My wife and I occasionally discuss the destinations we’ve enjoyed the most and which we’d enthusiastically like to return to. We can truly say we’ve enjoyed every place we’ve chosen so far, but aside from Italy, the land of Donna’s people, being a must, Portugal and Guatemala top the list. They are both wonderfully interesting destinations with fascinating locations and cultural events to experience. With budgeting an important consideration for our travels, both Portugal and Guatemala are pocket friendly destinations. But, with the Euro currently at a favorable exchange rate, Portugal is a tremendous bargain. Throw in the fact that the weather, cities, beaches, and countryside are beautiful, along with a welcoming environment, great food and wine, well we should really emigrate there. Alas, we’ve never really wanted to be fulltime expats. We’ve opted instead for a return visit to this splendidly diverse country when an airfare deal appeared on our travel alerts.
The city of Braga first popped onto our radar while we chatted with a PSP officer at a Tourism Police Station in Lisbon several years ago as we filed a stolen a passport and wallet report. Conversing as he speedily typed away, asking how we were enjoying Portugal. “What are your plans after Lisbon?” “Drive north to Porto for several days,” we responded. “Ah! Nobody goes above Porto. It’s as if the country stops there. The Minho region of northern Portugal is beautiful with mountains and trees, very different than south of the country and the food is better,” he joked and smiled. “You should visit Braga.” The idea stuck. Later suggestions gleaned from the blog Beyond Lisbon, written by Cátia, who espouses the lesser-known destinations, traditions and delightful quirkiness of her country, helped inspire our route through northern Portugal. Armarante, Guimaraes, Braga then farther north to Lindoso, a stone’s throw from the border with Spain, before returning to the coast above Porto. Two days later our friendly policeman emailed to notified us that the passport and wallet had been recovered. Minus the cash, of course, but we were relieved.
The rain had finally stopped, and the sun was beginning to break through by the time we reached Braga, encouraging us to make a short foray into the centro histórico before ending the day at Bom Jesus do Monte. Braga’s main garden, the Jardim de Santa Bárbara, was surprisingly only added to historic city’s landscape in the 1950’s. A relatively modern intervention, it benefits from its location adjacent to the crenellated walls of Archiepiscopal Palace of Braga, that dates from the 14th century. Four stone arches are the only reminders of a larger structure with a library containing many historical documents that was lost in an 1866 fire.
Important since its founding in 16 BC, as Bracara Augusta, where five Roman roads converged, Braga today is Portugal’s fourth largest city and a vital metropolis for commerce and education. The city has had a complex relationship with country since 1112 when Count D. Henrique and Countess D. Teresa donated the city to the Catholic Church, creating an ecclesiastical fiefdom that lasted until the 1700s.
In 1128 the city/church was given the privilege to mint its own coinage as reward for supporting D. Afonso Henriques’ revolution against his mother, the Countess D. Teresa, for Portugal’s independence from Spain. Local wars occasionally erupted between Dukes and various Archbishops over the following centuries.
Count D. Henrique’s and Countess D. Teresa’s tombs are in the Braga Cathedral. The first cathedral built in Portugal, it was consecrated in 1089, inspiring the Portuguese expression “older than the Sé de Braga.” A courtyard scattered with centuries old architectural remnants funneled us into the Cloister of Santo Amaro, which now serves as a museum that displays the church’s vast treasury. The church’s Romanesque and Baroque styles coexist seamlessly after centuries of renovation. The interior is very transfixing with Baroque gilding and mirrored twin organs that seem to float above the central nave.
It was approaching sunset when we arrived at Bom Jesus do Monte. The neoclassical church with its famous baroque staircase has become an iconic symbol of Braca, since its completion in 1811. Some pilgrims call it the sacred way, others the stairway to heaven. The devout will climb its 573 stairs to the sanctuary at the top on their knees. Each landing features a fountain and allegorical sculptures.
Our timing was perfect. Parking was easily available at the summit, the bus tours all gone for the day. Only a handful of folks remained, enjoying the beauty and tranquility as the sun set.
A north south transition day for us, we set off early to our first stop, the coastal town of Vila do Conde, on the Atlantic Ocean, just above Porto. As if by magic a tall stone aqueduct suddenly appeared before us, and it paralleled our route for quite a distance into Vila do Conde. We mistakenly assumed it was of Roman construction. We learned later that the 999 arches were built in the 16th and early 17th centuries to supply water to the Santa Clara monastery from a hilltop spring in Terroso, three miles away. Though the aqueduct could have benefitted from some Roman engineering after the first section was abandoned because the water flowed the wrong way. Later 46 arches collapsed during a storm.
One of the largest and wealthiest convents in Portugal, the Santa Clara monastery housed 100 nuns. It was founded in 1318 by Afonso Sanches, son of King Dinis and brother to King Afonso IV the Brave. The convent still commands a prominent hill above the city and is undergoing extensive restoration to become a Lince Hotel & Spa.
We were delighted to see the ocean again. Portugal’s lovely and easily accessible coastline is one of the reasons we enjoy the country so much. The town is graced with two beaches, Praia Azul and Praia da Senhora da Guia. Both are only a twenty-minute walk from the center of the town. But it was too cold and windy to enjoy the beach, so we walked along a riverfront park towards the old town. An ocean port city, Vila do Conde’s prosperity came from its shipbuilding industries during the Age of Discoveries.
Farther along we rested at a café across from the Praça da Republica, a beautiful park with brilliant flowers still blooming in October. Following the streets inland we explored the narrow lanes around the Igreja Matriz de São João Baptista which centers a plaza atop a small knoll in the middle of the historic district.
It’s a popular resting spot for pilgrims trekking the coastal camino route from Porto or Lisbon to Santiago de Compostela, Spain. From here we spotted the final length of aqueduct that terminated at the convent. We decided to investigate.
The aqueduct towers over homes in this neighborhood located on the slope before the convent. Beyond them the crenelated walls of the convent’s Gothic church reflect the time it was built in the 1300s when Viking raids were a recent memory and Spanish invasion was a constant threat. The view of the red roofed city and riverfront from the miradouro next to the convent was spectacular.
Years ago we used to keep magazine and newspaper articles filed away as research for future travels. That slowly evolved to email folders with links to stories and computer bookmarks for favorite travel websites. Now Google Maps and Instagram feeds spark interest for places to visit. That’s how the Igreja Matriz de Santa Maria de Válega with its colorful tiled exterior wall came to our attention. The church’s unique beauty earning it the nickname “the Sistine Chapel of Portugal.” A half-hour south of Porto, the church is located at the crossroads of Válega, a small rural farming community.
The church was not always this stately. Its history starts in 1150, when a wealthy family built a small private chapel above the ruins of an earlier temple. From 1288 to 1583 it was part of the Monastery of São Pedro de Ferreira. In 1756, the Diocese of Porto started renovations and building expansions that would last over 100 years. Surprisingly, the tile façade and interior were relatively modern alterations that were installed in 1959, along with a ceiling crafted from exotic Brazilian woods. The exquisite larger-than-life tiles depict stories from the life of the Virgin Mary and other biblical scenes. They were crafted by the Aleluia Cerâmicas of Aveiro, a local company that still creates unique tiles for customers around the world.
Although it’s an off the beaten path destination, it’s worth the effort to see this truly unique church. If it helps to influence your decision, Flor De Valega is a mouthwatering pastry shop a short walk away. You won’t be disappointed!
Our last stop of the day would be the Castle of Santa Maria de Feira, only twenty minutes away, before spending the night in the town below it. We arrived forty-five minutes before closing. How disappointing, because the castle looked intriguing and it was beginning to rain harder. A shortened visit would have to do. The line at the ticket counter wasn’t advancing as the lone ticket agent was busy selling souvenirs to a tour group that was just finishing a visit. Kindly, a security guard waved us along and we agreed to return in a certain amount of time and pay on the way out. The castle was fascinating.
The castle sits on the apex of a now wooded hill, in a beautiful park, though back in the Middle Ages the hillside was devoid of trees, giving the soldiers in the fort a better view of any approaching enemy. This was the frontier, a war zone between Christian Spain, later Christian Portugal and the Moors. Twice in 1100 the castle was sacked by the Moors and then liberated by Portuguese forces. This borderland saw continual conflict until the Arabs were driven decisively from Coimbra, only sixty miles away, in 1139. Large medieval trade fairs held next to the castle earned the village the distinction of being named Santa Maria de Feira. In 1448, King D. Afonso V gave the battle-worn castle to Fernão Pereira on condition that he repair the fortifications. “Hey Fernão, do I have a deal for you.” His modifications of thickened walls, a barbican, spired towers and a large keep with fireplaces and terrace still stand, and are what visitors to the castle see today. After a fire in 1722 the castle was abandoned and left to ruin. In 1839 it was bought by a private citizen at public auction. Serious rebuilding began in the early 1900s and it was reopened to the public in 1950.
To our surprise, the gate of the barbican was locked with a heavy chain when we tried to leave. Our hearts skipped for a moment when we thought we’d be sleeping overnight on the cold stone floor of the castle’s keep. The anxiety was relieved a few moments later when the guard returned from making his final inspection to ensure nobody gets locked in. Reminding him we still had to pay he smiled and waved us away, happy to end his day a little early and get out of the rain. Every August the town and castle host a ten-day Renaissance festival called Viagem Medieval that is regarded as one of the best reenactment events in Europe.
We hadn’t stayed in a hostel in years, but our private and modern room with ensuite bath at the boutique Hostel da Praça, in the historic center, was a bargain at €50. Parking was free at the municipal lot a short walk away. As we walked across town to dinner that rainy night, the reflections from the old streetlights onto the cobblestones was evocative of the Middle Ages when the town’s nightwatchman lit torches hanging from sconces along the street.
Till next time, Craig & Donna