We had just finished dinner at Quinta do Ervamoira. The archaeologists arrived in two jeeps and sat down to drink a glass of wine with us. We chatted for a while, got into our jeeps and drove towards the Coa River. It was already dark. A decades long dream of mine was about to come true.
“In the late 1980s, ancient engravings were discovered in Vila Nova de Foz Côa in the course of construction of a dam in the valley. The site is situated in the valley of the Côa River, a tributary of the Douro and includes thousands of engraved rock drawings of horses, bovines and other animal, human and abstract figures, dated from 22,000 to 10,000 years BC. The sites were classified as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1998. There are actually 23 sites with engravings or paintings, along the last 17 kilometres of the River Côa (with ten sites located along the left bank and eight on the right bank of the river). In addition five sites are located along the tributaries of the Douro River.
We drove through the vineyards to the river. The water level was low enough for us drive across and climb up the steep and wooded bank on the other side. We drove up in to the hills along a narrow ridge and came to the locked gate of the site. One of the archaeologists jumped out of the jeep to open the gate and we drove to a little clearing where we left the vehicles and walked along a rock strewn footpath to the cliff face. It was dark and eerie but the guides had torches. The stars were bright above and an owl hooted in the distance.
The etchings were on smooth, vertical rock faces and stood out clearly in the angled beam of the flash lights. There were horses, goats oryx and fish, some etched on top of others, using stone tools. Not all rock faces, though smooth, were used by the ancient engravers and each engraved rock stood in isolation on raised ground, visible from a distance. “These probably were sacred sites,” our guides explained, “but we are not sure why they are spread over a such a vast area and what rituals if any, were performed by these ancient humans.” We moved from one rock face to another looking at the etchings in wonder. No one said much.
After an hour or so, we returned to the jeeps and drove down to the river, crossed it and in trying to get out of the valley, lost our way repeatedly in the endless dirt tracks of the vineyards despite the presence of expert guides. It was well past midnight when we finally got back to Vila Nova de Foz Coa and our minibus.
It was a very long day but an amazing one.
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