In the mountains of northeast Portugal, a region of extensive olive groves and where the almond trees blossom in spring (February and March) and the vineyards in autumn (September and October) are covered by leaves the colour of fire, there is a tributary of the River Douro with a universally recognised name: Côa. It is so well known due to the expressive art that fills the valley this river has gouged out of the rock. The schist rocks that occupy the valley have been converted into art canvases over thousands of years, being used for engravings that are the legacy of our ancestors’ creative instinct.
These open-air panels and the habitats that can be identified date back to the Upper Palaeolithic and they are testimony to the occupation of the land and a vitality and mastery of drawing that have given us a 25,000 year timeline. This long gallery of art provides us a record of the Neolithic period and the Iron Age, then swiftly racing through two thousand years of history to inscribe religious representations, names and dates in the Modern Age and continuing until only a few decades ago.
The motifs, which are nearly all engraved, have themes and use techniques and conventions that are common to contemporary works of Western Europe and those that would be discovered in the 19th century in the closed-in environments of caves in France and Cantabria, which would be called great art at the turn of the century. The Côa art emerges in the 20th century, where a daily and seasonal play of light and dark exposes and hides the art in a wonderful sequence of revelation and concealment.
The final seventeen kilometres of the Côa valley contain hundreds of Palaeolithic engravings along the river’s banks, extending all the way to the River Douro. This zone has been made into Portugal’s first Archaeological Park. This Park was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO on 2 December 1998.
This entire open-air art collection, which buries the old myth of rock art only existing in caves, is exhibited in the Museum through original pieces of movable art, replicas of “rock panels” and interactive zones that use modern digital technology. The art can also be viewed in loco on organised visits to the valley with specialised guides (advance booking required).
Other places of interest in the region include Douro wine-producing estates where wine can be purchased and the Quinta da Ervamoira estate within the boundaries of the Archaeological Park serves as a complement to a visit to the engravings. This wine estate houses a museum to the region’s history and its ancient customs, including the equally ancient process of making bread and the traditions related to the production of Douro wine, which is certainly another of the riches of this region of Portugal.