If you only have one day in Portugal, let it be in Braga. It’s my favourite town. Actually I plan to live there one day and make a lifetime of this day-tripping thing.
Let me show you around.
Your day begins, naturally, with a coffee. Since you’re in Portugal you will also being eating one of the finest freshly baked pastries on the planet. The Brasileira know their business so the pastries, or even toast, will be as impeccable as the service. Anyway, you will be too busy watching all the stylish Bracarense walking by on their way to work… poor gorgeous things, off they go.
A quick walk around the pedestrianised old centre follows, window shopping at the variety of little boutiques running the gamut from lingerie to liturgical. There are local dress designers, tiny art galleries and antique collectables to seduce the spender, all tucked in together on the cobbled network of the compact town centre.
The oldest cathedral in Portugal (1070) is also here in the old town. It’s an important arquitectural monument, part brutal medieval, part golden rennaisance. There’s also a very nice fountain in the main square, a fortress-like episcopal palace and numerous intriguing old mansions to check out.
After this effort you’ll be needing a cup of tea and another pastry, if not lunch. This time we are at the glassy art deco Salão da Chã Lusitana. If the Salão isn’t romantic enough, you’ll have a view of the lovely Jardim de Santa Bárbara where you are guaranteed to see young couples smooching.
Five minutes outside town lies the Bom Jesus de Monte, a serious place for pilgrims at certain times of the year, a fun place to take photos the rest of the time. The curiosity of the Bom Jesus is a marvellous baroque staircase, with a lovely church at the top. Along the way there are spookily life-like scenes of the stations of the cross, but what you can’t miss are the Five Senses wall fountains. They are famous and funny. Otherwise known by the names my friends Jem and Kate gave them: Tears, Snot, Ear Wax and Vomit. Beware, it’s quite a walk up, (watch the Bracarense exercising! A rare sight in Portugal!) but those of us not here for devout agony can ride on the antique water-driven funicular.
And don’t miss the ceiling of the church, if it’s open. One of the prettiest in Portugal.
Now that the funicular has put us in a vintage mood, we are off the see the Confiança soap factory, which has been producing elegant luxury soaps since 1894. It’s not just soap: it’s about Portuguese design and tradition and pride. And it might be about buying a special souvenir for your mother.
Tired? Time to check into the hotel and have a little lie down? I’ve booked the best room at the Hotel Francfort which is right on the main square with views of the fountain. It’s my favourite hotel in Portugal (of the hotels I’ve actually stayed in, that is). Our hostess is Dona Eugenia and she is at least 70, so you’ll be taking your own luggage up the stairs. She’s been running this hotel for 45 years and I suspect she hasn’t changed a thing in all that time. It’s just the way a hotel should be. Big rooms, springy beds and a full complement of matching furniture. And at €15/head who can argue? The Francfort is a perfect example of what is lacking in modern hotels. Charm, character, and a hostess like Dona Eugenia.
At last, it’s time for dinner. Taberna Felix is the best restaurant in Portugal so I’ve made a booking. Although they have recently expanded, it’s still an intimate restaurant with a short menu to match. The owners and their staff are so nice and take care of you like old friends. The taberna is tucked away on an atmospheric small square with a couple of other small restaurants alongside and lots of tables outside, and only a couple of other foreigners which make you feel like you’re in on a local secret. I don’t have to tell you that the food is superb. The desserts are even better. Felix, if mispronounced because you´ve indulged in a few local ports, means Happy. Time to waddle back to the hotel…
But wait! What’s that on the path between you and the hotel? It’s an open air bar! It’s music and caipirinha! Braga is also a university town, full of bright young people who require evening entertainment. Therefore Braga has a whole new personality which comes out after dark. Plenty of opportunity to rub up against those fit and stylish Bracarense.
But I’m going to bed, because tomorrow there’s the market at Barcelos… so much to do, so many more pastries to eat…