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.
The twin-towered Sé, or cathedral – properly, the Catedral de Santa Maria de Braga – stands opposite the Archbishop’s Palace. It’s a rambling structure founded in 1070 on the site of a Moorish mosque after the Christian Reconquest, though only the original main door (at the top of Rua Dom Paio Mendes) survives in its sculpted, Romanesque form. Everything else is a hotchpotch of often-conflicting styles – Braga’s cathedral is no one’s real favourite – although Archbishop Dom Diogo de Sousa (1505–1532) did at least have the foresight to commission architect-of-the-day João de Castilho to work on various aspects of the interior and exterior. You can walk into the cathedral for free, but you’ll have to buy tickets at the desk to see the most interesting parts.
Hardly surprisingly, the most domineering cathedral in Portugal also has the richest treasury in the country, containing representative chalices, crosses, goblets, coffers, vestments, paintings and ceramics from across the centuries. It is, dare we say, a bit on the dull side, and the only light relief comes from the displayed shoes of the diminutive Archbishop Dom Rodrigo de Maura Teles (1704–1728), who stood a mighty 1m 20cm tall. He commissioned 22 monuments during his term of office, among them the fabulous shrine at Bom Jesus.
A separate ticket gives you a guided tour of the main chapels and choir, led by an attendant with giant comedy keys, opening and closing vast ancient doors as you go. First up is the Baroque Coro Alto, with its majestic carved seats, gilded organ and imposing archbishop’s throne – the latter surmounted by a grand eighteenth-century clock stopped at a symbolic three o’clock (the supposed hour of Christ’s death). Then it’s on to the fourteenth-century Capela dos Reis (Kings' Chapel), which is where ecclesiastical and royal power finally collide in Braga. The chapel contains the diminutive tombs of Henry of Burgundy and his wife Teresa of León – not only were they the founders of Braga cathedral, but also the parents of Afonso Henriques, first king of Portugal. You’ll also be invited to look into the sarcophagus containing the supposedly mummified body of Archbishop Lourenço, though it’s tricky to discern much through the clouded glass. Two other chapels are also on the tour – a gilded Baroque monstrosity dedicated to the first archbishop of Braga, now the city’s patron saint, and a more sober affair with faded eighteenth-century frescoes and a painted ceiling.
Close to Bom Jesus– 1.5km by road from the bottom of the staircase or a twenty-minute walk uphill beyond the pinewoods at the top – there’s a second pilgrimage staircase and shrine with an entirely different feel. The massive, white-domed Santuário do Sameiro is impressive in its way, and again affords fantastic views across the city of Braga and beyond. But the nineteenth-century church is swallowed up by masses of surrounding concrete and approached by a grimly monolithic monumental stairway. It’s on a similar scale to Fátima – a powerful reminder of the might and authority of the Roman Catholic Church in Portugal – and the main annual festival, on the first Sunday in June, sees the arrival of scores of thousands of pilgrims. There’s a second huge event on the last Sunday in August too.
During Semana Santa (Holy Week), Braga is the scene of major celebrations which reach a climax in the three days before Easter Sunday, when local priests bless each house with a crucifix and holy water, while torchlit processions of hooded penitents known as farricocos parade by, spinning large rattles. Devout pilgrims meanwhile will be climbing the staircase at Bom Jesus on their knees, and there’s a second major pilgrimage here for Pentecost (the seventh Sunday after Easter). Still a religious festival, but rather less buttoned-up, is the shindig associated with the Festas de São João (June 23–24), which is preceded by a festival of gigantones (giant carnival figures; from June 18–20).