Braga, Portugal [travel guide]
Braga is a comely place, that packs an unexpected punch. The sound of church bells are a constant accompaniment on a walk around this city, strewn with baroque churches, narrow lanes and hidden plazas. The Universidade de Minho ensures a lively student scene, with reasonably priced restaurants and bars catering to students and budget travellers alike. Braga, unlike its more cosmopolitan bigger brother Porto, retains the air of familiarity without being imposingly so.
Braga: a brief history
With an urban population of around 175,000 people, Braga is Portugal‘s 3rd largest city, and rose to prominence in antiquity as Bracara Augusta, an important administrative centre for the newly conquered Roman lands in Portugal. In the Middle Ages Braga played an important role in the Christianisation of Portugal and Spain, as home to the bishopric of Braga, one of the oldest seats of Christian power on the Iberian Peninsula. Nowadays the local economy, surprisingly, still relies upon traditional commerce such as fabrics, clothing and food. A fact I found perplexing given the, what I felt like, urbanised culture of the city. The Mediterranean climate does ensure mild weather, with temperatures rarely dropping below 0oc, and given the relative distance to the sea, the temperature in the summer often reaches the high 30’s.
Braga’s football team Sporting Clube de Braga are a slightly better than average Portuguese first division side who play in the impressive Estádio AXA, carved into the Monte Casino hill which overlooks the city. The old Quinta de Mitra (1st May Stadium) is a testament to dictatorial construction and a bygone era when stadia were, well, different and European dictators still dreamt of neo-classicism.
Braga was awarded the European Youth Capital 2012 award, which may well be the cause of the explosion of maintenance work in the city centre. It is as if a pipe exploded and out poured builders, hard hats, reflective vests and the incessant sound of a drill, slamming constantly against the pavement. Still, I suppose these things must be done at some point.
On the culture front, the Braga International Folk Festival takes place the last weekend of August, MIMARTE – Braga’s Theatre Festival shakes down in the first half of July. The Municipio de Braga promises local, national and international troupes performing in public areas and work “based on spontaneous interaction with the spectator”.
Orientation / Getting to know Braga
The pedestrianised centre of Braga is an easy place to orientate yourself. The Rua do Souto cuts through the city centre east – west and has a number of roads snaking from it, both north and south. The tranquil Jardim de Santa Barbara (Santa Bárbara garden) and Praça do Municipio (Municipal square) lie to the north and to the south Sé Cathedral. Back to R. do Souto now, at the east end of which is the Largo Barão de São Martinho, a huge square, from which going east is the shopping street of Avenida Central and to the south the pedestrian thoroughfare Avenida da Liberdade. The tourist office is on the corner of these two roads.
Sights / Monuments
The aforementioned 13th century Sé Cathedral is a stunning place. The building is an amazing blend of late gothic with Romanesque elements and interned inside the cathedral are some of the most culturally significant Portuguese people in their history. I found the place to be simply beautiful, different to any style I had seen previously, cove-like but bright enough to expose the treasures it holds within. The air of reverence seemed to hang just above our heads as we popped out on to hidden courtyards and into pillared rooms.
Strangely, perhaps, Braga is more famous for its Baroque churches such as the Igreja de São Vicente (Saint Vincent Church) and Igreja de Santa Cruz (The Holy Cross Church). However, that is not to say that this church heavy city has limited itself merely to that style. Oh no! On a short walk around the centre one is struck by the sheer amount of churches Braga contains. The renaissance Igreja da Misericórdia (Church of the Misericórdia) and the stoic Jesuit Igreja de São Paulo (Saint Paul Church) all underline Braga’s reputation as a fairly religious city.
Some wonderful views of Braga can be obtained by taking the funicular up to the sanctuary of Bom Jesus do Monte in Tenões. The funicular is the oldest in the world powered by a water water-balancing system. It works by loading the cart at the top with lots of water so it sinks to the bottom, thus pulling the lighter one up. The sanctuary looms high over Braga and is an important pilgrimage spot. You can climb the 116 metre baroque staircase that leads up, but it is steep, so make sure you enjoy it on the way down.
The city is also blessed with some wonderful 18th century houses that create a quite unique roadside appearance. Casa dos Paivas ou Casa da Roda is said to be the historic heart of Braga, and is a resounding example of the renaissance influence. Other civil monuments include the. Arco da Porta Nova (Arch of the New Gate) a baroque and neoclassical work that replaced an earlier gothic entrance way and the centrally located Palácio de Raio, built by architect André Soares, with its bright blue-tiled rococo façade, is definitely worth checking in on.
Braga does have its own airport, the catchily named Braga Airport but by the far the easiest way to get there is to fly to Francisco de Sá Carneiro Airport in Porto which is 20km away.
Taking a train from Braga to Porto is very easy and very cheap because Braga is within Porto’s suburbano network meaning commuter trains travel ever hour or so (3.20, about 1 hour). There are also Alfa Pendular (AP) trains that travel to Lisbon (27-33, about 4 hours) and Coimbra (16-20, about 2½ hours). Be warned though taking the AP train to Porto from Braga is a lot more expensive, take the suburbano!
Braga is a regional hub for buses and there are numerous companies that service the bus station including the following.
Empresa Hoteleira de Gerês runs the line to Campo de Gerês (every 45mins weekdays, a lot fewer at the weekends) /visit their confusingly bad website / http://www.ehgeres.com/
Rede Expressos run numerous services including Lisbon (20, 4½ hours), Porto (6, about 1 hour) and Coimbra (14, around 2½ hours) / visit their useful website / http://www.rede-expressos.pt/
Arriva lays on more local services like Barcelos (2.30, 1 hour) and Guimarães (2.75, 50mins) but do offer over 8 buses a day to Porto (4.50 about 1 hour) / check out their confusing timetables / http://www.arriva.pt/horarios/
The IP-1 Porto – Vigo, Spain motorway runs north to south, close to Braga’s western edges. The A-11 Portuguese Coast – Guimarães motorway also passes east – west just south of the city. To the north and east there is a dense network of scarcely used national and country roads.
For travel within the city, TUB (Transport Urbanos de Braga) organise a comprehensive city bus network the details of which can be found here.
The decision whether to hitchhike out of Braga was a tricky one. On the one hand we wanted to stay true to our hitchhiking ethics, on the other hand, our next destination was Porto. Taking the train was a lot quicker, more comfortable and in the long run cheaper, as we wouldn’t have to buy food from the expensive motorway service stations. The train was very comfortable, yes. Thanks for asking.
South (Porto, Coimbra, Lisbon)
Hitchhiking out of Braga looks surprisingly difficult. A good bet would be to take the train to Ferreiros using the N14 to crawl south and hopefully enter the motorway at some point. Be warned hitchhiking in Portugal is tough, very tough and very time consuming. You have been warned :)
North (Galicia, Spain)
The key is to gain access to the IP-1. Try the entrances near Sanatana de Vimieiro or perhaps better the more northerly Monte des Cruzes.
If anybody has hitchhiked out of Braga we would love you to get in touch and share your experiences.
The accommodation is not as developed as in other cities but here are a couple of cheap places you can find in the city.
Braga POP Hostel on R. do Carmo 61 3º, is located near the city market and offers dormitory beds (4/6 17/20) http://bragapophostel.blogspot.com.es/
Located next to the tourist office Truthostel on Avenida da Liberdade N 738 has single, double rooms and dormitory beds (sg/db/dr 20/25/18) http://truthostel.com/
The cheapest eateries in Braga can be found on the eastern part of town near the University Campus. The slightly classier restaurants lie in a narrow alley called Largo da Praca Velha just west of the cathedral.
The most common food is bacalhau (salt – dried cod) which is ubiquitous in Portugal. Other local specialities include duck rice and “rojões”, stiffened meat in marinade. Vinho verde (green wine) is also very grown here. It has a peculiar but not unpleasant taste, a little less acidic than normal whites.
There are numerous small and chic bars lining the narrow streets around Praça da República in the centre of the city. During term time the bars around the university are also packed late into the night.
For the more cultural among you the Teatro Circo de Braga on Av. De Liberdade 697 holds concerts, theatre and dance performances. The fin-de-siècle building has recently been reopened after a lengthy restoration and is one of the most startling theatres in Portugal.
Braga City Centre – http://www.portugalvirtual.pt/_tourism/costaverde/braga/city.gif
Tourist Information (Av. da Liberdade, 1 Tel.: 253 262 550) Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Municipality of Braga (official) – http://www.cm-braga.pt/wps/portal/public_en
written by: Jon