I can’t resist a brown sign. Especially the ones with the arch, symbolising an historic monument. The ones with the pillory symbol I can pass on, along with the beach ones and the water ones. If you followed all of those then you might end up at Praia das Rocas (beach), and that would be disappointing. On the other hand a brown sign saying Osso da Baleia(beach) – well that’s intriguing.
Thus, when I’m let out by myself I spend hours chasing brown signs. The One will not stand for my random turn-off adventures, and who can blame him when the monument in question might be 28 kilometres from the signpost and if you can actually find it it may only be a small rock covered in duck poo.
I’ve spent years chasing small rocks around the world. Greek and Roman rocks mostly, from Palmyra (Syria), Nemausus (France) to Bulla Regia (Tunisia). And now, just down the road.
Indeed the great city of Conimbriga is not far from here. But more interesting are the smaller ancient fragments scattered around, hiding under the stones of Portugal’s not-so-modern villages.
Take Condeixa-A-Velha, which sits in a deep gorge in the shadow of Conimbriga. It’s a classic Portuguese village with more than the usual dose of oldness. No doubt that the houses here would have been built with stone from Conimbriga. Indeed if you are renovating in Condeixa Velha an archeological team come around and dig a hole in your foundations. In an inaccessible alley crowded in by rough little houses and built upon by a large unused barn, are three roman arches, their purpose buried by time.
A few kilometers away another brown sign lured me to the village of Alcabedique, surely one of the best place names in Portugal. There, without a shred of indication are the remains of the Roman reservoir which supplied water to Conimbriga.
All around this area the landscape looks ancient, biblical. Especially in the dry heat of summer with crickets singing and vines heavy with fruit. The villa romana in Rabaçal sits in an olive grove with trunks as old and wide boababs. There’s really nothing left of this Roman house-complex except the shapes of the walls. Although under the sand which covers the internal spaces there are some fading mosaics.
Antiquity is best kept in the dark. The brutal exposure that most ancient ruins have to endure makes their deterioration inevitable. The older the ruin, the more it gets subjected to terrible restoration. Especially in the 20th century when tour buses and cement trucks collided.
The Residência Senhorial dos Condes de Castelo Melhor is a monument of the 21st century. A grand 16th century Manueline castle and villa of aristocracy was acquired by the council last century and left to rot until being made state heritage in 1978. Subsequently it slowly began to be restored and in 2002 Roman ruins were officially discovered in the foundations. Fortunately no one had listened to the plumber who worked on the tavern built in a part of the villa back in 1975. He discovered the mosaics entombed in the foundations, in rooms in which a family lived until 2002.
Had they been discovered in 1975, their rescue and preservation would not have been so sensitively managed, such was the politic and science of the time. Today, despite the imperative to preserve the 16th century building on top, these mosaic carpets might be exactly as they looked to 5th century Romans.
This Roman house was massive. It far exceeds the boundaries of the castle, where excavations continue. The foundations show that the Roman house was occupied over a few generations, with higher levels and differing styles of mosaic works showing renovations. Apart from the mosaics in the small subterranean houses in Tunisia, these are the most beautiful floors I’ve ever seen.
Between the Italian city of Herculaneum, the underground Bulla Regia and this single house in Santiago da Guarda, it’s obvious to me that the Romans built the most beautiful homes in history.
It makes renovating a place first built in 1937 somewhat bemusing.