15 September 2013
Chaves (pronounced “Shove-sh” and meaning “keys”) made the itinerary purely on location, conveniently placed between Leon and Porto, 10km into Portugal from the Spanish border. It also held the most promise of the options being rich in history since its fame as Aquae Flaviae on 78AD Roman times, so named by Flavio Vespasiano when he arrived to explore the region’s goldmines and found the hypothermal Caldas of Chaves instead (73 degree Celsius spas, making them the warmest in Europe).
We arrived at 4.30pm, which turned out to be 3.30pm local time – we’d moved so far west that we’d gained a time zone, which we’re choosing to loosely translate as an hour extra holiday! Bonus!
The town, being an old one, has the (now) usual maze of narrowed one-ways, so we parked the car (in the, for once, ample parking) and used the Lonely Planet guide city map to locate our hotel, the Florinda B&B, chosen for its central location and inclusion of breakfast.
It would appear that we’re staying in the equivalent of the Best Exotic Marigold Hotel as the couches and chairs in the foyer were all occupied by ladies and gents who seemed they might’ve been there for years… with no intention of moving. It was only eyes that followed us as we swanned in from the street and moved deftly through the passage of canes to the reception desk.
The nearest old dear stood up from her armchair and took her position behind the concierge desk, whereupon I showed her our booking form. She studied it intently and then pulled out a folio book with “Reservations” embossed on the cover and started to write something. She hesitated and looked at me, then pointed her pen at me and then the sheet and said “Nome?”. She was pointing at “Double Room”. She thought my name was Double Room!! Trying not to laugh, I pointed at my name further down and she exclaimed “Ah! Santa Clara!”. As effective as RICA!
We deposited our bags in our 2nd floor room. Not bad, with terrace, satellite TV (Portuguese only, no doubt) and aircon (welcome since it’s notably hotter this side of the border), but very old-fashion copper chintzy curtains and crest-embossed flannel bedspread. It must’ve been a gem in its day with the big rooms, original hardwood floors, dark wood wardrobe and marble bathroom vanity counters. Very 1960! And in the same colour scheme as our Portuguese phrasebook which, published in 1958, has lots of fun stuff in it about where to send telegrams from, where to buy British cigarettes and insistences on being directed to the Consulate.
Besides that, it also reminded us that we’re lucky to have avoided the 3 day ship journey to Lisbon from London, Southampton or Liverpool (who knows how long it might have taken us to get there!) and secondly, we clearly live in far easier times based on the long chapters dedicated to cashing postal orders, making trunk calls, orders at the tobacconist and managing at the hairdresser when getting a perm or one’s hair set. No mention of wifi or other very useful things. The book also seems to be written by the same people as Fawlty Towers based on its skew to complaining and conducting eloquent tantrum diatribes!
Anyway, hotel sorted, we moved car closer – blissfully to right outside the hotel – and hit the town to see the sights.
Being a Sunday, everything was closed, so we headed toward a big fort thing to see what we could see.
It turned out to be the Sao Francisco fortress, an 18th stonghold that is now one of the fanciest hotels in Portugal (or so its own signage says). At least this meant that the concierge spoke English,stocked tourist maps and was eager to guide us.
Map in hand, we trundled toward the cluster of “must see” sights of Chaves. It’s another one of those where you can stand in a single spot and knock off the top 5 by pivoting – in this case 2 churches, a museum housed in a former palace, a castle and the square itself, home to City Hall and a statue of Alfonso I (the first Duke of Braganca) who founded here one of the first libraries in Europe.
From there we moved up into the Chaves Castle, so built in the 15th Century, with dungeons and walls still preserved, as well as a terraced garden setting decorated with Roman artifacts and columns, canons and stone canon balls. The view of the Chaves valley between the Mournos and Brunheiro Mountains is photo – worthy, but it’s a shame that the locals have graffitied all over the canons and walls, peed in the look-outs, left cigarette butts and broken beer bottles everywhere, which mars the overall experience considerably.
The same theme continued through the Historical Centre, which is quite unpleasant and is such a shame, especially in such a sharp contrast with how respectfully a city like Leon has been maintained. It might be the distinctly political air in the town – such a sleepy hamlet with 6 or more political parties tustling for power with austere billboards and street pole ads and roving politicking by car with megaphones on the roof. Creates a really intense atmosphere!
The last sight on our waking tour agenda was the Trajano Bridge, a structure built in 98AD, with 12 arcs connecting the 104m from riverbank to riverbank. It is definitely the highlight of the town and they’ve obviously put some effort into developing the area with waterfront cafés on the old city side and a park with walking and cycling paths on the far side. Since we weren’t ready for dinner yet, we took a half hour stroll around the park, but there really isn’t much to see or do, so we retired to the Sky Bar café for sundowners instead.
The local beers are both lagers, Superbock and Sagres, 5.5% alcohol which seems all lot heavier than the Spanish beers we’ve been drinking. They’re also a lot bigger at 330ml. And very disappointingly not served with tapas. Maybe that explains the graffiti and general delinquencies…
It sure got our sense of humour twitching as Christian used our very useful phrasebook while we waited for our dinner to be served to plan his dialogue with the concierge on our return to the hotel…
Christian: Boa Noite (good evening)
Christian: A que hereoras e o pequeno (what time is breakfast)
Concierge: ??? (likely to be unfathomable)
Christian: Nao percebo (I don’t understand)
Christian: Fazia favior de falar com Double Room (please speak to Double Room)
We had a mixed bag for dinner, since the Abude Beerhouse has quite a varied pub style menu. We shared 3 items. A Pasteis Chaves meat pie in a crunchy phyllo pastry, not like the puff pastry at home and a tiny amount – although super tasty – savoury mincemeat filling. A Prego con queijo (prego with cheese) which turned out to be a steak sandwich garnished with ham (genius!) and cheese, no hot sauce or marinade like we’re used to (apparently that’s Mozambican). A Charrola bokwurst hotdog, garnished with cheese, ham (starting to see a pattern forming), bacon and tiny matchstick fries. All very good – and reassuring that our entire bill for beers and food was just over €10! Looks like Portugal is going to be very good at swinging the budget!
Monday morning saw the exciting reintroduction of fruit into our diet, with a banana each and a red apple between us at our (included) continental breakfast at Florinda. The main course was (quite obviously) Portuguese rolls with cream cheese, delicious local white cheese and succulent slices of Iberian ham. All served with a bottle of agua and an enormous jug of piping coffee and an equally enormous jug of hot milk.
Packed up and ready to go, with Porto in our sights!