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Roman bridge in Chaves

(Photo by J.B. Cesar)

Chaves is unique in Portugal in that it still has a Roman bridge in relatively good shape crossing the river and uniting the two most important parishes in the town. The bridge is 140 meters long, high and has 12 visible arches. Although the bridge spanning the Minho in Ourense is longer and higher, this example of Roman architecture is even today a masterpiece of construction.

Two of the columns of the original bridge, built by the Emperor Trajan, still stand. They are stout cylindrical columns with details of the honors bestowed by the emperor on local governors or generals clearly legible on them. They were also milestones indicating distances to the important settlements of Astorga in Spanish León and Bracara Augusta, Braga, in Portugal.

The bridge was built between the end of the first century and the beginning of the second century CE. We don’t know the exact dates of the beginning or conclusion of construction. We know that slaves captured from the peoples inhabiting the region worked on the bridge. This appears to be written on one of the columns placed in the middle of the bridge. These columns were not here originally. One of them mentions the construction of the bridge, referring to the reign of the emperor Trajan; the other was taken from the Roman road leading up to the bridge. Before the building of the bridge the crossing was made by a road raised above the bed of the river, which only allowed the river to be crossed in summer.

Allowing the river to be crossed at any time of the year, the bridge was an important factor of development for the town, but it was also necessary and useful for the Pax Romana: here there were hot springs visited by a lot of people; in the region there were mines with precious metals, whose product was taken to Rome; across the bridge passed the important Roman road of Braga to Astorga, with a lot of traffic; and lastly here was quartered a numerous detachment of legionnaires of the Roman army.

The bridge has suffered many modifications, for restoration and conservation. The fortified tower that was built at the entrance was long ago demolished and the stone sides were substituted by forged iron. The span was widened and sidewalks put in. The floor, originally covered by large granite blocks, now is covered by paving stones.

Perhaps the most important monument of Chaves, this Roman bridge is an excellent way to attract tourists to the town. Unfortunately, the town has not paid proper respect to its most important treasure. To this date there is no sign or plaque giving the tourist information about this incredible bridge. Heavy traffic rumbled across the span for years without anyone taking the initiative to change. Finally a courageous mayor got EC funding and a new bridge was built up river. But old habits are hard to change, and shopkeepers in the neighborhood of Madalena fought tooth and nail to keep the bridge open to cars. A compromise was reached and now traffic is one-way, although no one has thought of speed bumps to slow it down. At least the heavy trucks are banned from crossing. Pedestrians, who before had to cross at their own peril, can now feel a little safer.

A stop at the midway point to contemplate the view is highly recommendable. The scene of the river with ducks splashing in enjoyment is surprisingly bucolic, considering you are in the center of a bustling town. A park has been built along the north right bank, where the camping site used to be, and a small dam has been built south of the bridge to regulate the water. Now, even in the drought of August, there is a substantial flow of water in the river. A sewage treatment plant has finally diverted the town’s sewage from the river and fish have returned. Unfortunately, in the summer months, while before the river might slow to a trickle and gypsies would park their wagons under the bridge to wash their clothes, now the water level remains high, but the flow of water slows considerably and the water takes on a greenish unhealthy color that is not conducive to tourism.

On the south side of the bridge there is a well-kept municipal garden with a bandstand, where the town holds an annual fair of handicrafts and periodically has fairs or musical presentations. There is a small playground and a bandstand in the middle, which is rarely used. The park is an excellent place for jogging in the summer as there is a lot of shade, but in the winter the rains tend to make the dirt paths muddy. There is a project to connect this park to the other side of the river by building a foot bridge, but so far it is on the drawing table only. The land for the garden was donated by one of Chaves’ richest native sons, Cândido Pinto Souto Maior, whose house still stands on the corner across from the park. Souto Maior was a banker who became very rich in Brazil and once owned most of the surrounding land in Madalena. His bust can be seen in the square in the park.

External Link

Ray Vogensen's the Roman Bridge in Chaves