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An Excursion to the Roman Town of Conímbriga

One of Europe's great Roman archaeological finds, Conímbriga is 16km (10 miles) southwest of Coimbra. If you don't have a car, you can take a bus from Coimbra to Condeixa, 1.8km (1 mile) from Conímbriga. The bus, AVIC MONDEGO, leaves Coimbra at 9am and returns at 1 and 6pm. From Condeixa, you reach Conímbriga by walking or hiring a taxi in the village.

The site of a Celtic settlement established in the Iron Age, the village was occupied by the Romans in the late 1st century A.D. From then until the 5th century, the town knew a peaceful life. The site lay near a Roman camp but never served as a military outpost, though it was on a Roman road connecting Lisbon (Roman Olisipo) and Braga (Roman Bracara Augusta).

You can walk from the small Museu Monográfico along the Roman road to enter the ruins. The museum contains artifacts from the ruins, including a bust of Augustus Caesar that originally stood in the town's Augustan temple. The House of Cantaber is a large residence, and in its remains you can trace the life of the Romans in Conímbriga. The house was occupied until intruders seized the family of Cantaber. The invaders also effectively put an end to the town in the mid-5th century.

Another point of interest is the House of the Fountains, constructed before the 4th century, when it was partially destroyed by the building of the town wall. Much of the house has been excavated, and you can see remains of early Roman architecture as it was carried out in the provinces.

Roman mosaics in almost perfect condition have been unearthed in area diggings. The designs are executed in blood red, mustard, gray, sienna, and yellow; the motifs include beasts from North Africa and delicately wrought hunting scenes. In one of the houses you can see mosaics with mythological themes. The diggings attest to the ingenuity of Roman design. Columns form a peristyle around reflecting pools, and the remains of fountains stand in courtyards. There are ruins of temples, a forum, patrician houses, water conduits, and drains. Feeding the town's public and private bathrooms were special heating and steam installations with elaborate piping systems. The town even had its own aqueduct.

The ruins are open daily 9am to 8pm (until 6pm in winter). The museum is open Tuesday to Sunday 10am to 8pm. Admission is 4.50€ for adults and free for children under 14. For more information, call tel. 23/994-11-77 or visit www.conimbriga.pt.

Up Into the Mountains

If you have a car, winding roads through hills to the east of Coimbra provide a chance to get in touch with a hidden side of Portugal, where culinary, cultural and handicraft traditions run deep. In the Serra da Lousã and Serra do Açor hill ranges, the Aldeias do Xisto initiative is an attempt to inject new life into highland villages that were suffering from desertification as younger people moved to the cities. Twenty-seven villages constructed from the dark local schist stones are included, many hosting shops selling local crafts including basket work, woolen blankets, honeys and liquors. They also organize hiking, cross-country biking, kayaking and other outdoor activities. For more information, go to http://aldeiasdoxisto.pt (tel. 275 647 700 ). The website also lists rural restaurants and accommodation, ranging from rustic home-stays to luxury hotels.

One of the most imposing of the small towns in the hills is Penela, a half hour drive south from Coimbra. Its heart is a cluster of white-washed homes sheltering beneath the imposing medieval castle, another reminder of the days of reconquista when it formed part of a network of defenses against Muslim counter-attacks. Admission free. Open daily 9am–7pm (until 9pm Apr–Sept). Sheep and goats roaming the hillsides here are used to make, queijo de Rabaçal mild cheeses tasting of wild herbs that come in hockey puck-sized rounds. Along the main street in the village of  Rabaçal you can buy from cafés, stores and private homes of small producers.

While the Mondego upriver from Coimbra winds through forested hills, once it's through the city, the river broadens out and flows gently to the Atlantic through marshes, rice paddies and salt flats. Dominating the flat landscape is the imposing castle of Montemor-o-Velho, 28 km (17 miles) west of Coimbra on the road to the ocean.  This was another bastion in the medieval fight for control of Portugal, captured from the Moors in the 1064. The fortress was expanded over the years and its current form dates mostly from the 14th century. There's a gem of a romanesque church inside the walls, and a modern tea house (casa de chá) built into the ruins of the Paço das Infantas (Princesses' Palace). 

A prized speciality in the watery lands around Montemor is duck served roast (pato assado) or with rice (arroz de pato). One of the best places to try such delights is Casa Arménio in the village of Tentúgal, on Rua Mourão between Coimbra and Montemor (meals around €15. [tel] 239951175).  This rustic restaurant located in an old aristocratic manor house is a temple to regional cuisine. The staff are friendly, but this is very much a local favorite with little preparation for international visitors, but this food is divine. Finish off with some of the almond-egg-cinnamon confections which have their origins in the nearby convent and are now favorite sweet treats around the country.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.