The ancient city of Conímbriga in central Portugal is one of the best Roman ruins I’ve ever visited. It’s so good I’ve been there twice and been impressed on both occasions. Even my 13-year-old stepdaughter declared, “It was better than I expected!”
So what makes Conímbriga so remarkable?
For me, it’s mainly the mosaics. Incredibly, the intricate patterned floors of several whole rooms are still intact after 2000 years. The mosaics in the House of Fountains are the best that Conímbriga has to offer in terms of details and colours and are now sheltered from the elements.
In the absence of any leaflets or arrows to indicate the best route to take around the ruins, we went straight to the House of Fountains but I think it’s best appreciated if you save it for last. Each significant site within the complex has an explanatory sign in English and Portuguese so there is information around – you just have to look for it.
As you enter the site, you should turn your attention to the ruins to your left and the Roman road that leads to the defence wall in front of you. The houses on this side of the city were torn down and used to build the wall to protect Conímbriga from the invading Swabian armies in the 5th century AD. This drastic measure was in vain. There simply wasn’t enough time or materials to complete the wall, leaving the citizens vulnerable to attack. The Romans were defeated and Conímbrigans fled the city.
Despite centuries of exposure, the unprotected floors of these demolished houses, such as the House of Swastikas and the House of Skeletons, retain their form and bright colours.
Many of the noble houses had interior gardens with sculpted ponds, brick columns and flowers. I love the cheese-like wedges of bricks they used to build the circular pillars.
There are several ruined bathhouses but the grandest has been partially reconstructed so you can fully appreciate its scale. From here, you can also see the river running through the forested valley and feel envious of the view the Romans had from their public swimming pool.
Only three and a half pillars remain of the Forum but there’s enough here to give you a sense of how impressive it might have been. Underneath the walkways leading off the main square, you can see remains of the pre-Roman homes.
At one end of the old aqueduct, near the main city gate, there’s now an amphitheatre with a wooden stage and rows of benches. I can’t find any current information about forthcoming shows but it’s worth checking to see if there are any special events during your visit.
Once you’re through the amphitheatre and the city gate, it’s finally time to treat yourself to the House of Fountains.
Don’t leave just yet!
If you’re feeling a bit ruined out by now, have a coffee if the café is open and don’t leave without popping into the Museu Monográfico de Conímbriga. Hundreds of artefacts found in Conímbriga are grouped and displayed according to their purpose. It’s an easy museum to navigate and even if you’re not that into history, you’ll find something of interest, especially the scary implements in the medical section.
You might also want to go back to the ticket office and watch Senhor Melro painting ceramic bowls and plates by hand. He’s been doing it for over 30 years so this is your chance to see an expert at work. You can, of course, buy the finished products as a more meaningful souvenir than an anonymous piece from a gift shop in the city.
The site is open every day (except a few major holidays) from 10 am to 7 pm and a standard ticket costs 4 euros. The official website appears to be down at the moment but you can get more details (in Portuguese) from the Museu Monográfico de Conímbriga.
Bear in mind that the majority of the site is outdoors so you’ll need suitable protection from the weather depending on the time of year.
The easiest way to get to Conímbriga is undoubtedly by car. Keep your eyes peeled for the brown signs when you get near Condeixa.
If you haven’t got your own transport, there are a couple of buses that go to Conímbriga from Coimbra – ask at the tourist information office for details. Alternatively, there are more frequent buses between Coimbra and Condeixa and you can take a taxi from there to the ruins.