Vila Nova de Foz Côa:
Getting out of Porto and onto the right roads east was a complete nightmare! The GPS and the map had different ideas about the best route to take and we ended up getting taken along roads which were either too narrow or in the wrong direction. Finally we managed to get onto some pretty back roads which followed the Rio Douro (the river in Porto) upstream through the vineyards. This being autumn, the grapevines - along with the other deciduous trees in the district - had turned the most wonderful shades of reds and yellows.
Our destination was Vila Nova de Foz Côa in the north east of the country, a region not much visited even by Portuguese tourists. It's unusual for its Mediterranean climate which also spared it much of the ice cover in the Ice Ages. So we saw olive trees again and fields of almond trees many of which still had almonds clinging to the branches.
Vila Nova de Foz Côa is a little town high up in the hills near the Rio Côa which empties into the Rio Douoro. Its claim to fame is the existence of Palaeolithic rock art in the valley. In the 1990s a dam was being built which would have drowned the valley. Surveys found some engraving in rocks which would have been lost forever if the dam had gone ahead. It took 6 years before work on the dam was halted and evidence of half-built structures now lie rusting and eroding in the valley. In the interim, a combination of the discovery of thousands more sites and people power saw the project completely abandoned.
A flash new museum, all hard edges and concrete, lies on the top of a hill overlooking the lovely valley. Here we managed to buy tickets to two guided tours. Usually these have to be bought well ahead of time, but we decided to try our luck. In the morning we were joined only by a young Portuguese couple from Lisbon for the 4 wheel drive trip to one of the sites, Canada do Inferno. The guide spoke enough English to be informative fortunately. We drove down some steep roads and then alighted to walk the last kilometre or so along steep tracks and steps lined with the local slate. On smooth vertical rock faces, we saw engravings from 23,000 to 10,000 years ago. Scratched or picked into the hard rock were oxen or aurochs, horses, ibex, even a fish. Most were beautifully executed though one at least looked like a practice run, or maybe done by a child. Extraordinary ones were horses which had two, or in one case three, heads - quite deliberately done without any doubt to denote movement.
In the afternoon we fronted up in a different little village, Castelo Mehlor a little south of Vila Nova de Foz Côa, for a second tour to a different site. The same battered Nissan Patrol and the same guide appeared as well as our companions from the morning. But we were also joined by two more couples, one Portuguese and the other from Melbourne. As each tour only took 8 people, we had been extremely lucky to jag the last two seats for the afternoon.
We had been really looking forward to this trip and without doubt we saw some amazing rock art in the largest outdoor rock art site in the world. But our expectations were very high and we had thought that what we would see would have been bigger and better than we did. Our fault, not theirs. It is really amazing to think that this stuff was so old, that it had survived over such stretches of time and that Nature had not worn it away or that man had not drowned it for all time.