The most significant of Braga’s many hilltops is the Sanctuary of Bom Jesus, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and place of pilgrimage for Christians who climb the white and gold zig-zag staircase to its doors.
Six kilometres west, planted upon Monte do Castro as if a piece of Lego, sits another monument that is both incongruous yet completely natural in a way that suggests the divine played a part here too.
But SC Braga’s Municipal Stadium was designed, engineered and built by man — and on Tuesday, it will host one of the greatest club sides in the world, Real Madrid.
Braga will become the 152nd different club Real have played in 68 years of continental football, but never will the 14-time European champions have played at a stadium with a backdrop quite like this.
At the end of the spiralling roads that lead to the highest point in the Dume area, right next to an old quarry lies a stadium that seems to defy logic.
A stand with its foundations built into a rock; a giant scoreboard perched on a granite embankment behind one goal; and nothing but empty space behind the other, offering a panoramic of the city below.
Known as ‘A Pedreira’ (The Quarry), the stadium could have been unremarkable were it not for architect Eduardo Souto de Moura, whose creation was awarded the Pritzker Award in 2011, regarded as the Nobel Prize of architecture.
“Being an architect is not an easy life, and to get international recognition for a small country like Portugal… I’m not going to pretend I suffer from false modesty,” Souto de Moura tells The Athletic.
“The Braga stadium might be the most difficult project I ever did. And perhaps for that very reason, the one I enjoyed the most.”
Souto de Moura was not the architect originally handed the reins for the project in 2000. The vice-president of Braga City Council had already approached Norman Foster, the brain behind the Gherkin building in London and the glass dome of the Reichstag in Berlin, but he was too expensive.
They called to ask whether he could put them in touch with Santiago Calatrava, the architect who designed New York’s World Trade Centre Oculus. He informed the council they would likely run into a similar problem.
Sensing an opportunity, he agreed to a meeting the next day to discuss the brief where it was decided the capacity should be 30,000.
“They had found a plot of land for a stadium, in a valley with a waterway. They thought the stands could follow the curves of the valley. I visited and fell in love with it,” says Souto de Moura.
“I still have the photos I took at the time. Above the land was this old quarry. I started to visualise the stadium below, enclosed by the rock. I told the council I wanted to build it there with a 15,000-capacity stand carved into the rock and then do the same on the other side.
“There would only be two stands and people would be able to have a good view of the game. One thing I realised while designing the stadium was that every stadium is now a TV studio.
“That’s why I designed the lighting to be almost vertical above the pitch (they shine down from the extremities of both stands), and as close as possible. I am not an expert in football but it’s a kind of theatre, with actors on both sides.”
Turning his sketches into a reality required innovation, painstaking experimentation and years of safety testing — all while having to stay within budget and a three-year build time.
The main ambition was to integrate the stadium into the environment, therefore trusses, poles and cables could not be part of the aesthetic as they are in most football stadiums.
The west stand is carved into a granite massif, to give the effect of a Greek amphitheatre. It involved 1,700,000 cubic metres of hard rock and gravel being excavated before the 18 one-metre thick uprights could be held down by anchors.
Drawing inspiration from Incan bridges and Washington Dulles Airport’s roof in forming his vision for a cover over the pitch, it was the experience of working alongside Alvaro Siza Vieira to create the Portugal Pavilion at Expo ’98 World Fair that he leaned most heavily on.
“It was a big open space under a concrete cover. It made me realise that it was possible to cover a structure without using glass or anything else,” says Souto de Moura.
“But UEFA said that there needed to be natural light, and that the stadium had to be ventilated so the cover could not be completely closed. I tried to make small adjustments to allow light to come in from above, using holes in the cover, but the sun would have come in and made circles of light on the pitch.
“I gave up on that idea and thought about leaving a rectangular opening that was the exact same size as the proportions of the pitch.”
A colleague travelled to UEFA’s headquarters in Switzerland and received approval for his plan to have two concrete slabs covering each stand, connected and held up by a network of 25-metre-long steel cables that stretch across the pitch. Each one is connected to girders, which are secured to the rock of the quarry.
It was a mammoth task to achieve the correct balance of forces with no pillars to support the roof — which is a cantilever only supported by the west stand with the cables anchored into the rock. Two large beams at the top of both stands add support but it took computer simulations and small-scale model tests in a wind tunnel before it was safe to build.
The stadium was successfully completed in time for Euro 2004, a home tournament in which Portugal lost to Greece in the final.
Yet Braga still regularly only fill half of the arena, which belongs to the city council, and Ricardo Rio, mayor of Braga and president of the city council, confirmed the stadium is up for sale earlier this month.
Estadio 1 de Maio was Braga’s long-term home from 1921 until 2003. They have been paying just €500 (£435; $533) per month to rent their current stadium and, with improvements needed to modernise facilities, the council are cutting ties.
“The dialogue has opened, therefore we are going to formally make an assessment of the value at which the stadium could be sold. It only makes sense for the stadium to be used by Braga,” said Rio.
“I do not intend to demand the €200million that was invested in this facility, but, obviously, an amount that allows the City Council to be reimbursed and, for example, to make other projects viable, including the rehabilitation of the Estadio 1 de Maio, which after these years of abandonment, has ended up suffering very rapid degradation.”
There has been talk in recent years that Braga could build a new stadium on the old site, which is a thought that saddens Souto de Moura even more than it does to his unique creation being altered.
“Portugal is one of the hosts of World Cup 2030, and to be eligible for the knockout games you need a stadium with 60,000 seats” he says. “Braga only have 30,000. When it was built, Braga were usually finishing in the bottom half of the table, often at risk of relegation; now they’re near the top, so people now demand more of the club.
“If it was the other way around and the stadium was too big, people would be complaining as well. It’s a risk of the profession.”
Until 2013, Braga had only won a single major trophy — the 1966 Portuguese League Cup. Since then, have they solidified their profile as the fourth-best team in Portugal, winning four domestic cups and establishing themselves in Europe, reaching the 2011 Europa League final and qualifying for the Champions League group stage for the third time this season.
In line with their growing ambitions, Braga are close to completing their ‘Sports City’ project, first set out in 2017, with a new women’s arena complementing the sprawling academy building and pitches above the Municipal Stadium.
It has been a home for Braga as they have grown into one of the big boys of Portuguese football — and are now 22 per cent owned by Paris Saint-Germain owners Qatar Sports Investments.
It is not on the grand scale of the Bernabeu but in a world of glass and stainless steel, this concrete amphitheatre by the cliff face is a work of art as much as it is a football stadium.
(Top photo: Diogo Cardoso/Getty Images)