Why do they always intimate that you brought the rain with you when arriving from London?! As we left Gatwick, the sun was shining bright, but upon touchdown in Porto, the rain pelted down on us, soggy and wet – not my fault!
Still, the cloudy skies took nothing away from the fabulous-ness of each city we visited on a very brief tour of Northern Portugal. The inclement weather might make my pictures look slightly grey, but that was the only thing dull about the trip.
As the seat of power for the Archbishop representing the Kingdom of Spain & Portugal in the Vatican, Braga reigned as one of the oldest, most powerful cities in the Europe from medieval times through to the late 1800s. The cathedral began construction in 1089 making it so old that the Portuguese describe anyone or anything ancient as “é mais velho que a Sé de Braga” – older than the cathedral in Braga.”
The heyday of building was in the Baroque era so, needless to say, I was thrilled. Something about this ornate, no holds barred, over-the-top 17th century style makes my legs go weak. Full of fountains, parks and, peculiar to Portugal, multi-colored tiled houses, Braga is a feast for the eyes.
We entered that city centre through the Arco da Porta Nova (New Gate), which is anything but new. Built in the late 18th C, it’s the “welcome mat” to Baroque Braga: monumental, grand, and flanked by a typical tiled building on one side and a renaissance “apartment” on the other.
Our first pause, once through the gate, was outside the Paço Arquiepiscopal de Braga (Episcopal Palace), home to the very catholic Archbishop, confusing though the name might be. The centre of the square holds one of the more delicious fountains in town, called the Castle Fountain. If you look closely, you can see small castles all around the mid- section of the fountain.
The back of the palace opens up to the wonderful Santa Barbara Gardens, which even in this rain in the middle of October, looked scrubbed clean and bursting with color.
Then onto Republic Square, home of one of oldest coffee houses in town, A Brasileira opened in 1907. In the beginning, they only sold coffee beans, but if you bought more than two kilos, you got an espresso for free! They caught onto the Starbucks idea of selling the drink as well as the beans and, now, it is a lovely example of a coffee house in the art-noveau style.
In my opinion, Braga’s pièce de résistance is the Palacio do Raio. In 1754, rich merchant João Duarte de Faria commissioned the architect of the moment, André Soares, to build his new home. Completely covered by fabulous blue tiles, the building just gleams in the sun or the rain. It must have been so modern at the time and, even today, feels almost Gaudi-inspired.
Inside, the walls drip with tiles as well. The museum was closed when we arrived, but we were allowed to peek in to get a glimpse of this wonderful staircase.
Still, the staircase to top all others, is Italian architect Niccoló Nasoni’s masterpiece leading the way to the Bom Jesus do Monte church. Dedicated to the five senses and three muses, Nasoni couldn’t help but draw on his classical sensibilities, even in this most catholic of cities. Reminiscent of the great gardens of Villa Lante and Villa D’Este in Italy, Braga was destined to be one of my favorite cities in Europe – its nickname is the Rome of Portugal, and we know how much I love Rome!
Don’t leave Braga without grabbing a taxi, or walking up if you have the stamina to climb 381 feet, to see one of the best views of the city, rain or shine. If you don’t make it, there is a funicular, the oldest water-powered in the Iberian Peninsula!
All this exercise made me very hungry….but you’ll have to wait for my next post to hear more about the food.
TAP Portugal flies direct from London Gatwick to Porto twice daily, prices start at £43 one way including all taxes and surcharges. For further information, visit www.flytap.com or call 0345 601 0932.
My home for the night was the Hotel Melia Braga.