Portugal: Secrets Unveiled

Portugal’s status as a minor European power today belies its former greatness as the administrator of a huge empire, stretching from Brazil to Macau. Gaining independence from Spain in 1139, this outward-looking kingdom fomented the Age of Discovery; its fleets discovering the New World under Christopher Columbus in 1498 and legendary explorer Vasco da Gama completing a circumnavigation of the globe in 1522. The legacy of the knowledge and wealth gained through the voyages and territories it occupied is visible in the art, architecture and cuisine of its beautiful cities and towns. With 15 UNESCO World Heritage sites for the traveller to explore, Portugal is a compelling destination.

Tour leader Dr Jeni Ryde has led numerous tours to Portugal over recent years. Her search to find what Portugal has to offer the inquisitive traveller beyond the cities of Lisbon and Porto has unearthed a number of fascinating sites just waiting to be explored.

Palaeolithic Rock Galleries

Not many people know that the Douro Valley is much more than simply a famous area for growing port wine grapes. How so? The valley of the Côa river, a tributary of the upper Douro river, close to the Spanish border, is a major area of prehistoric art. In this little-known valley lies a vast art gallery stretching for more than 17 kilometres containing thousands of rock engravings of animals and human figures from the Upper Paleolithic Age to the Iron Age, dating from about 22,000 BCE. What makes the Côa Valley site unique is that, in contrast to the majority of paintings and engravings from the European Ice Age that are found in caves, these images were created on rock faces in the open air, an extremely rare phenomenon, making it the largest open-air site of Palaeolithic art in the world.

An impressive twenty-three archaeological sites can be found along the valley, containing an array of engravings chiseled into the hard, vertical surfaces of schist rock using only simple flint or quartz tools. The earliest images on these stone canvases are mostly of animals, especially mountain goats, horses, aurochs (wild cattle) and deer. The first three are the most common and are characteristic of the earliest phases of art in western Europe. Some rare engravings of fish as well as other species and non-figurative signs and marks have also been found. All attest to the social, economic and spiritual life of the earliest modern humans living in this area.

The site was discovered in the late 1980s during an archaeological survey of the area prior to the construction of a hydroelectric dam that would have entirely submerged the rock art. World interest and anti-dam campaigns mounted by local citizens and the international scientific community forced the government to suspend the dam. UNESCO also moved quickly, declaring the Côa Valley a World Heritage Site of great cultural significance in 1998. The area is now a designated archaeological park and includes an outstanding award-winning museum; state-of-the-art in its design and in its use of technology.

Paleolithic engraving of an Aurochs (an extinct species of large wild cattle) in the Côa Valley Archeological Park

Dinosaur Tracks

Even older than this rock art, however, are the dozens of parallel dinosaur tracks of sauropods and therapods, the ancestors of birds, that have been discovered throughout Portugal dating to the Middle Jurassic period. In fact, the first references in the world to the excavation and study of dinosaur tracks are those related to Portugal. It’s hard to imagine herds of massive dinosaurs tramping across such a tiny country but over twenty multiple level track sites have been found to date and they are the largest and best preserved worldwide. Amongst other particulars palaeontologists have been able to identify foot structure, locomotion, types of herding and even limping behaviour in dinosaur communities. Due to their quantity and size these prints cannot be excavated and transferred to museums. They are, therefore, preserved in situ to be studied and visited in their original geological context. Fossils of dinosaurs have always captured the public interest and this, combined with spectacular scenery, makes for enthralling travel to these sites.

Close to Lisbon between Sesimbra and the stunning coastline of Cabo Espichel no less than five such track sites have been identified and declared a Natural Monument on the basis of their scientific value and exceptional scenery. The set named Pedra da Mura in this area clearly shows dinosaurs romping across what is now a spectacular set of coastal cliffs on Cabo Espichel, a wild, barren headland, which forms part of the stunning Arabida National Park.

Dinosaur footprints on the limestone cliffs north of Cabo Espichel

Religious Revelations

The Espichel coastline was the setting for multiple miracles and religious visions, and this ensured that the region remained an important pilgrimage destination during the 13th to 18th centuries. The most significant vision occurred in the 15th century, when the Virgin Mary appeared riding a giant mule up the steep cliffs from the ocean. Locals interpreted the dinosaur footprints on the massive cliffs of Cabo Espichel as those of the giant mule carrying the Virgin Mary to the small chapel close to the cliff edge called the Chapel of Ermida da Memória. This religious cult led to the construction of the Cabo Espichel Sanctuary in the 18th century dedicated to the Madonna. Now deserted, the adjoining pilgrim accommodation is particularly evocative when the sea mist rolls in and the buildings, shrouded in a light fog, emerge and disappear as the mist swirls. The locals speak of the presence of ghosts here! Dinosaurs perhaps?

The Cabo Espichel Sanctuary, also known as the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Pedra Mua

Standing Stones

Yet another little known prehistoric site is located close to the town of Evora in the Alentejo region: the Cromeleque dos Almendres that are much older than Stonehenge and also much more easily visited. The site is free to enter, open all hours and there are no fences! The Cromeleques are regarded as the finest example of Neolithic structures on the Iberian Peninsula. Ninety-five granite standing stones form two large stone circles and are thought to be part of an important religious site. Its purpose, as with most prehistoric sites, is not certain but the stones appear to be astronomically and geometrically aligned. Perhaps the ensemble functioned as a primitive astronomical observatory given the particular arrangement of the stones to align with the moon, the sun and the stars as well as the presence of related, engraved patterns on some of the stones. The entire monument was begun in 6000 BCE and was in continual use until 3000 BCE. This makes it the oldest known structure of its type in Europe and the second oldest in the world after the megalith temple in Turkey at Gobekli Tepe that dates to 9000 BCE. The Cromeleque is situated in a remote area near Evora in the midst of a cork forest and possibly once formed part of a wider area of dolmens and menhirs linked across the region indicating the importance of astronomy to this community.

The Cromlech of the Almendres. Set in the sacred Alentejo landscape, this double stone circle is now considered one of the oldest in Europe

Cork Forests

The cork forest surrounding the Cromeleque is, itself, an important characteristic of the Alentejo region and not many people know that this area produces half of the world’s total supply of cork. The name Alentejo means ‘Beyond the Tejo’, the Portuguese word for the Tagus river that has its estuary in Lisbon. This beautiful region occupies more than one fifth of Portugal but has only a fraction of the national population. The Alentejo is predominantly rural with thousands of acres of cork woodlands called ‘montados’ that have produced cork for millennia. As a totally natural product, cork is environmentally friendly, renewable, recyclable and biodegradable and an extensive reforestation program is in place across Portugal to improve and extend the production of this material. In addition, cork forests are protected by law and are the habitat of many endangered species.

A cork oak can survive for at least two centuries. The tree must be twenty-five years old before it can be harvested and the outer bark is stripped by a delicate process that leaves the inner bark that protects the oak intact. If the underlying core of the trunk is scored the tree will die. It is the only tree that can regenerate its bark and Portuguese law prohibits stripping the trees more than once every nine years in order to protect the species. In its lifetime the cork oak will be stripped of its bark up to eighteen times. A newly harvested cork oak has a beautiful reddish coloured trunk and numbers painted on the bark indicate the year of the last harvest. The most widespread application of cork is in the wine industry, a use that began in the 17th century when Dom Perignon chose this material as the perfect sealant for his champagne. It has many other uses due to its durability, its impermeability and its shock absorbing capacity. It is even used in aerospace as a thermal insulator. Cork is Portugal’s number one export and there are three main consumer markets; the United States, the United Kingdom and Germany that account for 70% of the total production.

At the end of 2011, the cork oak was unanimously established as Portugal’s National Tree

Cistercian Monks and Christian Reconquest

Few people also realize the importance of the Cistercian Order in the formation of the territory of Portugal and the political endorsement of the first dynasty under Portugal’s first king, Afonso Henriques. Why was this so? The Order was first introduced to the country in the mid-12th century after Afonso’s victories against the Moors. By granting huge tracts of land to the church his strategy was to consolidate his authority and promote colonization of areas taken from the Moors during the Reconquest. The Order then gradually extended its monasteries in the centre and in the north of the country thanks to special royal protection. The monks contributed in a decisive way to the colonization and development of the vast areas they occupied by applying innovative and intensive farming techniques and, above all, a great discipline of space organization. The abbot protected and assisted settlers, who would farm the land, build bridges, open routes, and generally occupy and defend the territory during and after the Christian Reconquest.

Portugal has, therefore, an important Cistercian legacy evident in the number of monasteries established. At the time of St. Bernard’s death, the Order already had more than 343 monasteries in continental Europe and 55 in England. Probably the most famous of the monasteries is that of Alcobaça, founded in 1153 by Afonso Henriques. The church and monastery were the first Gothic buildings in Portugal. It became the favourite burial place of many monarchs and its architecture is outstanding. However, it is the first of the Cistercian monasteries in Portugal, San João de Tarouca, established in a remote valley in the Central Douro region that captures the imagination. The endowments received and the efficient management of its resources ensured that this Monastery enjoyed great prosperity in the 12th and 13th centuries possessing a vast estate. It then became the mother house of various monasteries in Northern Portugal. The monastery fell into ruins like many others after the religious orders were abolished in 1834.

Today the massive, skeletal ruins of San João de Tarouca stand in a stunning landscape as a poignant and evocative reminder of a once thriving community. The original layout of the former monastery can be seen in an open-air museum. The monumental dormitories, dating to the 16th and 17th centuries are visible as well as the remains of the hydraulic system. Archaeological excavations have revealed the original 12th century cloister, as well as traces of the chapter room, refectory, kitchen and latrines. The vast medieval walled herb and vegetable garden has been re-established by a group of volunteers who are passionate about recreating the produce of the former monks. They harvest this and sell the dried herbs in the local shop. One of the best preserved monastic buildings in the complex is the church that has retained its Cistercian Romanesque style and is still in use.  The sacristy built in the early 18th century has an impressive collection of tiles in the blue and white Delft style and the church holds a weird and wonderful painting of St Peter by Grão Vasco, an important Portuguese Renaissance artist.

Monastery of Sao Joao de Tarouca

Knights Templar

It is a little-known fact that another religious organization, the Order of the Knights Templar, also played an integral role in the creation of Portugal as a nation. The Knights Templar was formed in 1119 and, famous as the elite fighting unit of the Crusades, came to Portugal in the 12th century at the request of Afonso Henriques who granted them tracts of land. They subsequently made their headquarters in Tomar as a fortified monastery that is now one of the most important medieval monuments in Portugal. The Knights were deployed in several battles against the Moors during the Reconquest and were thus instrumental in the formation of the nation. They also constructed several frontier castles as a defense line against the Moors. Many are still extant including the Castles of Almourol, Monsanto, and Pombal. When they were persecuted in 1312 on charges of heresy by the French king Phillip IV who was deeply in debt to them, the Templars had their land and wealth confiscated and many were executed. The Order was exterminated: except in Portugal! King Dinis I, in recognition of their services to the nation, offered protection by convincing the Pope to reconstitute the Knights Templar as the Order of Christ, transferring Templar holdings to it. A hundred years later Tomar was at the centre of the Age of Exploration under the leadership of Prince Henry the Navigator who became a Grand Master and who sent ships bearing the distinctive red cross of the Order to explore the coast of Africa. The riches of the discoveries flowed into the monastery and many famous explorers subsequently became Knights of the Order of Christ.

Traces of the presence of the Knights can be found throughout the country but it is Tomar, now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, that holds the most outstanding ensemble of buildings related to their history: in particular the Castle of the Knights and the Convent of the Order of Christ with its eight cloisters. Legend has it that the knights attended mass on horseback and also that the mythical Holy Grail is hidden here! Interestingly the chequerboard design of the centre of Tomar commissioned by Prince Henry inspired the grid pattern for the rebuilding of Lisbon after the 1755 earthquake. Over the centuries the power of the Order declined and in the 18th century it was secularised. Today the Order still exists to be conferred on Portuguese citizens as a mark of honour for outstanding service to the Republic.

Convento de Cristo in Tomar is a magnificent castle overlooking the river Nabão, built in 1160 as a headquarters for the Knights Templar

Showcasing just a sample of these remarkable places and monuments gives some insight into the depth and breadth of Portugal’s cultural heritage. Away from the usual tourist haunts Portugal holds many secrets. Once the quintessential Queen of the Discoveries she now awaits discovery!

Dr Jeni Ryde

Dr Jeni Ryde is a linguist and art history specialist with over fifteen years experience leading tours to Italy, Spain and Portugal. She is passionate about art, design and architecture both ancient and modern and particularly enjoys how both complement each other. Her special interests are the simplicity of the Romanesque and the breadth and depth of the Renaissance. Jeni holds two undergraduate degrees with majors in Anthropology and French and Interpreting and Translation with NAATI qualifications, two Masters degrees in Italian Linguistics and TESOL and a cross disciplinary PhD in Renaissance Art History, Tourism and Museum Management.


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