The demarcated region of Alto Douro Vinhateiro encompasses more than 26 thousand hectares classified by Unesco, since 2001, as a world heritage site, in the category of cultural, evolutionary and living landscape. It is one of the most important regions in the world due to its climatic, morphological and geological characteristics, giving it an unique landscape, characterized by steep and rugged slopes, and poor and uneven soils, continuously adapted by man to agricultural demands. Here stands out the persistent culture of the vineyard, that has been shaping the landscape since the 3rd and 4th centuries AD, as evidenced by the various vestiges of presses and artefacts linked to the production of wine, spread throughout the Douro region.
It is a region with a highly rugged and modeled landscape and huge altimetric differences, where from the highest points it is possible to observe unique landscape scenarios. Many of these have been chosen as places of worship since ancient times, and due to the magnificence landscape were later adapted to viewpoints.
It is these elevated and sacred places that are object of this route, which includes elevations in the municipalities of Mesão Frio, Peso da Régua, Santa Marta de Penaguião, Alijó, Torre de Moncorvo, Armamar, São João da Pesqueira and Vila Nova de Foz Côa, distributed over the Baixo Corgo, Cima Corgo and Douro Superior subregions.
The intention is to combine the landscape beauty these dominant places offer - and that Alexandre Herculano compared to the work of Michelangelo, saying that nature used here a role similar to that of the artist: “it was robust, solemn and profound”, with the mysticism, hope and symbolism they acquired as places of worship.
The Alto Douro landscape is considered unique due to its strong landscape, cultural, social and economic identity, where the culture of the vine predominates. This is harmonized in different ways and techniques of planting, following what is necessary and the technological evolution, and denouncing the experiences and knowledge that generations over generations have accumulated. In some areas, although in lesser quantity, plantations of olive trees, almond trees, orchards and Mediterranean scrub also appear, the latter occupying a large part of the mortories - vineyards devastated by phylloxera.
This is a landscape of great contrasts, characterized by mountains and plateaus made up of different rocky materials, and with a greater predominance of schists that favor the appearance of irregular shapes and sloping slopes, and granites that give less crowded shapes to the landscape. The altimetric differences increase as we approach its western limit. These irregular landscape forms lead the waters of the Douro River and its tributaries, sometimes through real cannons flanked by steep slopes and other times through smooth beds, accentuating the scenic effect of the landscape.
There are several points throughout the region that allow the contemplation of these unique and dazzling scenarios with greater comprehensiveness. Here the natural and the humanized landscape come together in perfect harmony, creating a landscape of “baroque” architecture, with compositions of mosaics dyed in various shades throughout the year.
It is possible that the elevated position of these points may have motivated their choice as places of worship, in some cases since prehistory, and then intensified in the middle ages and even more so during the modern era. This has originated a great movement of devotees who came there from various regions, full of faith, to establish a closer relationship with the divine, supported by promises and requests to achieve grace or obtain a miracle through their saint of devotion.
Small temples were erected in these places, with the believers establishing a closer proximity to heaven and its divinities in the hope of ensuring greater protection. This is a set of chapels, mostly in a stripped design and of a vernacular nature, isolated and far from the villages, built in schist or granite and paid for with alms from the pilgrims.
Of this group, the Shrines of Senhora da Piedade in Alijó, and São Salvador do Mundo in São João da Pesqueira, stand out for their size, and the Chapel of Nossa Senhora do Viso, in Vila Nova de Foz Côa, associated with the Castle of Numão, and the Chapel of São Domingos, in Armamar stand out for their antiquity. The latter also stands out for the preservation of the original design, bringing together relatively well preserved artistic elements from the Romanesque, Gothic, Manueline and Mannerist periods. The rest of the temples, built between the 16th and the 20th centuries, mostly have a sole space.
The exact dates of construction and veneration of a large part of the spaces are unknown. However, it is known that in the 18th century there were great movements of pilgrims from various parts of the country, and that in the 19th century, due to the decrease in pilgrimages, some of the buildings were very degraded and their reconstruction altered the primitive structures.
Over the years, the religious practice of pilgrimages decreased and assumed a popular and festive character. Currently the temples are closed, with worship being practiced only once a year, on the day of the patron saint, which is followed by a popular party with a social lunch and ball, extending in some cases for more than one day.