Travel: Portugal's treasures between a rock and a hard place

Martin Symington visits the ancient rock drawings that saved a Douro tributary from destruction
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The Independent Travel
Rumour has it that the river Tua is to be dammed for hydro-electric power. Some say work will start in 2002, others that it won't for five or 10 years, or even that it will never be built. If the project does go ahead, those most directly affected will be the villagers whose principal lifeline to the rest of the country is the narrow-gauge branch line which winds along the rocky ravines of the Tua valley, way below the proposed high-water level.

The line starts at tiny Tua village, where the tributary tumbles into the mighty Douro river which bisects the country horizontally. This is the heart of port wine-growing country. All around are mountains, their surfaces carved into geometric shapes by terraced vineyards which have been hewn out of rock and schist.

In contrast with the fine old stone houses of the port-growing quintas (estates), Tua consists of a few scruffy houses scattered about the station. A sad little steam tank engine sits in a siding, rusting and neglected. This was the locomotive which retired in 1983 after decades of service hauling a pair of wooden-slatted carriages up the Tua line to Braganza in the far north-east corner of the country. I remember it from my childhood, when I lived in northern Portugal.

For old times' sake, I recently rode the Tua line. The branch has been pruned back as far as Mirandela - about half its former length - and nowadays a bright orange diesel pulls the train. We clanked slowly up a gorge of lavish views over vineyards, craggy peaks above and gushing white water below. Long shrill hoots announced well in advance our arrival at each village.

Every stop involved a major upheaval in our crowded second-class carriage, as passengers made way for bundles of cabbages and cardboard boxes of chickens to be lugged on and off. After a couple of hours we left the ravines, lofty passes and wine estates behind, and trundled on to the undulating upland plain of Trs-os-Montes (literally, "behind the mountains"). As we eased into Mirandela, the new terminus, my seat-mate Joaquim Santos, a medical student in Oporto returning on leave to his village, told me: "I continue by bus now. Maybe next time it will be bus all the way. Or maybe not. All we need is a miracle to save the Tua - like the one which stopped the Coa valley dam."

The Coa is another, still more remote, tributary of the Douro, joining further upstream, 15km short of the Spanish frontier. Until 1991 it was a backwater, forgotten by all except the port company Ramos Pinto, which grew some of its finest quality grapes on its banks, and EDP, the Portuguese electricity-generating company. The latter began work that year on a 100m-high dam across a gorge near the Coa's mouth. Four years, and at least pounds 200m later, the project was abandoned.

According to Joao Nicolau d'Almeida, Ramos Pinto's wine-maker, who was at the vanguard of a bitter fight against the dam: "The discovery that the Coa valley is one of the world's most important Palaeolithic sites, with tens of thousands of rock engravings, was a miracle. Nothing less. It forced the government to halt the project, and so saved the Coa valley from total destruction by flood."

To reach the Coa, I had continued on up the main Douro line which snakes eastwards along the water's edge. It crosses from the north bank to the south, and passes two of the five massive dams which, in the 1970s and 1980s, changed the Douro from tortuous rapids and whirlpools into a series of placid, serpentine lakes. This project completed, EDP's next target was the tributaries.

From Pocinho, the end of the line near the Coa's confluence with the Douro, I drove with Joao Nicolau d'Almeida to Muxagata, a farming village with a medieval pillory on the cobbled main square. Opposite, the old granite prison has been turned into an air-conditioned visitor centre for the newly formed Foz Coa Archaeological Park, due to become a Unesco World Heritage Site next year. There are computer terminals and displays to peruse before the 4WD journey with a park guide, deep into the Coa valley.

Twenty-four thousand years ago, Palaeolithic people first engraved figures on the valley's hard, schistose rock walls. It was the start of a trend which proved extraordinarily enduring. They etched ibexes, aurochs, bulls, fish, and weird creatures like goats but with forked horns. Later, Stone Age cultures followed suit, adding two or three heads to their horses and cattle, to represent movement. Throughout the Bronze and Iron Ages, the rock art continued, and there is even some frolicsome soft porn - cunningly disguised as an earnest fertility symbol, of course.

We lurched along a track - barely even that in places - fording the Coa a couple of times and stopping to view the staggeringly profuse engravings along 20km of this inaccessible valley. According to Fernando Maia Pinto, the director of the park who was with us, "there are at least 12 sites - we are always discovering more. There may be as many as 10,000 engravings in total".

What I found utterly bizarre was that, although "discovered" only in the past decade, these engravings were never lost to human knowledge at all. While it is the prehistoric ones which have the power to stop hydro- electric dams, there are also Roman ones, crosses and grails from the Middle Ages, and - my favourite - a steam engine crossing a bridge, signed and dated 1944 by the artist.

Senhor Maia Pinto explained: "To the shepherds who kept their flocks in the valley, the engravings were something they had grown up with, like the mountains and the trees, but never thought had any significance for the outside world."

Before leaving the Coa I went to view the half-built dam, which was to have spanned an immensely high, narrow cleft in the rock, miles from anywhere. On the lip are the abandoned cement factory and prefab village where the construction workers were billeted. A falcon swooped under a cable bridge. The whole scene was eerily silent, with just the sound of distant running water, echoing as it bounced off the gorge wall.

If I were an inhabitant of the Tua valley, I would take a leaf out of Coa's book and look around for some conservation cause to serve as a miracle.

SINTRA AND THE DOURO VALLEY

GETTING THERE

Martin Symington travelled with GB Airways (tel: 0345 222111), which flies twice daily from Gatwick to Oporto. Apex return fares cost from pounds 138.50 including taxes. Go (tel: 0845 6054321) flies daily to Lisbon from pounds 90 return. Simply Portugal (tel: 0181-987 6161) offers one-week fly-drive holidays, with b&b accommodation from pounds 495 per person, based on two sharing.

WHERE TO STAY

Sintra: For quiet efficiency in a central location, go for the Tivoli Sintra (tel: 00 351 9233505). For eccentricity, stay at the Solar dos Mouros (tel: 00 351 9233216). For sheer magnificence, at a price, get a Napoleonic berth at the exquisite Seteais (tel: 00 351 9233200).

Douro: Good accommodation is hard to find in the Douro valley. But a beautiful, four-star hotel opened recently in Taylor's former quinta house at Pinhao. Vintage House Hotel (tel: 00 351 54730230) charges from Es15,000 (about pounds 60) for a double room. From Pinhao, Tua is 15 minutes by train and Pocinho about an hour.

THINGS TO DO

You must make an appointment to tour the Foz Coa Archaeological Park. Apply in writing to the Parque Arqueologico Vale do Coa, Avenida Gago Coutinho 19, 5150 Vila Nova de Foz Coa, Portugal (tel: 00 351 079764317; fax: 00 351 079765257; e-mail pavc@mail.telepac.pt.). Tours are for up to eight people in a 4WD. They last about two hours (in English, French or Portuguese) and leave from the visitor centres at Vila Nova de Foz Coa, Muxagata and Castello Melhor. A token Es500 (about pounds 1.80) per person is charged. Otherwise, you can visit the valley through Ramos Pinto, including a visit to its museum at Ervamoira in the Coa valley, and a wine-tasting. Transport from Pocinho station can be arranged and lunch provided by arrangement. Contact Sonia Teixeira (tel: 00 351 079 759229).

FURTHER INFORMATION

From the Portuguese Tourism Office (tel: 0171-494 1441).

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