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Braga’s stairway to heaven

by Bernard O'Shea

In the first of Time to Wander’s series looking at UNESCO’s new World Heritage sites, Bernard O’Shea visits the spectacular Bom Jesus do Monte near Braga in northern Portugal.

 

Warning, warning! When you visit Bom Jesus do Monte, one of the two new UNESCO World Heritage sites in Portugal, you’ll be expected to make a really grand entrance. You might want to don your Sunday best (there’s a church on the site); but you should definitely don your best walking shoes, for Bom Jesus is perched on top of a steep hill and has the most spectacular stairway – or more accurately, series of staircases – you will ever see.

The sanctuary is on Monte (Mount) Espinho, about five kilometres east of the city of Braga and is very easily reached by bus or car, which can get you to the base, the middle bit and the top. There is also a funicular that will take you the 300 metres from the base to the summit, but for the complete and most satisfying experience you should walk up. It’s not a difficult climb: the first section, the Via Sacra or Sacred Way, zig-zags up the forested hillside, so the incline is gradual and at various points en route there are little chapels where you can pause to catch your breath while gazing at the life-size figures showing the Stations of the Cross (the 14 scenes leading up to Christ’s crucifixion). If you have been to Congonas do Campo in Minas Gerais in Brazil, you will immediately be reminded of it here.

 

The Via Sacra leads you to a miradouro (lookout point) which gives some views towards Braga, but the better view is in the opposite direction – looking up the hill at the start of the granite Escadaria (stairway) proper  – layers of landings linked by double stairways, their whitewashed walls laden with decorative touches and statues of biblical figures – topped in the distance by the baroque twin towers of the church. You will want to take a photograph here so you can later boastfully show your friends how many steps you had to climb.

The next major section, The Staircase of The Five Senses (hearing, sight, smell, taste and touch), features fountains where the water pours out of the corresponding part of the body. Keep going! Faith, Hope and Charity are the stars of the third section, The Staircase of the Three Virtues. The last part of the stairway is a large terrace with neat flowerbeds, another fountain and more statues.

Inside the church

The artistic and thematic journey at Bom Jesus do Monte finishes right at the back of  the church, where the last in of the series of tableaux, the crucifixion of Christ, plays out behind the main altar, giving it a much more theatrical air than you see in most cathedrals.

Ideally you would approach it from the main entrance overlooking the Escadaria, but at the time of my visit (late April 2019) the back part of the church had been sealed off for restoration work, and we had to go through a side door,  and through claustrophobic plywood tunnels that gave visitors little chance of peeping out to see what they were missing. But at least we got to see the main altar and the two side chapels, and the skylight in the dome above, and it was impressive.

Work on the stairway began in 1722 and both it and the church were completed 89 years later, in 1811, although some references say it took only 60-odd years. Most of the credit is given to architect Carlos Amarante, The funicular was added in 1882.

Spend the night

There is lots to see at the top apart from the church and its museum-cum-souvenir shop. For the hungry there’s a compact cafeteria near the funicular which serves great coffee and light meals, and if you want something more substantial head to the restaurants along the roads not far behind the church, beyond a park area with an artificial lake where you can go boating.  But the one thing I wish I had known beforehand was that there are four hotels in the vicinity (the panoramic views from the one closest to the ridge, the Hotel do Elevador, are awesome). It must be a great experience to be able to watch the sunrises and sunsets from such a spot, and to wander around it in the moonlight.

Portugal’s other new World Heritage site is the palace and convent at Mafra. If you can’t get to Braga but happen to be in Central Portugal, it is well worth visiting the church on a hilltop 600m above Lamego. It has a great stairway modelled on the one at Braga, but instead of whitewashed walls it is covered in the typically Portuguese bluish azulejo tiles. TTW


Bernard O’Shea visited Portugal courtesy of On Foot Holidays; he stayed in Braga at his own expense. More at Visit Portugal. Photos © Bernard O’Shea


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