I can’t believe that until last week I’d missed out on the World Heritage Site of Foz Coa, deep in the wilds of northeastern Portugal. Well maybe I can, as it’s far from anywhere so not easily accessible. Yet ever since rock art was first discovered there in the early 1990s, more and more examples have been found and it’s now regarded as one of the world’s major paleolithic rock art sites. And, equally tempting, the same idyllic region is an increasingly diversified source of Douro wine…
Dry scrub, grasses, gently rolling hills, steep riverbanks, schist outcrops, granite houses, rushing streams and gentle rivers, sheep, vineyards, alluring under-inhabited villages with hilltop castles and clear unpolluted air are the ingredients. It’s all quite magical, and feels distinctly like time-travel.
In contrast, the museum (above) at Foz Coa archaeological park is a striking minimalist design in carved stone and concrete by young Portuguese architects, Camilo Rebelo and Tiago Pimentel. Built in 2009, it makes a spectacular eye-opener and innovative introduction to the rock art scattered in dozens of sites over 200 sq. km of the Coa valley. And the museum commands a strategic position too, right above the junction of the Rio Coa and its mother-river, the mighty Douro itself – barely 20km before it meanders over the Spanish border to become the Duero.
Below – an imaginative repro of a paleolithic drawing
I was lucky enough to be accompanying a National Geographic group that was treated with kid gloves – so we had head chief archaeologist Antonio Martinho Baptista and four jeeps to whisk us around the wild hills before trekking down steep rocky slopes – hotly (the week before temperatures had hit 40°C – ouch). There beside the river (which, due to a dam had flooded numerous other sites, though an even bigger dam was stopped), 22,000-year old etchings in the rock awaited us.
It was incredibly moving to see these simple yet vivid animal figures etched in the rock and hypothesise over them with Antonio. So little is known about their purpose. This continued when we returned to the riverside in the balmy evening and on cue a shepherd and his flock appeared down a distant track (top pic above). Magic. After feasting in style on local fare we set off on a starlit trek with Antonio for more rock art, more emotions.
Only registered visitors with guides are allowed into the park, however the entrance fee is an amazing deal – €10 for the park (including guide), and €12 for park & museum. Remember to book ahead in high season – and avoid the furnace of midday temperatures in summer.
Parenthesis – rock art elsewhere Memories of Australia’s Kimberley came flooding back – and of the extraordinary Bradshaw figures I saw there (below), lost in the empty outback, far older than those at Foz Coa. Archaeology is all conjecture though – whether about the artists’ motivation or the date of execution. Mexico’s San Francisco canyon in Baja California was another rock art site I investigated fully some 20 years ago, on mule-back that time and camping to a backdrop of howling coyotes. But well worth the journey.
And more recently, perhaps the most astonishing and rich Aboriginal rock art I have ever seen was in Arnhem Land, on Injalak Hill; there a huge rockface was covered in drawings in x-ray style (above) depicting the skeletons of fish and animals, similar to those in the more famous Kakadu National Park. Read my piece about Arnhem Land here. Then of course there’s Altamira, in northern Spain, but there you only see the replica cave beside the outstanding museum.
But I digress, back to gorgeous Portugal!
Not far from the archaeological park, we also explored a huge basin of vineyards, the Quinta da Ervamoira (above), owned by the illustrious Ramos-Pinto brand. Today it’s part of the Louis Roederer group (of Cristal champagne fame), but the estate feels thoroughly Portuguese. Interestingly, although known for their excellent port, they’re moving into still wines of excellent quality; the Duas Quintas Red slipped down very nicely with roasted kid followed by a moist orange pudding.
Unlike its venerable brethren in the central stretch of the Douro, this vineyard was only planted in the 1970s as an experiment to see which grapes adapted best to the soil – the answer was Tinta Barroca, Touriga Nacional, Tinta Roriz, Touriga Franca and Tinta Barroca – typically diverse. The other pilot element here was vertical instead of lateral planting, so allowing mechanised harvesting between the rows of vines – as above. Surprisingly, when we visited in late August, the grapes were already being picked.
Sleep in peace
And finally, where to stay in this remote corner of Portugal? None better that Casas do Coro, another pioneering set-up which has revived the dying village of Marialva, 20km south of Foz Coa. Beautifully integrated into the village and surrounding landscape, just below a ruined fortress, this cluster of stone cottages hardly looks like a hotel.
In fact it can sleep over 60 people, and as well as the lovely pool (above) now has a state-of-the-art spa with grass roof, but you’d never know. Candle-lanterns swing from the olive trees at night, lending flickering light to gourmet dinners of local produce. Silence is the rule, wilderness the setting and baroque interiors the counterpoint style. But from the exterior – who would guess?
So to conclude, all I can say is of you want to escape the chaos of our 21st century, then investigate the pioneers of Foz Coa – however many thousands of years old or contemporary they may be.
The Foz Coa / Marialva area is about 2 1/2 hours’ drive from Porto, and 3 1/2 from Lisbon. A car is essential.
Casas do Coro rates start at around €145 – each cottage / room is different. Self-catering available.