One of the most attractive towns in Trás-os-Montes, riverside CHAVES lies 12km from the Spanish border, which tells you all you need to know about its erstwhile strategic importance – as do the connotations of its name, which means “keys”. It’s also a spa town of some repute, founded originally by the Romans in 78 AD, who built an impressive bridge here across the Rio Tâmega. After the Romans came a long line of squabbling forces, from Visigoths and Moors to the Spanish and French, which explains the surviving fortresses, towers and walls that ring the medieval old town. The history is obvious from the monuments, but the welcome surprise is the evident charm of Chaves, from its handsome squares and balconied old-townhouses to its intricately-planted flowerbeds and riverside gardens. The spa is an obvious money-spinner, and many do come to take the waters, but it’s not the be-all and end-all. You could spend a happy couple of days here and never notice the spa, perhaps being more inclined to sample Chaves’ other significant attractions – namely its smoked hams, sausages and red wine.
It was the Romans who first developed the spas of northern Portugal, not only in Chaves (their name for the town was Aquae Flaviae) but also at several other nearby thermal stations. Even now, for example, Carvalhelhos spring water is a big deal in Portugal – it comes from a small town around 25km west of Chaves in the Barroso hills. But it’s the historic spa of Vidago, 17km south of Chaves down the Rio Tâmega, that has the highest profile, centred on the opulent Art Nouveau Vidago Palace Hotel, transformed into a five-star resort by top architect Álvaro Siza Vieira. A similar renovation has taken place at the old spa of Pedras Salgadas (another famous Portuguese mineral water), 20km south of Vidago, where there’s new accommodation and revitalized spa facilities as well as more resort and leisure outlets.