BRAGA is Portugal’s most important religious centre, with churches by the bucket-load. It’s also one of the country’s oldest and most fought-over towns, probably first founded by the Iron Age Bracari people (hence the name) before falling into Roman hands, after which its history was one of conquest and reconquest. By the time Portugal was established as an independent country in the eleventh century it was already an important bishopric, and it’s remained at the heart of national religious life ever since. Spend some time here and you soon become aware of the weight of ecclesiastical power, embodied by an archbishop’s palace built on a truly presidential scale and religious festivities that set the tone for the rest of the country. The city’s outlying districts also boast a selection of religious buildings, shrines and sanctuaries, notably Portugal’s oldest Benedictine monastic foundation at Tibães, and Bom Jesus, one of the country’s most extravagant Baroque creations.
For all that, it would be too easy to fall into the time-honoured cliché that Braga is a traditional, conservative place of stultifying religiosity. True, there might be 35 churches in town, but there’s also a fast-growing commercial centre, a renowned university and an underlying cultural vibrancy that led to Braga being named 2012 “European Youth Capital”. The refashioned city centre is a pleasing place of wide boulevards and traffic-free streets and squares, and it’s easy to spend a day or so idling around, drinking coffee in its handsome cafés, some of them century-old survivors from more uptight days.
The smartening-up of Braga has come at a price – 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 can now be funnelled underground.