Between April 4 and 9 1994, we decided to make a Spanish road movie traveling from Porto to Cordoba via Cáceres, Trujillo and Mérida and getting lost in Alentejo on the way back. This was a dream road trip, just for the sake of driving and getting away. I still keep the photo diary of this trip and still remember P’s army green bomber jacket, everyone’s Timberland boots and my outrageous yellow pants printed with purple grapes that I had bought in Guiné Bissau two years before, and the silly photo shoots wearing a blue African hat my mother got in Senegal. I still have the pants I don’t know what happened to the hat.
Armed with a yellow Let’s Go Budget Guide to Spain, we had nothing pre-booked and just chose where to stay by opening the book to whichever city we were in. This lack of strategy didn’t work in Mérida. All the recommended places were fully booked. Someone told us we should look for Pepita who rented rooms to tourists before this was an organized activity. We found her place after J walked all over shouting her name. I remember Pepita as a black haired larger than life fortune teller. She kept us awake for hours after dinner, the four of us sitting around a skirted table trying to be polite while at least one of us was feeling uncomfortably scared. Nothing happened, of course. Maybe some people rent rooms in their homes because they need some company.
At the time I didn’t like the city. I still thought I would come back for the classical theater festival because you can not enter that Roman theater lightheartedly. Unless, like J, you start resenting your friends for forcing you to visit a “bunch of rocks”. This year I came back. After seeing a Facebook’s friend selfie waiting for Seneca. I returned to Mérida with someone who’s “against Romans”, whatever this might mean. I did not bother asking.
I went to the theater on my own. I’m a firm believer that everything grand or small you really wish to do, should be done in solitude. This might seem stupid but it has worked for me so far.
I did not, as planned, manage to see a Tragedy. The importance of this was also explained during the Prologue to La comedia de las mentiras when Calidorus ( in this adaptation, the Slave) makes it clear that we are in fact going to see a Comedy and even though he would have very much preferred to have been a “tragic actress” this was not his role for the evening. Pepe Anton Gómez and Sergi Pompermeyer decided to do some kind of “mash-up” of Plautus‘ plays because even though Pseudolus was the first one on their minds, also Miles Gloriosus or Mercator, seemed suitable and the obvious solution was to take the way of the original author and base their own work on a series of previous works. Much in the same way Plautus inspired Shakespeare’s Comedy of Errors .
I arrived early so I could focus on being there. Observing people come in and find their seats, and greet their friends, and obliging couples who’d ask me to take their photo against the amazing backdrop of the theater. Situations like these always take me back to my English finals. The text was about photography reducing whatever was important in the world to your own existence. Now, these amazing places seem to be reduced to photo sets. The family of four seating next to me has their photo taken as well. It takes the mother a few minutes to analyze her own expression with care before sending the photo to a WhatsApp group named “Forever Young”. Yes, I know, I’m a horrible snoop. The actions of others, and their conversations have always been a source of never-ending fascination. The theater is filling up and there’s a beautiful massive choreography of abanicos trying to keep flawless made-up faces looking fresh.
I spent the next two hours in absolute concentration for fear that my knowledge of Spanish might not be enough to follow a comedy. I somehow have the idea that tragic emotions would not be as language bound. I think I manage to pick up most of it. The Exode sings the virtues of lying so that life actually keeps moving in a quasi-Broadway musical act. I walk alone back to the hotel. I had not managed to keep the plan of seeing a Greek Tragedy in Mérida but in some way I still kept a promise made to myself. I’m almost certain I don’t do this as often as I should.
The first time I went to Mérida I was still sort of madly in love with the owner of the green army bomber jacket and ironic smirk. These days, the love of theater tends to move me more than anything else. Also Extremadura has a way of connecting all the dots. It reminds me of childhood cartoons and of the freedom of life on the road and the possibility of accidentally getting lost. This time around, I truly enjoyed being in Mérida, I might not have traveled alone but still felt that this trip was only mine.
In case you’re interested
The Mérida International Classical Theatre Festival is the oldest of its kind in Spain and takes place every year between July and August
This time I used booking.com and stayed at Deluxe Hostel & Suites. The building was originally used as accommodation for railway workers in the 50s and is now equipped with a delightful salt water pool with massage beds. The best thing about it it’s the incredibly nice, helpful and truly amazing staff.
I was only in Mérida for three days and did not get to visit the Museo Nacional de Arte Romano or the El Costurero. I did visit the Conjunto Monumental, tickets are €15 and you can use them at your own pace to visit the Teatro y Anfiteatro romanos, the Alcazaba árabe, the Casa romana del Mitreo, the Cripta de la basílica de Santa Eulalia , the Área Arqueológica de Morería, the Circo romano and Área funeraria de Los Columbarios.
I only have two meals a day, breakfast and either lunch or dinner (plenty of snacks and coffee in between) so I have only been to three restaurants:
- Pepe Ossorio (Plaza Constitución, 10) Nice upscale restaurant, Mediterranean/ fusion cuisine. Not my favourite kind of place but the food and the service was nice.
La Tapilla Sixtina (Calle Hernán Cortés, 39) Friendly tapas bar, huge portions, the food was quite good and the staff was great.
Sapori d’Italia (Calle del Museo, 21) Italian restaurant owned by an expat from Naples. Nice enough.
One day I’ll be able to travel and do no shopping. This wasn’t that kind of trip.
Martín. La Libreria de Papel (Calle Sta. Eulalia, 46) Very helpful staff and although I’m not a big fan, the selection of graphic novels seemed pretty impressive. I bought Mario Vargas Llosa’s Elogio de la educación and Marcus Aurelius’ Meditaciones.
Arena 77 (Calle Sagasta, 23) I walked past when it was closed an there they were, the grafia sandals that looked just like the Stephan Kélian ones I used to have, probably around the end of the 90s), and which did not survive through the 00s. I came back to get them and was lucky to meet Carmen, an artist who works in restoration, has lived in La Habana and Sevilla where she owned a restaurant, in Lisbon where she was working in the México pavilion for Expo’98 and who now owns this store selling handmade pieces of beauty from Marrakesh and Colombia and Africa via Cádiz. Everything is made my women and everything is brought to Spain with no intermediaries. I bought a beaded bracelet made in Colombia, a bag lined in a beautiful wax print african fabric as a gift for my mother, and the Marrakesh raffia sandals just because they are like recovering a piece of the past.
Martina Boutiq (Calle José Ramon Mélida, 4) Stocks Antica Sartoria and was having a sale which served as the perfect excuse to buy an embelished white lace bomber jacket which is, obviously, a “foundation” garment. The ladies working here are are just lovely.
Along Calle José Ramon Mélida there are several archeological reproductions and souvenir shops and I could not resist the most typical of the abanicos. What can I say, I’m truly kitsch at heart.