13th April to 16th April
We left the Porto area on Thursday 13th April and headed north west towards Portugal’s third largest city and principal town of the Minho region, Braga. The drive was thankfully uneventful leaving Porto as we crossed the Douro for one last time. However whilst entering Braga we were greeted by a series of underpasses which at the last minute we bottled out entering due to the lack of information about height restrictions. This obviously meant that we then veered off into a maze of one way streets which we looped several times before making our way to the free parking space below the Bom Jesus do Monte sanctuary, about 6km outside the city. Whilst enjoying a welcome cold beer from the hillside car park Kiosk we enquired whether Braga’s Holy Thursday’s ‘Procissao do Senhor Ecce Homo’ was worth the trip into the centre for and we were given a resounding ‘yes’ by locals and the Kiosk owner. So, at 8.30pm Sharon and I found ourselves on the bus from Bom Jesus heading to the city centre. The friendly female bus driver gave us directions as we disembarked to where the parade would begin. This was to be our 2nd Semana Santa parade as last year we were in Tarifa, Spain where we joined the masses (no pun intended) to watch the procession of floats depicting scenes from the bible. Braga is famed to have the most elaborate Easter celebrations in Portugal and therefore we were not surprised to find heavy crowds in and around the Se (cathedral). We stumbled upon a really cool hipster bar on the main street of the procession and watched the hooded members of private Catholic brotherhoods march past barefooted spinning large diameter rattles above their heads along with lit 2.5 metre high torches. It was an interesting spectacle, one that unfortunately our photos could not capture, whilst peering through the bar’s packed door way.
The black hooded, flame holding and rattle swinging procession members make for an intense ambience at the Braga Holy Thursday parade.
On the next morning we took the opportunity to climb the hill behind us to the sanctuary Bom Jesus, yet another end destination for pilgrims. Even though we are not religious we did find the chapels that lie on each corner of the baroque staircase interesting, if not a little disturbing, as they retell the story of the death and resurrection of Jesus, via very detailed scenes made of carved and shaped wood (?).
One of the scenes in the chapels at Bom Jesus, Braga
The grand stair well leading up to the sanctuary is used by local fitness fanatics early in the mornings (just tourists in this photo though!)
Later that day hoping to escape another religious overload we ventured to the Portuguese Spanish border with the goal off having our last Portuguese meal out. Our time in Portugal was coming quickly to an end after four months, and we were beginning to reflect upon our time here. A random choice of Vila Nova de Cerveira seemed to fit the bill well with a large town centre car park complete with free motorhome services. Upon arrival my heart soared as at the edge of the car park it looked like a stage was being erected along with two sets of tall speaker stacks. My brain jumped to the thought of a small town music festival so during our exploratory walk I searched for any relevant advertisement posters. None could be found but what we did learn that there was to be an Easter celebration on the Saturday night called ‘The Burning of Judas’. Our appetite was whetted after we heard the rehearsal on the Friday night and did some light research on the net using the town’s free WIFI. Apparently, in some catholic countries this celebration is popular and represents a punishment to Judas after betraying Jesus. Strange really as I was to believe that one of the pillars of Catholicism was forgiveness, but forgetting that these celebrations can be a little wild, infact, one a few years ago in Mexico ended up with half the town been burned down as the fireworks planted inside the burning Judas got out of control and several people died.
On Saturday day time we visited the massive town market where it seemed many local Spanish people from across the The Minho river shopped for cheaper groceries and goods. Topping off this bustling experience we lunched at the market’s cafe on of course churrasco.
At the market cafe in Vila Nova de Cerveira, our last meal out in Portugal, a sad moment.
By evening time we found ourselves waiting in the main square for the ‘Burning’ spectacle to happen. Led by some sort of scene played out by actors of Judas getting rounded up in the main square, the crowd followed the actors to the stage set by the car park. Here more scenes were acted and chanted out to the back drop of thumping and haunting electronic trance music ending in the grand finale where an effigy of Judas was first hung and then set alight to the back drop of an extensive fire work display. It was certainly unusual and I am not sure how serious it really was as it seemed more of a complementary art performance. We both enjoyed it though and the firework display made a great ending for our last night in Portugal.
Judas burning with the local fire brigade in the background!
So on that note, it is hard to summarise our time Portugal. At the beginning we were slightly frustrated with the poor whether in late January, but that may have been that our preconceptions were wrong. Secondly, in my own opinion as Sharon may think different, I felt slightly disenfranchised by the motorhoming scene on the coastal Algarve, but I can’t quite put my finger on why? Were there too many motorhomes? Were there too many people motorhoming ‘badly’ parking in the wrong places and flouting the rules? Were there too many people staying in one place and not moving on or was is just too touristy? I am not sure, and I can’t point the finger either as at times during our period here I have done all those things as well or in fact enjoyed that it is super touristy and we have obviously added to the motorhome numbers. So I am not sure, however, what we do think is that Portugal gets more interesting outside of the Algarve in our opinion. We would definitely like to to do more thorough exploring and next time we will plan better for the colder climes that these regions will have in the winter months. Overall though we have had a great time and the weather has been much much better than England’s even at it’s worst points. The food and drinks are inexpensive and of great quality, the people friendly and scenery varied and beautiful. We are looking forward to the next three weeks though as we cross Spain and France on the way back home but I feel that this excitement might not be the fact that we are changing countries but in fact determined to make the absolute most of our remaining time away as work back in the UK is now looming.
The stag is the symbol of Vila Nova de Cerveira, in fact they have mounted a large steel stag statue on the highest hill that sits behind the town.