BRAGANÇA is the fascinating historic capital of Trás-os-Montes, settled since the very earliest times but acquiring a regional, and later national, importance from the twelfth century onwards. It’s this medieval period that gave Bragança its distinctive hillside profile of a beautifully preserved old town and soaring castle keep, sitting inside a complete circuit of forbidding granite walls. Known as the Cidadela, or “citadel”, it’s the embodiment of the town’s dynastic history under the sway of the dukes of Bragança – the extended family of Portuguese kings and emperors who ruled from 1640 (following independence from Spain) until the advent of the Republic in 1910.
It used to take an age to reach Bragança (and still does on the mountain road, the N103, from Chaves), but the fast IP4 highway from Vila Real easily puts the modern city on any northern Portuguese itinerary, while tourists from across the border in Spain are common. It’s a pleasant place, despite the suburban eruption all around, and while the citadel, main museum and riverside gardens provide the most compelling reasons for a visit, the outlying Parque Natural de Montesinho is an additional draw. It’s certainly worth staying a night or two, especially to experience early evening in the Cidadela, when the tourists have gone for the day and peace returns to the ancient streets.Read More
The walled Cidadela is the obvious place to begin, and lies a fifteen-minute walk up the hill from the modern city centre. The hill above Bragança has been settled in one form or another since prehistoric times; the Romans probably had a small fortification here; and the current walled town and castle have stood since at least the twelfth century and formed the strategic base of the early Bragança dynasty.
Walk up through the main gate of the Cidadela, and at the very top of the cobbled street stands the curious, pentagonal fifteenth-century council chamber known as the Domus Municipalis. Its meetings – for solving land disputes and the like – took place on the arcaded first floor; below was a cistern. Next to the Domus, the Igreja de Santa Maria features a fine painted ceiling, while opposite, the Vila Café (closed Mon) provides an outdoor terrace with courtyard views.
Torre de Menagem
Dominating the walled citadel is the restored castle keep, the Torre de Menagem, which now houses a missable Museu Militar, although it’s worth paying the entrance fee for the fine views from the top. At night, the whole fortification is floodlit and imposes itself even more dramatically upon the entire city. Round the other side of the keep, meanwhile, you’ll find an ancient granite pig that forms part of a rather odd pelourinho (stone pillory).
Museu Ibérico da Máscara e do Traje
There are more reminders of the pagan ways of the wild north in the Museu Ibérico da Máscara e do Traje, a few steps down the hill from the keep, which highlights the extraordinary ritual masks and ribboned costumes habitually seen in winter festivals on both sides of the border (kids get to crayon their own devil masks). This is a town, for example, where on Ash Wednesday (usually late February or early March) people dressed as devils run around whipping penitents – the origins probably lie in an ancient fertility cult, when it was believed that Pan impregnated women simply by smacking them.
Bragança’s major festivals include the Festa de Nossa Senhora das Graças (Aug 12–22), featuring lots of cultural events and traditional music, and the Romaria de São Bartolomeu (Aug 24), an annual religious celebration involving solemn processions and rather wilder concerts and night-time festivities. The Feira das Cantarinhas (May 2 & 3) is a crafts fair dedicated to the clay water jug (cantarinha) which was once used to store the gifts given to a bride on her wedding day.