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September, 2015

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Remembering history can entail as much repetition as forgetting.

We went to Braganca on account of the unfortunate queen of Charles II, who must have wished she could forget her present rather than the past. As her dynasty had been either murdered or expelled more than a century ago it was optimistic in the extreme to expect to find signs of them. Nor were there, or anything else to suggest more than a run-down provincial backwater.

Those were first impressions, as we looked for lunch or any sign of shops. There were a few small cafes, all very much alike, and then the street trailed away. Nonetheless we ate well enough and cheaply. Then it was time to explore.

Nothing much at first: rather dingy streets without life. We found the cathedral square, and looked into the cathedral. There was a cloister to look at rather than visit, with a modern building beyond. That turned out to be an arts centre. At the reception desk a very helpful man explained there was a free exhibition of graphic art from a variety of countries. Some of the work was very good. Returning, we thanked him and he offered to show us around the rest of the building. We accepted gladly.

All was quiet during vacation but he explained it was normally very busy as a music conservatory. There were several well-equipped and no doubt sound-proofed studios. From the corridor there was a view down on to the cloister, shared with the cathedral, and beyond a park with benches.

Thanking our guide we went to the park. The Rough Guide, ever useful, explained how by crossing the footbridge we could walk, jog or cycle into open country in a few minutes. With more time we could well have taken up the invitation, but our target for a one night visit was a restaurant. A few minutes by the river proved pleasant though.

One restaurant raised hopes but, as the Guide explains, vegetarians beware in Braganca. This is game country and meals are on the Desperate Dan size of hearty.
While not vegetarian we choose to limit the intake of strong meat, so moved on. Not, at first sight, a good decision. Even though the evening meal was several hours off, the most promising second choice looked firmly closed. There seemed little else.

Even the castle seemed too far uphill to bother with and the shops we passed were either tourist-deli expensive or very basic. Time out seemed appropriate.

The Rough Guide had little to enlighten us on restaurants until I looked at places to stay. Most were budget rooms but one was recommended as having also a good and inexpesive restaurant, favoured by locals.

By early evening we were ready to reconsider options. Lights were showing in some places, though not in the still firmly closed restaurant. We looked at one budget place, deciding it would do at a pinch, then walked through an alley to a street that led to the castle. A waiter was setting tables on the pavement; the restaurant was Pocas, the very place recommended.

Encouraged, we walked on and were soon at the foot of the castle hill. Suddenly it invited a visit. The Rough Guide again had a recommendation. It has a bar favoured by the local young people, who began arriving by car. Only tapas was offered but it was obviously a pleasant venue. By now we were well inside the castle, and found it impressive. The ramparts gave a splendid view, and the House of Braganca began to assume its historic significance, for Portugal rather than Charles II.

The forecourt also had a sculpted pig with a tall cross on its back, a tradition in the region that dates back perhaps to Celtic times. There is a conventional statue of the warrior who established Portuguese rule in the area. Just outside is a student centre and houses that have seen better times or, in some cases, are being restored. The walk downhill soon brought us back to Restaurante Pocas, now busy inside but with no diners outside braving the passing traffic fumes.

We were perhaps the only foreigners. One eccentric local came in later, looking like an unreconstructed hippy. We wondered if he were a lecturer from the conservatory. The management greeted him warmly, not as might be expected in the UK.

Was our meal worth the search? Indubitably: beginning with the usual olives (not the best we’d had in Portugal) and bread, we moved on to melon with ham and grilled goat cheese puffs with salad, respectively, both excellent. I couldn’t resist wild boar and am glad of it. The other choice was a generous grilled tuna. Naturally we drank a local wine, and finished with creme caramel and the house dessert. The price was no more than about £40 for both of us. I couldn’t help recalling one course and a glass of wine each for £35 in the UK, enjoyable though that had been.

A day that began with some disappointment ended on a really high note, and helped us through a wet drive into Spain the next day. We had also found our one-star hotel provided a more than adequate breakfast.


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