Cathedrals to God, Football on Display in Braga

Declan built our entire trip to Portugal upon a trip to Braga, to see the S. C. Braga football stadium blasted out of a former rock quarry. So it was natural that our final day trip was to Portugal’s third-largest city, about 75 minutes by train north and slightly east of Porto.

‘The Quarry’ a Site to Behold

The Municipal Stadium of Braga (Estádio Municipal de Braga) opened in 2004, following two years of difficult construction that saw costs triple beyond initial projections, according to our stadium tour guide. The result, however, is a magnificent cathedral to football, with great sightlines throughout and graceful, sloping roofs over each stand, connected by steel cords.

Beyond one goalpost, exposed rocks give the stadium a rugged feel, and beyond the other, you’ll find sweeping city views. Just under the roof on the right side, you’ll see a stainless steel gutter and downspout that looks like a piece of a Mousetrap game. In fact, that’s the water reclamation system.

Sitting in the home stand, you’ll quickly notice a large grey concrete edifice to the left beyond the visitors’ seats that looks like a half-finished construction project. It is, our guide says, the result of cost overruns that forced other projects to be canceled. This was supposed to be an Olympic size swimming pool and other amenities for the Sporting Clube de Braga, which includes sports such as basketball and badminton as well as football.

Portuguese architect Eduardo Souto de Moura won a Pritzker Architecture Prize in 2011 for the design of the 30,000-seat stadium, which our guide says is pricey to maintain. They’d like to have a stadium store on site, but the architect has the final say and doesn’t want it to ruin the “look” of the stadium. So Declan’s belated birthday Braga jersey would have to be bought in town.

Jesus is the Bom

But upon first arriving in Braga, we saw a shuttle for Bom Jesus do Monte (Good Jesus of the Mount) outside the train station, the other stop on our Braga tour, so we went there first. While the church itself is impressive, what’s truly amazing are its hilltop location and three sets of winding staircases built in the 18th century that allow for contemplation on the climb.

There is a funicular (think Incline Railway) at the shuttle stop that will take you to the top. We just missed it, and, despite a lingering ankle sprain, I’m glad we did. Riding to the top in one go means you’d miss out on the thrill of discovery around nearly every corner as you gain altitude.

The first staircase is in shadow and represents the Stations of the Cross in circular domes. I will say this area, especially the stations, needs a little renovation work. Rising higher and out of the treeline is The Stairway of the Five Senses (Escadaria dos Cinco Sentidos), with playful water fountains with water squirting from eyes, ears, nose and mouths of various statues. Highest is the Stairway of the Three Virtues (Escadaria das Três Virtudes) dedicated to faith, hope and charity.

In addition to the church on the hilltop, you’ll find a man-made cave with running water as well as restaurants and a hotel. A shaded bench provided the perfect spot to eat the sandwiches we’d brought from the flat and contemplate all we’d seen that morning.

Beginnings of Portuguese History in Guimarães

Guimarães, about an hour by train to the northeast of Porto, is steeped in the country’s history. The town is birthplace to Alfonso Henriques, the country’s first independent king, who launched a war against the Moors in the 12th century. It also makes for a great day trip from Porto.

Significant sights include an 11th-century castle where Henriques was believed to be born, a rebuilt 15th- century royal palace and a cable car that takes you to the summit of Penha, where you can get impressive glimpses of the city and wander through the wilderness.

Historic, 11th-century castle

After getting our bearings, we headed through the old center of town, named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2001, toward Castelo, the reputed birthplace of Henriques. The castle, with its seven towers, commands great views of the city (that is, until you’re atop the Penha). You can walk across the battlement in most areas, peering over walls or through archers’ slits.

It’s hard to believe that such an old building has retained so much of its beauty and its character. However, Declan pointed out that the town is somewhat off the beaten path and so is the castle, so the chances of a siege or significant military battle were greatly lessened.

On the same site you’ll also find St. Michael’s Church (Igreja de S. Miguel), where Henriques was baptized, according to an inscription on the baptismal font. However, many date the church to the 13th century, which would have made that impossible.

Regardless, it’s worth a stop on your way to or from Castelo.

Fit for a duke

The Ducal Palace of Braganza dates to the 15th century, when Dom Afonso, future Duke of Braganza, built a royal residence on what’s now known as Holy Hill. The palace fell into disuse following the death of the first Duchess of Braganza in 1480, and remained that way for nearly 450 years.

Reconstruction of the palace began in 1937, and it is displayed now in an approximation of its former glory, with period furniture, tapestries and weapons from the 17th and 18th centuries.

While making our way to the cable car (Teleférico de Guimarães), we passed São Gualter (Igreja de São Gualter), with a wide, highly landscaped boulevard providing unobstructed views of this 18th-century church. The cable car is a bit off the beaten track, but we managed to find it without much difficulty. The ride to the top takes you past layers of Guimarães history, with old houses fallen to ruins next to McMansions with modern design, swimming pools and solar panels. One house even sported an immaculate mini football pitch complete with goals.

A short walk from the cable car among trees, rocks and crevices wide enough to walk through (or hide in) is Penha, which commands prime views of the town below. You can find a modern church atop the hill and several quaint eateries where you can relax with a bite to eat or a cup of tea and even enjoy a round of mini golf.

A quick ride back town takes us back to the train station, our day trip to Guimarães fresh in our minds.

Water and Wine a Fine Mix in Porto

You can’t escape Porto without taking a boat tour and visiting a port wine “cave,” another word for honkin’ big wine cellar. And we did both on the same day last week.

But first, we took time to actually visit the São Bento Train Station, a short walk up the hill from our flat and the station where we arrived in Porto. The entrance hall is filled with azulejos (painted tiles) of scenes from Portuguese history, dating to at least Henry the Navigator. According to my handy Portugal guide, it was completed in 1903. Some 20,000 tiles representing the scenes were added later.

A tour and a tipple (or two)

Porto is the port wine capital of the universe, so Declan had placed a wine cave tour on our itinerary. Our Airbnb hostess recommended a winery, so we crossed the Douro River to the Vila Nova de Gaia and started up the steep hills in search of a tour. But they were way more expensive than the guidebooks (and our hostess) said they were be. We visited several but didn’t want to spent 18 euros for a tour.

We had about given up when someone approached us and asked if we wanted a tour in English that started immediately for only five euro apiece. Well, of course, we replied, so off we went to Porto Augusto. It’s a third-generation, family-owned operation that doesn’t sell its product outside of Portugal.

The same guy who offered us a tour was in the video we watched, stomping grapes with his co-workers. It was a quaint operation, with the visitor center, tasting room and restroom area constructed of finished particleboard, a decorating motif we saw several times during our visit. We were surprised to learn that grappa, a strong Italian brandy, is used during the production of port and that there is white and red port, just like other wines.

The tour included tastings, after which we were encouraged to purchase some port. However, it’s not to my taste, although Marilynn does drink the occasional glass when it’s offered, so we weren’t their ideal customers. Nonetheless, the tour was enjoyable.

Ride across the river

We then stayed on the Gaia side for a boat tour. Marilynn and Declan had scoped out the boat touring options the day before and decided that boats on this side (across the Douro River from where we were staying) were better because kids were free. OK, I admit it–while we have done more serious vacationing in the past seven months than we have in the past several years, we’re still cheap

It was your basic boat tour, up and down the river for 50 minutes while an inaudible narrator sets the scene. I don’t remember much of what he said, but I did notice how many buildings close to the river had apparently been abandoned. One of the largest and nicest developments sat next to several buildings whose roofs were caving in. It reminded me of Florida, where McMansions sit next to single-wide trailers from the ‘50s.

But tours of wine caves and riverfronts are part of visiting Porto, and we didn’t want to miss out.

Bling Abounds in Porto

The statue of Henry the Navigator in the Ribeira district points to the sea. But he easily could be pointing to the significant buildings and sites of Porto, including what Declan and I call the “bling church.”

OK, it’s actually Igreja de São Francisco, a church dedicated to the humble St. Francis. This Gothic church, which dates from the early 1400s, looks plain on the outside. But that exterior hides 100 kilograms of gold leaf plundered from Brazil that adorns altars, ceilings and just about everything in between. To be honest, the audacious display toes the line of gaudy, depending on your tastes.

I was more impressed with what can be found underneath the Church of St. Francis, expansive catacombs that served as a full-blown cemetery. The well-heeled of Porto were buried here for about 100 years, until authorities decided that burying people under a church might not be healthy. Many were disinterred and reburied elsewhere, but the disarticulated remains of others can be seen through plexiglass portals on a level lower than even the catacombs.

The church property formerly included cloisters that were destroyed in a fire during the siege of Porto in 1832. In its place rose a cathedral to commerce, the Palácio de Bolsa, or Stock Exchange Palace. Built principally between 1840 and 1850, work on the interior of the Neoclassic building continued for another 60 years.

Built to impress

And once you see the expansive Hall of Nations with its intricate octagonal glass ceiling, the grand staircase that took decades to build and Arabian Hall, you’ll see what took so long. It’s no wonder this building has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Tours occur frequently, but bear in mind that you may need to wait until there’s a tour in your language. A guided tour gives you a sense of the building’s history, financed by Porto businessmen to help showcase the city’s importance in global commerce. The stock exchange operated in the Hall of Nations (Pátio das Nações), where the tour opens. Most are mesmerized by the glass ceiling and coats of arms of the two dozen or so countries that the businessmen considered important. However, Declan and I were taken by the mosaic tile in the room, especially the representations of the elements (earth, air, fire and water) as indicated by a lion, eagle, dragon and fish.

Other rooms, which contain mostly original woodwork and furnishings, showcase the ingenuity and craftsmanship of Portuguese artisans. Although one room appears to be nearly all wood, the guide explained that everything above the chair rail was plaster painted to resemble wood. When an especially curious visitor asked why that was the case, the paraphrased answer was pretty much “because they could.”

It was appropriate that the highlight of the tour, the Arabian Hall (Salão Árabe), was also the last room we visited. We knew from the colorful, painted-to-look-like stained glass windows from the adjoining room we were in for a treat. The ballroom didn’t disappoint.

The room features intricate Moorish designs with 18 kilograms of gold leaf. During its heyday, the hall would accommodate large business gatherings, with smaller salons upstairs for private meetings. Arabic writing on the walls was thought to be gibberish, but our guide said her research revealed phrases such as “glory to the sultan” and “Allah above all.”

Believe me, between the church and the Stock Exchange Palace, we saw more gilt in one day than you’d see in the hog farrowing barn. And if you didn’t grow up on a farm, just look that one up.

Something’s Fishy about Portugal Repasts

When in Portugal, eat like the natives—except when there are grilled sardines involved.

Suppers provided the main avenue for trying the local cuisine, since we generally grab-and-go for lunch and like simple breakfast fare. In general, food in Portugal is extremely affordable. Two dishes were generally enough for the three of us, and with drinks, water and appetizers, bills were routinely in the 25-35 euro range, although you easily can spend more.

Meaty in Coimbra

Our first night in Coimbra, we dined at Restaurante Giro Churrasqueira, a restaurant Declan found on TripAdvisor. Marilynn enjoyed a plateful of tasty steak served on a decorated roof tile and Declan and I split a mixed-meat platter, with two types of pork and chicken. We all share dishes, so I can attest to the tastiness of the steak and one of the types of pork, but it was all good.

The following night, we dined at Adega Paço des Condes, with its large dining room reminiscent of the old Little Five Points La Fonda. You walk past a deli counter and an open grill, where an older man stands grilling skewers of goodness. We shared a huge salmon steak and a pork skewer, while also enjoying olives, bread and assorted spreads.

Grilled sardines. Why, oh why?

Moving on to Porto, we ate the first night at Restaurante Douro, recommended by our Airbnb hostess and right down the street from the flat. Live fado music provided the background for a fried hake dish that Marilynn and I agree was the best meal we had on this trip. It was so good, we ordered another one. Fried foods can be hit or miss due to the coating, the quality of the frying oil and the amount of doneness. But both servings were identically superb. The TripAdvisor reviews of this restaurant aren’t good overall, but we had a great experience.

The following night, we had grilled sardines and pork at Brasa dos Leoes, near Lavrario Lello, where we saw the Harry Potter stairs. It wasn’t the restaurant’s fault we didn’t have a good meal. No, the blame goes to those four sardines. Both Declan and I forked our way first through what must have been heart, liver and butthole, instead of delicious fish meat. The tiny bones didn’t help, either.

Marilynn deserves extra kudos for eating the fourth sardine. Grilled sardines are supposed to be a Portuguese delicacy, but, to my taste, avoid them at all costs.

On to other cuisines

Although we didn’t discuss this among ourselves, we didn’t eat traditional Portuguese again on this trip. We had so-so Italian at a restaurant on the Vila Nova de Gaia side of the Douro River and some tasty Chinese takeway from Restaurante Mar Norte. Marilynn ordered and said the owner was Portuguese, which is surprising. Also surprising was how good and inexpensive the food was. We had two fried rice dishes and a vegetable noodle dish, none of which were greasy, a problem that often occurs with Chinese. We supplemented Chinese leftovers with a fresh noodle dish the next day.

While visiting Braga on our final full day in Portugal, we had a meat-and-cheese platter at Nocha’s Tapas and Wine. It’s hard to screw up meat and cheese, but the recommended house red wine complemented the meal perfectly.

Just avoid the sardines wherever you go, and you should enjoy Portuguese cuisine.

Harry Potter Popular in Porto

Harry Potter author J. K. Rowling is the George Washington of our times. It has nothing to do with politics or military strategy. Rather, it has everything to do with the tourism industry that has sprouted up around every place that Washington slept and now is burgeoning with every place Rowling got inspiration or wrote or where parts of the iconic films were shot.

So here we are in Porto, and Declan’s dragging us off to the Livraria Lello, a century-old bookshop that inspired the winding (and moving) staircases at Hogwarts as well as the general feel of the place, with its heavy mouldings, intricate woodwork and colorful stained glass ceiling.

I knew nothing about Rowling’s connections to Porto, but she taught English as a foreign language in the city for several years, marrying a Portuguese man with whom she had a daughter. From there, she moved to Edinburgh, Scotland, with the first three chapters of “Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone” in her suitcase, but more about that later.

Going with the flow

As the success of the books and then films turned Potter into an international phenomenon, any place identified with Rowling also became popular. Apparently, the staff at Livraria Lello formerly were fierce about prohibiting photo-taking by tourists. “Hey, we’re here to run a business,” was the general tone of the staff quoted on some older travel websites I consulted.

But today they embrace the tourists, the red paint in the centers of the stair treads chipped off through constant use, a couple stopping traffic on the stairs so they can take a selfie without others in the shot. Of course, that couple, the three in my family and everyone else in the bookshop paid four euros for the privilege of visiting the business.

The door attendant (I’m not making that up) directs tourists to the corner shop to buy vouchers, then scans them at the door before allowing admittance. I overhead him say (in English, thankfully) that 5,000 people visit the store each day during high season. That’s an awful lot of golden galleons, silver sickles and bronze knuts. You can use the voucher toward books, but we already are hauling more of those back than we intended, the result of hanging out with so many Northern Irish authors. And a large majority of the ones at this bookstore, naturally, are in Portuguese.

There may not have been 5,000 in Livraria Lello when we visited, but it certainly felt that way.

‘Thinking fondly of Emma Watson’

Several years ago, during a fall book tour to support Marilynn’s biography of Stewart Parker, we met a friend of Stewart’s at The Elephant House, an Edinburgh coffeeshop where Rowling wrote while her daughter slept. As I recall, the place was rocking with tourists on a dreary Scotland November afternoon.

The main evidence of the popularity of the place wasn’t in faded stair treads, but in the toilets. Every square inch of the men’s room was filled with graffiti about the books, from the sweet to the profane and about every sentiment in between. I know from Marilynn that the women’s room was the same way.

My favorite graffito was one that said, “Thinking fondly of Emma Watson.” I have a picture of it (yes, I took photos in the toilet), but it’s locked somewhere in the cloud that’s a pain to access remotely.

So you’ll have to take my word for it.