Have you heard of Braga in Northern Portugal? I confess I hadn’t until I was invited to visit the area recently.
I quickly learned that Braga is the oldest city in Portugal and has a very long and fascinating history which is still very much in evidence today.
Braga (together with nearby Guimarães and Tenões) is located in the historical Minho Province, which borders the current-day Galicia region of Spain. Indeed the area can trace its history back through the Middle Ages (when both areas were collectively known as Gallaecia), the era of the Roman Empire and even further back to the Celtic Stone, Bronze and Iron Ages!
It’s also celebrated as the birthplace of Portugal. After Henry of the House of Burgundy merged the counties of Portugal and Coimbra, both of which were part of the Kingdom of León (Spain), control passed to his son Afonso Henriques upon his death. Following the Battle of São Mamede Afonso proclaimed himself first the Prince and then the King, establishing the Kingdom of Portugal in 1139. Portugal was formally recognised as a country by the Kingdom of León in 1143 and by papal bull in 1179.
But even if you are not much interested in history, Braga is perfect for a European city break – it offers a historical old town full of beautiful buildings, bustling cafes and an assortment of churches, gardens, museums and palaces. The local cuisine is utterly delicious. And it’s less than an hour’s drive from Porto – Portugal’s second largest city (more of which in an upcoming post).
A city mascot; The Arco da Porta Nova (New Gate)
Sometimes called ‘the Rome of Portugal’, a reflection of the importance of its role in the history of Portugal, Braga feels altogether more approachable than its Italian counterpart. Don’t get me wrong, I really loved visiting Rome – for its history, its culture, its food and its place in popular culture via film – but I find it a little daunting too. Where Rome is a sharp-suited business woman wearing towering heels and don’t-fuck-with-me sunglasses, Braga is a silver-haired grandpa in a pair of worn corduroys and a patterned-knit jumper. Braga is warm, friendly, colourful and charming.
Braga buildings decorated in azulejos
I’m sure a big part of that mental image is down to the beautiful and colourful tiles that adorn many of the buildings in Braga.
Known as azulejos – these tiles are used extensively to decorate walls and floors and occasionally even ceilings. Most have a geometric design, but some are multi-tile painted panels portraying historical or cultural scenes. A few are even 3D, creating a gorgeous tactile surface that catches the light and shadows of the moving sun.
Ceramic tiles were introduced to the Iberian Peninsula by the Moors, and indeed the name comes from the Arabic word for tiles, itself a reference to the polished stone mosaics of the Roman Era. In the thirteenth century, the Iberian tile industry was centred in Seville but King Manuel I introduced the techniques to Portugal after a visit to Seville in 1503. The Portuguese adopted the Moorish tradition of covering walls completely with azulejos
The Episcopal Palace of Braga
The best way to enjoy the old town of Braga is on foot. After passing through the Arco da Porta Nova – a somewhat ironic name given that it was built in the late eighteenth century; the city walls date back fourteenth century, so the gate is certainly new compared to that – we walked along narrow commercial streets full of shops, churches and beautiful buildings.
The Episcopal Palace of Braga caught our attention more than once, as we encountered different wings of its sprawling footprint. After passing the Misericórdia Church to our left, we came to the beautiful Paço square on our left, a courtyard bounded at three sides by the South Wing of the Episcopal Palace and open to the street on the fourth. The fountain here is still in use by locals; a man approaches casually to wash his hands.
Later we saw the Gothic style Medieval wing fronted by the Santa Bárbara gardens, and with a fountain of George’s dragon opposite. The gardens are kept in flower for as much of the year as possible, courtesy of a local nursery from which flowers are swapped in and out of the beds as needed.
There is also an eighteenth century Baroque wing with an ornate stone and white render facade, which we didn’t visit.
Today, the palace buildings house the University of Minho, the town’s public library and the district archive.
Doors and windows of Braga
I have always been drawn to door and window details and Braga afforded me plenty of wonderful examples to capture.
I love the variety of architectural styles and find much beauty in the dilapidation of wear and tear and graffiti.
Praça da Republica Square
Another of Braga’s nicknames is ‘city of fountains’ and the reason becomes most evident when we reach the Praça da Republica Square. The beautiful Vianna fountain forms a focal point to an asymmetrically shaped space surrounded by buildings of different eras, styles and colours. There are churches, cafes, even the remnants of Braga Castle. Stretching away to one side is the Avenida Central Garden, with more fountains and plenty of space to sit and relax.
The Café A Brasileira
As we moved on from the Praça da Republica Square our destination for a well-earned coffee and cake stop was the iconic Café A Brasileira, housed in a beautiful blue-tile fronted building with ornate metalwork and signage. Inside is just as gorgeous – sets of tiny tables and chairs receive plenty of light from the floor to ceiling windows, and a counter full of temptation shows off lots of delicious pastries.
Opened in 1907, it was founded by Porto-born merchant businessman who imported coffee from Brasil to Portugal, and created a chain of shops in which to sell it. In order to attract customers to his wholesale business, he offered a free cup of coffee with every two 500 gram bags of coffee beans purchased and the rest, as they say, was history.
I love my coffee weak and milky, so ordered a cafe meia de leite clara – ‘clear’ coffee with milk.
Not really hungry but keen to try as many local specialities as possible, some of us shared a local pastry known as the Jesuita which originated in the village of Santo Tirso, half way between Braga and Porto. Shaped like a monk’s robe, layers of crisp puff pastry were iced with a sweet and crunchy meringue.
Santa Cruz Church and São Marcos Hospital Church
Suitably restored, we continued on to the Santa Cruz (Holy Cross) Church. Peering up at the detailed stonework, we strove to spot the two roosters carved into the facade – legend has it that if a visitor spots them on their first visit, they will soon find a good match in marriage!
To the left of the Santa Cruz is the São Marcos Hospital Church. Built in the eighteenth century, its baroque features are imposingly grand, especially with the menace of rainclouds above.
On a future trip, I hope to see inside both of these beautiful buildings.
The Palácio Do Raio
From the moment we drove past it on our way from the airport to our hotel, I was eager to return to the stunning Palácio Do Raio, located just around the corner from São Marcos Hospital Church.
The late Baroque-early Rococo style two-storey building was built in the mid-eighteenth century as a family residence for João Duarte de Faria, a knight of the Order of Christ and a rich local merchant. He commissioned André Soares to design and supervise construction; Soares was already well regarded in Braga as a sculptor, engineer and architect. The building came to be known as a palace over a century later, after being acquired in 1867 by Miguel José Raio, the Viscount of São Lázaro.
The gorgeous blue tiles, blue-painted doors and metalwork are stunning against the warmth of the carved granite and it was hard to pull my eyes away from this beautiful, striking building.
Before moving on, we poked our heads inside only briefly, to see the blue and white painted tiles running up the walls of the central staircase.
Braga Cathedral and nearby shops
Towards the end of our city walk we skirted round the beautiful Braga Cathedral. The Diocese of Braga dates back to the third century AD, making it one of the oldest in the Iberian Peninsula and an important centre for the Christianisation of the region. Braga lost its bishop seat after the arrival of the moors, regaining it only in 1071 once the city fell back into Christian hands. Construction of the cathedral began soon after the bishopric was regained. During Henry of Burgundy’s rule, the Pope promoted Braga into an archbishopric, giving it power over a larger region. The original cathedral, completed in the twelfth century, was Romanesque in style and influenced many other churches and monasteries built in that period. Modifications in later periods mean that today it is a mix of Romanesque, Gothic, Manueline and Baroque architecture.
A couple of us gave into the temptation of the brightly coloured printed cloths on sale in the tourist shops outside.
There is plenty more to see in Braga – more churches and other historic buildings, more streets to walk, more fountains, cafes and shops to explore.
But with a packed itinerary, it was time for us to move onwards.
Bom Jesus do Monte
Even in the drizzling rain, Bom Jesus do Monte Sanctuary located in neighbouring Tenões is an impressive site indeed.
Under the patronage of successive Archbishops of Braga the best architects, artists and builders were commissioned to create the religious sanctuary over the course of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
Still an important site of pilgrimage, hardy visitors climb the extensive stairways up the mountainside, pausing for reflection and prayer at the small chapels between. The rest take the easy option, climbing up the winding road in the warm and comfort of cars and buses.
The most impressive element of the site is the theatrical Baroque Via Sacre (sacred way) staircase that zig zags up to the Bom Jesus sanctuary at the top of the hill. The contrast between granite and white plaster really shows off the geometrical symmetry of the design. Stone carvings along the staircase depict the life of Jesus and fountains represent each of the five senses – sight, smell, hearing, touch and taste.
Our first stop was at the bottom of the Sacred Way, where we stepped onto the cobbled mosaic and enjoyed a beautiful view out over the local countryside and upwards to the church above. I tried to imagine the sight of modern day pilgrims climbing the stairs on their hands and knees, a penance still observed by many during Holy Week and Pentecost. We clambered back into our van to shortcut the last step of the journey to the grounds and church at the top.
Beautiful formal planting provided a welcome burst of colour even under the gloomy grey skies of a rainy day. While the others explored some of the multi-level balconies at the top of the Via Sacre, I entered the church quietly just as worshippers burst into song. All too soon, it was time to move on again.
Another way to travel to and from the top of the hill is via the Funicular, installed in 1882. Designed and supervised by French Portuguese engineer Raul Mesnier du Ponsard under the direction of Swiss expert Nikolaus Riggenbach, it uses an ingenious hydraulic system whereby water tanks in each of a pair of trams are used as counterbalances, the tanks emptied and filled in turn. As one tram rises, the other descends, both arriving into the top and bottom stations simultaneously. It’s the oldest such funicular in the world and its success resulted in Mesnier going on to create a series of funiculars and cable lifts in the capital, Lisbon, some of which are also still in use today.
Pousada de Santa Marinha
Our next stop was the most delicious of the trip.
Wowed first by the exterior and interior of the Pousada de Santa Marinha in Guimarães, a former monastery turned into a luxury hotel, I was even more impressed by our lunch.
Dating from the twelfth century, the monastery retains a wealth of beautiful and ornate original features – of course there are many examples of azulejos, including blue and white panels depicting local scenes and stories – in large reception rooms, along stairways and on the walls of an open terrace area with a fountain, chairs and tables and a stunning view. The hotel also has many amenities including a library, various lounges, a pool and spa services.
Lunch in Pousada de Santa Marinha
In a space that was once used as the wine cellars of the monastery, we enjoyred a meal of beautifully presented traditional dishes.
Alheira, served as part of our amuse bouche, tells the tale of some of the region’s religious history. In the fifteenth century, the Jewish population were given the choice of converting to Christianity or being expelled from the country. Many converted in public, but practised their beliefs behind closed doors, including the avoidance of pork. Scared that their neighbours may note the absence of the ubiquitous pork sausages hung up to dry cure or smoke, the Jews created a version made from chicken and game, which they could hang up and eat, to give the impression of eating pork. Later, the non-pork sausage recipe became popular with the wider population.
While the others in my group enjoyed a traditional caldo verde, the famous cabbage and potato soup flavoured with chorizo or pork, I chose the ‘golden egg’ starter, a slow-cooked egg in a crisp potato nest with mushrooms and a smoked sausage and truffle ball.
My starter was good but it was the main dishes that made the meal so special.
The two key dishes were served into individual plates from large cooking dishes brought out to us on a trolley. We were about a fifty fifty split between the Arroz malandrinho (cheeky rice, as we called it) full of monkfish and prawns, and the Cachaço de porco preto (black pork neck) slow cooked with clams, prawns and potatoes. My pork was so tender and so full of flavour, and utterly fantastic with the richly flavoured sauce, seafood and potatoes.
For dessert, we were served a selection of regional sweets including Pudim Abade de Priscos (an extremely rich pudding of egg yolks, sugar and fat), Torta de Laranja (orange cake) and Toucinho Do Céu (which literally translates as bacon from heaven, because of the pork lard used liberally in the recipe). The version we had was made with chila (figleaf gourd).
Many of these dishes originated in Braga and Guimarães, or in wider region.
In a trip of much excellent food, this was the stand out meal for me. Next time I visit the area, I’m determined to stay overnight and experience the rest of the pousada.
We packed all of this into a single day, along with a short walk around Guimarães, to see the castle and old city walls as well as a quick walk in the old town centre. It certainly didn’t feel rushed, though there’s plenty much more to see in Braga, Guimarães and Tenões. The area is a perfect destination for a self-drive holiday, combined with nearby Porto, and I’m plotting a return trip to see more of the region.
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Coming soon, a post on our time in Porto – one of the most beautiful city break destinations in Europe.
Kavey Eats visited Northern Portugal as a guest of the Portuguese Tourist Office and TAP Portugal. TAP flies direct from London Gatwick to Porto twice daily. With enormous thanks to all those who hosted and organised the trip.