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Route: A Walk Through the Albarregas Valley

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Apart from getting to know the ruins of the circus, the place where the ancient people of Mérida unleashed their passions, this route will impress us for two reasons: first, because we will discover that the Romans combined engineering and monumental beauty and second, because if we follow this route we can get a clear idea of the importance of Mérida during the beginning of Christianity on the peninsula and of what its Martyr Eulalia has always meant for the inhabitants.

The CIRCUS (1) is one of the best preserved circuses of the Empire and also one of the most impressive ones. Its dimensions, four hundred and three metres long by ninety six and a half metre wide, as well as its capacity, up to thirty thousand spectators, can testify to that. It was built in a time in which the Julius-Claudia dynasty had several extensions and restorations of which the last one dates back to the 4th century AC which shows that these events still had passionate supporters among the inhabitants of the city and its surroundings in such a late period.

It was built outside the city walls next to the road to Toledo and Cordoba, using the slight slope of the San Albin hill before reaching the banks of the Albarregas. It forms an artificial valley drained by a culvert that avoided the valley from being flooded in the antiquity.

THE AQUEDUCT OF SAINT LAZARUS (2) gets its name from a chapel devoted to this saint which was demolished halfway through the 20th century. This aqueduct allowed covering the Albarregas valley with a network of channels that brought water coming from underground springs and streams located north of the city and it is still completely preserved in most of its stretches. The channel was perched in a place called “Oxtail” (Rabo de buey) where a reservoir was placed to purify the water. Today we can find a small siphon house from the 19th century. It was the longest of the two aqueducts of the Colony that were found and it was more than one kilometre and a half long. Because of its construction, it also seems the oldest one, similar to the construction of the buildings for spectacles.

Finally, we can also see the remains of some Roman thermae which were built only a few metres from the aqueduct.

Circus

We are now outside the city walls of the visigothic Mérida, in an area which was traditionally used as necropolis, as is shown by the foundations of a circular mausoleum with apses that we can see north of this archaeological site. Is is XENODOCHIUM (3). Masona, the bishop of this diocese at the end of the 6th century, built a hospital here. It was a hospital for the ill, the poor and especially for the numerous pilgrims who came from far to worship the tomb of the Martyr Eulalia.

As we approach our next destination, an extensive field catches our eye where, not so long ago, we could find the Artillery Base “Hernán Cortés”. During the archaeological digging that has been done here for several years, a great concentration of Roman tombs alternating with the remains of some suburban mansions has been discovered.

In the shadows of a block of contemporary houses we find a Roman complex, SNOW PIT (4). Scientists have given it, since its discovery in 1920, several uses: thermae, baptistery, see of some kind of mystery religion, glass factory and even a complex to stock and distribute water. Today everything seems to lead to the existence of a pit to preserve snow in the lower circular chamber, of the High Roman Empire, so that the rooms on the upper floor, from the 3rd or 4th century AC, could be used as thermae. It is true that, between the 7th and 9th century, there are several sources that say that these structures were used to hold the Mérida snow pit.

If we go to our next destination through the Rambla de Santa Eulalia, we will get to a secluded corner that connects the López de Ayala and Rambla parks. Here you will see an obelisk built by the people from Mérida in the 13th century for Santa Eulalia with exceptional pieces coming from the Augustus Temple of Concord.

MARTYR CHURCH OF SANTA EULALIA (6), before building a Christian cemetery here at the end of the 3rd century, there was a series of suburban mansions here of which we can still see some remains, like a washbasin with all the dressing table implements. The presence of the monument in Eulalia’s honour, whose foundations we can see today underneath the chevet of the church, led to the fact that the Christians wanted to be buried close to it until well into the 19th century. That is why the structures we see in the crypt show such a chaotic aspect. We also have to add the fact that in the 9th century, the Moorish built waterwheels here and other agricultural facilities, which shows that the church had been in ruins by that time. However, a good part of the chevet of the 8th century church is Visigothic. On the other hand, only the foundations of its three big naves and the two towers that flanked the chevet of the temple have been preserved.

When entering the atrium of the Church of Santa Eulalia, we see a smaller building which is a chapel devoted to Eulalia, the TEMPLE OF MARS (5), popularly known as “El Hornito” (the little oven). Its portico is made out of marble pieces extracted at the beginning of the 17th century from an undetermined location in the city. They all belonged to the Temple that the Roman colony devoted to the God Mars. An inscription, originally in gilded bronze letters, in the front area reminds us that the temple was financed by Vetilla, Pácula’s wife.


Crypt of the Chruch of Santa Eulalia

AQUEDUCT OF THE MILAGROS (7) is part of a hydraulic system which brought water from the Proserpina reservoir or Charca de la Albuera. It is commonly known as “Los Milagros” (the miracles) because of the admiration it caused among locals and foreigners for its preservation in spite of the vicissitudes of time. And with good reason: more than eight hundred metres of this aqueduct have been preserved. Some of its granite and brick piers are twenty-seven metres high. If we look at the monument more closely, we will notice an interesting detail: the place where the Albarregas stream flows is brought out in the aqueduct by a beautiful arch in granite ashlars.

On the north end, at the beginning of the small valley of the Albarregas stream, the system had a pool to purify the water (piscine limaria) which also served as a well.

Almost immediately we see THE BRIDGE OVER THE ALBARREGAS (8). Both the main road that separated the east part from the west part of the city, the kardo maximo, and another peripheral road that surrounded the city from the west met at this bridge. At this bridge the road towards Astorga started which is known as the Silver Route, a road which is partially preserved at some of the stretches at about three kilometres north of the city, going almost parallel to the A- Road 630.

Aqueduct of the Milagros

On the highest part of the Calvario hill you can see the CASTELLUM AQUAE (9), this sturdy structure made out of Roman concrete and ashlars. Until halfway through the seventies it was part of the structure of the Calvario Chapel which was the see of the oldest Penance Brotherhood of the city. When this building was demolished, it uncovered what was probably the tower from where the water coming from the hydraulic system of Proserpina was distributed over the northern area of Augusta Emerita.

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