Not a lot of tourists make it to Bragança. Which is a pity as this medieval city, tucked away in the north east of Portugal, possesses some unique treasures and is easier to get to than you might think.
Having ventured up north to see the costumed capers of the Caretos of Podence, Mike and I decided to pop into Bragança during a lull in the festivities. With limited time, we stayed within the confines of the citadel walls to get a feel for the historical centre.
Iberian Mask and Costume Museum, Bragança
The main draw for me was the Museu Ibérico da Máscara e do Traje where round black faces with horns and grinning red-faced devils mingle with wooden kings and queens. The first two floors of this small museum cover the range of costumes and masks used in winter festivals in Tras-os-Montes and Zamora, which usually take place over the Christmas and New Year period. The top floor contains the familiar Caretos of Podence and other traditional characters that show up for carnival throughout the north of Portugal.
The craftsmen and women responsible for the elaborate masks also get a mention and you can see the progression of a wooden mask in the making. These carved masks are my favourite and are typically worn in Lazarim. I haven’t made it there for carnival yet but I was lucky enough to bump into a couple of characters during the Iberian Mask Festival in Lisbon one year.
A bargain at 1 euro, the museum is closed on Mondays. For more details, information about the winter festivals and museum opening times (in Portuguese) visit the Museu Ibérico da Máscara e do Traje website.
Bragança’s architectural highlights
Towers and walls
You can’t really miss the castle keep (Torre de Menagem), the stronghold of medieval Bragança which is in remarkably good condition considering it’s almost 600 years old. These days it accommodates the Military Museum which, if you’re interested in such things, contains armour and other military objects spanning the period between the 12th century and World War I plus Portugal’s various African campaigns. Make sure you arrive well before closing times – the official would not let me in for a quick peek when I turned up just before the lunch break at 12 o’clock. (Closed Mondays and holidays, open 9-12 and 2-5, free entry).
The other main tower is known as Torre da Princessa (Princess’ Tower), presumably due to the legend that a Christian princess was imprisoned there to stop her from marrying a Moor. It’s possible to walk along the battlements that connect the various towers and turrets but be prepared to double back on yourself as there are a few dead ends. And tread carefully as there are no safety barriers.
Other architectural treats inside the citadel
Bragança’s unusual pillory with a granite pig as its base makes for a good photo opportunity if you can shoo the stray dogs away for long enough. Across the square, the decorative doorway of Igreja Santa Maria is indicative of the Baroque excesses that lie behind it including a painted barrel ceiling and a high ornate altar. Behind the church is a rather unusual Romanesque building, the Domus Municipalis. It was completed in the 15th century but although it contains a large cistern, no one is sure of its original purpose.
Cottages, bars and views
Once you start heading away from the main attractions near Saint Anthony’s Gate, the cobbled streets take you past the village-style cottages and houses that have been protected by the sturdy outer walls of the citadel for centuries. There are a surprising number of bars dotted around the little community as well as a few restaurants that mainly cater to tourists.
Some of the houses have been renovated for tourism while others are showing their age and still sport uneven thigh tiles on their roofs. Beyond the walls of this hilltop settlement, you’ll see terraced hillsides sprinkled with puffs of olive trees to one side and the apartment blocks and church towers of modern Bragança in the other direction.
Practicalities for visiting Bragança
As I mentioned, Bragança has good roads connecting it to Porto and central Portugal. Check driving times and routes with Google Maps. There isn’t a train service but the long distance coach company, Rede Expressos serves Bragança as do Rodonorte and Santos.
There’s a wide range of accommodation in and around the city, including some lovely-looking rural accommodation in the neighbouring Montesinho Natural Park.