Sunday, April 03, 2016

Roman holiday in western Spain

Cindy inside the Moorish fortress in Mérida. The Visigoths built on top of the Roman fort, and the Moors built on top of that. Then came the Catholic kings . . . .
From the northeast of Spain where we live, Pamplona, to the wilds of Extremadura in the southwest is about eight hours by train or by car. We wanted to visit Mérida, which was an important Roman city 2,000 years ago and has many of the best preserved buildings from that era anywhere.

Extremadura is also famous for its hams, which come from pigs that run free and feed on acorns (bellotas). In the supermarket, Iberian ham runs for about $20 a pound. But the special purebred black pigs raised on certain farms produce hams that fetch $500 a pound or so in Japan and England.



Think Ben Hur




During Roman times, people in what is now western Spain were crazy for horse racing -- cuadrigas, or four-horse chariots, were the Formula 1 of the time -- and the horses from that part of Spain were famous throughout the empire for their speed and endurance. Many of the best charioteers to compete in the Roman Colosseum came from this region.

The Circus Maximus in Mérida was not excavated until the 19th century. It's about a half mile long, so it is comparable in length to a harness racing track. It could seat about 30,000 people.


Mosaic of a particular charioteer famous in Roman times, with his cuadriga. In the Mérida museum.



The Roman aqueduct. Merida was the capital of Rome's province of Lusitania, which included much of what is now Portugal. It was an important city to the Romans because it linked to the tin and gold mines of Andalucia to the south.
This bridge was built almost 2,000 years ago. It's still very solid, but they don't let cars and trucks on it any more.

The theater is the best preserved in the Empire, mainly because western Spain became isolated and rural under the Visigoths. The city sponsors a theater festival here every year. Its original capacity was about 6,000 people.

The city's museum has preserved some fantastic mosaics from the homes and public buildings. You can get a sense of the scale here.

Gladiators fought wild animals and each other in this amphitheater. No Fordham teams played here. 

Cáceres, the Renaissance town

We had trouble getting bus and train connections to Portugal, so we decided to skip it and head about an hour north by train to Cáceres, whose best preserved buildings in the old city are mainly from the Renaissance era.

The old city is enclosed by a wall built by the Moors that is now hidden in many places by the houses built up against it.

It looks and feels like a lot of cities in Italy. We arrived on Good Friday and wandered about. Some of the old palaces are now museums. Lots of fascinating stuff left behind by the Romans and Moors, who occupied the city for the better part of 500 years. The city has a big Jewish quarter. Spain, of course, expelled the Jews who would not convert to Catholicism in 1492.

The rooftops of Cáceres. With daily views of varicolored rectangles like these, it is no wonder that Spanish and French painters developed Cubism.

Easter Sunday, watching the processions.


The elaborate Easter procession has two parts -- a float of the Virgin Mary, accompanied by clerics, penitents and a military band, and a float of Christ crucified, with a similar retinue. The two meet in the center of town from opposite directions. Lots of solemn music at a march tempo.



Extemedura is famous for its storks and for many other migratory birds whose flyways pass through here between Africa and northern Europe.

Along parts of the train route, there was a stork nest on every utility pole. The ones above were on pillars of the Roman aqueduct in Mérida.

Related:

How to spend nine weeks in Europe without losing your shirt
Columbus Day story: How he brought me to Spain
20,000-year-old cave art and the north coast of Spain
Barcelona's art and architecture make it a favorite
Cordoba's main attraction: mix of Jewish, Moorish, Christian cultures 

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