The Big Trip: Football Crazy? Join the Pilgrims at Braga's Shimmering New Shrine ; This City Has a Long History as Portugal's Religious and Cultural Capital, Says Robert Nurden. So How Will It Cope with Waves of Soccer Fans Supporting Their Teams at the Futuristic Mountain-Side Stadium?

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Jose, my taxi driver, got out of the car, put his hands on his hips and looked up at the slopes of Monte Castro towering above us. Yellow cranes swung

against the backdrop of dark granite, and dumper trucks chugged and spluttered amid the heaps of bricks and girders. The foetal form of Estadio Municipal de Braga was maturing by the minute. Jose expressed awe with an Iberian intake of breath. I managed an Anglo- Saxon "wow".

The pounds 52m stadium built in Portugal's oldest city, Braga, for Euro 2004 is drooled over as much for its architectural majesty as for anything to do with football. A shimmering diamond carved out of the rock halfway up a mountainside, a graceful amphitheatre of seats at both ends, it hovers like a silver dragonfly over the green Cavado valley.

But anyone who knows Braga would have expected nothing less. It would be hard for the country's religious capital, where the bells of 36 churches and Portugal's oldest cathedral ring out, to construct a piece of urban utilitarianism. Just as the red and green shirts of the Portuguese team traditionally weave spellbinding Rococo patterns on the turf, so the eight new stadiums built for next week's tournament are nothing less than eye- catching.

Bringing Euro 2004 to Braga is a bit like staging the competition in, say, Canterbury. In this hotbed of faith, the clergy always had more clout than royalty. The sprawling mass of the archbishop's palace and the plethora of pilgrimage trails snaking their way across the eucalyptus-clad foothills of the Minho region are testimony to that. Consider, also, the deep conservative streak which spawned the infamous 1926 coup that put the dictator Antonio Salazar in power for 36 years, and you have a profile of a place that is, well, rather reactionary.

"That was true for a long time," said Filomena Alves, the chief of tourism, sitting in her refurbished art deco office overlooking Praca da Republica. "But things have changed. You'd be surprised to know that Braga has the youngest population of any city in Europe, and it's been nicknamed the Silicon Valley of Portugal.

"Old and new have already combined here, so an invasion of a few football fans - even English ones - doesn't worry us. And don't think that we're just a sleepy old city with no interest in football. We're fanatical about sport, and visiting fans will have no problem fitting in."

Whether marauding supporters from northern climes will warm to the finer aesthetic points of Bom Jesus remains open to question. Braga's main tourist attraction is this neoclassical church perched above the city, reached by way of a steep, switchback staircase of 365 steps. Real pilgrims negotiate the route on their knees, via chapels marking the 14 stations of the cross and spooky allegorical fountains depicting the five senses. Secular souls can use the funicular.

Even on a Monday in late autumn, when I visited, with the next shower set to sweep off the Atlantic at any moment, families were enjoying picnics in the ornate gardens. Amid rows of box hedge and purple chrysanthemums, one mother unfurled a vast, white linen cloth to release hefty chorizos, hunks of cheese, and bunches of Minho grapes.

Maybe it's just a bit too fanciful to posit the notion that this holy monument provided the inspiration for architect Soutro Moura's contemporary masterpiece - the cathedral to the beautiful game - hanging off a mountain just down the road. …