A Walking Tour
Without actually entering any of the sites – which would be a terrible mistake – this walk would take the better part of an hour, with some up- and downhill stretches along the way. Nothing too strenuous here, but to get the most out of the tour, allow an afternoon and about 20i to get into the most important sites, with a glass of wine or beer along the way.
From the Plaza de España, follow C/ Sant Eulalia four blocks, through the shopping district and make a right on C/ José Ramón Melida. The Museo Nacional de Arte Romano is opposite the entrances to the Roman theater and amphitheater and a great place to get to know Roman Spain before continuing. The building was designed by Rafael Moneo Valles, who harnessed natural lighting and utilized local bricks in a manner that pays tribute to Roman techniques; lots of displaced columns and arches towering high overhead are the most predominant features. The ground floor is dedicated to the Roman public buildings, while the first floor is full of Roman pottery, statues such as the goddess Ceres who has lost her hands and nose, mosaics and coinage. The cripta, or crypt, houses the archeological remains discovered on the site of the museum during its construction in the 1980s.
Next door is the Casa del Anfiteatro, what are the remains of third- or fourth-century Roman mansions that are still under excavation. A number of beautiful mosaics have survived in the houses, one of which depicts three grape harvesters dancing gleefully hand in hand in little more than loin cloths while they stomp grapes. There is evidence of a small aqueduct, a heating system that once fed the hot baths, kitchen appointments, water pipes – all hinting at a splendor of living that some Spaniards still don’t enjoy today. Later, the area was used as a burial sight, or necropolis.
The Anfiteatro Romano was a place of bloodsport, where gladiatorial games played out before 14,000 spectators while both humans and beasts perished in strange and creative ways. Yeah, we’ve all seen the movie. This particular amphitheater is one of the best examples in Spain; inaugurated in 8 BC, it is elliptical in shape, with three columned entrances leading into the arena, around which seats are terraced. There were originally three levels, with the lowest box seats reserved for dignitaries, the middle for commoners and the upper tier, of which nothing remains, for peasants and the occasional slave. Chambers along the side held gladiators and beasts.
Just a few steps away is the Teatro Romano (Roman theater), which dates back to the year 15 BC, not long after the city itself was founded. The theater is remarkably preserved, so much so that it is still used for performances. It was constructed under the supervision of Agrippa, Octavianus Augustus’ son-in-law, and originally had space for 6,000 spectators. As in the amphitheater, the seating was arranged according to class. The semicircular chorus is backed by the stage and the façade (frons scaenae), with its entrances and two levels of columns interspersed with life-size statues. The top row of columns have largely deteriorated, but at night, with the lights trained in just the right spots and the rest blacked out while the music is playing, the theater feels and looks much as it probably did in its prime.
From the theater exit, make a left and, with the hedges and the chain link fence on your left, follow around to Avenida J. Álvarez Saenz de Buruaga, along the backside of the theater. Make a right on Vía Ensanche and at the end of this road on the left is the Casa del Mitreo. The mansion belonged to a Roman nobleman and is believed to have been constructed on the site of an earlier Mithraic shrine. Besides the various family and business rooms, you’ll want to check out the plaster wall paintings and, particularly, the colorful cosmological mosaic, one of the most stunning in all of Spain and evidence of just what the Romans thought of nature and less-than-divine intervention.
Now follow C/ Oviedo until it becomes Graciano, where you enter the Alcazaba (Moorish Fortress and Convent). The Alcazaba dates to the ninth century and was built next to the Romans’ bridge over the Guadiana, no doubt as a way of insuring the security of the town from intruders. Notice the aljibe, or cistern, and in the corner the 15th-century Conventural, or convent. Stroll across the Guadiana River on a very, very old bridge, hang a left on C/ Cava and head down to the water.
The Puente Romano, left, is long and resilient, with over 729m(2,300 feet) encompassing 60 arches that have survived with minor assistance for over 2,000 years. The river rolls by, slow and murky.
Entering the city again from the Roman bridge, the Morería is on the left. This was the old Moorish neighborhood, and, before that, the quarters of the Visigoths and Romans, now taken over by modern buildings with less-than-obvious signs of its previous occupation.
From C/ Morería, turn onto C/ Juan de Dios. Two blocks ahead on the right is Museo de Arte Visigodo (Museum of Visigoth Art), which houses artifacts belonging to that feisty culture that ruled between the Roman and the Arab eras.
Return to the Plaza de España just a block away and order a drink at one of the four-corner refreshment stands. You may have to wait awhile or walk up to the counter; raciones (larger portions of tapas) are served only from these during regular lunch and dinner hours. The plaza itself is a delightful place, with colorful façades and palm trees that make for a Mediterranean mood.
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