When Henk and I first decided to visit the city of Braga in Portugal, it was because of its nickname, “the Rome of Portugal”, and because our timing coincided with the Braga Romana festival that the city holds every year to celebrate its Roman heritage.
But once we did a little more research into other area attractions, we learned about a reknowned site just outside the city that draws people to Braga for a completely different reason than downtown’s pagan street party: the impressive Sanctuary of Bom Jesus do Monte. Here, Catholic pilgrims flock by the thousands every year – especially during Easter Week – helping earn Braga its reputation as the religious capital of Portugal. But like them, you’re going to want to pack comfy shoes if you’re planning a visit. Here’s why:
The Original Stairway to Heaven
The religious significance of Bom Jesus do Monte (Good Jesus of the Mount) goes back as far as the 14th century, when the first chapel was said to have been built atop this hill. But it is the Baroque masterpiece that was commissioned in 1722 that has made the site so famous – and that masterpiece is not so much the Basilica itself, but the staircase leading up to it.
Begun under the patronage of Rodrigo de Moura Telles, the Archbishop of Braga, the stairway was built so that the faithful could walk the Stations of the Cross for penance and contemplation. For this reason, the stairway is flanked by chapels holding larger-than-life terra-cotta depictions of the Via Crucis (the Way of the Cross).
However, the first part of the stairway begins much father down than the base of the ‘ornamental’ staircase that most visitors photograph, winding its way up the wooded slopes of the hillside.
An Archbishop with a Eye for Design
The unique zig-zag staircase design was part of Archbishop Telles’ vision, and was constructed with 5 segments representing the Five Senses (Sight, Smell, Hearing, Touch, and Taste), each with its own dedicated fountain placed on each landing.
It was at the end of this 5-segmented stairway that a church was built in 1725 to complete the Archbishop’s vision. The Sanctuary’s aesthetic was so admired that it was copied elsewhere in Portugal at Lamego, and even in Brazil to a much lesser extent at the Sanctuary of Congonhas.
New Archbishop, More Stairs
Almost 60 years after the first church was built at Bom Jesus, a new Archbishop, Gaspar de Braganza, decided to put his stamp on the site by adding another 3 levels to the existing staircase, this time dedicating them to the 3 theological virtues, Faith, Hope and Charity. Like the 5 existing Senses segments, each of these new stairways continued the zig-zag design and had their own fountains, adding up to almost 600 steps in total, and a vertical climb of 381 feet. And while that may seem like a manageable ascent with the right footwear, imagine the punishment for penitent pilgrims who even today do this climb on their knees. (yep, their knees.)
Of course, like any other renovation project, one thing leads to another, and soon after completion of the stairway extension, the Archbishop decided to upgrade the church at the top as well, so the older building was demolished and the Basilica we see today was constructed in its place.
A Beautiful Basilica to Boot
Kudos to that Archbishop for the decision to demolish the old church, because whatever the original structure looked like, the reimagined Basilica has some attractive architectural details both inside and out. On the front facade, twin bell towers on either side of the church’s main doors form the perfect symmetrical ‘topper’ for the staircase, particularly when seen from below.
Even more impressive is the altar tableau on the inside of the church: here, a moving depiction of the Crucifixion uses larger-than-life carved figures to bring the final moments of Christ’s suffering to life in a very secular scene, complete with Roman soldiers and even the two thieves who were crucified on either side of Christ. (I hadn’t seen that before, since altars are usually reserved for the protagonist, not the supporting cast.)
Come for the church, or come for the view
Whether you come to Bom Jesus as a pilgrim or a pagan, you won’t be disappointed. The stairway and the Basilica are worth seeing for their architectural significance and design aesthetic (and there are some great views from the top of the hill that give you a panoramic overview of the city of Braga).
Just remember to wear those runners, because unless you plan on taking the stairs on your knees, high heels would be almost as punishing!
TIP: The climb up the stairway is not too taxing if you take your time and stop to admire the details of its design. But if you prefer, there is a funicular that will take you up the hillside from the bottom of the stairway, or you can park close to the top and just walk to the Basilica.