For local residents Bom Jesus do Monte would certainly not qualify as a Hidden Gem. Perched on Mount Espinho, overlooking the northern city of Braga, the Sanctuary of Bom Jesus do Monte began its life as a small chapel in the 14th century dedicated to the Holy Cross. In the intervening 600 some years, the small chapel was rebuilt in the 15th and 16th century, eventually in 1629 as a pilgrimage church dedicated to Bom Jesus (Good Jesus) with six chapels dedicated to the Passion of Christ. The sanctuary began to take on its present-day form in 1722. When all was said and done the Church and surrounding park, much as I found them on my visit, were completed in the middle of the 19th century.
Arriving at the Sanctuary, there was the option to drive right to the top to investigate the church and surroundings, follow the footsteps of the many pilgrims and walk up the 500 plus stairs, or as I did, make the 274m long journey on the Bom Jesus do Monte Funicular. The tram is an amazing piece of 19th century engineering employing water and gravity as the method of locomotion.
The tram is the oldest funicular in the world moved by water counterbalancing, opening in 1882. The tram car at the top is filled with 5,800 Litres of water, and this weighs it down, so as it descends it pulls the lighter car, empty of water, up from the bottom. And so the process is repeated, as is has been for the last 140 years. One slightly rickety ride later I found myself at the top.
Disembarking the funicular, I was greeted with an amazing view of the baroque inspired church with its two bell towers dominating the view. Surrounding the church are three hotels, a coffee shop with an incredible patio view overlooking Braga, and a beautiful stonework cave grotto water feature built in 1903, with an octagonal viewpoint at the top. After having taken in the views from the top of the stonework grotto, I headed behind it, up a flight of stairs and found myself in Bom Jesus park.
The park has a lovely little lake, on which you can rent row boats, they were unfortunately closed on my visit, but the lovely green park has a nice walking trail, a great set of kids play equipment including a mini zip line, that I was very tempted to have a go on and a coffee shop I did have a go at. Having enjoyed a sunny summer afternoon people watching in the park I headed back down to church to soak up some history.
Slightly behind the church and down a path from the park I discovered the Terreiro dos Evangelistas (Evangelists Square). The area contains four fountains with statues of St. Matthew, St. Mark, St. Luke and St. John. Alongside these statues of the Evangelists are three chapels that contain scenes in terracotta from after the crucifixion, including Jesus’ appearance to the Disciples of Emmaus, his appearance to Mary Magdalene, and the Assentation into Heaven. I was starting at the end of the Via Crúcis (Way or Stations of the Cross) and would have to work my way backwards through the story.
Two more chapels on the way back to the church mark the discovery of the empty tomb and the burial of Jesus. Before continuing to seek out the next chapel I took time to explore the Church. Inside the church, behind the altar, is an impressive and large terracotta Jesus on the cross, beautifully painted with a large collection of additional figures, including Roman soldiers, his mother Mary and other onlookers. Probably the most fascinating part of the Church for me was one of the side chapels, to the right of the altar. The Chapel of Relics contains a cabinet six levels high with relics from more than a dozen saints, each marked with a small bust of the saint. Below these is the remains of Saint Clemente, a Roman solider who was martyred in the third century AD.
Pictures from Bom Jesus do Monte
Leaving the church facing towards the amazing view of Braga, it was time I continued my journey backwards through the story of the death of Jesus and I started off down the stairs. The first (or last if you are doing the journey correctly), set of stairs is the most fantastic and appear in most of the photos you see of the Sanctuary, it is the Stairway of the Five Senses. The zig zag stairway leads to landings that have a fountain representing one of the senses. Water gushes from the eyes of a woman holding a pair of glasses at the fountain of vision. Water pours from the ears of the next figure at the fountain of hearing. The figure of a man holding an empty box has water coming from his nose at the fountain of smell. A man holding an apple has water flow from his mouth at the fountain of taste. And a woman holding a bowl representing touch marks the last of the fountains. After descending the zig zag steps of the senses I found myself at the perfect photo taking location, at a large circular patio with amazing views up the stairs to the church and over the city of Braga on the other side.
After some time taking in the view and taking some pictures, I had a look at the next two chapels located off the patio before beginning my journey down the stairs again. The sharply descending zig zag stairs were now replaced with a more gently sloped switchback walkway that leads back down to the bottom. The three turns in the stairway each have another chapel on them. At the end of the stairs three more chapels and the main gate mark the end of my journey.
If you are visiting Porto, then Braga and the Sanctuary of Bom Jesus is only a 40 minute drive and well worth the trip, maybe I’ll do it the right way round next time!