Believed to be “the biggest in the world and most important open-air Paleolithic site in Europe,” the Coa Valley rock art archaeology extends to Siega Verde in Spain spanning 50 miles. Located near Villa Nova de Foz Coa, it is home to thousands of carvings and engravings of animals such as horses, goats, sheep, bison and others which were believed to roam the area. Some of the drawings are said to resemble the ones in Canada.
In 1995 during a dam construction planning the workers discovered the paintings and carvings on the rocks. As they found more engravings, they stopped the work and invited archaeologists to study the engravings. When the archaeologist who was studying the site confirmed the age of the rock arts dating back to thousands of years ago, he reported it to the press. However, despite the irreparable damage it would cause, Energias de Portugal, a national energy provider responsible for the project, tried to disprove the age so that they could carry on with the dam construction.
As the public was made aware, they petitioned UNESCO to declare the site a heritage to protect the rock carvings. Later in the 1995 election, a new government was installed and the new prime minister stopped the dam project.
What you need to know about the Prehistoric Rock art site in Coa Valley
I learned about the archaelogical site when I went to Portugal as an English-teaching nanny on trial. Checking TripAdvisor on places of interest nearby, I was allured by the idea of getting lost in the biggest open-air rock arts.
1. There is NO direct transport so plan ahead, go as a group or with a car.
For €10, I took the Comboios de Portugal train from Paredes, 3 stations away from Porto Sao Bento to Pocinho, the final stop. It was a 2-hour ride snaking along the scenic Douro River stopping at all 31 stations. Arriving at Pocinho, I took a taxi to the Villa Nova De Foz Coa for €25. There was a bus which ran every 2-3 hours but I missed it by a few minutes.
From the town of Villa Nova de Foz Coa I hired a taxi for €3 to the Museo de Fundacao do Coa. Here I got a preliminary information about the rock arts. It contained artifacts and modern technologies showcasing the facts, history and developments about the archaeological sites. FREE entry.
2. Book a ticket for the guided tour – you can’t go on your own
From the museum I booked a guided tour for €10. All the staff spoke proper English.
Alternatively, you can ring 279 768 260 for a reservation.
The road to the archaeological site is not open to anyone but the tour guides who had to undergo a training in driving the precarious terrain.
3. The museum does not provide transport to the archaeological site
From Villa Nova de Foz Coa, I took a cab to Castelo Melhor for around €6. FYI, all the taxis were metered.
4. Just a small part of the site is open to the public
Although it’s the biggest open-air paleolithic site, only a small portion is actually open for public viewing.
5. The afternoon tours are shorter than the morning tours.
Since I spent the whole morning travelling, I took the afternoon tour and according to the tour guide the morning tours were done on a separate site which had more rock arts.
6. Go as a group or with a car.
All together I would have spent €83, €68 for the transportation alone €10 for guided tour and €5 for my lunch plus few more euros for the souvenirs. Luckily, the couple who went to the tour were heading near Pinhao and they gave me a lift all the way to the train station. That saved me €30.
It’s a bit costly to go solo and for the limited activity, I won’t go there again on my own.
The Prehistoric Rock-art Tour
The guided tour starts at Castelo Melhor, a village about 5-6 miles from the town. The rugged path leading to the archaeological site could only accommodate one car at a time. The tour schedules were well coordinated and trips were spread apart.
There were only 4 of us in the tour including the guide who was well-versed in English. Showing us with super imposed images of the carvings, she explained how to trace the outline of the images etched on the rocks. With untrained eyes, it would have been difficult, if not impossible, to visualize the whole picture since most of them were carved on top of each other.
In the image above, the guide was scaling the size of the biggest image on the slab. It was a picture of a horse and the only one of its size. Because of the hardness of the surface, experts believe the artists spent days etching the images. Since they didn’t have any distractions like we do have now, they had all the time to undertake such activities.
In the afternoon tour the sun was right behind us which was probably why they had a different place in the morning. If I had enough time I would have stayed overnight in Foz Coa to do the morning one as well.
7. Make it as a side trip. Maximise your experience.
My mistake was making it as the major purpose of the trip. Retrospectively, it wasn’t worth all the time and effort. The tour was only 1.5 hours. My total travel time was around 7-8 hours. If I knew the nature of the trip, I would have spent 2 days there to make the fullest use of my time.
So, whether you are going solo or with a group, I recommend spending the night in Foz Coa to maximise your experience.
Take the morning and afternoon tours then visit the castle by the assembly point. It’s a 5 minute ascent on a cobbled path. The castle sits on a hill overlooking the valleys around. It’s a ruined castle with a caged dog as a guard.