December 6, 2021
In the middle of my trip to Porto, Portugal, I signed up for a full-day tour to two nearby towns: Braga and Guimarães. I went to the meeting point and met the seven other people I’d be spending the day with: two couples from Canada, one couple from the US, and our tour guide. Even though it was obvious it was going to be a runny day, we were all eager to explore. While I don’t do tours as often as some people do, I enjoy the time to get to know other travelers and what has brought them here at this point in time. We drove for about an hour and a half, and then we arrived in Braga.
Braga is one of the oldest Christian cities in the world, and it has two significant sanctuaries. The first one we stopped at was the Sanctuary of Sameiro, which is also the the largest Marian devotional shrine in Portugal. We had some time to walk around inside and look at the grounds. On a normal day, there are breathtaking views into the mountains. With the fog and rain, we didn’t see a whole lot of it. While this is usually a very busy place, with the weather, there were only a handful of us there. That allowed for better viewing of the inside and better photos outside.
After finishing here, we began our journey to the next stop: Sanctuary of Bom Jesus do Monte in Braga. It feels impossible to truly describe this UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is a sacred mount with a church, a series of chapels and sculptures going up the mountain, fountains, a park, and many symbols of the life of Christ. It has been built over 600 hours, starting in the 14th century. Even after hearing our tour describe it, it felt difficult to truly grasp exactly what we were seeing.
After wandering around this area for a while, we met at the bottom of the hill to continue to downtown Braga. Here, we braved the rain while walking around the historic center and visited the Garden of Santa Barbara.
From here, we visited the Sé de Braga, the city’s cathedral that was built in the 11th century. Up until this point, I was insistent that I did not need an umbrella, despite the rain getting stronger and stronger. I was happy to have some time indoors to reflect on my anti-umbrella stance.
Now it was time for lunch. We had an elegant five-course meal in a private area of a local restaurant. It was a nice time to connect with the other travelers and hear stories about where they came from, what they were doing in Portugal, and other places they’ve seen.
After our lunch, it was time to head to Guimarães: the birthplace of Portugal and the first Portuguese king. This city is most well-known for its 10th century medieval castle, which was the main site that we explored.
Next, we drove to the historic center of the city, which is its own UNESCO World Heritage Site. We had about an hour of our own time to just walk the streets and see the buildings. One of the couples from Canada (originally from Hong Kong) took me under their wing and let me wander around with them. We stopped and had a coffee in a central town square and took in the surroundings. We also found an interesting tradition happening in the other square where high school students were passing an apple on a stick from one window to another. We never quite figured out exactly what was going on there.
After we reconvened with our group, it was time to head back to Porto. I enjoyed the ride back as I had some time to talk to our tour guide about a common interest. In passing, he had mentioned he previously worked as a social worker in the harm reduction field. I was in awe as this is my focus in the social work field, as well, and I have long been intrigued by Portugal’s progressive drug policy. We spent some time talking about this on the way back, as well as more about Portuguese life and culture, Spanish tourism, and a recap from the day.
When I arrived back, I had more time to admire all the beautiful Christmas lights, particularly the tree in front of Câmara Municipal do Porto (the town hall). I made my way back towards my hotel half by bus and half by walking (I never quite figured out the bus system there) and prepared for my last day in Portugal.