Old Town Centre in Braga, Portugal

Old Town Centre in Braga, PortugalAcross the Rua Do Souto, that runs along the north face of the Braga cathedral lies the beautiful courtyard of the former archbishop’s palace. At the centre of it is a delightful baroque fountain, dating from 1723. It was constructed by the Archbishop Dom Rodgrigo de Mouro Teles and bears his coat of arms. The surrounding large complex of buildings now houses the Public Library, the District Archives and the Dom Diogo de Sousa Museum. The oldest part of the palace is, at the rear, on the north side that looks onto the lovely Garden of Santa Barbara. This fourteenth-century wing was built by the Archbishop Don Goncalo Periera. The garden also contains some picturesquely ruined gothic arches, and another seventeenth-cen­tury fountain.

Turning back to the palace complex from the garden the seven­teenth and eighteenth-century additions that lie to the right house the Public Library with over 250,000 books, the second largest collec­tion in Portugal. The reading room is worth trying to visit to see its coffered ceiling. The Dom Diogo do Sousa Museum has not yet been ully opened, but some remnants of the Roman occupation, such as inscribed milestones can already be viewed.

Though the palace, which at one point in the Middle Ages covered a tenth of the area of the city, and the cathedral, with their stolid monumentality can create a rather sombre atmosphere some of the finest sights in the city are, however, much more low key and best discovered by exploring in a casual way the many backstreets and small churches in the city. The tourist office on one of the corners of the Praca de Republica has a selection of city street maps.

One of the most striking churches is, for example, the Church of St Lawrence on the Rua de Sao Vicente, north from the central Praca de Republica along the Rua dos Chaos. It is a small church with a typically ornate baroque altar. Built in 1565, and restored in 1691, it was sited where a Visigothic chapel had once stood in the seventh century. In the sacristy there is a stone believed to date from that period.

The walls are entirely covered with tiles depicting the life and death of the third-century saint and the removing of his remains to nearby Graciosa island in Azores. Above the doorway the organ and choir are decorated with finely carved figures. The churches of Saints Vitor, Francis, and most famously, Sebastian all contain similar depictions in tiles of the lives of the saints.The latter contains, perhaps, the finest work.

A chapel that is in contrast to these is the Capela dos Coimbras off the Rua de Afonso Henriques. This is a small Renaissance chapel built unusually in the form of a square crennellated tower. The statues are in Anca stone. Next to it stands the house of the Coimbras which possesses exquisite Manueline windows. These are in fact all that was rescued from the original building when it was demolished in 1906.

The final architectural aspect of Braga’s heritage to consider are the town hall and the Raio Palace; considered to be two of the finest secular baroque buildings in Portugal. The beautifully proportioned town hall was designed by Andres Soares. It was begun in 1753 but was not finished until 112 years later. Above the main doorway is a statue of Our Lady of Relief. The assembly room within has some attractive historical oil paintings of the city which are worth seeing.