Chaves is a provincial town in the north of Portugal on the River Tâmega, 10km from Portugal's northern border with Spain. Chaves is located in the district of Vila Real, in a historic region called Tras-os-Montes. Braga and Porto are each two hours away by car. Chaves makes a nice stop coming from either of these tourist centers in Portugal.
Chaves has a population of about 45,000 people. The Tras-os-Montes region (see our Portugal regions map) is one of the poorest in Portugal, and outside of the relatively well-off town of Chaves, you'll see many villages connected together with very poor roads, where subsistence agriculture is practiced. Although illiteracy is high, we found many people in rural villages who could speak a variety of languages and were friendly to us when we inquired about road conditions and directions.
Chaves: a Spa Town
Spas in Chaves are different than those in, say, Baden-Baden. Besides being hotter (73 ºC - 163 ºF), the waters here are taken for their curative properties. To get a spa treatment, you can arrange with your hotel a preliminary doctor's visit, who will recommend a treatment specifically for you. Popular treatments include stomach, liver, intestinal, and kidney ailments. In summer, the Pensões and smaller hotels are full of older people taking treatment in the spas.
Where to Stay
There are many options for lodging in Chaves. Four-star luxury is inexpensive compared to other countries in Europe. We found the Albergaria Jaime, just below the walls of the old fort, a fine choice for lodging--air conditioning, balconies overlooking the fort (even in the bathrooms) and a great breakfast can be had for 70 Euros.
Presunto is the celebrated country ham from the area around Chaves. You can eat it with the local rye bread. Smoked sausages are also popular. Folar de Chaves or Folar de Tras dos Montes is a type of bread similar to brioche that often is served as a savory bread stuffed with ham and/or chorizo.
Besides the spa scene mentioned above, here are some of the things you can visit in Chaves:
- The Roman Bridge - Built around 100 AD, the bridge has continued to carry heavy auto and truck traffic (only recently have large trucks been banned on the bridge). While it has been modified and restored over the years, two of the columns built by the Emperor Trajan still stand.
- The Medieval Quarter - Near the bridge, the medieval quarter is an evocative place, and the architecture is protected by law.
- The Regional Museum - Museu da Região Flaviense - Worth a visit if you develop an interest in the region and its history. A smattering of everything is found in Chaves' most important building--from Roman artifacts (and some prehistoric ones) to modern local art.
- The Chaves Castle - The castle, now reduced to a tall tower housing a military museum by folks scavenging for housing materials, is worth a walk around the gardens that surround it.
- The Fort - On the hills just outside Chaves, a 17th-century fort stands in a reasonable state of preservation. Built to defend the territory in the war of Independence from Spain, you can, in fact, stay inside the fort by reserving a room in Chaves' most expensive hotel, Forte de São Francisco, which comes at a very reasonable price for a design hotel.