For our final hike of 2020, we headed to the village of Freixo, near to Marco de Canaveses. We were drawn there by the presence of the archeological remains of the Roman city of Tongobriga, that cover an area of 50 hectares. Initially a fortified Iron Age Celtic settlement, the area was integrated into the Roman Empire and transformed at the end of the 1st century. The archeological site was first discovered in 1986 and it is now classified as a national monument. It provided an interesting conclusion to a pleasant hike.
Located only 58km from Porto, we were able to reach Freixo in 50 minutes, using the A4 Auto-Estrada. The starting point for the hike was the Rua da Associação Recreativa do Freixo, where there were ample parking spaces next to an information board. We would be following the marked PR6 MCN Caminhos de Tongobriga hiking trail, assisted by a GPS track, via the Wikiloc app.
We arrived at the start-point after 11.00am, with low hanging clouds providing a backdrop to the rural scenery. The hike set off along cobbled rural roads, passing village homes, agricultural fields and old stone farm buildings. A wooden granary, next to a stone threshing floor, was partially loaded with corn. A little further, there were some corn stacks, formed around wooden poles attached to a tree. It was a brief insight into the rural life of the area.
As we left the cobbled road, we found ourselves sharing the dirt track with a small stream, as it meandered its way downhill, before turning off to join a small river (Ribeiro de Covas) that runs alongside the trail. After descending a set of wooden steps that took us down to the river, we realised that we had missed out a small loop in the trail that includes a couple of watermills (moinhos de agua), so we back-tracked to ensure we included everything.
The loop took us uphill on a cobbled road, passing more village homes and agricultural buildings, including a two-storey granite building with a threshing floor in front. There are two old mills, the second of which is open and still retains the milling mechanics inside.
With the watermill loop completed, we returned to the wet wooden steps down to the Ribeiro de Covas, being extra careful due to two broken steps. Initially, it was a pleasant, leafy trail alongside the river. We then encountered a large open area of soft soil, where the narrow trail was perched on top of a soil bank, alongside the river. In one place, the soil had subsided, leaving a gaping hole. Having navigated the bank of soil, the trail dropped down to a wooden bridge that crossed the small river.
After crossing the small bridge, the grassy trail continues for a while before the route turns left, onto another cobbled road. The route follows the road as it passes homes, agricultural fields, a water fountain and over a bridge, before turning off onto a dirt track. The route circles behind the fields and farmhouse that it passed earlier whilst on the road, whilst also passing old stone buildings and another old watermill.
After passing the last watermill, we were back alongside the Ribeiro de Covas. A short distance beyond, we reached the Poldras do Ribeiro de Covas. This scenic dam has large blocks of granite along the top, that allow water to flow between, whilst also providing ‘stepping stones’ for hikers to get across the river (poldras is the name for these types of ‘stepping stones’ that allow people to cross the dam). It’s a lovely location and would have been a nice place to eat lunch – but we weren’t hungry yet. We continued along the leafy trail, which does a U-turn after crossing the river and heads back along some nice leafy trails on the opposite bank.
After a short distance on a paved road, the route heads along a less-well-defined narrow trail that opens up alongside a vineyard, as it enters the village of Fontes. At one of the houses in the village, we saw an interesting mailbox built into the wall. It had a slot in the top for letters and a larger box below for bread deliveries. We continued past more agricultural fields and then the route passed along the top of a ledge that appears to have been cut into the rocky terrain. A wire fence has been installed along the length of this section – presumably as a safety feature (if you keep to the left of it). To the right is a steep slope with an algae-covered pond below. Beyond that section, we crossed a grassy field and climbed uphill to join a paved road. Barking dogs serenaded us as we walked alongside the houses – it seemed like every house in every village had a barking dog outside.
The next official waypoint on the route was the artisanal bakery and shop of Maria Emilia. The place is clearly sign-posted and also has a small sign on the wall, next to an otherwise plain door. The bakery and shop are part of a residential home, so it doesn’t have the appearance of a commercial property. As we were reading the sign on the wall, a friendly young man opened the door and invited us in. They bake fresh broa bread in a wood-burning oven, which was interesting to see. Several loaves were already baked and were being kept warm under a cloth. Another batch of loaves were still in the oven. Broa is a traditional Portuguese bread that includes corn in its ingredients. It is a dense and heavy loaf – I often say that you could knock out a burglar with it. I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to buy one. The shop also sells jams and preserves, as well as some liquers.
A little further along the route is another bakery inside a home – this time Pão Caseiro do Marco (Marco’s home-made bread). We got slightly confused with the route here – it does not follow the road past the houses, but turns right onto the grassy area alongside the grape vines, just before the sign for Pão Caseiro do Marco. A friendly local man, who was working in his garden, called out to us and gestured to where the trail was. As we followed the grassy trail away from the houses, we decided to stop for our lunch – it was approaching 2.00pm.
With our lunch taken care of, we continued along the grassy trail as it headed uphill. As we reached the brow of the hill, we entered an area that has previously been overcome by a wildfire. Many of the trees and shrubs have been burned, but grass and new tree growth is emerging between the blackened trunks. We followed the trail through the former fire zone and emerged at the edge of the Forum of Tongobriga. The archeological site is fenced off in this area, but an overview is possible.
The trail then moves away from the Forum, into a lovely wooded area that includes some pine trees with amazingly beautiful bark – I believe them to be Maritime Pines. The trail twists through the trees and alongside an old stone wall, until it makes a U-turn and heads uphill, between old stone walls. It is at this point that the trail follows an old Roman road or footpath. It was enthralling to consider that we might be walking on stone slabs that were trod by Romans over two-thousand years ago. It is possible that this section was part of the Decumanus Maximus (an east-west orientation road in a Roman city).
The trail led us to the village of Freixo, where we would become more acquainted with the Roman city of Tongobriga. The village now takes up much of the space that once fell within the protective walls of Tongobriga, It was constructed between the 18th – 20th centuries, using local granite, much of which was recycled from the Roman buildings.
Our first visit was to St. Mary’s Church (Igreja de Santa Maria), which is built in an area that sits on top of several archaeological levels. On the lower level, remains of Roman buildings and a mosaic have been discovered. Above them, the remains of a cemetery that was used between the 9th and 20th centuries. The church is also on the site of a 6th century primitive Christian temple. The church itself was extensively renovated in 1968, but the bell tower dates to the 18th century and the sacristy to the 19th century. [source]
Just beyond the church is the Tongobriga Interpretive Centre. A gentleman was standing outside the facility and asked us if we wished to visit, clarifying for us that access to the restricted areas of the archaeological remains was via the centre. The building was locked, but he opened it for us and we paid our admission fee of €3 each. I paused the Wikiloc app at this point, so that our hiking trail doesn’t include the section that requires payment.
We were provided with a pictorial map of the ‘two faces of Tongobriga’, that proved helpful as we wandered around the site. One one side, the map depicts what researchers believed the Roman city looked like. On the flip side, it shows the current layout of the village of Freixo and the proximity of the Tongobriga excavations. These same maps can be found on the Tongobriga website and I have provided screenshot images below.
We passed through the Interpretive Centre building, in order to access the area of excavations where remains of Roman and pre-Roman houses can be found. As the village of Freixo now stands where many of the houses existed, the excavated remains only depict a portion of the Roman city that stood there. Nevertheless, it provides an insight into the layout and sizes of the buildings that were part of the settlement. Most of the remains are of the straight-sided Roman houses, that would have featured atriums and central courtyards. We also found a couple of circular stone foundations that were probably from the pre-Roman round houses that would have been used until the end of the 1st century AD. The round houses would have been about 5 metres in diameter with a central wooden post that supported a thatched roof. By contrast, some of the Roman villas would have about 500 square metres of interior space.
After walking around the residential section of the excavations, we returned to the interpretive centre. In addition to the ticket office, there is a film-screening room on one side and another room on the other side. Both were in darkness at the time of our visit. As we re-entered the centre, the gentleman met us and told us that he would escort us to the location of the Forum and the Roman baths. I reactivated the hiking app and we followed the man along the main street of the village and then we turned right, towards the Forum. As we walked along the road, we saw the remains of another residential area, including Iron Age Celtic round houses, that were located close to remnants of the perimeter wall of the city.
A short distance beyond the city wall is the large fenced-in area that encompasses the Forum and the Roman baths. The gentleman unlocked the gate and we were allowed in to wander around. I understand that guided tours are available but they must be booked in advance. Again, I paused the hiking app whilst we entered the area that requires payment (the €3 we paid at the centre gives access to both restricted areas).
The Roman baths were constructed in the last quarter of the 1st century AD. There was an open air swimming pool as well as adjacent baths that featured either cold, tepid and hot water. These structures are still in the process of being excavated and restored, but there are ramps and public viewing areas in place.
Adjacent to the Roman baths is the Balnearium – Iron Age, or pre-Roman, baths. This facility was carved into the granite rock in the last centuries before the Christian era, and was in use until the construction of the adjacent Roman baths. It is said that people took steam baths here, created by throwing water over heated stones, much like current day saunas. A plan of this facility shows a furnace and a steam room, a tepid room and an atrium that also included a cold water supply. These rooms are visible, carved from the rock. There is also a reconstruction of a rudimentary toilet, over a running sewer channel.
The Forum, that is adjacent to the Roman baths and the Balnearium, was only discovered in the late 1980’s, when a corn field was dug mechanically for the first time. It measured 139 meters long and 68.5 wide, covering an area of almost 10,000 m2, so it was quite a sizeable area. It was a large open space, surrounded by a wall and various buildings. It is understood to have been a large market space with commercial buildings and an area that was also used for large meetings or gatherings, perhaps for the entire populace. Materials found there have been dated to the dynasty of the Julio-Claudius emperors – between Augustus and Nero (27 BC – AD 68). Today, the Forum consists of a large grassy field with remnants of the perimeter stone wall as well as the stone foundations of various buildings. There is an opening in the perimeter wall, marked by a steel-pipe structure, that appears to have been the entrance gate to the Forum. [Source]
We exited the Forum enclosure and resumed our hike, which took us along the outside of the security fence of the Forum, to the ruins of a small stone chapel (Capela da Senhora Aparecida) that was built against a large boulder. The trail looped around the chapel and headed uphill, to a flattened area with a stone cross, that offered a view over the surrounding countryside. From there, the trail descended and crossed what appeared to be another section of Roman road, with large stone slabs. Just beyond that, the trail exited through the entrance to Tongobriga. A short distance beyond was my bike, signalling the end of the hike.
The hike covered a total distance of 8.87km (not including our wanderings around the secured sections of Tongobriga). It took us four hours to complete the circuit, but a chunk of that time was spent looking around the ruins of Tongabriga. Whilst most of the route was easy to accomplish, I have rated the difficulty as ‘moderate’, due to a couple of places along the way that required some extra caution. Whilst we incorporated our visit to Tongobriga into this pleasant hike, the old Roman city can be reached by car, without any need to hike. It is a lovely, historically interesting area that is certainly worth a visit.