BRAGA is Portugal’s most important religious centre, with churches by the bucket load. One of the country’s most ancient towns, it was probably founded by the Bracari Celts (hence the name), later falling into Roman hands and being christened Bracara, capital of Roman Gallaecia. Its history is then one of conquest and reconquest, being occupied at various times by the Suevi, Visigoths and eventually the Moors. Braga was an important Visigothic bishopric and by the end of the eleventh century its archbishops were pressing for recognition as “Primate of the Spains”, a title they disputed bitterly with archbishops of Toledo and Tarragona over the next six centuries.
The city is still Portugal’s religious capital. Look around and you soon become aware of the weight of ecclesiastical power, embodied by an archbishop’s palace built on a truly presidential scale. The city’s outlying districts also boast a selection of important religious buildings and sanctuaries, notably Tibães and Bom Jesus, the latter one of the country’s most extravagant Baroque creations.
Not surprisingly, Braga retains a reputation as a bastion of reactionary politics. It was here, in 1926, that General Gomes da Costa appealed to “all citizens of dignity and honour” to overthrow the democratic regime, kick-starting the process that eventually led to Salazar’s dictatorship, while after the 1974 Revolution, the Archbishop of Braga personally incited a mob to attack local Communist offices. Keen to escape its traditionally conservative image, Braga has acquired a new energy based less on the church and more on its status as a fast-growing commercial centre. This is evident in the scores of fashion boutiques scattered liberally among the churches and stores peddling religious paraphernalia. The network of fast roads, underpasses and modern tower blocks around the ancient town has angered many residents who feel that the old centre of Braga (the phrase “as old as the cathedral of Braga” is the Portuguese equivalent of “as old as the hills”) should have been better preserved. Various tunnelling projects uncovered, and promptly destroyed, a number of Roman houses, but the plus side is that most of the central traffic is funnelled underground.Read More
At Easter, Braga is the scene of spectacular celebrations which climax in the three days before Easter Sunday, when the priest blesses each house with a crucifix and holy water, while torchlit processions of hooded penitents known as farricocos parade spinning large rattles. In addition to the costumed parades of the Semana Santa (Holy Week) celebrations, the city is illuminated for the Festas de São João (June 23–24), which provides the excuse for ancient folk dances, a fairground and general partying. There’s also a festival of gigantones (giant carnival figures; June 18–20). The main pilgrimage to Bom Jesus takes place over Whitsun (six weeks after Easter).