hidden europe 7

Essays in stone: Mérida

by David Cawley


Retirement communities tend to be rather tame places. Not so the one in Spain's Extremadura region, which guest contributor David Cawley has been exploring for hidden europe.

There are no flashing lights, bells, whistles, Imax theatres or theme park 'experiences'. Even the tourist board keeps a low profile, its small office almost hidden amid local retailers. The key fobs and cute snowstorm domes depicting local attractions that are so common elsewhere across tourist Europe seem not to have reached this outpost. Here the shop keepers just provide the necessities and indulgences for the local population, rather than pandering to those in search of memorabilia. In many ways this is a small and quite unremarkable Spanish town. But on closer inspection the camouflage of the everyday residential, commercial and industrial urban fabric conceals a wealth of Roman heritage and remains in a quantity and condition that rivals even the mother country itself.

Mérida (a Moorish name) is no Mecca for tourists and the small numbers that do visit are in the main Spanish or visitors from nearby Portugal. For many, it is no more than a way stop on the fast road from Madrid to Lisbon. At first sight the Alcazaba at Mérida - a seemingly mandatory feature of many a Spanish town - is handsome enough but nothing special. Completed in 835 AD under the orders of Abderramán II, it was constructed to offer protection for rulers and subjects from the constant local uprisings as well as to control passage across the old Roman bridge over the braided Guadiana River. Today the puente romano is happily traffic free, its squat stone arches edged into retirement a decade or so back by a sleek modern structure. At one end of the historic Roman bridge, a group of old men sit on a bench and put the world to rights.