“See those trees?” the driver said.
“That’s what the pigs eat, the acorns from those trees. They’re called encinas.”
“Oh, neat,” I said.
We were on our way to Cáceres, one of the major cities in Extremadura. Out the window I could see the flat, featureless, interminable plains of the region. The drive west from Madrid is perhaps the least interesting one in Spain I know. There isn’t anything to see except fields of grass and the aforementioned short, shrubby trees. But the visual dullness is amply compensated by what the traveler can learn about Spain from a trip here. Case in point: jamón ibérico, the finest ham in the country—and ham is fundamental to Spanish food—comes from here. The black pigs roam, free-range, eating the acorns of the encina trees, known in English as the holm oak.
Our driver spoke in the fast, clipped accent of Cáceres, only slightly easier to understand than the dreaded accent of Andalusia. We were on vacation for Semana Santa, Holy Week. Our final destination was Lisbon; but to break the trip into manageable chunks we decided to stop in Cáceres and Mérida on the way there, cities that had been recommended to us.
In two hours we arrived, dropped off our bags, and went into the city center. It was a rainy, overcast day, with a chilly breeze. The gray sky and the dull light gave the town a forsaken aspect. But instead of detracting from the city’s charm, the weather added to it.
Cáceres has one of the finest historical centers in Spain. The walled city is almost perfectly preserved; it looks like it’s hardly changed since the Middle Ages. Most of the buildings are weather-beaten, worn down, but their brown stone façades are all the more impressive for that. Unlike Toledo, few buildings stand out for special comment. Rather it is the entire city center that is the main attraction, the narrow stone streets, the proud walls, the many church spires.
But Cáceres is not exactly beautiful, and it certainly isn’t pretty. The city is impressive for its severity. While wandering through the chilly interior of a cavernous church, or standing in the rain underneath the city walls, you get the powerful sense of what it must have been to live here, eking out a living on the hard soil, taking shelter behind the walls, seeking salvation in another world. The final impression is that life here was precarious and hard; and even now the town seems only to limp by on the strength of its tourism.
The first building we visited was the Concatedral de Santa Maria de Cáceres, a co-cathedral built at the end of the Romanesque period. Like most building in Cáceres, it is rather plain; the outside is devoid of ornament. The most beautiful thing on the inside is a massive carved wooden altar, quite a marvelous piece of work. You can also visit the building’s tower, which affords you with an excellent view of the old city.
Probably the most conspicuous church in Cáceres is the Iglesia de San Francisco Javier. This church sits at one of the highest points in the city, and its two white towers, which flank the main doorway, can be seen from quite a distance. The inside is rather strange. On both the ground and the upper level there is a massive timeline, recounting the history of Spain and the Catholic Church. It wasn’t very well made; the board was so crowded with names and dates, all printed in tiny letters, that you would have to spend many hours to read everything. Also on the upper floor was a museum of Belén (nativity scene) figurines. They had examples not only from Spanish history, but from all around the world. There was everything in the church except a church.
From the top floor you can walk up to either of the tall, white towers. Not only did we get a nice view of the city, but we also got a close look at some of the white storks nesting on the opposite tower. They are lovely birds.
Next we went to the Museum of Cáceres. In truth, I wasn’t expecting much from this museum; and the nondescript building only confirmed my lack of excitement. The place seemed so destitute that I doubted there could be anything worth seeing. But I am happy to report that I was very wrong.
The collection spanned from prehistory to the present day. It began with the region’s pre-Roman inhabitants, their jewelry and clay pots. Next were the Roman artifacts, including little statues and tablets with still visible Latin inscriptions. There were replicas of the agricultural tools used by the erstwhile peasants of the region, as well as their traditional dresses. Down a flight of steps I found a room dedicated to the Visigoths, and down another flight, in the basement, was the most impressive room of all. It was an original aljibe, a water well constructed by the Moors. In dim, subterranean light, the distinctive crescent arches of the Moors stand over a still pool of water. It’s enchanting.
I thought that would be all, but a walkway led to another building, and there I found that the Museum of Cáceres also boasts an impressive collection of modern art, including a sketch by Picasso. On the floor below that, there are also a few examples of Medieval art, and even a work by El Greco. If you find yourself in Cáceres, do visit this museum; it is impressive, and for us it was free!
We were hungry now, and tired, so we ate at a restaurant in the center—very good, by the way—went back to our Airbnb, and went to sleep.
The next day was bright and sunny. We ate breakfast and headed into town. Once there, however, we realized that we didn’t have anything to do. We had seen the major churches, we had seen the museum, we had walked all the streets. Now what? I was lazily turning this question over when I noticed how lovely the surrounding area looked in the sunlight.
“Why don’t we take a walk outside the city?” I suggested.
Thus we turned down a narrow street, passed through the old medieval gate, and emerged on the other side. In just twenty minutes we were surrounded by farms and grass. To our left some horses were grazing, and when we paused to look at them, one of them walked over and stuck his nose through the gate.
“I think he wants to be petted,” I said, and gingerly touched his snout.
GF did the same, and the horse seemed to like it. But then the horse abruptly turned away, and went back to eat some more grass. I think he was hoping we’d give him food.
Soon we found a dirt path leading away from the road, going to our left into another grassy field. We turned and followed it. By now the weather was nearly perfect, with a warm sun and a cool breeze. The grass shone green, and the flowers were in bloom. In the distance we could see more horses grazing in the open fields; and beyond that, the old city center of Cáceres sitting nobly on its hill.
The natural scenery and the blue sky felt so refreshing after the gloomy rain and the harsh Medieval architecture of yesterday. The only buildings here were derelict. An old farmhouse with boarded up windows, stuccoed brick walls, and cracked wooden window-frames stood by the side of the path; its roof was totally caved in, the wooden beams a broken heap on the floor, everything covered in weeds. A stone wall ran besides this farm; shards of colored glass has been glued to the top, though I don’t know why. Elsewhere we found a brick arch, the old doorway of a now demolished building, its top covered in moss.
We walked for hours, holding our jackets, soaking in the sun and breathing the fresh air. But then the sun began to go away, and it became so chilly we had to put our jackets back on. Storm clouds were appearing; in just minutes the blue sky was devoured by gray. We headed back for town, but we hadn’t gotten far before the rain started. Unluckily for us, we didn’t have our umbrellas; but luckily it wasn’t a downpour. Our route home led us through a part of town we hadn’t visited before. It was modern and unremarkable, for the most part; but we did pass by an old church building. This building wasn’t itself particularly beautiful, but on its roof I could count ten stork’s nests, with several of the storks standing guard.
Soon we were back at our Airbnb; we cooked our own dinner that night, and did not go out again. Our two days in Cáceres were spent. If you get a chance, I recommend a visit. It isn’t as spectacular as Toledo or Córdoba, but it is impressive nonetheless. Besides, what Cáceres lacks in beauty it makes up in intimacy. The medieval streets are not filled with noisy street performers or clowns in costume; you won’t have to nudge your way through massive tour groups or dodge gaggles of Americans on Segways. The restaurants are filled with locals; the shops sell food, not gaudy knickknacks. Horses, not double-decker buses, roam the city’s surroundings.
Mérida is an hour’s drive west of Cáceres, pretty near the border with Portugal. As usual, we were taking a Blablacar. Our driver was from Seville, and his friend, another passenger, from Cáceres. Both were lovely people, laid back, sociable, patient with our Spanish, so the drive was pleasant.
The drive became doubly pleasant when a rainbow appeared to our left on the way over. It had been a long time since I’d seen a rainbow from a moving car, maybe even years; so it was interesting to see how the rainbow moved across the landscape with us as we drove. I have this deep-rooted idea from watching cartoons as a child that a rainbow is a stationary object (how else could Leprechauns bury their pots of gold at the end?). But of course that’s not true; rainbows are optical illusions caused by the refraction of light through water droplets in the air, and thus appear at a different locations to each individual viewer. I suppose I’ll have to play the lottery if I want a pot of gold.
After an hour, our pleasant drive was over; indeed, I was having such a good time that I was genuinely disappointed when we arrived. But what could I do?
We picked up our bags and walked to our Airbnb. It was in an apartment building in the center of town, very easy to find. I texted our host, who promptly let us into the building. An elevator ride to the top, and she was at the door waiting.
“Hola, ¿qué tal?” I said.
“Hello,” she said, in a perfect American accent.
“Wait, you’re American?”
“Yeah, don’t you remember?” GF said.
“Oh, that’s right!”
Weeks ago, GF told me that our host in Mérida was an American—information that I promptly forgot. I had been communicating with her entirely in Spanish.
She was a young woman from Alaska, here in Spain to teach English in the government program. Incidentally, I find it somewhat surprising that I have so far met two people from Alaska, given that the state has a population of 800,000. Only two states, Vermont and Wyoming, have less people. I learned one surprising thing about Alaska: it has a very diverse population, including a sizeable colony of Hmong.
But we didn’t stay long to chat. Our bags tucked away, soon we were out on the street. By now it was already rather late; all the monuments were closed, and the sun would be setting in an hour. With few options, we decided that we would stroll along the river. The Guadiana River is the bigger of the two rivers that run through the city; it is the forth largest river in Spain, and further West forms part of the border with Portugal.
(By the way, the prefix Guad- can be found in several other Spanish place names, such as the Guadalquivir, the river that runs through Seville and Córdoba, the Guadarrama, a mountain range near Madrid, and Guadalajara, an old city in Castilla La Mancha. This prefix is a Castillianization of Arabic.)
A park ran along the riverside, green and splendid. Stray cats hid among the bushes, and teenagers sat and chatted on the benches. The river was calm and clear; the overhanging trees were reflected on its surface in the waning daylight. We walked until we reached a bridge, and then climbed a stairwell hoping to cross the river. But once we got to the top, we both gasped.
Half the town was gathered in the square; it was totally packed with people. There, under the walls of the old Moorish fortress, they were having an Easter Parade. The first time I saw a Spanish Easter celebration was in my college course on the anthropology of the Mediterranean. The most immediately noticeable thing—for an American, at least—is that it looks like a gathering of the Ku Klux Klan. Either by coincidence or intention, the traditional costumes of the Spanish Easter procession are nearly identical in appearance to that of the American hate group. Of course, the Spaniards created their costumes first, and thus it is absurd to associate them with American racism. Nevertheless, the first time I saw it, I couldn’t help feeling uneasy.
The unease passed quickly, however, and soon I was wholly absorbed in the spectacle. Rows and rows of hooded figures were lined up, some in red, some in white, each of them carrying a stalk of wheat, no doubt of symbolic importance. Among these there were tons of children, who each carried a little bag full of candy with them; as they walked by, they handed each passerby with outstretched hand a treat. Behind the hooded figures was the float. On a large platform was a life-sized figure of Jesus seated on a donkey, on his triumphant ride into Jerusalem. Behind him was a large palm tree, on either side of him a disciple carrying a stalk of wheat, and in front a woman knelt with clasped hands.
I stood there, examining the float for a while, when a man walked up to the front of it and started shouting through a whole in the bottom. Then he knocked on the top of the float, and all the sudden it stood up. Underneath were about twenty people, carrying the thing on their shoulders. I have no idea how heavy it was, but I can’t imagine it being comfortable to have it resting on top of you while you’re huddled underneath with so many others.
Slowly the float lurched into motion, step by slow step, plodding like a giant through the town. Behind the float was the band. It is apparently traditional to have marching music during these processions. The band consisted entirely of brass instruments and drums. The music was very simple, and very loud. The snare drums beat out a slow, methodical march rhythm. Over this, the band played a somber sequence of minor chords—a sour, out of tune, tremendously tragic sound that conveyed a sense of overwhelming loss. Sometimes a trumpeter would play a call-and-response with the rest of the horns, squeezing out a strangled series of shrill notes, to be answered by the violent blare of the other players. If you think I didn’t liked it, you’re mistaken; it was deeply impressive.
We stood and watched the parade for about an hour. This was one of my favorite experiences from Spain. I feel privileged to have seen it.
But now it was dark, and we were hungry. Our host recommended a bar to us, a place called the Bar Alhambra, which she said served free sandwiches included with every drink. We searched and searched, and after half an hour found nothing; finally we had given up and decided to go eat pizza, when by chance we found it. We ducked inside and ordered two drinks. As promised, each one came with a sandwich and a side of fries. The food was not luxurious; indeed, it was so greasy and salty that I felt slightly ill and covered in oil by the time I finished mine. But it was free! I ordered another beer, and got another sandwich. If you’re in Mérida and eating on a budget, go to the Bar Alhambra.
That was it for that night. The next day was Monday. This was to be our only day full in Mérida, so we had lots to see. But there was one potential problem: it was a Monday. I hadn’t thought about this when I made our plans. You see, Monday in Spain is the day that monuments run by the Patrimonio Nacional are closed. I had the sinking feeling that we wouldn’t be able to see any of Mérida’s rich treasures during our stay.
The reason I had chosen to visit Mérida was because of ancient history. Specifically, Roman history. When Spain was controlled by the Roman Empire, Mérida was the capital of Hispania, the Roman name for the Iberian Peninsula. As a result, some of the finest Roman ruins in Spain, and perhaps anywhere in the world outside Italy, can be found here.
We wandered into town and had breakfast. Then, with bated breath, we went to our first stop, the Roman theater and amphitheater. I sighed with relief when I saw that the place was full of people: it was open.
We bought combination tickets, which included five or six Roman sites, and then went into the complex where the two jewels of the city are found. These are the aforementioned theater and amphitheater, which are situated right next to one another in a walled-off section of town.
We walked inside. I was bursting with excitement. When I was younger, I spent hours pouring over books on Roman military tactics. Much later, I read all six volumes of Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, and made my way through Virgil, Horace, Ovid, Cicero, Seneca, Hadrian—in short, I was about to see with my own eyes something that I had been learning about for almost all my life. The reality didn’t disappoint.
The visit took us to the amphitheater first. It was like the Colosseum on a small scale, although it was still a massive construction, big enough for 15,000 spectators. Many of the entranceways into the area were still perfectly useable, the Roman arches still holding strong. Other parts of the building were in various states of decay, allowing me to see the different layers of materials used in the building. One thing I learned—and I’m mildly ashamed I didn’t know this before—was that the Romans had bricks. Indeed, the bricks looked so neat and pristine, their color still bright red, that I found it hard to believe that they were original. (Apparently, the Romans got the technique for fired bricks from the Greeks.) This brick was mostly used for support and for the arches; the exterior was covered in slabs of gray stone.
The years had been hardest on the seats; most of them were reduced to rubble. Apart from that, however, the preservation was astonishing. Our visit took us through a long tunnel, the main entrance. On either side of the walkway, cardboard cutouts of gladiators were standing; beside these were captions of information, explaining the typical armaments of the different types of gladiators. I had thought there were only two or three types of gladiators, but apparently there were a dozen or more, each with their own distinct weaponry. Some had tridents and nets, some had big, rectangular shields and short swords, and some had small circular shields, heavy helmets, and daggers.
I tried in vain to imagine what it would be like to fight for my life in front of hundreds of cheering people, and gave up. It is a chilling thought to realize that this splendid architectural marvel was built so that the exploited citizenry and overfed nobles could watch slaves kill each other. It is yet another proof that great art can be produced for nefarious ends.
At the end of the walkway, on either side, were the small rooms used to keep the combatants in waiting, so that they could rush out into the arena when it was their time to fight. In the middle of the area there was a depression in the ground; I think this was a kind of trap-door, used to send animals into the arena, but I’m not sure: it didn’t look big enough.
Most extraordinary of all were the faded inscription, on a stone in front of the box reserved for government officials. It read AUGUST. PONT. MAXIM. TRIBUNIC POTESTATE XVI. (I myself couldn’t read it, but there was an informational plaque nearby.) From this we learn that this amphitheater was built during the reign of Caesar Augustus, around the year 8 BCE to be precise. To put that in context, the Colosseum was built about eighty years later, in 75 CE.
After our fill of pictures we went to the next stop, the Roman theater. If the amphitheater was stunning, I don’t know a word for this. It didn’t look real; it looked like a set for a high-budget Hollywood film. I didn’t know such things still existed.
Well, let me describe it. The amphitheater holds about 6,000 people; it was first built in around 15 BCE, but majorly renovated about 200 years later. As in all amphitheaters, a semi-circular stadium of seats surrounds a central stage. At first glance the seats looked to be in much better condition than the seats in the neighboring theater; but this was an illusion created by stone-colored plastic coverings. (Events are still held here on special occasions, so they need working seats.) In the middle is a semi-circular open space, and beyond that, on a raised platform, a larger rectangular space. This was where the magic happened. But the real attraction was the structure behind the stage.
On each side, resting upon two levels of ten elegant Corinthian columns, was a wonderful façade that served as a backdrop for the ancient theater productions. This is called the scaenae frons, a normal fixture of Roman theaters. It had three doors, one in the center and one on each side, that allowed the actors to enter and exit the stage. The columns themselves were lovely, made of delicately textured gray and white marble. Standing in the nooks of these columns were Roman statues (the originals are on display at Mérida’s museum of Roman art; these are replicas) of gods and heroes, with flowing robes and ornate armor.
I feel a powerful sense of helplessness in moments like this, when faced with something so beautiful and so historic. What am I supposed to do? I take pictures, I wander around, I sit, I stand, I stroll, I do my best to examine and appreciate. I feel a sense of awe at the age and splendor of the place, but what am I supposed to do with this feeling? I wish that the experience would humble me, will put things in perspective, and thus ennoble me; but of course the person who walks out of the monument is still the same petty, neurotic person who walked in.
We left. I hoped to visit the city’s museum of Roman art next, but here my fear became reality: it was closed, because it was Monday. So we left to go find some more Roman ruins.
Luckily, Roman ruins were not in short supply. In just ten minutes we came upon the so-called Temple of Diana. This is something of a misnomer, as the temple was actually dedicated to Augustus. Nevertheless, it was an impressive sight; a marble lintel sat atop several towering columns. The only indication, to my eyes, that it was Roman and not Greek was the small arch that crowns the structure. Behind the remains of the temple was affixed an old Renaissance-style house. Apparently, some rich knight decided that it would be nice to live next to the old ruins. The house was elegant enough, but the final effect of the house and the temple was somewhat incongruous. If memory serves, the government considered knocking it down, but finally decided that the house itself was important enough to merit preservation.
Next we went to the Alcázaba. As its name suggests, this is an old Moorish fortress; it stands next to the Roman bridge, so as to guard the old entrance to the city, and apparently was built over the remains of an older, Roman fortress. This fortress came in handy to the Moors, as they faced several uprisings. Even today the walls are tall and thick, and could have easily withstood all but the most organized attacks.
The entrance fee was included in our combination tickets, so we walked right in. Unfortunately, there wasn’t much to see inside the walls. I imagine that the place was previously full of military barracks and other martial necessities, made out of non-durable materials. The only exception to this was the stone cistern. This was an odd-looking, square building that stands in the center of the fortress; indeed, it looked Egyptian to my eyes, but what do I know? There was nothing inside except a long ramp that leads deep underground. At the bottom was a pool of clear, blue rainwater where, surprisingly enough, some fish make their home. But what do they eat?
Apart from this, there were some plants and some archaeological remains, but nothing really caught my interest. The view from the wall, however, is worth seeing. From there we could see our next destination, the Roman bridge.
This bridge was quite similar to the Roman bridges in Salamanca and Córdoba: a stone road built over a series of arches, not more than fifty feet over the water. But the bridge of Mérida does have the distinction of being considerably longer; indeed, it is the longest surviving bridge from ancient Rome. Including the approaching ramp, the bridge stretches well over 2,500 feet, or about half a mile (for non-Americans, that’s 790 meters). It is simply huge, a stupefying achievement of engineering. My mind reels from trying to imagine how it was built; how do you arrange the stones in deep water?
GF and I walked all the way across, which took about 10 minutes. Once on the other side, we walked through a lovely riverside park towards the other major bridge of Mérida, the Puente Lusitania. This is an attractive, modern bridge, designed by the architect Santiago Calatraba. It was finished in 1991, which finally allowed the city to close the Roman bridge to vehicular traffic. To emphasize that point, the only bridge linking both halves of Mérida until 1991 was a bridge built by the Romans.
The form of the Puente Lusitania was dominated by a big, great fin, like the back of a whale. In the center was a lane for pedestrians, which we took to get back to the other side of the river.
Our next stop was the Circus Maximus. This was on the other side of town; we had to walk about half an hour, all the way through the city center and through a tunnel under a highway to get there. Again, our tickets included this visit, so we walked right in.
In truth, there wasn’t much to see. It is a dilapidated stone wall (previously, rows of seating), that surrounds an oval-shaped grass field. The only impressive thing about the monument was its size: it’s huge. This was, of course, because chariot races cannot be carried out in closets. We walked around the grassy field for a few minutes, while I tried in vain to imagine what a chariot race would look and feel like, the horses stampeding in a confused heap, the wheels rattling, the whips cracking, the men shouting, the crowd screaming. It must have been a heck of a lot more interesting than the Kentucky Derby, at least.
Outside the Circus Maximus were the remains of an old Roman aqueduct, the Acueducto de San Lázaro, one of the three Roman aqueducts of Mérida. Compared with the extraordinary aqueduct of Segovia, this one was rather short—only about 20 to 30 feet. It did go on for quite a ways, however, eventually extending over the other river of Mérida, the Río Albarregas.
We followed it for a while, across the river and into a park, until the aqueduct disappeared over a hill. Then, we broke off for our next destination, the last site included in our tickets: the Casa del Mitreo. This is an impressive archaeological site, consisting of the remains of an entire Roman housing complex. Understandably, you can’t go in; rather, the visit consists of a walk around a platform raised above the ruins, allowing you to peek inside the rooms. The complex was quite large; either it was one very rich family, or several families of more humble means. I don’t know, because all the information panels were written in very small font, in Spanish, and there was a crying kid nearby that kept breaking my focus. Oh well.
In truth, the site was not spectacular to look at, mostly a collection of walls and pillars. There was, however, some impressive floor tiling, beautifully preserved. My favorite was a floor that had three concentric patterns: an outer pattern of criss-crosses, a middle pattern of rectangles, and an inner pattern of an intricate labyrinth. Floor tilling hasn’t advanced much in the last two thousand years, it seems.
The sun was setting now, and both of us were exhausted. We had been on our feet all day, crisscrossing all over town. But we had one final thing see: the Acueducto de los Milagros, or Aqueduct of the Miracles. This meant yet another walk through town, which we dutifully made, painful and blistered as my feet now were. It was worth it.
This aqueduct was massive, about 80 feet tall, standing on three arches. It is partly in ruins now, scarred by the tooth of time, but this only lent it a special majesty. The sun was setting, shinning directly onto the aqueduct, making its brick construction glow a rusty red. All around was a park, where families were talking and laughing. GF and I sat on a bench, resting our aching limbs, staring up at the towering ruin. It was so impressive and so lovely that soon I felt myself full of energy again, ready to drag myself through a dozen more Roman monuments. But there were no more to be seen.
For dinner we decided to go back to the Bar Alhambra. We limped back into town, and were again greeted with a surprise: they were having another Easter Parade. This time the crowd was gathered in front of the doors of a church. Just as we got there, the procession started to exit the church, walking with slow steps to the beat of another doleful march. We watched it go for a while, and then went to feast on beer and cheap sandwiches. Our trip was over. We would be going to Lisbon early next morning, but that’s for another post.
I’m not sure I’ve had a better day in Spain, and that’s saying something. Do visit Mérida. It is an extraordinary place.