2011 - Oct : AAA visit of Mèrida.
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‘Mérida at last! The AAA and guests, 23 in all, arrived after a short delay, to be greeted by the ebullient enthusiasm of our guide, Chris Pollard. Extremadura – ‘beyond the Douro’ – has a country bumpkin image, but Mérida was once the capital of Roman Lusitania, and Chris told us it had become a sort of old-folk’s home for retired legionaries. In the following centuries waves of invaders took over, the Christian Visigoths, then the Moors, an finally the Christians again in the thirteenth century.
Much of Mérida was destroyed during the Civil War, but excavations have gradually revealed the amazing extent of the older town. The Romans enjoyed their entertainments, and from about 16 BC till 10 AD they built a theatre, an amphitheatre and a circus maximus.
On Friday we were off to the amphitheatre, where gladiators fought wild animals. Chris described the fights as ‘rituals ennobling the human spirit at the point of death’. Gladiators were the pop stars of their time. Although many were slaves and condemned men, others later sought fame in this way. We were intrigued to hear that when the crowd granted mercy to the loser or not, thumbs up meant ‘run him through’ and thumbs down – ‘lower your sword’. How could we have got it wrong all these years? The vast circular stadium held about 10% of the population.
The beautiful reconstructed theatre nearby is still in use. Its design is Greek, but the audience preferred scatological comedies to the nobler Greek tragedy. Chris kindly showed off its acoustics by reciting the shortest smutty poem he knows - by John Betjeman.
A magnificent museum houses the Roman statues and artefacts. Built of red brick with huge arches, it is quite stunning. We lingered there, looking at mosaics, wall paintings, pottery and jewellery. I was interested to note in a chariot race that the Latin for Gee-up was NICHA.
We trudged in searing heat over the Roman bridge and descended perilously into the cistern of Alcazaba, a Moorish fort by the river.
In the Visigoth museum we admired the skilful carving of the Visigoths.
On Saturday, we visited the Circus Maximus, seating 30.000, and were reminded by Chris to watch ‘Ben Hur’ again. Then to Santa Eulalia, the church dedicated to the teenage saint. A statue outside shows her holding a round b**b and a poker, ghastly reminders of her fate.
We admired two astonishing aqueducts and drove to the Roman reservoirs.