Visiting Portugal

Conimbriga, Portugal

Conimbriga – Portugal’s Best-Preserved Roman Ruins

On our way north from Nazaré to Porto we stopped at the site of a Roman settlement in Portugal, known as Conimbriga, which is about halfway between those two cities (roughly 110 km or 68 miles either way). The history of Conimbriga actually dates back well before the Romans, to the Bronze and Iron ages. It was an ideal location, on a plateau that was easy to defend and good access to water.

What remains are the Roman-era ruins, of which 17% have been excavated, leaving a lot more to discover. The visible ruins date from about mid 1st century CE to about 500 CE, when the Roman empire finally completely collapsed. Although most of the structures are pretty ruined, enough remains to get a feel for the wealth and prosperity of Conimbriga in its prime.

Conimbriga, Portugal

The gate and road into Conimbriga. The original city walls were smaller and encircled a much wider area. The town’s fortifications were strengthened around a smaller portion of the city in the 3rd century CE.

Conimbriga, Portugal

These structures, which include shops, baths and houses, are just outside the town’s walls, which form the backdrop.

The largest aristocratic residence, known as the House of Fountains, sits just outside the walls. It was constructed around 200 CE and excavated in 1939. It has a huge courtyard (or peristyle) with pools, fountains and beautiful mosaic floors in its rooms. Unfortunately, it was largely demolished when the defenses of the town were strengthened and building material was needed. The remnants of this 35,000 sq. feet residence are still interesting, protected by an overhead shelter.

House of the Fountains, Conimbriga, Portugal

The courtyard of the House of the Fountains, with its pools and small fountains. It must have been very impressive 2,000 years ago. Note the mosaic floors around the perimeter of the pools.

House of the Fountains, Conimbriga, Portugal

A view of some of the rooms in the House of the Fountains.

House of the Fountains, Conimbriga, Portugal

A closer look at the frescoes and mosaic floors in the House of the Fountains.

There are remains of other buildings inside the city walls, including a forum, basilica, and other dwellings. The Romans were amazing engineers and builders, their ability to construct a city layout with infrastructure that is still partially intact today speaks to their skills.

Conimbriga, Portugal

This structure is known as the House of Cantaber, constructed about 100 CE. The columns surround the peristyle (courtyard). The city walls are right behind the house.

Baths, Conimbriga, Portugal.

A view of private baths at Conimbriga, the foundations here date from the 3rd and 4th century. The hexagonal tanks were heated and held hot water.

Conimbriga, Portugal

Detail of the mosaic floor of the aptly named “House of the Swastika”, excavated in 1940. (The infamous Nazi adaptation was reversed from this much earlier version)

Conimbriga, Portugal

Another view of the ruins of Conimbriga.

Conimbriga, Portugal

The remains of the Baths of the Aqueduct (the wall behind the raised floor was the aqueduct, and the raised floor covers part of the baths).

In addition to the ruins at Conimbriga, there is a small museum on the site, and there are a few other small Roman ruins north and south (Alcabideque, Rabaçal and Santiago Da Guardia), indicating the expanse of Roman civilization in this part of Portugal.

Places to Visit in Central Portugal (Tomar, Alcobaça and Batalha) – Part II

Portugal is home to some of the most famous medieval-era monasteries in Europe. On our last trip, we were able to visit four of them. A primary reason for our two day stay in Nazaré was to visit three of these monasteries: Alcobaça, Batalha and Tomar (the fourth monastery is in Belém, near Lisbon, I have written a little about it here). It might be possible to visit all three in an extremely rushed day; however, I would suggest visiting Alcobaça and Batalha on one day (both are pretty close to Nazaré) and then see Tomar on the second day, with a visit to Almourol castle before or after (these two sights are just 32 km (20 miles) apart).

All three monasteries in this post are well worth visiting. For sake of time, I would prioritize Tomar first (it’s the furthest away and has the most extensive set of rooms that can be visited), Alcobaça and then Batalha.

Tomar (Convento de Cristo)

The town of Tomar, known for its unique monastery (called Convento de Cristo), is one of the signature sights in Portugal. The main chapel dates to the 11th century and the walls surround the monastery complex are much older. Convento de Cristo is extremely unique because of its circular, fortress-like chapel, and its long association with the Templar Knights.

Convento de Cristo, Tomar

A view of the walls surrounding Convento de Cristo in Tomar.

I had the privilege of visiting Convento de Cristo a few years ago, and I was just as amazed visiting it again on this trip as I had been previously. The site is extensive, and consists of visiting the chapel, cloisters with several levels, kitchens, refectory, dorm rooms, meeting halls and other places, including the exterior gardens.

Convento de Cristo, Tomar.

The circular (16 sided) Templar chapel of Convento de Cristo.

Convento de Cristo, Tomar, Portugal

Interior of the Templar Chapel (Charola), Convento de Cristo.

Convento de Cristo, Tomar.

The elaborate entrance to Convento de Cristo, Tomar.

Convento de Cristo, Tomar

Detail of the Manueline sculptures (16th century) which decorate the Convento de Cristo.

Allow at least two hours for your visit. The site is well sign-posted with English explanations.

Note: Several years ago, I visited Tomar as a day trip via train from Lisbon (see post here). This is very doable. However, if you have more time, a road trip is better, since you will be able to see more sights along the way. Since my family had not been to Tomar, we made this sight one of our destinations out of Nazaré. It’s only 77 km (48 miles) directly east of Nazaré. This monastery sits on a hill overlooking the town, and parking is available off the road part way up the hill.

Tomar Aqueduct

Also, just north of the town of Tomar a few kilometers is an old aqueduct, built in the 1590’s. Visiting it is free, it goes right over and next to the road. We saw it on the map and made our way to it after our visit to the monastery. It was built to provide water to the monastery.

Tomar aqueduct, Portugal.

A view of the aqueduct near Tomar. You can take a walk across the top.

Alcobaça

This Cistercian monastery is just 16 km (10 miles) east of Nazaré and takes its name from its location at the confluence of the Alcoa and Baça rivers, which provided a water source for crops and the monastery residents. Construction began in 1178 and now the monastery is surrounded by the old town of Alcobaça.

Alcobaça monastery, Portugal.

Exterior view of Alcobaça monastery.

Alcobaça Monastery, Portugal

A view of the Cloister of Silence, built in the 13th century.

Alcobaça Monastery, Portugal

The massive and austere interior of Alcobaça Church. The vaults are over 20 meters (65 ft) high.

Alcobaça Monastery, Portugal

Alcobaça’s refectory (where the monks would eat their meals). From this pulpit, there would be scripture readings to those gathered.

Alcobaca Monastery Kitchen2

Everything in Alcobaça is on a huge scale. This is a view of the massive kitchen.

Alcobaça Monastery, Portugal

Reliquary Chapel, built between 1669 – 1672, part of the Manueline Sacristy. There is an additional fee to visit this chapel, but it is well worth it. Seventy-one terra cotta busts adorn the interior.

Alcobaça Monastery, Portugal.

The dormitory, one of the oldest parts of the monastery.

The adjacent town of Alcobaça also deserves at least a short walk, it has a scenic center.

Alcobaça Monastery, Portugal

A view of Alcobaça town.

Batalha

Founded in 1386 by King João I (who is buried here), to commemorate a battle that led to Portugal’s independence from Spain, this site is of national importance to the Portuguese. Construction went on for hundreds of years and was never completed. This monastery is 32 km (20 miles) northeast of Nazaré. It is considered one of the finest manifestations of gothic architecture in Portugal. This monastery was nearly in ruins in the early 1800’s, and thankfully it has been restored and is now a museum.

Batalha Monastery, Portugal.

A view of the north side of Batalha Monastery.

Batalha Monastery, Portugal

Another view of the exterior of Batalha Monastery.

Batalha, Portugal

The intricate detail carvings over the entrance to the unfinished chapels (Capelas Imperfeitas) at Batalha.

Batalha, Portugal.

A view of the unfinished chapels.

Batalha, Portugal.

The soaring expanse of the main nave in the church at Batalha.

Batalha, Portugal

Door carving at the entrance to the cloisters.

Batalha, Portugal.

A view of the cloisters at Batalha.

Batalha, Portugal.

The Chapter House at Batalha. Its ceiling covers a large expanse and has no central support, an engineering feat in the early 1400’s. Soldiers can be seen standing as honor guards in this room by the far wall, stationed here in remembrance of the war of independence from Spain.

Practicalities

We visited these monasteries in October, and none were very busy. You can get a ticket that allows you to visit all three of those discussed in this post for a discounted rate. A senior rate is also available. Buy your ticket at the first monastery you visit. There is a direct train to Tomar from Lisbon (I recall that there were only one or two stops along the way), and it’s an easy day trip from Lisbon. Travel to Batalha and Alcobaça is a bit more complicated from Lisbon via train (it requires bus travel too). A rental car is by far more convenient.

Nazaré, Portugal.

Places to Visit in Central Portugal – Part I

From Sintra, we drove north to our next destination, Nazaré, a town on the central coast of Portugal. We chose Nazaré as our base for exploring this region of the country due to its location, choice of hotels and natural beauty. Since there is much to see in this part of Portugal, I will cover some sights in this post and others in Part II.

Almourol Castle

This scenic, small medieval castle sits on a rocky outcrop in the Tagus River, the same river which flows through Lisbon.

Almourol Castle, Portugal

A view of the castle from our small boat.

The castle is located 110 km (68 miles) east of Nazaré. Not much is really known about the castle’s history, but it was likely built prior to the Christian conquest of the Iberian Peninsula in 1129. The Knights Templar had stewardship of the castle and surrounding lands until their disbanding in the 1300’s.

Almourol Castle, Portugal.

The massive walls of the castle.

Almourol Castle, Portugal

Entrance to the castle.

To reach the castle, you have to take a small boat, and you are given about 45 minutes to visit the castle before the boat returns to the mainland. The castle is in a rural area–there is a small snack shop near the parking lot, but not many restaurants around. Also, the boat operator takes a 1.5 hour lunch break, so plan your visit accordingly.

Leiria

This town would be another good base for visiting central Portugal (it’s just 37 km northeast of Nazaré). Even though Leiria is surrounded by many tourist sights, the town itself is not on the tourist map, but is still worth a stop. Sitting on a prominent hilltop overlooking the town is an old castle (which was turned into a palace).

Leiria Castle, Portugal

Leiria’s town square with its castle on the hilltop.

The town square below (known as Praça Rodrigues Lobo) has a nice view of the castle. The town also has some quaint streets, a cathedral, an old 15th century paper mill and a little 11th century church (near the castle).

Leiria, Portugal

Street scene in Leiria.

Just 15 minutes south of Leiria is the stunning monastery of Batalha, which I will cover in Part II.

Obidos

About 40 km south of Nazaré is Obidos, a medieval town encircled by a high wall. At the south end of the old town is a beautiful gate and at the north end is an old castle watching over the town and surrounding countryside.

Obidos, Portugal.

At the north end of of the old town of Obidos with its castle.

Obidos, Portugal.

Main Gate, Obidos. A 14th century gate, with 18th century tile work.

You can walk on the walls around the whole town for free.

Obidos, Portugal.

One of the entrances to the wall by the castle.

Obidos, Portugal

On our walk around the walls of Obidos.

We made it one half the way around the walls and then decided to do some shopping and have lunch in this magnificent setting.

Obidos, Portugal

Obidos Town Square. There are several interesting old churches is the town.

Obidos, Portugal.

Street scene in Obidos.

I would consider Obidos on the “must see” list in Portugal.

Nazaré

Nazaré itself is an interesting town and was our home for a few nights as we explored the region. It is a fishing village and a summer destination for the Portuguese, given its good beaches and central location. Nazaré doesn’t really have a “surfing vibe” like spots in Southern California, but I understand it has some of the best waves found in the Atlantic Ocean.

Nazaré, Portugal.

Looking down on the lower part of Nazaré with its wide expanse of beach. (The funicular tramway is in the lower part of the photo).

The beach is wide and quite beautiful, but unfortunately, we were there in the fall time (October) and didn’t get to enjoy the water. The town is split into two distinct parts, with the lower part hugging the beach, and the oldest part of the town sitting on a bluff overlooking the ocean, lower town and beaches.

Nazaré, Portugal.

Old Town Square, “upper” Nazaré.

Lots of good restaurants down by the beach. We stayed at the Hotel Magic, a great boutique hotel in the lower town.

Nazaré, Portugal.

The lower part of Nazaré has a nice promenade along the beach.

In my next post, I will cover our visits to the world famous Alcobaca, Bathala and Tomar monasteries.