The ruins of Conimbriga comprise one of the largest and most impressive archaeological sites in Portugal. The majority of the ruins date from the imperial period, although the remains of a settlement that existed for many centuries before the Romans first arrived in the region (circa 139 BCE) can still be seen, buried beneath the forum and the baths.
Much of the town remains unexcavated – an impression of the original extent of inhabitation can be gleaned from the shallow arc of the outermost city wall, which is partially visible in a field next to the car park. In the third century CE, a new city wall, vastly more substantial in both height and depth, was constructed further in towards the town centre. This imposing fortification consumed the buildings that lay in its path and many dwellings – including some of the town’s most lavish villas – were left outside, unprotected. The motivation for this drastic defensive project seems, at least outwardly, to have been fear of invasion; yet Conimbriga remained unharmed by barbarians until well into the fifth century.
The most spectacular attribute of the site is its numerous well-preserved polychromatic mosaics. Many remain in situ in various grand domus – the venatores in hot pursuit of their prey and a miniature minotaur, lurking at the centre of his labyrinth, were my personal favourites. Faint impressions of frescoes can also be discerned on certain walls, framed by stucco columns. These suggestions of luxury are enhanced by the number of well-apportioned bath complexes, which is, even for a site of such size, surprisingly large. Add to this the fact that no temples or places of worship have been identified conclusively, and one could be forgiven for thinking that the inhabitants of Conimbriga rated cleanliness above godliness, although I suspect that this may be (at least in part) simply an accident of which sectors of the town have been uncovered.
The reconstructions of the Flavian forum and a Roman water garden (complete with decidedly underwhelming coin-operated fountains – €0.50 for 30 seconds) will, depending on your proclivities, represent a helpful visual aid to the imagination, or a desecration of otherwise exquisitely-preserved foundations. The on-site museum has some intriguing displays (and a semi-decent gift shop), although I’m sure that the uninitiated tourist might benefit from some more informative labelling. The signage around the ruins is minimal (it helps to have a guide) but amusing
I was delighted to be informed by an English-language label that I was standing before ‘The House of the Squellingtons’ (some kind of ossified squid, I presume).
The site is really only let down by its lack of accessibility – a hire care, taxi or tour bus are the only sensible travel options, given that, even during peak tourist season, public transport services are limited to a single (slow) bus that runs twice daily to Coimbra. In this sense, the local region is not making the most of having such a remarkable set of ruins in the vicinity. Coimbra – formerly known as the Roman town of Aeminium – is the ideal place to stay overnight and provides the classically-minded traveller with numerous diversions, including the opportunity to venture beneath the city into a wonderful Roman-era cryptoporticus and, above ground, the architecture of the University of Coimbra, itself one of the oldest university institutions on the continent.
Ruins of Conimbriga: VIII / X
On-site museum: VI / X
Accessibility: II / X
Address: Conimbriga, 3150-220 Condeixa-a-Velha.
Date of visit: November 2018.