Just outside the big, bustling city of Braga is a monumental baroque staircase leading to a huge neo-classical church and a couple of 4* hotels. Pilgrims climb the steps on their knees while most tourists opt to take the funicular which runs up the side. A popular modern twist is to cycle down the steps on a mountain bike but I suspect that the irreverent people who do this continue their route downwards straight into hell!
I chose to drive up the winding road and park at the top, then descend, and re-ascend the stairway on foot, zig-zagging up the slope. Pilgrim or not, it’s good to stop and admire the chapels, statues and fountains while you catch your breath. They represent the 5 senses and the 3 virtues of faith, hope and charity. However, in my opinion, it could all do with a good clean and a repaint. It appears as though this may be in hand as some workmen at the top are busy with high powered water jets.
At the top of the hill, as well as salvation, the 18th century church offers a cool place to sit and reflect on the purpose of our lives. The altar is adorned with a wooden calvary scene with life-sized figures and a side apse features a creepy pyramid of figurines which hold religious reliquaries from various saints.
In case you don’t feel that visiting Bom Jesus completely absolves you of your sins, you can continue further to Monte Sameiro, where the huge Sanctuary of the Virgin awaits, as well as spectacular views across the surrounding area. The size of the various car parks suggests that this is a key pilgrimage site. In fact, it is reported to be the most visited pilgrimage site in Portugal after Fatima, but when I arrive in October it is almost deserted. The church itself is rather modern (built in 1863) with little of interest except some nice stained-glass windows and a peculiar relic of Pope John Paul II containing his blood. It appears that after he was declared a saint by the Catholic church in April 2014, blood stained pieces of the robe he was wearing during the assassination attempt, as well as vials of blood taken by his doctor upon his death, have become quite sought after.
The brash city of Braga also has many churches and monasteries, at least 41. It seems that at any time of the day there is a mass taking place in one of them and I stumble upon it. After entering the church it is actually quite difficult to leave with any subtlety. Finally, after a few false starts, I manage to find the cathedral which was built in stages from 1070 to 1930. In order to access the oldest and most impressive parts I have to take a guided tour with a young man who looks like he should still be in school. His grey suit is as oversized as the keys needed to gain access to the 14th century Glory chapel which is dark and dingy, its Moorish frescos fading and its gothic tomb crumbling. Next door is the Chapel of the Kings, housing the tombs of King Henry of Burgundy and Queen Theresa of Leon, parents of the first King of Portugal, Alfonso Henriques. Also present is the mummified body of Archbishop Dom Lourenco Vicente.
However, the best is still to come. Built on a raised platform above the two huge pipe organs are the choir stalls where the bishops would meet to pray, sing and discuss ecclesiastical matters. The seats are made from dark gilt wood and each has a ceramic plaque with the name of the bishop who sat there.
Attached to the cathedral is the modern Sacred Art Museum containing lots of religious items: silver chalices, reliquaries, silken robes adorned with gemstones and religious artwork. For me, it is a reminder of just how rich the Catholic Church was and how they squandered their money on such items rather than using it to help their impoverished, devoted followers.