Chaves, Valpaços, Vila Pouca de Aguiar, Ribeira de Pena, Boticas and Montalegre. These are the places you will pass through on your journey of discovery through the Upper Tâmega. Here, whether a little closer or a little further from the Spanish border, you will find a rich cultural heritage, the hills, valleys and crystal clear waters of the Tâmega, Cávado and Rabaçal rivers, and a cuisine that is second to none.
Chaves and Valpaços: Heritage and cuisine
In Chaves, it is impossible to ignore the evidence of the Roman presence in the city. The iconic Trajano Bridge, which links the two banks of the Tâmega River, is a Roman legacy on the grandest of scales. The perfectly fashioned granite arches are mirrored in the smooth waters of the Tâmega, forming a picture postcard image that will stay with you long after you have returned home.
The Romans, great admirers of thermal waters, were also responsible for recognising the quality of the hot springs at Chaves. The waters, which rise at a temperature of around 73ºC, still attract plenty of bathers. The Chaves spa complex is located on the right bank of the Tâmega. It runs a variety of well-being programmes, particularly for those suffering from rheumatic and bone problems, amongst others.
Due to its proximity to the Spanish border, Chaves used to be of significant strategic and military importance. So, it is no great surprise to find out that it was enclosed within protective walls during the Middle Ages, to keep out invaders. During this period, the castle played a central role in defending the settlement.
The keep and a castle wall have survived from the city’s medieval period. The whole city can be seen from the top of the keep (28 metres up), which makes it the perfect place to take in the surroundings. The keep also houses the Military Museum (Museu Militar), with its displays of weapons, uniforms and military plans that range from the Middle Ages through to modern times. Within the walls, you can walk along the narrow Augustan streets of the old medieval quarter, with their massed ranks of brightly coloured balconies. Another spot well worth a visit in the old town of Chaves is the Praça de Camões. This is lined by a small 19th Century palace that now serves as the city hall, the Romanesque parish church of Santa Maria Maior and the baroque Misericórdia Church.
If you are into contemporary art, you might like to visit the Nadir Afonso Museum, dedicated to the Chaves-born architect and painter. The museum, which houses some of the painter’s documents, books and personal notes, was designed by Siza Vieira, winner of architecture’s Pritzker Prize.
Apart from the wealth of its physical heritage, Chaves is also the place to enjoy the best mountain (Transmontana) cuisine. The smoked ham and the Chaves pastries, minced meat wrapped in puff pastry, are famed throughout Portugal. In addition to these delicacies, there is also the salted folar (savoury bread with a sausage meat filling), the Bísaro pork, the kid, the veal and the Transmontana stew. If you enjoy your fish, stuffed trout is a popular local snack.
The town of Vidago, famous for its mineral water and hot springs, is about 15 minutes from Chaves. It is also a great place to stay overnight. The luxury Vidago Palace Hotel was converted from an early 20th Century palace. Four years of refurbishment have added a golf course and a spa, designed by the Portuguese architect Siza Vieira, which offers treatments, massages, a sauna, a gym and a swimming-pool.
Anyone who likes their wine and food will not want to miss out on Valpaços. Located on a high plain rich in water resources, Valpaços has always relied on agriculture as its economic mainstay. Cherries, almonds, olive oil, chestnuts and wine are all produced here.
Valpaços was already known for its wine in Roman times. This can be seen from the 21 pits dug out of the rock in the parish of Santa Valha. These would have been used for pressing the grapes. The local story, from the Roman era through to today, is told at the House of Wine (Casa do Vinho) in Valpaços. Here, interactive displays recount the history of winemaking in the area.
The Shrine of Nossa Senhora da Saúde, which is not far from Casa do Vinho, offers a panoramic vista of the Valpaços plain. However, locals will tell you that the best views of all are to be had in the parish of Vales, from the top of the Santa Comba Mountain. This viewpoint offers sweeping vistas across the Trás-os-Montes region, to the districts of Vila Real and Bragança and even the higher mountains in the Spanish region of Castile and León.
Religious monuments in the Valpaços area include the imposing Church of São Nicolau in Carrazedo de Montenegro, the Valpaços parish church and the Possacos parish church, which dates back to the 17th Century.
If you feel like having a truly laid-back day, head to the Rabaçal river beach in Possacos. The beach boasts changing rooms, a restaurant and a leisure park. Why not pick up some sausages, fruit, rye bread, local wine and the famous Valpaços folar (a loaf of bread baked with sausage and pork, traditionally eaten at Easter) and go for a picnic in the park?
Nature and crystal clear water
You will find yourself surrounded by natural beauty when you visit Vila Pouca de Aguiar. First of all, there is the water: the Falperra dam is around four kilometres outside Vila Pouca de Aguiar. Here, you can enjoy both leisure areas and perfect conditions for practising all sorts of water sports.
Water is not just for fun; it can also heal. To make the most of the region’s thermal waters, head to the Pedras Salgadas Spa & Nature Park for a treatment or massage. In the early years of the 20th Century, the upper classes, including King Carlos, used to come here to what was then considered to be the best spa resort in Portugal The Pedras Salgadas Spa & Nature Park also has 3 tree house rooms, so you can engage in a bit of stargazing before falling asleep.
The nearby Pedras Salgadas Riding Centre (Centro Hípico de Pedras Salgadas) provides riding therapy services. The town has a long-standing connection with riding and this centre, which can take up to 32 boxes and is acknowledged to have one of the best floors in Europe, was selected to run a hippotherapy project.
And after the water, how about finding out what lies under the earth? You can do this in the village of Tresminas. You might be surprised to know that these mines once produced the gold that was used to mint Roman coins. And not just gold: silver and lead were also mined here. The legacy of all this mining is a complex system of underground galleries that are now open to visitors.
The exhibits at the interpretation centre (Centro Interpretativo de Tresminas), right in the centre of the village of Tresminas, don’t just focus on the region’s Roman and mining heritage but also on its natural assets and its wealth of flora and fauna. The guided tours of the underground galleries set off from the interpretation centre.
You will feel even more in touch with nature when you arrive at the Vila Pouca de Aguiar Forest Park and the Carvalhosa Woods (Parque Florestal de Vila Pouca de Aguiar and Mata da Carvalhosa). This enchanting green space is inhabited by a variety of flora, including a number of trees that soar to over 30 metres. There is a picnic area, a rest area and well signposted walks.
Leave the trees behind and get ready to climb to the top of Aguiar Castle, in the parish of Telões. This is where the area known as Aguiar first took shape and later gave rise to the municipality of Vila Pouca de Aguiar. The castle, which dates back to the 11th and 12th Centuries, played a key role in the struggle for independence by the Condado Portucalense (County of Portugal).
From Vila Pouca de Aguiar, in central Trás-os-Montes, head to Ribeira de Pena, a municipality on the border between the Minho and Trás-os-Montes districts. The landscape here is richly green, thanks to the many rivers that criss-cross the region. If you are up to it, take a dip in the crystal clear waters.
In Ribeira de Pena, start by visiting the Divino Salvador Church. The church was built in 1793, which explains its baroque features, After visiting the church, why not go for a walk? The 6-kilometre Abbot’s Way (Caminho do Abade) walk starts from right next to the church.
As you walk along the cobbled path, you leave the town behind you and head towards the village of Friúme. Stop for a few minutes at the viewpoint along the way, to take in the Tâmega Valley. In Friúme, you can visit the house of Camilo Castelo Branco (Casa de Camilo), one of 19th Century Portugal's most important writers, who lived here for two years.
The path follows the course of the Tâmega River, towards the village of Santo Aleixo de Além Tâmega. To get to the village, you will have to cross the Tâmega via the wire bridge (Ponte de Arame). This ingenious suspension bridge, made of wood and steel, is a great local attraction. The “Caminho do Abade” ends next to the parish church in Santo Aleixo de Além Tâmega. Some of the houses in this village carry coats of arms, mostly from the 17th and 18th Centuries.
After having just watched the Tâmega River on the walk, it is now time to dip into it. Head to the village of Cerva and switch the Tâmega for the Poio River and the Cai d’Alto waterfall. This pours into a crystal-clear pool that is just begging for a swim. Lovers of adventure sports know the Poio River for its canyoning and canoeing.
After your swim, spend a little time exploring the village of Alvite and the, possibly, Roman bridge that crosses the Poio. Go on to the village of Limões, traditionally associated with farming, particularly the growing of flax. This made it the natural choice for setting up the Flax Interpretation Centre-Museum (Centro de Interpretação – Museu do Linho), where you can learn all about how flax was grown and turned into linen. There are also a number of carved stone houses in Limões, mostly built in the 17th and 18th Centuries and well worth a quick visit.
Don’t leave Ribeira de Pena without tasting the caldo verde (a cabbage and potato soup), cornbread, the river trout and the roast veal or kid. However, the most traditional Ribeira de Pena dish is milhos, made from ground corn that is then stewed for a number of hours with beef, pork or chicken.
Boticas and Montalegre: mountain secrets
These are true mountain lands. The locals, whose lives are shaped by the harsh winters and hot summers, mainly work in farming and the raising of livestock. That has not made them any less hospitable or friendly.
Culinary traditions run deep here, particularly thanks to the locally raised Barrosã beef cattle. This native breed has even been given a protected designation of origin. So, we suggest that, when eating in one of the restaurants in Boticas or Montalegre, you try a Barrosã steak, a simple dish of grilled beef seasoned with salt.
In addition to gastronomic delights, Boticas and Montalegre also offer the visitor a broad range of cultural and nature-related opportunities.
If you like art, and find yourself in Boticas, drop into CEDIEC – The European Centre for the Documentation and Interpretation of Hill Fort Sculpture (Centro Europeu de Documentação e Interpretação da Escultura Castreja). The centre works to preserve and explain proto-historic art forms from across the north-eastern part of the Iberian Peninsula.
Here you can admire the mills, coins and weapons employed by the first peoples to settle the area. Outside the museum, in the town square, is a replica of the statue of a Galician warrior found at the Outeiro do Lesenho hill fort, an Iron Age settlement that is widely held to be the most important Lusitanian hill fort in Portugal. The fort is in São Salvador de Viveiro and you can visit it on your own (pick up a free audio guide at the Boticas Town Hall before you go) or go as part of the guided tours organised by CEDIEC.
The Terva Valley Archaeological Park (Parque Arqueológico do Vale do Terva (PAVT)), in the parishes of Ardãos e Bobadela and Sapiãos, is somewhere else that art and history buffs will not want to miss out on. This archaeological park preserves the region’s historical, archaeological and ethnographic heritage and is based around the PAVT Interpretation Centre (Centro Interpretativo PAVT) in Bobadela. Here, you can get all the information you need to help you discover the PAVT on your own. You can also tour the permanent exhibition of archaeological, plant and photographic treasures, amongst many others.
In Boticas, the leap from prehistory to the present is a particularly short one, thanks to the Nadir Afonso Arts Centre (Centro de Artes Nadir Afonso). Here, you can enjoy dozens of works by one of Portugal’s leading contemporary painters and access a library that is largely dedicated to painting.
After absorbing some culture, it is time to get in touch with nature at Boticas Park - Nature and Biodiversity (Boticas Parque– Natureza e Biodiversidade), which covers the parishes of Beça, Vilar and Codesso. This 60-hectare park has been set up to protect all the native flora and fauna that can be observed along the signposted walks. There is also a Butterfly House (Borboletário), home to a number of species.
After a relaxing break in these natural surroundings, get back to the history with a trip to the town of Montalegre. Make your way to the 13th Century castle, built on the ruins of an even older fortification. It is worth it for the stunning views of the whole area, in general, and of Larouco Mountain, in particular.
Your next stop might be the Barroso Ecomuseum - Father Fontes Space (Ecomuseu do Barroso – Espaço Padre Fontes). This is the main museum (there are other visitable centres in the municipality). Here you can find out about the region’s traditions and heritage and visit the learning garden, specially designed for children. Why not buy a local arts and crafts souvenir from the museum shop? Perhaps something in ceramic or kersey (a thick cloth that is wind and rain proof), or clogs or wool or linen clothing?
Afterwards, make your way to the Senhor da Piedade picnic area and indulge in some of the best produce that the region has to offer: sausage or smoked ham on rye bread.
Next stop is the communitarian village of Pitões da Júnias, inside the Peneda-Gerês National Park. Here, there is a waterfall with a drop of almost 30 metres and the Santa Maria das Júnias Monastery. The monastery, which is in ruins, is only accessible on foot, but it is well worth making the effort to explore this former Cistercian house. You can still see the façade of the church, the monk’s dormitory and the kitchen area with its chimney.
Finish off your day with a well-deserved meal: perhaps roast veal or Barrosã stew, made of sausage and veal and accompanied by potatoes, boiled beans and cabbage. For dessert: a plate of rice pudding or crème brûlée, both excellent choices.
How to get there
There are numerous direct flights into Porto. If you are travelling low cost you can fly straight from London, (Stansted and Gatwick), Birmingham, Paris (Beauvais, Orly, Vatry and Charles de Gaulle), Marseilles, Dole, Lille, Strasbourg, Tours, St. Etienne, Bordeaux, Lyon, Nantes, Madrid, Barcelona El Prat, Valencia, Milan Bergamo, Rome Ciampino, Brussels (Charleroi and Zaventem), Eindhoven, Maastricht, Amsterdam, Geneva, Basel/Mulhouse, Dortmund, Frankfurt Hahn, Karlsruhe Baden, Nuremberg, Hamburg Lübeck , Munich Memmingen and Düsseldorf Weeze.
In the summer, low-cost airlines fly from Liverpool, Dublin, Bologna, Toulouse, Clermont Ferrand, Carcassonne, La Rochelle, Limoges, Rennes, Las Palmas, Palma de Majorca, Tenerife and Bremen.
The traditional airlines operate flights to Porto from London (Gatwick and Heathrow), Madrid, Barcelona, Munich, Frankfurt, Paris Orly, Caracas, Geneva, Luxembourg, Amsterdam, Milan Malpensa, Luanda, Zurich, New York, São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, Brussels Zaventem, Rome Fiumicino, Toronto and Luanda. In the summer, they also fly from Montreal, Minorca, Brest and Brive.
The Upper Tâmega region is within easy reach once you are in Porto. The most convenient way of exploring the Upper Tâmega region is by car: the A4 and then the A7 or A24 will get you to Chaves in about 90 minutes.