Conimbriga bears spectacular witness to the rise and fall of the Roman Empire, told over a domestic scale in a prosperous rural town. One of the best-preserved Roman sites on the Iberian Peninsula, the excavations cover a large site in rolling countryside southwest of Coimbra.
A wealthy town, it boasted several public baths, an enormous Forum, an aqueduct, amphitheatre, commercial district and large, privately owned mansions.
Secure for centuries, its richest residents built palatial style houses adorned with fountains, interior courtyards and exquisite mosaic flooring.
Wandering around the complex in morning sunshine we both commented that it was an astonishing privilege to be able to walk along the very streets that its Roman citizens had, and to step across the thresholds of their homes and tiptoe along their floors.
Unlike other archaeological sites where you can see the foundations of a place but must imagine its dimensions, Conimbriga is still largely intact with buildings of varying heights.
So much so that you can stand in the small two roomed homes of the city’s workers as well as the palatial dining rooms and high-ceilinged reception halls of the wealthy patricians.
Brick columned ‘peristyles’ which are interior courtyards usually containing a shallow square pool of water, or a fountain, hint of the comfortable lives of the sophisticated and cultured town’s residents.
The mosaics are a highlight. Laid out on a grand scale in private houses they are still fully coloured and feature weaving patterns of rope and knot motifs as well as flowers and fauna and strikingly, swastikas.
The symbol had a positive meaning in the Classical world of good health and prosperity, before becoming appropriated by one of the twentieth century’s great evils.
Dolphins swim, lovers kiss, men hunt deer on horseback, family members gaze up and a beheaded mermaid is rather gruesomely offered in sacrifice from the floors of the ‘House of Fountains’ and ‘House of Cantaber’.
Both are impressive monuments to the wealth of their owners and they also tell the sad tale of the town’s demise. The ‘House of Fountains’ is split in two by a large defensive wall that was hastily built as Conimbriga became the focus of attacks from northern tribes.
Other smaller homes along the periphery of the new wall were also sacrificed in a wilful act of public demolition that still resonates with desperation, even all these centuries later.
As the Roman Empire collapsed in a series of invasions, Conimbriga – the peaceful and prosperous town of rural Lusitania – was abandoned by 468AD. Some of its inhabitants are thought to have been forced into slavery.
It was both exciting and deeply moving to spend time wandering amongst the town’s ancient history. For such a small entrance fee, €4.50, we had been gifted the chance to walk in the steps of citizens of Rome, and to marvel at their daily lives.
We could see where they swam and bathed in the public baths, where they met and gossiped at the Forum, where they bought food and drinks from at little shops and bars, where they enjoyed theatre and public debates and most touchingly, where they lived together in tiny terraced houses or wealthy luxury. What a place!
Riverside Coimbra was the medieval capital of Portugal for over a hundred years. It fairly tumbles down a steep hill, a riot of twisting lanes and alleyways lined with tall terraces of shuttered and balconied apartments, as well as churches, monasteries and palaces to land at the wide banks of the Rio Mondego.
It is topped with the gorgeous complex of the former Royal Palace. Since the 1537 the beautiful stone buildings have been home to Portugal’s oldest university, established in Lisbon in 1290.
Largely upgraded in the 1700s and 1800s with Baroque features, including a sensational library, the oldest part remains the Academic Prison. It’s the only Medieval prison that still exists in Portugal, a country where a person could get a punishment for destroying a book ‘the maximum expression of wisdom’.
Away from lofty thinking and dignified studies, the Old Town is flavoured with a healthy dash of intrigue and skulduggery. Shadowy corners, narrow passageways and deep stone doorways offer a myriad of cloak and dagger opportunities and we both felt that there was something of a Toledo-like aura to it.
Coimbra has two cathedrals, but it was the Old Se that charmed us most with its fortress-type feel. Romanesque in style it was begun in 1164 and was built on the site of a previous church destroyed in an attack by Muslim forces. Its austere faced is topped with battlements and a crenellated roofline in golden sandstone.
In the 16th century it was enlivened with a gorgeous stone sculpted door in the Renaissance style, the Porto Especiosa. This masterful work by the French sculptor Jean de Rouen uses triumphal arches and a tympanum decorated with saints, angels and Virgin and Child.
Intriguingly at head height on either side of the stone portico the figures of what appear to be Jesus with a lamb and Mohammed with the Koran gaze out in unity. We couldn’t establish this as nothing we could discover online or in the guide book explained why such imagery would sit together. It was reminiscent of the Mesquita at Cordoba where both Christianity and Islam blend in harmony.
Less harmonious were the tempers of drivers squeezing their cars through impossibly narrow corners and across cobblestones. We assumed them to be visitors in hire cars, caught up in a set of hapless circumstances but no! they all were locals heading towards tiny parking spaces marked in paint on the cobblestones in the lee of the town’s walls.
Back across the river, everyone was partying as the national holiday weekend brought out an evening crowd of beer drinkers and bocadillo munchers. Again, like Toledo, the local snack was a dangerously crusty looking roll of thick bread filled with wafer thin and fatty slices of Iberico Ham.
We eschewed that chewy challenge and instead had a tasty morsel of a light sweet scone, purportedly baked by a hustling nun but in showing us her jazzy leggings under her habit we understood her to be a good-natured fraud!