When you start to feel your car climbing away from sultry plain of Braga, you'll soon enter a tunnel of trees. There is a feeling of piece, comfort and shade. You press onward in the sudden coolness, strangely at peace, until you see the twin spires of the Sanctuary ahead of you, the Sanctuary of Bom Jesus do Monte.
You park and press forward with the other pilgrims, reaching the sanctuary and peering down the ancient staircase--a dizzying array of switchbacks, fountains, meditation stops, statuary, all converging at a distant speck on the landscape, a point indistinct in the bluish haze of summer. You wipe the sweat from your brow before realizing a disturbing fact: penitents arrive exactly here, exactly where you're standing, by crawling this incredible staircase on their knees.
Bom Jesus is a short 5 km drive north east of the town of Braga (the signage tends to be confusing, allow more time than you think if you haven't a good map). The sanctuary is built on the side of a hill 400 meters above sea level--you can get up to the Sanctuary by car, a clever water-counterbalanced funicular, or walking (first through a forest path, then up the sprawling staircase that marks the pilgrimage route).
The sanctuary of Bom Jesus was designed by a fellow named Carlos Amarante. Work on it started in 1784. Besides being the most photographed church in Portugal, Bom Jesus features gardens and grottos for quiet meditation. There are a couple of hotels on the site.
Getting to Bom Jesus by Funicular
Santuario do Bom Jesus do Monte is served by an old, water counterbalancing funicular that will take you nearly 300 meters up the 400 meter hill to the pilgrimage site of Bom Jesus. Built in 1882, it moves by loading water into the car at the top of the hill, which weighs it down so it sinks to the bottom, at the same time drawing the lighter, drained car up the hill, where the process starts all over again.
Bom Jesus - The Way of the Cross Granite Staircase
Building of this staircase was begun in 1722 under the archbishop of Braga. The stairway pays homage to the five senses and the three virtues (Faith, Hope and Chastity) by snaking through a series of themed statues and fountains. Each landing has a fountain. At the base of the stairs is a section of patterned pavement with benches featuring a good view of the Braga plain on a clear day.
During Holy Week (the week before Easter ending on Easter Sunday), the Baroque stairway is climbed by penitents on their hands and knees.
Hotels on Bom Jesus do Monte
Two hotels are found on the hill near the sanctuary, Hotel do Elevador (Book Direct or Find Price) (tel 053/67-66-11) and Hotel do Parque (Book Direct or Find Price), (tel. 053/67-65-48). They are under the same ownership. Doubles in the season in each run about 90 Euros including breakfast. There is a fine restaurant with a view of the valley in the Hotel do Elevador.
Nearby the Bom Jesus Sanctuary
Besides Braga, featuring its 12th century cathedral and an amazing fountain with light show, there's also the interesting towns of Barcelos, 14 miles west of Braga, Viana de Castelo on the east coast of Portugal, and Ponte de Lima, 12 miles upriver from Braga to visit. Nearby Citania de Briteiros is the site of a restored Celtic hill settlement dating from 500 BC.