There was once a notorious attempt to rebrand the Victoria and Albert as an “ace caff with a museum attached”. Substitute “restaurant” for “caff” and you have a close approximation to Foz Coa.
In a sense it is good that the museum restaurant is renowned; the museum itself is billed as “state of the art,” which is true, but to us it seemed more art than informative. There is a series of galleries on top of a mountain but everything gives the impression of being deep underground. For more than 10.000 years the rock art has been in the open air so why it should be presented as though in a cave is a mystery. Examples of tools, fossils, slides of the engravings and a realisation of a prehistoric camp site are offered as context, and do well enough, but a clear presentation of the art and how it was made would have been welcome.
For Portuguese speakers – and these are crucial, I recognise – there are video presentations of how the valleys were saved from inundation by a huge dam. Our guide later in the day explained all that, and it was a classic case of academic and people power against big business.
There are three sites open to visitors (hence “valleys”) and all have strictly limited access quotas. We had tried to book without success through the museum. It began to look hopeless until a late response by email gave the names of a few private tour operators. One of these agreed to take us on a visit to Penascosa Valley.
Why the museum does not have capacity to arrange more visits and needs to sub-contract is down to the familiar combination since 2008 of austerity and “public bad; private good”. Nonetheless our private guide was well-informed and not at all expensive. We arranged to meet her at the head of the valley, some distance from the museum where we had decided to spend the day.
Despite the subterranean galleries, the restaurant (there is also a cafe beside it) has views through picture windows of two of the valleys. Outside is a terrace for drinks and food, where it seems people can also eat picnics. The views are magnificent. So is the food. We were served three delightful courses with a bottle of vinho verde and a jug of water, followed by coffee, all for less than £40. And this was a Sunday.
It was good we had decided to eat first because it became clear eating was a priority with many more people than we found in the museum later. There was plenty of time for fresh orange juice to drink before we had to leave – just as well, because the road we had watched cars labouring along was the one we had to take. Signposts from the town are good but they give no idea of the tortuous nature of the road.
Eventually we found the village we were looking for and made the steep descent to the reception centre. Our guide was there with a four-by-four and in five minutes we understood the need. Before starting she checked we had sun-block, water and hats, for the good reason temperatures were around 35C.
As we made the further descent we learned the projected depth of water had the dam been built. Also that all preparations had been made and the plant was on site when the engravings were discovered. There would have been no money as at Abu Simbel to rescue the engravings and they would have lost all context being raised 20 metres or more from their positions.
With the car parked beneath a tree we went to the first rock group. All are easy to reach on the valley floor, which is almost dry and stretches credulity considering the amount of water the dam would have produced. Only one site would be difficult for some people to reach and, as the guide explained, it is better seen from a distance so the engraving can be viewed in slanting light.
The figures are aurochs, an extinct breed of cattle, horse (of the small Iberian kind) and deer. At one site there are hunan figures, but these are few. Over time others have added their own graffiti, including religious ones perhaps intended to counteract any evil perceived in prehistoric images.
No system has yet been devised to protect the figures from decay, although we are not allowed to touch them and the guides use only twigs as pointers. Some were made by scratching with stones, others pock-marked into the rock, and a few have added incisions to show mane or skin markings. In a few cases the forms of the rocks themselves had been used to show, for example, a muzzle. Figures are superimposed, sometimes facing the same way, otherwise in contrast, and not necessarily on the same plane. It is highly complex and takes a good deal of work to interpret some of the images. Scale also varies, from small to life-size.
Our visit was about 45 minutes, well over an hour including the drive down and back to the reception centre, and well worth the 15 Euros each. It is thoroughly to be recommended to anyone wishing to experience images of animals made by human ancestors more than 10,000 years ago, and to wonder how they were impelled to spend the many hours necessary to do the work.