Sitting high above the Côa valley, 60km southeast of Pinhão, the small town of VILA NOVA DE FOZ CÔA would attract no interest at all had it not been for the discovery in 1992 of the most extensive array of outdoor paleolithic art in Europe. The engravings are of a similar style to those found in caves elsewhere, but their uniqueness lies in the fact that they are carved outside on exposed rock faces in a river valley. With the oldest dated at around 23,000 years, their survival is remarkable, and they are now under protection as both National Monument and UNESCO World Heritage Site.
There are three rock-art sites to visit, though the restrictions on numbers and visiting hours mean you can’t see more than two in any one day. Depending on how keen you are, this might mean an overnight stop in Foz Côa, though there is no earthly reason otherwise to stay. Although the blistering midsummer heat and winter cold makes it hard to believe, the town benefits from a Mediterranean microclimate, proof of which is provided by the locally produced almonds, fruit, cheese, wine and – especially – olive oil, among the country’s finest. The monthly market is on the first Tuesday of the month next to the football field, and the blossoming of almond trees draws the crowds in late February and early March.Read More
Parque Arqueológico do Vale do Côa (PAVC)
Parque Arqueológico do Vale do Côa (PAVC)
The archeological park contains thousands of engravings on several hundred rocks, a good number of which are clustered around the three major sites. The engravings are of horses, deer, goats and other animals, as well as later, Neolithic, images of people – many are quite hard to make out, as unlike cave art they are not painted but were scratched or chipped with stones. Depending on the site, visits take place either in the mornings or afternoons, though night visits are sometimes possible, out of the sun’s glare, when you can see the engravings more easily. If you only have time to visit one site, Penascosa is considered the most interesting.
Visiting the sites
The Museu do Côa (3km east of town, signposted) is the obvious place to start, since it expands in detail upon the discovery and history of the site, and also acts as a booking centre for the park. Visits to the rock-art sites have to be booked in advance, which can be done in person or by phone or email – in summer, two or three days in advance is recommended. The fee includes a guide and 4WD transport from the appropriate visitor centre; each trip has a maximum of eight visitors, and children under 3 are not allowed.
Canada do Inferno
From the museum, tours head out to the first site to be identified, that of Canada do Inferno (usually morning visits; tour lasts 1hr 30min), which lies near the abandoned Côa dam. It contains a wide variety of engravings, from bison to horses, some very close to the current water line and many more underwater since the construction of the Pocinho dam upstream raised the level.
Ribeira de Piscos
Trips to Ribeira de Piscos (usually mornings; 2hr 30min) head out from Muxagata, 1km off the N102 to Guarda, which has a bar beside the visitor centre. The engravings are spread out along the eponymous ribeira down to its confluence with the Côa – a beautiful place, but there’s a lot of walking involved. The highlights are a tender engraving of two horses “kissing”, some fine engravings of auroch bison (now extinct) and an exceptionally rare, paleolithic engraving of a man.
The least strenuous visit is to Penascosa (usually afternoons, 1hr 30min, plus evenings, 3hr), as the jeeps park right next to it. The starting point is the visitor centre in Castelo Melhor, just off the N322 to Figueira de Castelo Rodrigo. Penascosa’s highlights include an engraving of a fish (one of very few such depictions worldwide), and a rock containing over a dozen superimposed animals, the meaning of which archeologists are at a loss to understand. The village itself has a gorgeous ruined castle and a couple of café-restaurants.
Quinta da Ervamoira
There’s also a private site at Quinta da Ervamoira (closed Mon; visits by appointment: t 279 759 229), a secluded vineyard on the west bank of the Côa, accessed from Muxagata. It’s owned by the Ramos Pinto port wine company, whose granite estate house is now a museum housing finds from Roman and medieval times.