Always on a Sunday – Braga, Portugal.
In Portugal there’s a saying that goes like this: “Porto works, Braga prays, Coimbra studies, and Lisbon gets the money.” Having witnessed the (practically) rude, no-nonsense attitude of Porto, and its chaotic cityscape, we were about to discover something very different on our arrival in Braga.
Stepping out from the train station, we find a calm, orderly city where the streets make sense. It is lunch hour on a Sunday and all is quiet, save the handful of individuals wandering up and down the pavements. With the sound of church bells in the distance we enter the Arco da Porta Nova (New City Gate) into the old town. There is something inherently soothing about Braga – whether it is the relaxed atmosphere, or the wide vistas towards the nearby hills, a day here is a welcome retreat from nearby Porto.
Perhaps it is also the fact that Braga is the de facto religious capital of Portugal – it was here in the 5th century that the Visigothic kings renounced Arianism in favour of Catholicism. It is no surprise then that the city is peppered with churches, many of them crafted in beautiful Baroque.
We arrived at the Sé (Braga’s Cathedral) just as the faithful were streaming out after Sunday mass. I’ve always maintained that the best things in life are free, and this cathedral was no exception. After visiting X number of churches across Western Europe it’s all too easy to become jaded with these places, but Braga Cathedral was quite the surprise. For one thing the solemn façade masked a richly decorated interior, made all the more stunning by a pair of incredible gilt wood organs. And then there was that genuine atmosphere of a holy place: it was warm, inviting and undeniably peaceful.
When weren’t craning our necks at the city’s churches we kept ourselves busy spotting the distinctive Portuguese azulejos on the local buildings. Now a ubiquitous part of Portuguese architecture, these traditional ceramic tiles were introduced with the arrival of the Moors.
By now the tourism office was open so we got ourselves a map and a few recommendations for good eats around the centre. A bit of backtracking past the city gate led us to a great restaurant that served the local cozina, a stew featuring all kinds of meat (the vast majority being pork products), cabbage, carrot and potatoes. Not to mention the side dish of fried rice.
With hands clutching our bellies we wandered across town to catch the next bus towards the Sanctuary of Bom Jesus do Monte (Good Jesus of the Mount), a historic pilgrimage site on the outskirts of Braga. Set on a forested hillside, the beauty of Bom Jesus has inspired close copies in other parts of the country and as far afield as Brazil. Without a doubt its star feature is the monumental Baroque stairway that climbs more than 110 metres to the church at its top. Think of a more dramatic version of the Spanish Steps in Rome, but with less tourists.
One of the highlights of our short day in Braga was stumbling into evening mass in the sanctuary; for a while we stood in a darkened corner of the church, far back behind the congregation and the deep, echoing tones of the priest. Eventually the congregation stood up to pray together and something magical happened. As the sound resonated through every nook and cranny, I could feel their heartfelt, genuine faith. I was so moved and so wonderstruck that tears began to form in my eyes. As far as I can remember, no church in Europe of this kind has ever had the same effect.
So it was with a sense of overriding peace that I left the sanctuary, emerging into the golden light of the evening sun. We followed the constant sound of bubbling water down the great stairway, pausing on its terraces to join the statues looking out over the city. I looked back at the façade of the church, now brightly lit against a cloudy sky. As the sun edged closer towards the horizon every surface of white paint turned a gradual pink. On a placid Sunday evening, it seems, Braga is not too far from heaven.