Despite reading several travel guides to Portugal and looking at pictures of one of the most photographed churches in the country, nothing had prepared me for the sanctuary of Bom Jesus do Monte (Good Jesus of the Hill). Part shrine, part extravagant folly, symbolic of King João V’s (‘João the Magnificent’) reign (1706 to 1750), which also saw the building of the enormous convent at Mafra, Bom Jesus do Monte is ornate, theatrical, allegorical and totally compelling. It is a wonderful example of the baroque style (grand structures, curves, ornamentation and symmetry), particularly the staircase. Bom Jesus do Monte was commissioned by the Archbishop of Braga in 1722. The staircase and church were designed by the architect Carlos Amarante and took 60 years to complete.
We caught a bus from the railway station in Braga which went all the way to the bottom of the sanctuary. After getting off the bus we made a major mistake and followed the other tourists onto the funicular, which is a quick and easy way to get to the top of the sanctuary, but misses the main reason to visit Bom Jesus do Monte, namely the ‘Sacred Way’ staircase. The funicular is impressive. Built in 1882 it retains its original charm and the gradient it climbs is breathtaking. But unless you have problems with walking, I urge you to climb the staircase, although I am not encouraging you to climb to the top on your hands and knees, as the pilgrims do in Holy Week (the week before Easter) and at Pentecost. Yes, there are a lot of steps, but it is so beautifully set out that there is something of interest on every part of the steps and the walk becomes a leisurely one with surprises at each turn.
After realizing our mistake we rather embarrassingly returned to the bottom of the hill by funicular and this time walked through the archway which marks the entrance to the sanctuary. The archway leads to a long zigzag flight of steps through a wooded area, but before we started climbing the steps we were drawn to two chapels either side of the archway, containing life-size statues. These chapels line the staircase, depicting scenes of the Easter story from the Bible, beginning with the Last Supper at the start of the ‘Sacred Way’ and culminating in a moving scene of Jesus on the cross inside the church at the top of the hill. Further up the hill from the church the chapels continue the story after the crucifixion. Sadly, the chapels are a bit neglected and they are not lit inside, so it is hard to make out the impressive detail that the original sculptors included in the scenes.
We continued along the zigzag section until we were suddenly afforded one of the most famous views in Portugal: looking up the granite and white plaster staircase, showing the ornamentation and symmetry of design, to the church at the top. There are three levels to the staircase and each level has fountains built into the wall and symbolic statues line the staircase. On the first level is a fountain which symbolizes Christ’s wounds. The second level represents the five senses (sight, smell, taste, touch and sound) and the third level represents the three virtues, Faith, Hope and Charity. To my astonishment there were very few people on the staircase, suggesting that most people go up to the top of the hill without seeing this amazing piece of architecture. There is so much to admire on the steps, in the detail of the statues and fountains, as well as spending time at each chapel to find out the next instalment of the Easter story, that reaching the top almost seemed anti-climactic. The area at the top of the steps has a church, a gift shop and two hotels. In front of the church are statues of more Biblical characters. From here there are lovely views of the city of Braga and the surrounding valley.
The highlight of the church of Bom Jesus do Monte is the aforementioned crucifixion scene over the main altar, which is large, theatrical and very moving. There is also a glass case containing the gory remains of a distinctly unwell-looking Saint Clemente, a statue of Jesus on the cross graphically depicting his wounds and, in contrast, a tasteful statue of the Virgin Mary surrounded by doves. The chapel of prayer is photogenically decorated in gilt.
As we had already suspected, most tourists visit the church and go no further. This means that the areas around the church are very quiet. Behind the church is a lovely shady area with trees, a stream and grottoes. It is a lovely quiet place to escape the heat of the sun. A little higher up is a boating lake and picnic area, which gets busy at the weekends when families from Braga come here to enjoy some cooler air, but on this hot weekday in June there was no one else around. We wandered a bit further and entered a wood with lots of enticing pathways and again we had it to ourselves. Even the chapels beyond the church, which continue the Easter story after the crucifixion, were devoid of tourists and we could enjoy views over the Braga area below in silence.
I think I would have been disappointed by Bom Jesus do Monte if I had only experienced the funicular and the church, as many tourists do. However, the baroque extravagance of the staircase, the unfolding of the Easter story through the statues in the chapels around the sanctuary, the theatrical scene in the church and the hidden grottoes and areas behind the church combined to make this one of the most remarkable and memorable places I have visited.
The number 2 bus runs from Braga railway station and from the Avenida da Liberdade in the centre of Braga to the bottom of Bom Jesus do Monte. It takes approximately 20 minutes and costs €1.65 one way. Buses run every half hour.
The funicular runs from near the bus stop at Bom Jesus do Monte to the top of the hill. It costs €1.20 one way or €2 return.