The plan now was to drive north to the City of Braga and visit the park of Bom Jesus do Monte and although this was only a short journey this wasn’t nearly as straight forward as it should have been.
Tired of paying motorway toll charges I decided to take the old road instead which runs close by and often parallel. What made this so difficult was the curious system of road signs that the Portuguese have. One minute you are happily following signs to a destination and then suddenly, usually at a roundabout or busy junction, they simply disappear and taking the right option becomes a bit of a lottery. It was all too confusing so after only a short while I abandoned the old road and found a way back to the motorway.
Braga is the third largest city in Portugal but we weren’t planning to visit the Episcopal capital of the country and instead we used the ring road to swing to the east out into the country and towards the religious sanctuary on top of a high hill on the outskirts of the city.
Many hilltops in Portugal have been places of religious devotion and the Bom Jesus hill was one of these. It was an ancient site where in 1629 a pilgrimage church was built dedicated to the Bom Jesus (Good Jesus), with six chapels dedicated to the Passion of Christ. The present Sanctuary was begun in 1722, under the patronage of the Archbishop of Braga, Rodrigo de Moura Telles and under his direction the first stairway row, with chapels dedicated to the Via Crucis, were completed. He also sponsored the next segment of stairways, which has a zigzag shape and is dedicated to the Five Senses of Sight, Smell, Hearing, Touch and Taste and each is represented by a different fountain.
Around 1781, Archbishop Gaspar de Bragança decided to complete the sanctuary by adding a third segment of stairways and a new church. The third stairway also follows a zigzag pattern and is dedicated to the Three Theological Virtues: Faith, Hope and Charity, each with its own fountain. The old church was demolished and a new one was built following a neoclassic design by architect Carlos Amarante. In the 19th century, the area around the church and stairway was expropriated and turned into a park and in 1882, to facilitate the access to the Sanctuary; the Bom Jesus funicular was built linking the city of Braga to the hill. This was the first funicular to be built in the Iberian Peninsula and is still in use today.
We stood at the top of the steps and debated whether or not to go to the bottom but after we realised that true penitent visitors climb them on their knees we agreed that a gentle stroll would be quite easy by comparison so we did just that and we were pleased that we did because the view from the bottom looking up the towering black and white stair case made it worth going to all the trouble.
For the first time today the sun was really out and it was a warm climb back to the top where the park was beginning to fill up with Sunday afternoon visitors from the city. There was a curious blend of attractions in the park, with the church itself, gardens that had a touch of Antoni Gaudi and Park Guell in Barcelona, the inevitable tourist train and childrens’ photographers. Everyone was having a good time including a quartet of old lady singers who were being enthusiastically orchestrated by a fifth member of the party who was in charge of song selection and keeping everyone in some sort of time.
We left Bom Jesus and as the sun was shining decided to head for the coast and a late lunch at the seaside down of Esposende. Because of the trouble with direction signs we crossed the city from east to west instead of using the ring road and after we emerged on the other side we passed by the town of Barcelos without stopping and made straight for the coast. Along the route there were lots of roadside vegetable stalls where growers were selling their produce, mostly onions and potatoes, to passing motorists who would pull up now and again without warning to make a purchase.
There were more and more motorists now and as we approached the coast the roads became quite congested and somewhere along the way the girls stopped blue-sky thinking and the clouds rolled back in from the Atlantic. Esposende was very busy and although we found the seafront restaurant where we were planning to eat it was completely full inside and with a strong wind coming in off the sea it was far too cold to sit outside. This was a disappointment, we had sat in this very spot in February when the sky was blue and the sun was shining, there were only a few people around and the place was pleased to see us. Today it didn’t need our custom and it seemed less friendly so we abandoned the idea and returned to the car just as the first spots of rain began to fall.
Although it was only a few kilometres it seemed a long journey back to Vila do Conde and this wasn’t helped when I took an unnecessarily circuitous route back to the main road. By the time we arrived back it was really pouring with rain and with everyone in Portugal out for a Sunday afternoon drive and clogging up the streets we made slow progress through the town. Before going back we stopped at a small patisserie and bar and had coffee and cakes and watched the rain bouncing off the pavement outside.
On the previous evening we had sat on the terrace bar for an early aperitif but tonight was different and we were forced to sit inside on account of the poor weather and wait ages for service because the hotel was running on a skeleton staff because all but a few of them were at church celebrating someone’s first communion.
We had a final meal in the restaurant and Sue and Christine must have been feeling brave because they ordered fish pie but, partly down to me I suppose, it wasn’t exactly what they were expecting and this turned out to be another setback on the journey towards the enjoyment of marine food dining. After dinner we played cards and drank the second bottle of port and just before we all went to bed there was a firework display over the town which brought us out of our bedrooms to watch on the balcony, with at least one of us (Christine) with slightly fewer clothes on than perhaps they realised due almost certainly to the quantity of port consumed!
Climbing on their knees? Yikes. I think you made the right choice.