Braga 2006

Braga sunset seen from Bom Jesus.

Braga sunset seen from Bom Jesus.

Report of my Erasmus exchange project to the Universidade do Minho in Braga, Portugal.

Written in March 2007.

Introduction

Welcome! My name is Martijn van Steenbergen. At the moment of writing, I'm 21 years old and in my first year of the Software Technology master at Utrecht University. The first semester of this school year (September 2006 to February 2007) I spent at the Universidade do Minho in Braga, Portugal. This is my report, told from my perspective, the way I experienced things. If you are going to Braga too, I hope it will offer you a good idea of what living and studying in Braga is like. Beside this report, I've kept an online journal of my adventures in Braga, which the pictures in this document link to. Feel free to email me with any other questions you might have.

Preparation

Going abroad takes some preparation. The first step is to pick a destination. I didn't have any strong preferences other than "outside the Netherlands", so I talked to Doaitse Swierstra, the head of the Software Technology group, and he said the ST group has contacts with universities in Germany, Denmark and Portugal. Of these options, Portugal sounded the most attractive: Portugal is far away enough, life there is not as expensive as in, say, Scandinavia, and the weather is — in general — better than in the Netherlands. And so I chose to go to Braga.

These are the things I did before I went abroad:

All in all, it was quite some work. It wasn't necessarily difficult; just time-consuming. It also requires some patience: you're anxious to get confirmation from UM as fast as possible. Looking back, I think there isn't much that could've gone wrong. Made a mistake on one of the forms? Just explain it. Can't get accomodation in advance? UM can help you survive the first nights while you're looking for a place to stay. Just make sure you start taking care of things in time.

Braga

Braga is a city about one hour north-northeast of Porto, in the historical Minho province in the north of Portugal.

Accessibility

The flight from Amsterdam to Porto.

The flight from Amsterdam to Porto.

TAP Air flies directly from Schiphol Airport, Amsterdam to Sá Carneiro Airport, Porto; I paid about €260 for a return flight, with the flight to Porto in September 2006 and the flight from Porto in February 2007. When I went home for a long weekend in January, I flew with Air Berlin through Palma De Mallorca for €160. The flying took about twice as long (two times two hours; Palma is not exactly en route), but it did save me €100, and it was fun to call home halfway, saying "hello from Mallorca!".

Once arrived at the airport, I took the subway to Porto Campanhã, which cost almost €2 and took about 25 minutes. From Campanhã there's a slow train (stopping at every train stop) to Braga, for €2 taking about 1.5 hours.

I stayed in Residência Universitaria Santa Tecla. I had no idea where it was, but two friendly girls in the train, who had lived there a few years ago, were kind enough to take me by car. If you're not that lucky, the easiest thing to do is take a taxi from Braga train station to your final destination for about €6 (depending on the exact distance, and including fee for your suitcase).

Stuff to do

Selling castanhas assadas.

Selling castanhas assadas.

Braga has a beautiful center with many old buildings which create a pleasant, cozy atmosphere, especially on a sunny afternoon, with Braga's many fountains spouting water and the people frequenting the streets. Market stands sell food or souvenirs, and every now and then you see a trader selling freshly roasted chestnuts (castanhas assadas), popcorn or cotton candy.

Braga is surrounded by mountains, especially on its east. This causes interesting weather: with Christmas we had four straight weeks of clear blue sky and bright sun (something I'd never seen around Christmas before), while at other times it rained on and on, soaking the whole city and sometimes flooding cellars. On the west sides of the mountains directly east of Braga are two cathedrals: that of Bom Jesus, and that of Sameiro. I've never been to Sameiro, but Bom Jesus I've visited several times, and it's well worth a visit. Bus 02 takes you to its foot, after which you can walk the approximately 500 steps up to the cathedral, or take the elevator up, which is the only working hydraulic elevator in Portugal and costs €1 per ride. Sunsets are particularly beautiful from Bom Jesus (on near-clear days anyway — the more interesting sunsets are those with a few clouds present), but the elevator didn't work anymore after sunset, so you'd either have to walk back down to catch a bus back or have gotten up there by car.

Nightlife in Braga starts quite late (for Dutch standards anyway): the average bar doesn't start attracting people until 1 or 2 in the morning. The best known bar among students is B.A., the bar academico, which is run by UM and only accessible to UM students. While the interior is not that attractive, access is free and drinks are relatively cheap, and this ensures that it's usually quite busy there at night, which in turn attracts more students: once you get to know some people, there's almost always someone there you know. Other popular bars include Ber Ber (Moroccan style, near the bus station) and Bar Do Lip (American style, near B.A.). These bars don't have an entrance fee, but require you to spend at least a certain amount of money. Most bars work like this: upon entrance, you receive a small piece of paper on which the waiters or bartenders mark down what you've ordered. When you leave, you pay for what you got according to your piece of paper. If you lose the paper, you get a €50 fine.

Braga boasts several shopping centers, with a wide variety of shops. People especially like to shop for clothes, because they tend to be quite cheap. There are also two hipermercados: giant shopping malls, namely Carrefour and Feira Nova. You can get pretty much anything there.

In your first days in Braga, you will probably want to find your way to the city center and visit the tourist office for a free map. The free map focuses on the city center, and in my case was not big enough to have the university on it.

Cities nearby

The river Douro in Porto.

The river Douro in Porto.

Braga has a train and a bus station, with trains and buses going to nearby cities such as Porto, Guimarães and Viana do Castelo. Each of these cities is more than worth a visit: Porto because it's the biggest city in the area and for its bridges, beaches and (port) wine cellars, Guimarães for its cozy, old center and the oldest castle in Portugal, and Viana for its cathedral on top of a hill and its beaches. Trains and buses are comparable in price, ranging from €1.50 to €3.50.

Public Transport

As said before, Braga has a bus and a train station. The intra-city bus rides are taken care of by TUB — Transportes Urbanos de Braga. Braga, just like Holland, works with zones: depending on how many zones you need to cross, you pay a certain amount for your ride. But whereas the Dutch zones are blob-shaped and next to each other, the zones in Braga are in the shape of rings, called coroas (literally "crowns"). The center ring (or circle — coroa 1) is enough to get from/to most places: the city center, residência Santa Tecla, UM, to name a few. Bom Jesus is in coroa 2, and most of the smaller cities/villages surrounding Braga which TUB has buses to are in coroa 3, such as Ponte do Prado.

There are three ways to pay for bus rides:

You can buy any of these passes in small booths on the streets of Braga, run by TUB itself, as well as at UM in the Social Services building. Unlike Holland, the trains around Braga (at least in my experience) rarely have trouble. On the other hand, many bus stops, especially the smaller ones, don't have a bus schedule on or near them.

The University

The university campus seen from the computer science building.

The university campus seen from the computer science building.

The university's buildings are located partly in Braga, partly in Guimarães. I've never had to go to the university in Guimarães, since all my classes were in Braga. The teachers at the CS department were generally kind and helpful, and I've never had any trouble with them. Most are very busy, however, and this can cause significant delays in replies to emails I sent.

I didn't speak any Portuguese before I went to Portugal, and therefore I, together with João Saraiva, picked subjects with a strong practical aspect rather than theory. The classes still had lectures, but since I didn't understand what was being said, I never went to them. I did participate in all lab classes, which were doable because it was mostly programming work. Not visiting the lectures made studying for me considerably harder, because I learn best by following lectures, and instead I had to learn from (in the best case) English books or (in the worst case) from Portuguese slides. My two exams were officially in Portuguese, but one teacher translated one into English, and the other was in Portuguese but the teacher helped translate on the fly.

The university also offers a Portuguese language course, which I happily used. Later I found out there was another, slightly more serious language course which was mostly attended by Erasmus students as well, and I visited a few lectures of that course as well. Together they've helped me greatly get better at Portuguese. Right now, after half a year, I read Portuguese quite well, and am able to understand and speak basic sentences; enough to be able to ask for things in restaurants and shops and understand the answers.

Some fellow exchange students were not as lucky as I have been and had trouble with teachers, and it seems in some cases the teachers were unreasonable. The students were unable to get any help; apparently, there is nobody that checks on the teachers, and there is no official way to file a complaint. In my case, I feel I would've been able to talk to João about any trouble I might have had, but this is only because João is a very nice guy, and not all Erasmus coordinators are as helpful and nice as him. In short: if you're in bad luck, there's not much you can do except work things out personally with the individual teachers.

Santa Tecla

Residência Universitaria Santa Tecla.

Residência Universitaria Santa Tecla.

Overall, my stay in Residência Universitaria Santa Tecla was very pleasant. I had my own room with a bed, desk, closet, sink, shower, electrical wall-mounted heater and a small electrical plate for cooking. I shared the toilet and the kitchen with the rest of the floor, and they were cleaned almost every day by custodians. The custodians in general were very kind and helpful, and they became friends over the course of time. The room has no isolation, which was only a problem during the few nights in December and January in which it got near zero. The electrical heater is located near the door, so it takes a while before the heat reaches the bed and desk. Internet access in the rooms is wireless only, and the signal strength varies greatly over both time and room location. The wireless access in general is rocky, getting very slow when the weather is bad, for example. The shared kitchen has a microwave, two electric cooking plates and only cold water.

Santa Tecla is a complex of about five buildings full of students, with mostly double rooms. All the single rooms are occupied by exchange students. Just like university, Santa Tecla has its own canteen, which is open for lunch and dinner every day except Sundays. There is also a bar which offers hot and cold drinks and snacks such as pastéis, hamburgers, sandwiches and chocolate bars.

Part of Santa Tecla's direct surroundings is inhabited by gypsies, who play music from the windows every Sunday morning, are usually friendly, sometimes loud, and always have colourful clothes hanging from clothes lines. Quite a few stray dogs, some sick, can be found here, too. At night there are often shady people walking around the area, and it's generally a good idea to not walk around alone.

I bought fresh bread every day in a small supermarket just around the corner. There are several bars and small shops in the direct vicinity (less than one minute on foot away) of the residência, and two medium-sized supermarkets within five minutes: Minipreço and Pingo Doce. Carrefour and Feira Nova, two giant supermarkets, are 15-20 minutes away.

Conclusion

I have never once regretted going abroad, and going to Braga. I had a wonderful time, met many new people, some of which have become good friends. I have not just discovered one new culture, but several: the other exchange students came from many different countries, notably Spain, Brazil, Lithuania, Poland and Turkey. I have learned a new language (or at least its basics). And all this while studying and earning credits, too. The half year period was exactly enough for me; at the end, I was very much looking forward to going back home. My friends were the main reason to want to stay there; however, many of them were exchange students themselves and went home before me, so that problem pretty much solved itself. Given the choice, I would do it again anytime.