The town of Chaves in the far north of Portugal has been settled since Roman times. They built a city here around the thermal springs, and left behind a stone bridge which still bears its Latin inscriptions.
Fast forward more than a thousand years and you come to the rule of Dom Afonso I, illegitimate son of King of John I who fathered the House of Braganza in Chaves. This dynasty would rule Portugal and Brazil until the 20th centry. There’s a castle, a clutch of sublime churches, Dom Afonso’s palace, which has a museum for the city’s Roman archaeology, and what are literally the hottest spring waters in Portugal or Spain.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Chaves:
1. Roman Bridge of Chaves
Also known as Trajan’s Bridge (after the emperor), this structure is from the turn of the 2nd century.
Like most bridges it has needed upkeep and reconstruction over time, but the arches are in the same positions as 2,000 years ago, even if some have been swallowed by the houses on the riverside.
The best indicators of the great age of the bridge are the two commemorative columns, both with Latin inscriptions still legible.
A third column was found upstream in the riverbed in 1980 and is on show in the Museu da Região Flaviense.
2. Praça de Camões
In Chaves there’s no avoiding this graceful central square, which is wall to wall with typical old houses and religious and civic monuments . There isn’t a single modern building to spoil the view you’ll have a couple of cafe terraces if you’d like to linger here for a moment.
Standing before the town hall is a statue of Dom Afonso I, the 15th-century Duke of Braganza, who resided in the Paço dos Duques de Bragança.
He began the dynasty that would yield a long line of Portuguese Kings and Emperors of Brazil.
3.Museu da Região Flaviense
The best monuments and artefacts from the Roman city of Aquae Flaviae are on show at this museum in Dom Afonso I’s home.
This palace is from 1446 and given a new facade in the 18th century.
From the Roman period there are Corinthian columns, funerary steles and the inscribed bridge marker found in the Tâmega River in 1980. The museum also sheds light on the rich prehistory of the region, and the showpiece is a 4,000-year-old life-sized stone carving with the clear outline of a woman.
4. Igreja de Santa Maria Maior
Opposite the town hall on Praça de Camões is the city’s solemn parish church, which is most likely from right after the Reconquista in the 12th century.
It is built on Visigothic foundations and has a Romanesque design with later, Renaissance refinements.
You can tell the older elements apart, in the bell-tower and the portal below, both with primitive stonework.
The interior is beautiful in a stark sort of way, with wooden beams on the ceiling and bare granite walls.
The main adornment here is the organ, which is Baroque and has a case with gilded wood-carvings of cherubs.
5. Castle of Chaves
This imperious square tower is the last remnant of a castle established in the 10th century when Chaves was passed back and forth between Christian and Moorish forces.
It was completed at the turn of the 14th century by King Denis I, and has a spectrum of designs Renaissance to Late Gothic.
The Vauban-style walls below are from the 17th-century, topped with a pretty garden and still armed with cannons.
There’s collection of military artefacts inside the tower, and you can scale four sets of stairs to look out between the merlons at the city and the high Trás-os-Montes landscapes.
6. Igreja da Misericórdia de Chaves
Also on the Praça de Camões is this exuberant 17th-century Baroque church, formerly attached to the city’s hospital.
The facade is grand, with three archways and solomonic columns, and although the interior is small there’s a great deal of things to catch your eye.
The walls of the nave have exquisite 18th-century blue and white tiles from floor to ceiling evoking bible passages.
Above the entrance there’s a statue of Christ that is used in Chaves’ Holy Week processions, and then there’s the classic gilt-wood altar, a signature of Baroque churches in northern Portugal.
7. Jardim Publico de Chaves
The oldest public park in Chaves is on the left bank of the Tâmega and was donated to the city by the banker Cândido Sotto Mayor at the turn of the 20th century.
This good deed was recognised with a bust of the man that you can see in the park’s main mall.
Long before it was public this land had been planted with deciduous and coniferous trees, which are centuries-old.
There are lofty cedars the by the river side, and a sweet wrought iron bandstand.
But maybe the best reason to stop by for a photo of the Roman Bridge upriver.
8. Forte de São Neutel
On the northern outskirts of the town, this 17th-century fort is one of in Chaves.
The other, the Forte de São Francisco, is now a pousada (heritage hotel). The Forte de São Neutel was raised during the Portuguese Restoration War in the middle of the century and has a Vauban-style star configuration.
If you’re inspired by military architecture you’ll want to inspect the innovative features of the time like the ravelins, bastions and ramps.
There’s a pretty Mannerist chapel in the main enclosure, a commemorative inscription at the entrance and a well in the interior moat.
9. Hot Spring
The fabled spring in Chaves emerges at the Jardim do Tabolado on the right bank of the Tâmega and close to the medieval quarter.
It comes out at an almost scalding 73-76°C, the hottest of any spring on the Iberian Peninsula.
The water is lightly carbonated, with an alkali composition supposed to be good for the skin problems, high blood pressure and digestive complaints.
You can reflect on the journey that this water has made to get to this point, being forced from an unfathomable depth through several layers of igneous rock.
You can amble down from the garden to the river, where stepping stones allow you to cross the water.
10. Museu de Arte Contemporânea Nadir Afonso
Álvaro Siza Vieira is one of Portugal’s national treasures and has contributed landmark buildings throughout the world.
Recently he was commissioned to design this sleek museum on the right bank of the Tâmega, commemorating the equally revered geometric abstractionist painter Nadir Afonso, a Chaves native.
The museum opened in July 2016 and deals solely with Afonso’s work , dividing it into his various phases, from surrealism in the 1940s to his “fractal” period in the early 21st century.
There a video presentation about Afonso’s life and career, for the uninitiated.
11. Pedra Bolideira
In the countryside east of Chaves there’s a weird natural phenomenon surrounded by unblemished nature.
The Pedra Bolideira is a gigantic granite boulder perched on the rock below in such a way that a single person can make it rock back and forth.
You can either lean in and push it with your hands or lie down and use your legs.
It’s a bizarre feeling moving something that must weigh at least ten tons so easily, and there’s a lot of local affection for this curiosity.
12. Vinho dos Mortos
The wine-making village of Boticas to the west of Chaves has a curious tradition of burying its wine.
This began in during the Peninsular Wars when the village hid its bottles in the earth to avoid them being plundered by Napoleon’s army.
When the wine was eventually retrieved the villagers found that it had aged better, and named the drink vinho dos mortos (wine of the dead). The tradition persists, and the absence of light and steady temperature underground gives the wine a light gasification.
You can pick up a bottle from the village’s agricultural cooperative.
13. Spa Tourism
Chaves was reborn as a spa resort at the end of the 19th century, and continues to draw tourists to its salubrious waters.
If you want to do as the Romans did, the Termas de Chaves or Spa do Imperador is your port of call for spa treatments or simple relaxation.
The menu is long and varied, involving outlandish and more conventional choices: There’s hydrotherapy, hydromassage, Vichy showers, diathermy, a range of shower treatments, as well as several types of massage.
14. Castelo de Monforte
There’s another National Monument barely ten kilometres from Chaves.
Despite being abandoned this castle is in very good condition, and sets a haunting scene against the Águas Livres valley and the village of Águas Frias.
Like the Castle of Chaves, Monforte was reinforced during the reign of King Denis I and in its heyday the keep was guarded by three large towers.
These became obsolete and were replaced by bastions for the Portuguese Restoration War in the 17th century, and since that conflict the site has been a ruin, with minor interventions down the years to avoid collapse.
If you go carefully you can get some awesome shots of the moody scenery from the walls.
15. Local Food
You can’t talk about the food in Chaves without mentioning presudo ham.
This is dry-cured, and can be compared to Italian prosciutto or Spanish jamón.
It’s a product of the region’s chilly winters, as, in the past, home fires needed to burning at all times, and the smoke would be used to smoke the ham leg for months on end.
The same method was used for local cured sausages like alheiras.
These cold meats are great as bar snacks, starters or used to stuff baked trout.
Meat is the main ingredient it nearly every other dish, from roast goat to Transmontana casserole, made with various pork cuts and vegetables.
The pastel de Chaves is a puff pastry with EU protection, filled with veal in the traditional style, or with cheese, presunto or chocolate in newer versions.