Some of the best trips are, in part, accidental.
We’re planning to write a bit more about holiday travel, which is something that we love to do (taking advantage of federal holidays is a great way to add some bonus time to any trip!), but it doesn’t come without a few disadvantages. Chief among them is the fact many holidays are celebrated worldwide—and that means restaurants, museums, historical sites, and other attractions are subject to special hours or closing all together. That can be a real challenge for travelers who can find their options particularly limiting on those days.To be honest, we decided to visit Braga and Guimarães for one reason: we found a tour offered on New Years Eve. We struggled to find tours that were operating that day, so we jumped at the chance to schedule something—anything—that had the potential to be interesting. We knew very little about either of those two cities or their relevance to Portugal’s history, but we figured at the very least a trip to a few places outside of Porto would provide a great perspective of the country.
And so it was without any real knowledge of where we were going that we climbed into a van with a few other travelers to explore northern Portugal. Our guide for the day was Yorick, whose immediate enthusiasm for our itinerary was contagious. Before we were even outside of Porto’s city limits we knew we were going to love our trip.
Sanctuary of Our Lady of Sameiro
We visited Braga first. Braga is a small city by many standards with just under 150,000 residents, but it is the third largest city in Portugal. New Year’s Eve morning found few people out and about, though, so when we arrived at the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Sameiro we had the grounds almost entirely to ourselves. The sanctuary is the second largest in the country (only Fátima is larger), and it’s close to 150 years old. Before exploring outside, we had a chance to peek inside, where a full mass was underway. We stayed just long enough to admire how beautiful the church is, but it wasn’t long before we were back outside in the sunshine to take in the view.
The sanctuary is located at the highest point in Braga, which means if you can turn away from the church’s beauty you are greeted by sweeping views of the city. Yorick gave us the choice to ride back down toward the sanctuary’s entrance in his van or walk down the stairs, and we quickly opted to take the stairs so we could get some additional photos. We happened to visit on a clear day under bright blue skies, so no matter where we looked—up toward the church or down toward the city—the sights were just spectacular.
Bom Jesus do MonteOur second stop of the day was by far our favorite. We arrived in the late morning at Bom Jesus do Monte for a nice walk around the grounds and a chance to explore on our own. One interesting point is there are many ways to get to the church, some of which are a bit easier than others. We arrived by car, which meant we drove all the way to the top of the hill where the church sits. Physically fit and ambitious travelers can choose to start at the bottom and take on a hike through a pretty wooded area that ends at a lengthy staircase leading up to the church. A third option is to take a historic funicular ride in a tram that dates back to the 1800s and uses water—not electricity—to power its journey.
Symbolism is what brings Bom Jesus do Monte to life and creates such a peaceful, holy place for prayer and reflection. Smaller chapels, each depicting scenes from the time after Jesus’s crucifixion, surround the massive church. Inside the main chapel we were surprised to see two depictions of the crucifixion. The primary scene at the main alter looks like so many of the illustrations seen in churches around the world: Jesus on the cross, head tilted, looking somewhat strong and purposeful in his final moments. On our way back outside, around the corner from the alter, is a smaller but more powerful scene that again shows Jesus on the cross, but this time looking gaunt, dirty, and tortured. It’s likely the more realistic interpretation, and it’s a bit hard to take in.Bom Jesus do Monte is best known for the magnificent 577-step staircase that begins at the base of the church and continues down to the park below. Pilgrims climb the stairs on their knees, starting at the bottom and working their way all to the top. We took a much easier route by starting at the top and walking down. Doing it this way does not take anything away from the splendor of the place, but it does separate it from some of the symbolism. To take in the staircase from the bottom is to walk through Jesus’s life, though it starts even earlier with pillars crowned with serpents to signify the serpents in the Garden of Eden.
The fountain closest to the bottom of the staircase has five water spouts, each representing one of the wounds inflicted on Jesus at the crucifixion. Beyond that, five more fountains represent the five senses, with water pouring from the eyes, ears, nose, mouth, and hands of the people that adorn them. The final three fountains represent the three virtues: faith, hope, and charity. At each landing are symbols and representations of the Stations of the Cross, which are easy to identify. Another fun view that Yorick pointed out is that, when you look closely from the very bottom of the stairs, the fountains align to form the shape of a chalice—yet another piece of symbolism!
We cheated a bit by starting from the top, but we were still amazed by the attention to detail, the artistry, and the craftsmanship we saw in the staircase. Walking “backwards” changes the way the story is internalized, but we took the walk slowly and paused at each fountain to study it and take in the changing scene around us. We also didn’t envy the people who, in brightly colored workout clothing, started to ascend the staircase while we stood at the bottom. It is clearly a hard climb—although during our next visit we’re hoping to walk up and enjoy a new, harder earned perspective.
After a quick trip by van to Braga’s city center, we had another stop to make at the Braga Cathedral, or Sé de Braga.While the first sanctuary we visited provided beautiful views and Bom Jesus do Monte was unparalleled in symbolism, the Braga Cathedral has the corner market on history. Portions of the cathedral date all the way back to just before 1100 AD, which also illustrates the depth of Christianity’s tradition in Portugal; in fact, after the cathedral was completed, much of the city of Braga was built around it.
Braga Cathedral has one of the most incredible organs I have ever seen; located high above in the main chapel, it’s absolutely stunning and would without question fill the entire church with sound when played (I wish we could have heard it!). Another part of the cathedral is home to the remains of Saint Peter of Rates, the first bishop of Braga who was likely alive at the same time Jesus lived. In fact, one entire wall lists the names of every bishop of Braga since the year 45 AD.
Lunch in Braga
As our whirlwind tour of Braga’s churches came to an end, it was time for lunch. While lunches served as part of group tours are usually not a highlight, this was a completely different experience from the beginning. Yorick joked that we were limited to just two bottles of wine per person (wait, I thought—wine is included?), and as lunch progressed I wondered if that had been a joke at all. We feasted on cream of vegetable soup, garden salad, and two entrees: duck rice and fresh fish. Adam and I ordered fish, which was served with potatoes and was both tender and flaky. I also tried a few bites of the duck rice that others in our group ordered, and it was just as delicious. The highlight, though, was dessert, a coffee-infused mousse with cookie crumbs on top.It was at this point in our journey that our wine education continued. We had tried vinho verde for the first time during our Lisbon city tour, and we mentioned this to Yorick as we sipped the vinho verde that had waited for us on the table when we arrived. Yorick asked us if we had tried red vinho verde—I think the blank looks on our faces answered the question before our voices did. I don’t know why it hadn’t occurred to us that a young wine could be either white or red, but it hadn’t. Yorick told us that most people in Portugal don’t particularly care for the red version, but he asked the restaurant staff to bring some for us to try. Where white vinho verde is light, bright, and just a touch effervescent, red vinho verde tastes like it has aged for no more than an hour—it barely tastes like wine as most of us know it. It’s much closer to grape juice with alcohol added in. Honestly, Adam and I both developed a bit of an appreciation for it. It’s very different from most of the wines we have tried, and on certain occasions it would be a nice wine to enjoy.
Lunch was tasty and filling, and we had a great time chatting with Yorick and the great people in our group, but before long the meal was over and we had a little while to explore Braga’s streets before getting ready for our next stop: Guimarães. If Braga is Portugal’s religious center, Guimarães is a trip back to medieval times.
The Castle of GuimarãesAdam and I love history, and getting to know a place through its history is a major theme in how we travel. We especially love it when we stumble upon historical spots and structures we’ve never heard of before. Guimarães Castle was a surprise for us in that regard; the castle is so old that it is often associated with the establishment of Portugal as a country. It was constructed in the 10th century, and portions of it were torn down, rebuilt, and expanded over time—and the cycle repeated all the way through until the mid-1800s, when there was a push to tear down the castle for good and repurpose its stone to build roads. Ultimately, history won out, and the castle remains intact.
We had the chance to walk through the castle and climb the walls to look out at the city around us. It’s not a particularly large castle—this one was very different from the castles we have explored elsewhere, and even south of Guimarães in Sintra—but it’s the connections to centuries long gone that make it feel magical.
We have seen a lot of castles that date back to the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, but the castle of Guimarães, with walls that date back more than a thousand years, overshadows them all. The main tower now houses a small museum of sorts with a nice timeline that illustrates the history of both the castle and Guimarães and further reminded us that we were standing in one of the oldest parts—maybe the oldest part—of Portugal.
Our visit to the castle ended as we walked down a short pathway to the Palace of the Dukes of Braganza (a 15th century estate with ties to Portuguese royalty) and onward to Guimarães’ old town. Here we had a bit of free time, and as the sun was setting we had a chance to watch as the locals began preparations for the new year’s festivities just hours away.
Guimarães is a lovely town, and the mix of historic buildings and modern touches added to the ambiance. We walked away from the main square for a bit to take a look at a beautiful Church of São Gualter just beyond the town center’s perimeter and were happy to find a wedding ceremony just ending, with guests surrounding a grinning bride and groom. We carried some of that warm cheer back with us as we returned to Yorick and the van for a ride back to Porto.
Braga and Guimarães provided exactly what Adam and I were looking for without knowing it: the peacefulness of the Sanctuary of our Lady of Sameiro, the beauty of Bom Jesus do Monte, the history of the Guimarães Castle, the delicious food and wine, and the great company of our guide and fellow travelers all reflected the very best parts of our 2016 and why we travel in general.
We picked the day tour almost by accident—no research, no real understanding of what we would see or do—and it ended up being an incredible way to end the year.
While we will probably always be researchers and planners when it comes to how we spend our time on the road, our day in Braga and Guimarães was a perfect reminder of why it’s just as important to close your laptop, trust your instincts, and pick a place just because it sounds fun.
The best adventures are often a bit off the well-traveled trails.
* From time to time, our travels are directly impacted by a service or company. In this case, we booked a day tour and this post includes our candid review of our experience. We selected the tour based on our own research and travel needs; we were not offered and did not receive compensation of any kind from them or any other party in exchange for our review.