Day 39, 40 & 41: Braga, Portugal + Day Trips to Guimaraes & Viana de Castelo
Braga was about a 2-hour bus ride from Santiago, located in the Northern part of Portugal. I chose the city kind of randomly but also because it served as a good hub for day trips around the area. The town itself is quite small but very beautiful with some fascinating history. I checked into yet another HI hostel, which was not only the best one I’ve stayed at but also super cheap (the room cost 9euro a night, which is quite cheap for Western Europe but still can’t compare to the budget dealings in the East).
Braga is a fairly medieval town with hints of gothic and baroque architecture all over the city. Sight seeing in the city took only one day but was well worth the hike. Going solo (which is quite nice since I can go at my own tower speeds and find myself venturing off the map as much as I can) I walked the perimeter of the city checking out a cool old cemetery and monastery, a large 12th century cathedral or Se, the Braga castle, and two baroque palaces. The most beautiful sight, however, lay above Braga in the hills overlooking the town and beautiful countryside surrounding it. The Bom Jesus do Monte Sanctuary (or Good Jesus at the mountain sanctuary) is a breathtaking neoclassical church built during the late 18th century above a towering antique staircase the weaves and winds its way 400 feet above the main landing (it should be noted that to reach the chapel a ride in the Braga funicular, which is the oldest in Europe, or a 40 minute steep hike is in order).
The hike was actually quite nice as it allowed for some great scenic photographs. At the end of the day I ate a small cheap dinner in the main park of Braga’s busy placa and watched a Portuguese battle of the bands, which featured four high school age rock groups duking it out for the title of Braga’s Best! The first band was very Radioheadesque mixed with bjork/pj harvey on account of the female lead singer’s unique voice (they were my favorite and ended up taking first place). The second was an impressive act but really nothing more than that. The band’s lead singer was the core of the group; a sick guitarist with a righteous rock voice, however, unfortunately the rest of the group was subpar. These guys played originals that were clearly reminiscent of AC/DC, Led Zeppelin, and blues rock groups like ZZ Top. Like I said, this group had great showmanship but weren’t entirely together musically. The third group was a horrible punk band that played songs in English that not only bashed America, but were on the verge of being dangerous with their blatant discontent with George Bush. Lines like “Hey Mr President, Fuck You!”, which quite frankly lacked any originality whatsoever, were amusing at first but then started to make me feel more isolated than I already was (it should also be noted that Braga is not a tourist hot spot and I seemed to be one of the only Americans in the town and was definitely the only one in the hostel). Still thanks to my trusty fuzz stache and bronze tan acquired in Croatia, I again was mistaken on a number of occasions as being Portuguese. I actually had a nice conversation in Spanglish with an old man on the park bench who thought I was local and then wanted to tell me about his mission work in Australia when I told him I was American and spoke English.
The second day I day tripped to the town of Viana do Castelo, which is a small charming seaport city on the coast of Portugal best known for its stunning castle, Castelo do Neiva, that is perched high above the city presenting hikers with the following view.
The climb to the top of this hill was more brutal than in Braga but was definitely worth the work. There is an actual plaque at the top of the hill with a quote from a random National Geographic photographer who listed Viana as having the most beautiful panoramic view on the planet. While I found that statement to be a bit exaggerated, the view was quite lovely. Viana’s other claim to fame is its distinct pastries which were doughnut like balls of dough, fried, filled with custard and covered in Cinnamon sugar. I have come to discover that Portuguese people love their pastries and there are in fact more pastelarias lining the streets of every Portuguese city than there are in Spain.
The third day I visited to Guimaraes, which is said to be the birthplace of the Portuguese nationality as Alfonso I, the first Portuguese king, was born here. The city is another example of medieval gothic flavor and is a UNESCO World Heritage Sight (this trip has allowed me to sample a fair amount of these cherished landmarks). The town itself is even smaller than Braga and Viana but has the same charm. The most significant sight is its medieval castle (shown below), which is now a cool museum of the city and allows visitors to walk the towering walls and towers, which overlook the city below. Like Santiago and other Spanish towns Guimaraes also has its share of al fresco cafes and small plazas at every turn. A cafe com leite (milk and coffee) should be savored and will run you about 1 euro.
The last night in Braga I walked around to see some more of the city at night. Most small Portuguese cities have strings of lights around and take great care to make sure major monuments and buildings are properly lit. At night these towns glow and are beautiful to sit and stare at for long periods of time. It should also be noted that on the last night a dalmatian dog followed me around for a good 15 minutes but would never let me touch him. He just trailed behind until finally he was reunited with his owner.
After Braga I ventured down to culturally rich Lisbon, Portugal’s capital where I have lots of stories to tell.