Carved into the rugged rocks of the Côa Valley near the town of Vila Nova de Foz Côa you’ll find the very origins of animated art. The two-headed animals scratched into these ancient stones weren’t monsters roaming the Portuguese countryside. The extra heads represent movement, pretty clever for rock art that’s over 20,000 years old!
Find out how to plan your own trip to Foz Côa
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UNESCO World Heritage rock art at Foz Côa
People continued drawing on rocks in this area of Northern Portugal right up to the 20th century, often on top of existing pictures. However, until the scandal of a proposed dam which would have submerged much of the Foz Côa rock art, little attention was paid to it.
The controversy over the dam, and the subsequent research into the history and age of some of these drawings resulted in the Côa Valley archaeological site, and neighbouring Siega Verde in Spain, being designated as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1988. Since then, much has been done to preserve the ancient art, both in situ and in a purpose built museum.
Foz Côa Museum
I’m not usually a fan of the sharp lines and blockiness of Brutalist architecture but this purpose-built museum won me over from the start. The entrance to the Côa museum is at the end of a narrowing walkway designed to represent the tectonic plates which created the landscape of the Douro Valley.
The two young Portuguese architects, Camilo Rebelo and Tiago Pimentel, have managed to incorporate the geographical features of the surrounding landscape into many aspects of the museum.
Once inside, there are plenty of photographs of the rock art which is still decorating the countryside, some life-size replicas and several pieces which have been moved permanently to the museum for preservation.
The range of exhibits is designed to avoid boredom and repetition and guides you through the significant periods and styles of art. While I may have suffered from museum fatigue if I’d had time to explore every room, as it was, I enjoyed the visit and came out feeling pleasantly educated instead of brain dead.
Tip: There isn’t a great deal of information in English so I suggest you go on one of the guided tours to get the most out of your visit. My guide was clearly passionate and knowledgeable about the rock art and the history of the Côa Valley. As well as the explanation about early animations, he gave an amusing demonstration of ingenious hunting tools invented by the valley’s tent-dwelling inhabitants.
As well as the rock art exhibits, the museum hosts regular temporary exhibitions of art and photography such as this sculpture by Alberto Carneiro.
If you’re in need of refreshment during your visit, the museum contains a lovely bright café and restaurant with glass frontage overlooking the valley. The daily lunchtime menu is excellent value. Even if you don’t need food or drink, it’s worth going outside to admire both the view of the almond and olive trees, low schist walls and the river valley plus the exterior of the building.
Guided visits to Côa Valley rock art sites
There are three main sites where tours take place; Canada do Inferno, Penascosa, and Ribeira de Piscos, all of which need a 4-wheel-drive to get to and an authorised guide.
Visits to each of the three rock art sites are usually arranged according to when the light will be best. Some of the drawings are very finely etched into the stone and are almost impossible to make out in bright sunlight.
Without a guide to show you where they are and explain that what you’re looking at isn’t just a random collection of scratches, there’s little point in going, except for the scenery.
See practicalities below if you intend to arrange a guided tour
Ribeira do Pisco rock art site
Once we left the tarmac roads, it became very clear why visits to the rock art sites are only possible by 4-wheel-drive. After bouncing along a deeply rutted track for a while, we abandoned the jeep and walked down towards the Pisco riverbed.
Ribeira do Pisco is best visited in the morning but we were only able to visit in the afternoon for various reasons. As well it being the wrong time of day, we had the added disadvantage of the rocks being covered in mud from a recent flood. Our guide, Miguel, had to pour water over one stone surface to reveal the famous Homen do Pisco (Pisco Man), an engraved figure with a disproportionately large penis.
Other images are easier to spot, some of them so large they can be seen from the other side of the river.
Rua dos Namorados rock art
On our way to do the nighttime visit to the Penascoso site, Miguel took us to see some more recent examples of rock art.
These pretty designs are set into a stone wall, known as Rua dos Namorados (Lovers’ Lane) just outside the village of Castelo Melhor. No one knows exactly when they were made but they date from somewhere between the 15th and 18th centuries.
Unlike the Palaeolithic art, these drawings, picked out from the stone with a sharp instrument, are more abstract. Alongside representations of fruit, fish and other animals are collections of swirly patterns and geometric shapes.
Penascosa rock art night visit
I thoroughly enjoyed the walk through Ribeira do Pisco but the rock art is clearer and more striking at Penascosa.
Visiting by torchlight adds to the experience, of course.
We sat on a slab of stone under an angled upright rock lit from beneath with a torch. Although not quite as atmospheric as a real fire, it was easy to imagine the groups of people sitting around a campfire, possibly under the influence of mind-altering substances, listening to their elders tell tales of hunting and bravery with these ancient drawings as illustrations.
We watched, spellbound but sober, as Miguel highlighted the forms of various overlapping beasts with a red laser.
What to see and do in Vila Nova de Foz Côa
Since there was a festival on, we popped into the town of Vila Nova de Foz Côa to see what was happening. Other than the outdoor market (usually held on the 1st and 3rd Tuesday of the month) where we bought some of the almondiest almonds I’ve ever tasted, and a cycle rally that whipped through the main streets just after lunch, things were pretty quiet during the day.
The Manueline doorway of the parish church, however, is worthy of a stop regardless of whatever may or may not be happening in the village. The interior is unusual, not only for its painted barrel ceiling but also its bendy columns.
Just across the square, you’ll see an impressive stone pillory and the imposing Town Hall. Other than these monuments and a few chapels, the town of Vila Nova de Foz Coa has no major sights to speak of but is plwasant enough to wander around and has a selection of restaurants, shops and cafés.
Almond blossoms in Foz Côa
As well as being blessed with some of the world’s best examples of prehistoric art, the Côa region has a micro climate that makes it perfect for growing almonds.
Having heard about how pretty the landscape is when the almond trees are in flower, I arranged our trip to coincide with the Festa das Amendoeiras em Flor (Almond Trees in Flower Festival). The dates for the 2018 Almond Blossom Festival are February 23rd to March 11th during which time there will be a range of activities taking place.
Mike and I didn’t see much in the way of festivities but we saw plenty of pink and white puffs of blossom decorating the countryside.
Faia Brava Natural Park
Mike’s not much of a walker and I’d used up his goodwill on the rock art tours so I had to content myself with a driving tour of the beautiful Faia Brava Natural Park.
This rugged countryside ticks a lot of boxes for me and one day, I intend to return and explore it properly, on foot. I haven’t done any of their tours yet but I would look into using Ambieduca for a guided walking tour.
Where to stay near Vila Nova de Foz Côa
Sadly, the little accommodation that exists in Vila Nova de Foz Côa is not particularly good. There are, however, plenty of nearby villages with much better guest houses.
The closest option to Vila Nova de Foz Côa is Bairro do Casal. If you’re looking for a country retreat in a stone cottage with kitchen, rustic features, an outdoor pool and great views, this is worth a look. Check photos and choose between a 2 person or 4 person villa.
Casa da Cisterna is within the walls of the ruined castle of Castelo Rodrigo. A cluster of cute, cosy stone cottages with an outdoor pool, stunning views and warm hosts who also do guided tours of the rock art sites. Check availability and prices.
Another historical village worth staying in is Marialva. Among the accommodation options here is the luxury Casas do Côro. Some of the renovated stone cottages are self-catering but the onsite restaurant is excellent. The swimming pool and grounds are set up for maximum relaxation and there’s an onsite spa just in case. Choose a room, suite or cottage to suit.
We stayed in the renovated farmhouse of Quinta de Pero Martins, which has cheerful comfortable rooms in a small village. Miguel took us to the rock art sites and also shared his passion for local Jewish history with us. Check availability and photos.
If you want to explore the Douro wine region, a more central base would be better – see my guide to the best places to stay in the Douro Valley.
Practicalities for seeing Foz Côa rock art
How to get to the Foz Côa Museum
If you come by train from elsewhere in the Douro Valley, there should be taxis waiting outside Pocinho station to take you directly to the museum (10 to 15 minutes, approximately 15 euros).
How to arrange a guided tour to the rock art sites
It’s worth planning ahead as the visits are timed according to the way the sunlight affects viewing; it can be difficult to make anything out when the sun is blazing directly onto the rocks. Be sure to check the departure points as they vary from site to site.
You also need to consider your own level of fitness and if in doubt, go for the easiest of the routes, Penascosa.
You can arrange visits to the rock art sites directly via the Côa Park Authorities and Museum – book at least a couple of weeks in advance and a month or more for night visits.
You will find more flexibility with times if you book with one of the few authorised guides via Sara at Quinta de Pêro Martins – Tel: (+351) 271 313 133 / email: [email protected] or Sabor Douro e Aventura – Tel: (+351) 279 258 270.
Some of the other hotels in the area have qualified guides so you could also make arrangements through your accommodation provider but I wouldn’t leave it until you get there.
Best time of year to visit the Coa Valley rock art sites
Bear in mind that the area’s micro climate makes for baking hot summers (i.e. temperatures in the mid 40s ºC) so daytime visits are not advisable in July and August and probably won’t be that comfortable in June or September.
Do a night visit if that’s the only time of year you can come.
At any time of year, it’s best to book ahead but understand that adverse weather conditions may affect your plans. The tour we had booked through the museum was cancelled because heavy rains had caused floods in the valleys. Thanks to our accommodation owners, we were still able to do a tour and probably had a better experience in the end.
What to wear when visiting the rock art sites
I’m not talking fashion here, just sensible preparations for walking in rugged countryside. Comfortable flat footwear with a grip is essential as is clothing you can move freely in. You also need to dress appropriately for the weather, whether that means a rain jacket or sun hat. If it is sunny, remember to use sun cream.