About 10km southwest of Coimbra off of highway IC-3 sits one of the largest Roman settlements ever to have been excavated in Portugal — and if you’re lucky, you might be the only visitor, as the turn-off isn’t marked. It’s a slice of Pompeii in Lusitania, minus the crowds and the guys selling maps and postcards. And it’s still being excavated.
Conímbriga was classified as a National Monument in 1910, but even the prestige conferred by that title doesn’t do it justice. The complex contains expertly-excavated remains of a forum, a basilica, shops, aqueducts, thermal spas, and, perhaps most impressively, private homes of various dimensions that feature intricate and well-preserved interior patios covered in myopia-inducing mosaics and lust-worthy domus. Some also have central atrium pools for collecting rainwater — and for the occasional skinny-dipping hide-and-go-seek, I imagine:
The visitors’ center does a fantastic job of displaying artifacts excavated at the site, including coins, utensils, surgical tools, ceramics, and jewelry, and acquainting you with the history of the ruins. Of particular interest are the models of the original complex in all its former glory and the timeline near the exit that puts in perspective not just the Roman influence on modern-day Portugal, but that of the Moors, Visigoths, and everyone else who’s stamped their claim here. I was glad to have started there so we could fully appreciate the park and all its offerings during our two-hour stroll and highly recommend that any visitor do the same.
Some of the foundations at Conímbriga date back to the ninth century (at the end of the Bronze Age), but most of what you can see are the ruins from 139 BC when the Romans arrived to the already bustling settlement and organized it into a prosperous center, complete with surrounding walls, an amphitheater, commerce, and, of course, artistic flair. By around 75 AD the city had grown exponentially to house an estimated 10,000 people. By the end of the fourth century, the city had grown to contain a newly-remodeled bath system, higher walls, and a paleo-Christian basilica.
It was all fun and games until around 465, when the city was invaded by the tough Suevi tribes. Conímbriga’s population dispersed, as many were killed or sold into slavery, and the city was destroyed. It lay in shambles, overgrown and hidden, until its re-discovery in the 18th century. Since then, more and more mosaics and foundations have been uncovered and preserved, and the work hasn’t stopped. There’s undoubtedly lots more to find that lies under heaps of earth, so the site is still being explored.
Conímbriga is well worth a visit. It may not be as big or as famous as Pompeii, but it certainly inspires the same kind of mind-wandering into times past.