Perspective: Art and life in the Greater Côa Valley, a photo diary

Posted: 25th October 2023

Museum Côa, Vila Nova de Foz Côa, Greater Côa Valley, Portugal by Liz Ballard

ELSP’s Artist Residencies Coordinator Liz Ballard visited the Greater Côa Valley for a Knowledge Exchange event, hosted by Rewilding Portugal, which coincided with the Corredor das Artes festival in July of 2023.


Image: Azulejos blue and white decorative tiles depicting the grape harvest at Pocinho train station, Vila Nova de Foz Côa, transform the station into a public museum.

I started my journey into the Greater Côa Valley, following the same initial route artist Antony Lyons and archaeologist Bárbara Carvalho had taken for their ELSP artist residency with Rewilding Portugal. Arriving at Pocinho near Vila Nova da Foz Côa, where the Côa river ends its long run and reaches the Douro river, I was met by Antony and Barbara who kindly guided me through this landscape which tells a story of artistic expression and our connection to it.

Before joining the ELSP Knowledge Exchange event, hosted by Rewilding Portugal in Sabugal, I was fortunate to meet some of the local communities Antony and Bárbara are collaborating with for their ELSP project Wild Côa Symphony, as well as experience Rewilding Portugal’s CÔA Festival at one of its five locations: Figueira de Castelo Rodrigo.

Image: River Côa, looking south.

“Art is all around us in the landscape. This is a valley that had been continuously engraved, a place of artistic expression.”

Bárbara Carvalho

Located between the Douro River and the Malcáta mountains, the Greater Côa Valley boasts a unique natural, cultural, and historical heritage. Supported by the ELSP, Rewilding Portugal are focusing on reinforcing a 120,000-hectare corridor; thereby encouraging the comeback of keystone wildlife and developing the local nature-based economy.

Coming from the flatlands of Norfolk, UK, I was struck by the immensity of the landscape -as well as the heat – and the deep history etched literally into the rock. You can really feel the power of art there. Designated as an UNESCO World Heritage site, the Côa Valley Archaeological Park is a living, evolving, and treasured area where nature and human activity have intertwined over thousands of years. The smooth vertical schist outcrops of the valley have been an open air gallery for millennia, featuring engravings of aurochs, deer, horses and goats. It is the largest concentration of Paleolithic rock engravings known in the world, and represents ‘a unique example of the first manifestations of human symbolic creation and of the beginnings of cultural development’ (UNESCO World Heritage Convention). It created a perfect setting for an ELSP Knowledge Exchange event, and a chance to explore an integration of art & culture with local community engagement in restoration.

Image: Côa Museum, which highlights the artistry of the rock art and the invention of art techniques including perspective, proportion, and movement. This wall drawing is a copy of the most famous engraving found at Pisco site . Most of the figures are drawn in profile, distanced from the viewer. This one however, from 22,000 before present, faces us.

“It is the only example in the Côa with this perspective. The mirrors in the building play with this idea of perspective, of what you are looking at, and what it can reflect. It is very personal, and very powerful. There is movement here. It is looking at you. Composition of movement was invented in the rock art.”

– Bárbara Carvalho

The Côa valley rock art, or ‘The art of light’ as Bárbara told me, has survived for over 23,000 years. This spectacular collection of thousands of engraved motifs representing wild animals is the legacy of our ancestors’ creative instincts, and a powerful connection to our shared heritage. A rolling tradition of stone carving beside the Côa ranges from the Upper Paleolithic to the present; different artists and generations have layered marks on top of marks, creating new compositions. They continue to inspire contemporary artists like Antony and Bárbara, acknowledging the region’s wild deep roots and the key functions the large herbivores engraved in these ancient rocks had on the landscape.

“The Côa River is as much about man as it is about wildlife. Rocks beside the river are decorated with engravings dating back thousands of years, highlighting the importance of this waterway and its wild nature to people and livelihoods of old.”

Rewilding Portugal

Image: Tour of Penascosa site in the parishes of Castelo Melhor and Almendra, with our guide Luis to see the Paleolithic depictions of animals created by pecking and abrasion, representing the characteristic species of the Côa.

We were fortunate to enjoy a guided visit of Penascosa, visiting five of the thirty-six engraved outcrops. It was amazing to see the skillful and awe-inspiring representations of wild animals, and feel a strong connection to my ancestors. Made with incision, scraping, and pecking; the engravings integrate depictions of wildlife with natural rock features. Cuts align to stone shapes and surfaces – like the shape of a goats’ horn in a fissure, or a fish motif in a convex area that suggests volume. Ideally seen at night, these engravings really come to life in the play of light and shadow. The land shapes the art, the marks sculpt the land; it is a very early manifestation of land art, and deeply moving.

Referencing the valley’s artistic history, and recognising the power the arts can play in reconnecting people to nature, Rewilding Portugal established the CÔA – Corredor das Artes festival. Over five weekends in July, they united art, nature, and culture in the Greater Côa Valley with an ambitious, inspiring, and sustainable art festival integrated in the surrounding nature. The CÔA festival marked the landscape with seven land art commissions, connecting artists with communities in a natural environment, and provided opportunities to come together and continue this process of expression.

Image: Antony Lyons ‘Habitat (A Treasure House)’ launch event, 16 July 2023 at Faia Brava nature reserve.

On Sunday 16 July, I joined the launch of a commission by our own Antony Lyons – created with the support of Barbara and local communities around the Faia Brava Reserve where the work is situated. ‘Habitat (A Treasure House)’ is an evolving piece inspired by old pigeon houses in the area, as well as the circle of life and death evident in the landscape. There was a buzz in the air. For Antony, a critical and inspiring moment was experiencing the intensity of dozens of vultures descending to scavenge at the feeding station nearby. They perform an essential role in balancing the ecosystem, effectively recycling the bodies of dead animals, and decreasing the spread of diseases. Disrupted by the human impact on these remarkable birds, Rewilding Portugal and others are working to restore their numbers, and growing populations of egyptian, griffon, and cinerous vultures will also attract ecotourists.

Image: A surprise delivery of a carcass arrived on Sunday morning

Based on the traditional form of pigeon-houses (a distinctive architectural feature in the Côa region), Habitat – with its encircling stone walls and white lime-washed exterior – holds a collection of stories belonging to the community. Within the fire-scorched wooden alcoves, white animal skulls recovered from all over the territory shine, with some facing straight at you, or in profile; all echoing the rock engravings of the wild animals, drawn with multiple heads looking in opposite directions; maybe to the past, but also to the future. Four alcoves have been left empty, and will be filled in collaboration with people from four neighboring villages who are invited to select and donate their own ‘treasure’ for the installation-space.

Image: Antony and Bárbara with Artur who donated an object for Habitat (A Treasure House), Faia Brava

It is the strong relationships that Antony and Bárbara have created which shine out of their Wild Côa arts project. Seeing so many come to support and enjoy the concept’s embedded quality, its careful build, and the various gifted skulls and bones donated by the community (including by Pedro from Rewilding Portugal) was the joy of the opening. The long-term engagement is evident through the breadth of the materials, including fire-stenciled hand-prints created with a project Barbara is involved with called ‘LandCRAFT’, who carried out an archaeological dig nearby in Faia Brava (which was also recorded by Antony for the Wild Côa Symphony, an immersive video-sonic work, and screened as a pre-release version during the festival in Figueira).

“It is a collection from many lives, and will continue to change, as it should do as an ecological artwork. It is an experiment, a process, it is not complete.”

Antony Lyons

Image: ‘Hands for giving, receiving and connecting’ by Knowledge Exchange participants

Drawing on their engagement activities in the Côa valley, Antony and Bárbara led an exercise for the Knowledge Exchange – Arts and Culture session: ‘Hands for giving, receiving and connecting’. Forming a bridge across deep-time and evoking ancient rock art (as well as simply human connections to place), the artists invited everyone to explore and locate a spot where each could record their own hand in contact with the materiality of the place. The record was a photograph shared by mobile phone to create a temporary gallery. We then used our hands for listening and calling; covering our eyes and listening to the landscape, before cupping them like a megaphone and calling out a short sound, one loud enough to be heard by the scattered group.

Image: Marcelo Moscheta ‘Conic Infinite’, Vale Carapito, Côa Valley. A land art commission for the CÔA Festival, which use natural materials, and respecting its natural decay, these sculptural works will naturally integrate into the evolution process of the landscape.

During the Knowledge Exchange visit hosted by Rewilding Portugal, we visited rewilding areas of Vale Carapito, Ermo da Águias and Pinhell, all of which were also locations for the CÔA Festival and the land art commissions. Installed at Vale Carapito is a piece by Brazilian artist Marcelo Moscheta. Made of stone, wood, raw and processed cork collected nearby, ‘Conic Infinite’ sits quietly amongst large alders, ash and oak. Assisted by Luis Guerra, a craftsman who has been working with cork for many years, Moscheta was able to join the Vale de Madeira community in stripping cork bark. Like audio or visual framing devises, the textured, hollow and insulating form offers a new viewing (and listening) point of the surrounding landscape and sunset, as well as a new point of view of the landscape. By encouraging people to pause, touch, or climb inside and shelter from the weather, the sculpture enables us to concentrate a sense of the landscape which becomes temporarily silent, timeless.

Image: Sorraia horses by Giorgi Chikorashvili.


Image: Gaspard Combes ‘Homo Stabilis’, Ermo da Aguias, Côa Valley.

At Ermo das Águias, low bushes and granite dominate the landscape, partly due to local soil conditions, but also because of the impact of fire and grazing in recent centuries. Nonetheless, rewilding is already evident in the groves of black, holm and cork oaks, and with the introduction of a small herd of Sorraia horses (a native Portuguese breed that recalls the wild ancestors of Iberian horses people drove out of the area). Sorraia horses are great allies to sustainable grazing, reducing the fires that have been one of the biggest threats to nature in Portugal in recent years. Set within their habitat is another CÔA Festival commission, an immense installation: ‘Homo Stabilis’ by the Swiss artist Gaspard Combes. Creating a connection to local dry stone walls and ruins of water mills, as well as to the Sorraia horses’ smokey blue-grey coats, Combes stacked rough granite blocks from Pinhel to represent three human figures. Positioned looking towards the horizon of the Côa Valley, they challenge people’s sense of ancestry and scale, their human roots and means of expression.

Image: A wide range of artistic performances took place during the CÔA Festival which transformed communities into vibrant social hubs, often until late in the evening. This dance performance by Rebecca Mateus was part of Pinhel weekend, referencing sheep and farming practices in an engaging and unique way.

“Art returns to the wild”

Rewilding Portugal

Over the five weekends in July, the CÔA Festival engaged thousands of visitors, helping Rewilding Portugal establish new connections whilst deepening existing ones. The events helped enhance a sense of pride in local communities, and promote the benefits and opportunities that come with landscape restoration. The arts in the Côa Valley have drawn upon encounters with nature for millennia. By engaging communities, celebrating the traditions and creating opportunities to share their stories, Antony & Bárbara, Rewilding Portugal and the CÔA Festival have created special moments and lasting friendships which highlight the nourishment that the landscape provides. It was a privilege to join everyone and gain a sense of the role artists can play in witnessing, reinvigorating, and shaping new connections with landscapes to, often unexpectedly and playfully, inspire people.

“I was born and lived all my life in this place, walking back and forward in every one of its paths, but I never took the time to pay enough attention to understand how much we could find in it, about us, about nature, about time and the changing landscape. Things that you cannot find written in a book, things of life that you can only understand by being present.”

António Cunha, Mayor of Vilar Mayor, Côa Valley following a Wild Côa Symphony event with Antony and Bárbara in Vale Carapito.

Image: Antony Lyons’ ‘Habitat (A Treasure House)’, with the building team – Antony, Francisco, Vitória, Mila, Vitor, João and Bárbara.

The Wild Côa Symphony project is also supported by CCRI (Countryside and Community Research Institute), Arts Council England and Heritage Futures.

This diary explored the Greater Côa Valley restoration landscape and artist residency. For more information on the Corredor das Artes festival, please visit their website. Additionally, you can find out more about the UNESCO site on their website.


Endangered Landscapes & Seascapes Programme, Perspective Articles:

We hope you enjoyed the first of our Perspective articles. Within ‘Perspectives’ you will find detailed personal explorations on elements of the programme, longer reads on restoration initiatives and approaches, and stunning photo diaries.

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