Portugal Trip : Day 2

Day 2, 14 August: Cathy and I drove more than 500 km (310 miles) today, from Sintra to Coimbra and through the mountains to Muxagata and Castel Melhor, near Vila Nova Foz C’At Castel Melhor, Cathy and I toured the Penascosa area of the Parque Arqueol??o do Vale do C’. We then drove on twisting highway across the Terra Quente (Hot Land) to Pinh? the port wine capital, in the Douro River valley.

It was a lot of driving, much of it on narrow mountain roads. Often, the landscape was beautiful. Often, it was charred, the calling card of the fires. Around Muxagata, the area looked semi-arid: few trees, and the gorse like tumbleweed. It was hot in that remote little village, with the old men killing time sitting in front of a store, and the old women, many of them dressed head to toe in black, lining up to get into the local church. Stray dogs kept a wary distance from you.

In the early 1990s, many Portuguese wanted to dam up the C’ Then someone found engravings made 20,000 years ago by the Cro-Magnon men. Unlike the engravings and paintings in France and Spain, these works of art are not in caves, but outside. After the discovery, plans for the dam were laid aside, and the park was born.

Muxagata and Castel Melhor were remote enough. Then Dina, our guide, loaded our group into a four-wheel drive truck and drove us into some real backcountry. There were Cathy and me, three girls from Australia and a couple from Spain. Dina drove for about 30 minutes, taking us past spectacularly steep vineyards, and olive and almond groves. She was speaking Portuguese to the Spanish couple, archaeologists at the University of the Basque Country. The Spanish couple were answering back in Spanish. Dina spoke in English for the Australians and us. She had a relaxed, personal manner that everyone liked.

At the bottom of the valley, nothing moved, except John, the guard?s dog, snapping at flies. Just the heat and the stillness and the feeling of going back 200 centuries. Any minute I expected a wolf or a lynx (still found in that region) to slink past.

Some of the engravings are obvious at a glance; there’s a horse’s head, there a bull?s horns, there his bulk. Others require careful delineation. All are fascinating. I told Cathy later, I don?t care whether they?re broken or faded. What matters is, the pictures really are there. It takes imagination to see the engravings as they may have once looked; it takes imagination to see the artist there, pecking, scraping. But we?re not looking at shapes in clouds here. No, those are real patterns, made by real, prehistoric hands. Wow.

After the tour, I had a question for my Spanish friends, who specialize in the Neolithic and not the Paleolithic period. Where are the Basques from? They are descendants of local Cro-Magnons, they said. Descendants of the people who made Lascaux and Altamira and Foz C’ They said they couldn’t be sure, but the way they looked at me I could see they thought it an intriguing possibility. The Indo-Europeans are probably descended from Western and Central Asian Cro-Magnons, the Spaniards said.