Over the centuries, Chaves has been fought over by the Romans, the French during the Peninsular War and repeated Spanish invaders. Thermal springs and nearby gold deposits encouraged the Romans to establish an important stronghold there in AD 78, while their emperor Vespasiano christened the town Aquae Flaviae in recognition of the quality of its natural spring waters.
The name Chaves (which means ‘keys’) is said to derive from the handing over of the town’s keys to Nuno Álvares Pereira by King João I, father of Prince Henry the Navigator, for his valiant service at the Battle of Aljubarrota in 1385, during which the Portuguese vanquished a much larger Spanish force.
Nestling on the banks of the River Tâmega in the heart of Portugal’s spectacular Trás-os-Montes region, Chaves today is a lively market town famous for its spa, historic centre and tasty presunto (smoked ham).
The 14th-century keep of Chaves Castle overlooks the town’s medieval square – Praça de Camões. Within the castle keep is a small military museum where suits of armour, uniforms and other regalia are on display. On the south side stands the parish church with its fine Romanesque portal.
The Baroque Misericordia church opposite has an exquisite interior lined with 18th-century azulejo glazed tiles.
A few minutes on foot from the city centre lies one of the hottest springs in Europe. Water here bubbles up at a temperature of 73ºC (163ºF) before maintaining a comfortable 37ºC. The spa’s facilities attract both tourists and people seeking natural treatment for rheumatism, kidney dysfunction and hypertension.
Still in use today, the 16-arch Roman bridge across the Tâmega River (in the picture) was completed around 100 AD at the time of the Emperor Trajan, making Chaves an important stopover on the road the Romans had built between nearby Braga and Astorga in Spain.
Close to the village of Soutelo, 4 km north-west of Chaves, is a huge stone known as Outeiro Machado. Measuring 50 metres in length, it is covered in symbols and other strange markings. A second large boulder can be seen at Bolideira 16 km east.
Just 14 km north-east of Chaves stands the imposing Monforte Castle, a 14th-century structure built by King Dinis around the remains of a Roman citadel in order to protect the Tâmega Valley. From its ramparts, visitors can enjoy fine vistas of the Trás-os-Montes mountains and neighbouring Spain.
The spa town of Vidago 17 km south-west of Chaves is also very popular for its therapeutic waters.