stop was Mérida. Mérida in the Yucatan of Mexico was one of our favourite cities with interesting sights, friendly locals and a lovely ambience, so we thought we should see this one.

The town has been populated since pre-historic times, but it was founded as a Roman city in 25BC with the name Emerita Augusta (the veterans of Augusta’s army). Its primary functions were to provide controlled crossing from north to south on the River Guardiano and as retirement town for Roman soldiers.

A Roman Bridge was built across the river which is more than 800m long. A fort controlled the traffic crossing the river and provided safety for the gold coming from the mines around Astorga in the north of the peninsula.

The importance of the city in Roman times is demonstrated by the size of the entertainment precinct of the Amphitheatre and the Roman Theatre and the Circo Romano. They were grand.

Every Roman city was built on same plan. The format and the layout of the amphitheatre and theatre were built to specifications but were sized to suit local requirements. We had seen this in Cadiz, however in Mérida they were large, the best examples of Roman architecture on the Iberian peninsula.

The Roman Amphitheatre was the home of games and fights. Gladiators fought each other and also fought and animals. The information on the various styles of fighting between different types of gladiators and the weapons they used was great.

The Roman Theatre has one of the best stage areas we have ever seen. The current façade was erected during the time of Constantine and is largely intact. It is still in use, in fact preparation was underway for a concert that night.

The Circo Romana, the old Roman Circus, where chariot races were held, is still largely intact. Here the interpretation signs gave a very good understanding of how the races were run. Symbolism was of prime importance with the circus representing the universe and the arena symbolising the earth with its shape representing a full year.

The chariot, pulled by horses, represented the sun and the charioteer represented the God Apollo.

Twelve chariot gates were located at one end of the building, representing the 12 months. Four teams raced, each with a different colour, representing the four seasons. The race consisted of seven laps, representing the days of the week, and twenty-four races were held, representing the hours in a day.

The central barrier in the arena had pools representing the oceans. The starting point was to the east and the race finished facing west.

A massive aqueduct was also built to bring water to the city. It brought water from Lago de Proserpina. What is still standing is 25 metres tall with 38 arched pillars running a course of 830 metres. It was one of three aqueducts bringing water to the city.

A temple to Diana had been reused by the Visigoths and Arabs over time. At the end of the 15th century a palace was built inside it by the Lords of the Corbos. A new U-shaped building has more recently been erected around it, representing the forum, a meeting place for the citizens.

The Moorish Alcaston which had been refashioned from the original Roman fort, alongside the river was impressive. An amazing water storage area, taking water from the river, was built under the lookout tower. The middle level had been a mosque and a church during different periods.

The Romans had built the city wall which had been strengthened in turn by Visigoths, Arabs and Christians. The Arabs had reused building material from inside the fort, in some places to a depth of 4 metres.

Last stop was the crypt of the first saint of Mérida, the martyr Eulalia approximately 304AD. She professed her faith to the Romans and challenged them to martyr her. This they did, and as she expired while burning at the stake, a dove flew out of her mouth and miraculous snow covered her nakedness. She is therefore regarded as the patron saint of snow and inclement weather (ref Wikipedia Eulalia of Merida).

Her story was made famous by the Christian poet Prudentius and later her shrine became popular in Visigothic Spain.

We extended our stay in Mérida. Like its namesake in Mexico, it was interesting with a lovely feel about the city.

Next stop was Toledo, but we stopped for lunch in Trujillo.  We were drawn to the city, still in the Extremadura region, because Andrea’s maternal surname is Trujillo. In Spain everyone carries a double surname of the father and mother.

Trujillo is another settlement from prehistoric times, set on a granite batholith. It was a regional capital of Mérida in Roman times and colonised by Visigoths. During the Arab invasion it became one of the main towns of the region and its rule alternated during the wars between Portugal, Castille and Leon. The Christians took control in 1232, urged on by a vision of the Virgen de la Victoria (Virgin Mary of Victory). The Arabian fort was modified and extended as a Christian castle with the Viirgin’s statue over the door.

An interesting medieval city sits on top of the rock, whilst a Jewish quarter established outside the walls.

Some Trujillanos went to the Americas and made their fortunes. When they returned they built majestic palaces around the Plaza Mayor. Most famous was Francisco Pizarro, whose daughter from an Incan princess returned and married her uncle and lived in Trujillo in great wealth.