Climbing the slight incline from the train station, the third largest city in Portugal is unremarkable at first until you pass through the Arco da Porta Nova, that is. Once inside the old city, you can spend hours wandering down narrow streets between buildings from multiple eras of the city’s history, duck into one of its many churches and get lost in your thoughts in one of the parks or gardens.
Interspersed between ancient churches, cathedrals, remnants of the Roman city (Bracara Augusta) and promenades are modern shops and restaurants. We visited on a mid September weekend when it was hot but not unpleasant and where live music wafted up and out from around various street corners.
Braga was once where the Portuguese Court resided after the defeat of the Moors and was once the center of Christianity on the Iberian Peninsula. It’s gone through stages of waxing and waning importance and rejuvenation. Today it’s a vibrant college town (The University of Minho is here) with a professional soccer team (Sporting Clube of Braga).
There are lots of museums and old aristocratic homes you can tour. We visited the Museum of Biscainhos, an 18th Century mansion with a beautiful back garden and interesting art works. The tour is odd, basically depositing the patrons on floor two to meander about and “ask any questions” but without really being guided despite having a guide.
But the reason to visit is to see the churches. According to Wikipedia, there are around 30 of them, many in the old city. Starting at 8am and then again at 11am the church bells toll on Sunday morning across the city beckoning the faithful to visit. The owner of 5 Sentidos, an amazing little wine and cheese shop in Braga with the same name as our favorite restaurant in Cascais but with no relation, said to us, almost as an afterthought “but you must see the churches, we are all very Catholic here” as we checked out. So we did…
The Se of Braga. First, to the Se, the Cathedral of Braga. We’ve toured many European Catholic churches, most notably Notre Dame in Paris (fortunately before the fire), Sagrada Família in Barcelona and countless across Spain and Portugal but this one stood out. Get the ticket which includes the chapels, seriously. This ticket admits you to the Romanesque Cathedral built in the 11th century before Portugal was recognized as its own country by the Pope. Later additions include chapels with gothic, manueline and baroque touches.
The ticket to the museum where many artifacts from the collections of the bishops of Braga can be viewed also gets you up into the high choir to admire the organ and the cathedral below from above.
We visited while a confirmation was in progress. Not really knowing what was next we presented our tickets, to two different attendants to locate the chapels and museum. In both cases, the nonspecific instructions referred us to wait by the door to the cathedral, which I assumed was because of the ongoing confirmation.
Then the man with the keys arrived. An uncharacteristically tall Portuguese student studying international relations at the University in Braga, he walked us to the chapels and unlocked the doors. The first is the Chapel of Piety, built in the 1500s by Archbishop Diogo de Sousa where he is entombed. The next is the Chapel of Glory where Archbishop Gonçalo Pereira rests. Underneath the walls painted with images of the apostles (during the inquisition period) they relatively recently discovered moorish motifs in Sevillian style which our guide advised had been painted that way at its construction under direction of the Archbishop who had spent significant time in Spain. Finally, to the Chapel of the Kings where the parents of the first King of Portugal, Afonso I, lay alongside the naturally mummified remains of Archbishop D. Lourenço Vicente who fought at the battle of Aljubarrota, for which the Monastery of Batalha was built, and whose remains were discovered nearly perfectly preserved by nature or spirit or both.
The Capela dos Coimbras. This small chapel and it’s tower are a delight. Built in the 1520s it is small but packs a lot in to a tight space. The exterior is adorned with statues of Saints Peter, James, Paul and John the Baptist and Mary and baby Jesus. Inside, the four walls are adorned with ornate alterpieces depicting the entombment of Christ and the Resurrection and scenes from the Book of Genesis in blue azulejos tiles including the temptation of Adam and Eve, their expulsion from the Garden of Eden and scenes from the creation. Read more here, but better yet visit. It’s worth it. The ticket of admission will also get you a coffee or glass or port in the garden cafe behind.
Monte Bom Jesus. Outside of town, sits the Monte Bom Jesus. You can park at the base of the steps and ascend, or pay the euro to park near the basilica and descend and then ascend (what we did). The complex is quite something. Dating back to the 14th century and built over 600 years, as you ascend to the basilica, you pass by fountains of the five senses, statues of the evangelists and the three fountains of the virtues of faith, hope and charity. There is a funicular to take you to the top if the roughly 600 step climb is too much, but if you can make the climb, its worth it. Atop the monte, in addition to the basilica, you can roam around the park, eat at the cafes or stay at one of the mountain top hotels. Spectacular.