It’s no secret that travel is my passion.
But many people may not know that I have another obsession that I take almost as seriously: I love to dress up in costume whenever the occasion arises. Fortunately, visiting other countries offers plenty of excuses to indulge both of these passions, with festivals and events that encourage dressing in costume as a form of creative self-expression. (Think Carnival in Rio de Janeiro, or even Burning Man in Nevada). So it was no surprise that when I heard about the Braga Romana Festival, an annual 4-day event celebrating the Roman origins of the Portuguese town of Braga, I made sure to include it when planning our Portugal itinerary this past May (since I’m also a wee bit obsessed with Rome!)
What is “Braga Romana”?
Unless you speak Portuguese, or live in the northern part of that country, you probably have never heard about the city of Braga, or Braga Romana until now. That’s because it’s a very local event – so local in fact, that it’s difficult to find English information about it and even the city’s promotional video is in Portuguese only. Here then, is a little context for the rest of us:
Braga is Portugal’s third-largest city of around 135,000 people, laced with charming pedestrian streets throughout its historic centre and boasting a splendid array of baroque churches – one reason why the city is better known in modern times as Portugal’s religious capital.
But in ancient times, Braga went by the name Bracara Augusta, and was the thriving capital of the Roman province of Gallaecia. It is this heritage that is celebrated once a year at the end of May in a 4-day long party known as Braga Romana, an outdoor festival that takes over the streets of the historic centre and turns the entire town into what may be the world’s biggest toga party!
The World’s Biggest Toga Party
Togas may be de rigeur here, but unlike the frat-boy party in the movie Animal House, Braga Romana is a true all-ages, family-friendly event. There are open-air theatrical performances next to the Sé Cathedral (done in the style of Classical dramas and comedies), dance performances both day and night, minstrels and buffoons wandering the cobbled streets, and equestrian and falconry demonstrations. There’s even a Roman military encampment staffed by Gladiators and Legionnaires set up right in the centre of town where visitors can tour the camp and take selfies with the soldiers.
Storekeepers and visitors dress in period costume, and there are food stalls and outdoor eating venues everywhere with pigs roasting on spits, crepes cooked over open flames, and pop-up ‘taverns’ offering ceramic mugs of beer to take with you as you stroll the streets.
Even though Henk and I were only visiting Braga for one night of the Festival, it didn’t take me long to cobble together a makeshift Roman costume from my own clothing and with the addition of a 5-Euro floral wreath for my hair, I was ready to join the crowds on the streets. (sadly, I didn’t have anything in our suitcase that would pass as a gladiator outfit for Henk – an oversight on my part for which he is probably eternally grateful!).
More to Braga-bout
For those of you who aren’t as obsessed with the idea of dressing up in togas or re-enacting ancient history, you’ll be glad to know that Braga is well worth visiting for many reasons other than its Roman festival. For starters, it’s a very modern, liveable city with a much less hurried pace than Porto or Lisbon, but with a good number of photo-worthy plazas and pedestrian-friendly streets that make it a pleasure to explore on foot.
Fewer tourists means there’s never a problem finding a spot to enjoy a drink at an historic cafe, or at one of the city’s many excellent restaurants (unless you visit during Braga Romana, when reservations are a must).
And with a history that dates back thousands of years, there are more than enough historic attractions to keep art and architecture buffs satisfied.
“Friends, Romans, Countrymen….”
Braga is the kind of city that any traveller to Portugal would enjoy visiting, but I recognize that a festival like Braga Romana isn’t for everyone. If, however, you are even half as as obsessed with Roman history (and all things costume-related) as I am, participating in the festival is like setting foot on the set of an old-school Swords and Sandals epic, complete with authentic backdrops and a cast of thousands.
Best of all, as a visitor, it’s the chance to experience something really local that brings “friends, Romans and countrymen” of Braga together with the same goal in mind: to celebrate a part of history and have some good clean fun. And don’t worry about the whole costume thing – although togas are encouraged, they aren’t mandatory!
TIP: Braga Romana is held at the end of May every year, and if you do speak Portuguese, you can learn more about it here on their website. You may also want to check out this perfect gem of a boutique B&B that we found right in the historic centre, literally steps from everything.