Death, life and the af­ter­life in Porto and Braga

Timeless Travels Magazine - - CONTENTS -

Garry Shaw fol­lows in the foot­steps of pil­grims in the Por­tuguese cities of Porto and Braga to ex­plore life, death and faith in th­ese vi­brant his­toric cen­tres

Any­body who tells you that the first step is al­ways the hard­est has never tried walk­ing the nearly 600 steps that lead to the Catholic church of Bom Je­sus do Monte near Braga, Por­tu­gal. In my hum­ble opin­ion, hav­ing com­pleted the pil­grim­age, the last one is far worse, par­tic­u­larly when it’s rain­ing. This ex­quis­ite baroque church at the hill’s sum­mit has been the goal of sweaty, pant­ing pil­grims since the 19th cen­tury, but ear­lier in­car­na­tions have ex­isted on the same spot for far longer, prob­a­bly all the way back to the 14th cen­tury. Since that time, the climb from the bot­tom of the hill to its top has rep­re­sented a jour­ney to­wards pu­rifi­ca­tion and sal­va­tion – a stair­way to heaven. And like any pil­grim­age, it isn’t easy. To reach the peak, pil­grims must as­cend three sep­a­rate stair­ways – built suc­ces­sively since the early 18th cen­tury, set among the hill­side’s dense for­est – stop­ping at chapels on plat­forms along the way to make of­fer­ings. Each chapel, spread along the route, rep­re­sents a stage in the story of the Pas­sion of Christ – Je­sus’ jour­ney to­wards his cru­ci­fix­ion. Your strug­gle to reach the church is a spiritual quest, meant to bring you closer to Christ.

Though not a pil­grim my­self, I wanted to ex­pe­ri­ence the jour­ney prop­erly. I ar­rived at the foot of the hill of Bom Je­sus do Monte by bus from nearby Braga. The first chal­lenge? To re­sist the wa­ter-pow­ered ver­ti­cal tram that, since its in­stal­la­tion in 1882, has made the pil­grim­age to the top, shall we say, a lit­tle eas­ier. While I looked on, the lat­est jud­der­ing an­tique tram clunked its way up the hill, re­liev­ing my temp­ta­tion, so I went to stand in front of the trail’s en­trance gateway. It was a tall arch of grey stone, a crest at its peak, bear­ing the coat of arms of Dom Ro­drigo de Moura Te­les, who com­mis­sioned the first stair­way lead­ing to the church. Flank­ing the gate were twin foun­tains: over one, a sign, stuck to the wall, ex­plained in Por­tuguese that the wa­ter was un­safe to drink, both at th­ese foun­tains, and at each sub­se­quent foun­tain along the route. Was this an­other les­son to re­sist temp­ta­tion? I thought. No, I later read: the same wa­ter flows through each foun­tain, from the top of the hill to the bot­tom, mak­ing it all rather un­san­i­tary. As I stood there, a pass­ing jog­ger – the first of many us­ing the hill­side and its sa­cred steps as a sport’s track – washed his face in the flow­ing wa­ter. I hope no one had done the same at the top.

Two small chapels flanked the first plat­form, just be­yond the gateway. Doors, locked with chains, barred en­try, but open pan­els, them­selves crossed by metal bars, pro­vided a glimpse in­side. I peeked through the gaps to look into the squat, square chapel to the left of the gateway: within, in the semi-darkness, il­lu­mi­nated by small win­dows to the side, stood Je­sus and three apos­tles (sleep­ing) – not a paint­ing (or the real deal), but a dio­rama of life-size painted ter­ra­cotta stat­ues. I felt like I was in­trud­ing. This was the ‘Capela da Ago­nia’, ded­i­cated to Christ’s agony in the Gar­den of Geth­se­mane, a fit­ting name for the start of a climb to the top of a hill. The chapel op­po­site – this one oc­tag­o­nal – housed a recre­ation of the Last Sup­per, its ar­range­ment in­spired by Leonardo da Vinci’s fa­mous paint­ing.

Th­ese two chapels mark the be­gin­ning of the pil­grim’s jour­ney, the start of the as­cent with Je­sus on his way to­wards death. I started my jour­ney too (though, I must ad­mit, not walk­ing on my knees, as pil­grims are sup­posed to do). The wide stair­way led up­wards and di­rectly ahead, the blue sky now hid­den by leaves from the dense trees. The path then made an abrupt turn to the right, the first zig in what would be a long and zigzag­ging route. With each step, the jour­ney to­wards death, pu­rifi­ca­tion, and res­ur­rec­tion was on my mind. I

thought back to my ex­pe­ri­ences in nearby Porto, Por­tu­gal’s sec­ond city, just a few days ear­lier. In a cat­a­comb, death is never far away.

Into the cat­a­combs

The bot­tom of the pit was lined with a crum­pled grey rug. I knelt down to take a closer look, bring­ing my head near to the square hole in the ground. The rug turned out to be a mass of bones: ran­dom pieces of dead peo­ple. Here an arm. There a skull. Here an­other arm. I craned my neck to see how far the re­mains con­tin­ued be­neath the floor: they dis­ap­peared into the dis­tance. All that sep­a­rated me from them was a thin layer of stone and wood, rest­ing on sup­ports, and hope­fully about seventy-plus more years of life (knock on same wood). I’d wan­dered around the crypt for some time be­fore trip­ping over the en­trance to the bone pit – luck­ily for me, it was cov­ered by a glass plate and a metal grate. But some­how, only when peer­ing down into the hole did my sur­round­ings be­come real. It’s one thing to be told you’re tour­ing cham­bers filled with bones, but an­other to con­front said dead peo­ple in the flesh (ok, only I had flesh, but you know what I mean). Num­bered wooden floor pan­els hid the rest of the bones from view. I stepped from ‘79’ to ‘80’, won­der­ing who rested be­neath, and lis­tened to the cho­ral mu­sic pumped from speak­ers on the walls. The arched cham­bers were lined with sealed black and white niches, each num­bered and topped by a tiny skull (just in case you for­got where you were). Th­ese were the buri­als of the clergy, each in­tro­duced by the words ‘Here lies’ in Por­tuguese and given a date of death. No anony­mous fate be­low the floor among the sea of bones for them. Else­where, there was a statue of char­ity, brought from a nearby ceme­tery, and a dis­play of os­suar­ies. Be­fore the 19th cen­tury, it was nor­mal for the Por­tuguese to be buried within their re­li­gious build­ings (in which the rich, and mem­bers of the clergy, re­ceived the best spots). In­deed, there weren’t any le­gal ope­nair pub­lic ceme­ter­ies un­til the 1830s. Even then, most peo­ple re­sisted them, pre­fer­ring to be buried in­side of, or as close as pos­si­ble to, a church. As the churches and their as­so­ci­ated build­ings ex­panded or were re­built, th­ese re­mains were gath­ered and moved, to be placed in cat­a­combs be­low.

The cat­a­combs that I’d found my­self within are lo­cated be­neath a com­plex of build­ings – once a monastery – owned by the Third Or­der of São Fran­cisco, their en­trance down a stair­way in the Casa do Des­pa­cho (the suit­ably named ‘Dis­patch House’), built in the 1750s. Above ground, you can visit a trea­sury, filled with pre­cious items and paint­ings from the monastery’s past, and the

Ses­sions Room, with its gilded wood-carved ceil­ing and large cru­ci­fix set within a golden shrine. For cen­turies, peo­ple were buried within this monas­tic com­plex, many in the as­so­ci­ated church and some within a pri­vate cat­a­comb be­neath the Casa do Des­pa­cho from as early as 1746. In 1795, it was de­cided that this ceme­tery should be ex­tended be­neath the church, and even­tu­ally, the bod­ies from within the church were moved there. Buri­als con­tin­ued un­til 1866, ef­fec­tively un­til the clergy were forced to send peo­ple else­where.

De­spite the macabre fas­ci­na­tion of the cat­a­combs, they aren’t the main rea­son peo­ple visit this part of Porto: nor­mally they head straight for the Church of São Fran­cisco, just across from the Casa do Des­pa­cho. Built in the 13th cen­tury, but re­con­structed and adapted many times since, the church’s aus­tere grey ex­te­rior is gothic in style. In stark con­trast, its fab­u­lous and over­the-top, baroque in­te­rior dates to the 17th-18th cen­turies. Ex­plor­ing, you feel like you’re drown­ing in gold – ev­ery sur­face is carved and gilded. No artist in­volved ever thought: sub­tlety, that’s the plan. Small or­nate tombs are spread through­out; cherubs emerge from walls, as if launched by a golden ex­plo­sion; there’s a grue­some al­tar piece, show­ing the mar­tyred saints of Morocco in the mid­dle of be­ing mar­tyred. Golden vines weave their way across the walls, perched on by birds. But per­haps most fa­mous is the elab­o­rate Tree of Jesse al­tar­piece. This de­picts the fam­ily line of Je­sus (present at the top), down via such fa­mous in­di­vid­u­als as kings David and Solomon, to Jesse him­self. Each fig­ure stands on the branches of a tree – made from carved and gilded wood (of course) – its trunk emerg­ing from Jesse’s body.

The Stair­way of the Five Senses

By the time I’d com­pleted the first stair­way of Bom Je­sus do Monte, with Je­sus, I’d wit­nessed the kiss of Ju­das, ex­pe­ri­enced the chapel of darkness, Christ’s flag­el­la­tion, and the crown of thorns. I can safely say it’d been a busy af­ter­noon. So far, the in­cline had been slight, the steps nu­mer­ous, and I’d emerged from the for­est at a large cir­cu­lar plat­form. It was flanked by two chapels: one rep­re­sent­ing the Road to Gol­go­tha, and the other

show­ing Je­sus be­fore Pi­late. The plat­form pro­vided great views over Braga too: Por­tu­gal’s third city was in the dis­tance across the hilly, wooded ter­rain be­low. Be­hind and above me, I now also got my first clear view of the church. Its dual tow­ers pointed to the sky, each adorned with its own bell. It was a neo­clas­si­cal build­ing – bal­anced and re­strained – coloured cream and white, with a tri­an­gu­lar cen­tral por­tion topped by a cru­ci­fix. Be­low it was my next chal­lenge, the much steeper and or­nate part of the climb: the Stair­way of the Five Senses and, be­yond it, the Stair­way of the Three Virtues. Both were carved from gran­ite, their sharply zigzag­ging balustrade­s painted white.

The Stair­way of the Five Senses is formed of five plat­forms con­nected by stairs. And at the cen­tre of each plat­form is a face, serv­ing as a foun­tain, from which wa­ter pours. It’s as creepy as it sounds. At the first foun­tain, wa­ter emp­ties from the fig­ure’s eyes, rep­re­sent­ing the sense of sight; at the next, it pours from the ears, rep­re­sent­ing hear­ing. Then comes the nose (smell); the mouth (taste); and fi­nally, the wa­ter is poured from a jar, rep­re­sent­ing touch. The fig­ure with wa­ter pour­ing from his mouth looks the most un­well; the one with wa­ter in his eyes sim­ply looks con­cerned; and the ones with wa­ter pour­ing from their ears and nose seem pe­cu­liarly happy with their sit­u­a­tion. Above each foun­tain is the statue of a Bib­li­cal fig­ure, such as Joseph and Solomon. As pil­grims walk, or kneel, their way up the steps, they touch the foun­tain that clos­est matches their own ail­ment, or the ail­ment of a loved one. I passed be­tween two col­umns, en­cir­cled by snakes, and joined the pil­grims on my up­ward jour­ney. As I walked, I be­came lost in my mem­o­ries of Porto – a city that over­whelms the senses.

Pic­turesque Porto

Porto’s colour­ful and vi­brant his­toric core is a UNESCO world her­itage site. El­e­gant build­ings of baroque and neo­clas­si­cal de­sign, lin­ing wide boule­vards, com­pete for your at­ten­tion with cen­turies-old houses painted, pink, yel­low or blue, crum­bling along me­dieval al­ley­ways. There’s grey gothic and Ro­manesque churches, such as the city’s cathe­dral, and baroque mon­u­ments, like the Torre de Cleri­gos, a 76 me­tre tower built in the 1700s. Rick­ety an­tique trams criss­cross the streets be­tween parks and stat­ues of dig­ni­taries. Even the book­stores are el­e­gant – par­tic­u­larly Livraria Lello & Ir­mão, fa­mous for its wooden stair­case and stained glass ceil­ing. Ev­ery street has its own friendly cafes, and each fills with lo­cal work­ers at lunchtime, look­ing to en­joy a glass or two of wine with their set meal of soup, then meat and pota­toes. This lively tableau is painted across hill­sides, forc­ing you to as­cend and de­scend as you travel from place to place.

As you ex­plore the city, the sound of Por­tuguese mixes with lan­guages from across the world, the words over­heard, drift­ing from cafes and restau­rants. There’s the call of seag­ulls and the flow of the Douro River. The rum­ble of con­struc­tion. Church bells. And then there’s fado. Ex­pe­ri­enced in worn lo­cal cafes and tourist joints across the city, sung from the heart ac­com­pa­nied by weep­ing gui­tars, and in­scribed on UNESCO’s list of in­tan­gi­ble her­itage, fado is the sound of Por­tu­gal. En­er­getic and haunt­ing, in­fused with ‘saudade’ – a sense of sad­ness and long­ing for times gone by – th­ese are songs of yearn­ing and nos­tal­gia for home and of long­ing for those you love.

Be­ing a port city, seafood can be found on ev­ery menu. But tripe, made with white beans and served with rice, is also a fa­mous lo­cal dish. For com­fort food, there’s noth­ing bet­ter than Porto’s spe­cial cre­ation: Francesinh­a, a sand­wich made with var­i­ous meats, topped with cheese and a tomato and beer sauce, served with fries. But Porto is per­haps best-known for its epony­mous drink: port. In the Ribeira District, when stand­ing on the wa­ter­front prom­e­nade, you can look across the Douro River to­wards Vila Nova de Gaia. Spread across the hills, there’s an ar­ray of restau­rants and bars, and among them, the ‘lodges’ or ‘cellars’ of the city’s port man­u­fac­tur­ers, each with the com­pany’s name promi­nently dis­played on its roof. Many of­fer tours and tast­ings, in which you can smell and sip ports of dif­fer­ent kinds and vin­tages. I can par­tic­u­larly rec­om­mend the tour of the Ramos Pinto lodge: you get to see their old of­fices, pre­served as they ap­peared in the 1930s (along with their risqué an­tique posters), and ex­plore their wine cel­lar be­fore sit­ting down for your tast­ing. Af­ter­wards, stroll along the wa­ter­front, watch­ing the tra­di­tional flat-bot­tomed boats bob up and down on the river. Boats of this kind once trans­ported port bar­rels along the Douro. To­day, they’re just used to move tourists.

Porto is also fa­mous for its tra­di­tion of hand­painted tiles, known as ‘azule­jos’. You can find them ev­ery­where, dec­o­rat­ing build­ings across the city: the Church of Carmo on Rua do Carmo is en­tirely cov­ered in them, as is the Capela das Al­mas de Santa Cata­rina, from the early 18th

cen­tury, on Rua de Santa Cata­rina. You can even buy your own in the tourist stores, though in­stead of tra­di­tional re­li­gious scenes, th­ese most of­ten bear images of an­i­mals, in­clud­ing the Barce­los rooster, sym­bol of Por­tu­gal, or cats. One of the city’s most fa­mous tiled scenes can be found in the cathe­dral. Orig­i­nally con­structed in the 12th cen­tury in the Ro­manesque style, but with al­ter­ations since, Porto’s Cathe­dral rests atop a high hill, look­ing down over the city. It is reached through a net­work of me­dieval streets, lined with colour­ful run-down houses, all on a steep in­cline. From the top of the hill, stand­ing in a large square, where Porto’s mar­ket was once held, there’s fan­tas­tic views over the salmon-coloured roofs of the city. In­side the cathe­dral, take in the mag­nif­i­cent baroque apse, filled with gilded twirling col­umns and stat­ues, be­fore as­cend­ing a set of steps to the up­per level of the clois­ter. Here you’ll find wall af­ter wall cov­ered in blue tiles. Made in the 18th cen­tury by Vi­tal Ri­farto, th­ese show scenes from Solomon’s Song of Songs, in which the king ex­presses his love for his bride. Cue plump cherubs, winged an­gels, and – that uni­ver­sal sym­bol of love – 18th-cen­tury no­bles on horse­back chas­ing an emu.

The stair­way of the three virtues

My feet were start­ing to hurt, but only one set of steps now stood be­tween me and the church of Bom Je­sus do Monte: the Stair­way of the Three Virtues. This was ded­i­cated to faith, hope, and char­ity, each rep­re­sented by a foun­tain. Faith was a cross with three spouts for wa­ter (though it only poured from the low­est spout dur­ing my visit); hope was rep­re­sented by an im­age of Noah’s ark, the flood wa­ter be­low; and char­ity was two chil­dren, one hold­ing a heart from which the wa­ter flowed, like a tiny Mola Ramm from In­di­ana Jones and the Tem­ple of Doom. I’m not en­tirely sure how a tod­dler grip­ping a freshly ripped out heart sig­ni­fies char­ity, but I’m sure it made sense to its de­signer. On each level, as I con­tin­ued to as­cend, mini obelisks and stat­ues of holy men looked down at me from above. I imag­ined them cheer­ing me on.

As I walked, my mind took me back to Braga, where ear­lier that day I’d al­ready wit­nessed the

virtue of faith. In this an­cient city, founded by the Ro­mans as Bracara Augusta, where var­i­ous trade routes united, I’d walked the streets ad­mir­ing the prepa­ra­tions for the an­nual fes­ti­val of São João (St. John) – the big­gest two nights of the year, held ev­ery June, when peo­ple dance the night away and en­joy fire­works dis­plays. As I strolled past the oldest cathe­dral in Por­tu­gal (noted for its out­stand­ing baroque or­gan), and Ro­man ar­chae­o­log­i­cal sites, peo­ple ev­ery­where were busy deck­ing the streets with colour­ful dec­o­ra­tions – tin­sel cir­cles of blue, yel­low, and green, colour­ful lights, and the city’s crest. In the Jardim da Avenida Cen­tral, a free­stand­ing ‘church’ had been erected, dec­o­rated with blue tin­sel and hearts and stars of blue, yel­low, and green. Paint­ings of danc­ing men and women, set in gi­ant ovals, hung from lines strung across the park, high off the ground. Oth­ers showed laugh­ing women and men in blue suits (with match­ing hats) play­ing sax­o­phones. Mul­ti­coloured tin­sel stream­ers stretched from the rim of the park’s large, round foun­tain to its cen­tre, where a statue of the child São João had been erected, a lamb by his feet. This cel­e­bra­tion of the saint would be one huge party, en­joyed by ev­ery­one in the city, and high­lighted the con­tin­u­ing im­por­tance of re­li­gion in Por­tuguese so­ci­ety.

Bom Je­sus do Monte – Good Je­sus of the Mount

By the time I met the mar­tyr Saint Cle­mente within the Church of Bom Je­sus do Monte, he’d been dead for nearly 2,000 years. Luck­ily, his face, like the rest of his body, had been cov­ered in wax and plas­ter, pre­serv­ing a more recog­nis­ably hu­man form than the scat­tered bones I’d met ear­lier on my trip down into Porto’s cat­a­combs. A slot be­neath him asked for ‘Es­mo­las para S. Cle­mente’ (‘Alms for St. Cle­mente’). A bar­rier stopped me from ap­proach­ing, but from my van­tage point, Cle­mente looked as if sleep­ing, his eyes closed, his mouth slightly open. Upon two pil­lows, on his side, he lay within an or­nate al­tar, topped with a white cloth, a layer of glass separat­ing him from the out­side world. He wore a crown, a yel­low cloak, and a tu­nic of white. His red shoes had faded to pink. In life, Cle­mente had been a Ro­man sol­dier, mar­tyred in the 3rd Cen­tury AD. And like many mar­tyrs and saints in churches across Europe, he’d been pre­served, dressed, and put on dis­play to at­tract pil­grims.

I’m not en­tirely sure how a tod­dler grip­ping a freshly ripped out heart sig­ni­fies char­ity, but I’m sure it made sense to its de­signer

Ear­lier, caught in a sud­den down­pour, I’d fin­ished the last steps of the Stair­way of the Three Virtues, and rushed in­side the church – my goal – to find its open space filled with sim­i­larly soggy tourists and pil­grims. Paint­ings dec­o­rated niches carved into the grey stone walls. Chan­de­liers and win­dows of var­i­ous sizes, some above bal­conies, some in the high dome, let in light, il­lu­mi­nat­ing stat­ues of holy men in the walls. A sign be­side a prom­i­nent slot in a box urged peo­ple to do­nate to the sanc­tu­ary (the word ‘of­fer­ing’ in cap­i­tals). If you did so, Je­sus would re­ward you, it said. In a side chapel, the im­age of Sen­hor do Monte was un­der­go­ing restora­tion work – it was prob­a­bly the re­cip­i­ent of some of th­ese do­na­tions. I made my way along the nave, com­ing across the pre­served Saint Cle­mente on the right. He wasn’t the only at­trac­tion for pil­grims: above Cle­mente, in an al­cove, around 50 tiny busts of saints were ar­ranged in lines on in­creas­ingly smaller plat­forms, like a holy wed­ding cake. Each fig­ure con­tained a relic of the saint rep­re­sented. And at the top, above ev­ery­thing, was a relic of the true cross.

But all of th­ese signs of re­li­gious de­vo­tion paled in com­par­i­son to the dec­o­ra­tion of the apse – the fi­nal des­ti­na­tion of all pil­grims to the sanc­tu­ary. Where you might nor­mally find a paint­ing by some Re­nais­sance mas­ter, or at least a gilded cru­ci­fix, here a full scale re­pro­duc­tion of the cru­ci­fix­ion had been cre­ated in the round. The rocky peak of Gol­go­tha was pop­u­lated by Ro­man sol­diers, re­lax­ing now that their day’s work was over. Other fig­ures stood close to Je­sus’ cross, Mary at the front, a halo above her head. The two cru­ci­fied thieves, flank­ing Je­sus, were also faith­fully re­pro­duced, hang­ing on their own crosses. They were be­ing snubbed by ev­ery­one present.

I turned around to look at the other peo­ple in the church, see­ing faith and char­ity ev­ery­where: the de­vout were pray­ing, seated in rows, oth­ers were drop­ping Eu­ros into of­fer­ing boxes, con­tribut­ing to the up­keep of the church and sup­port­ing the broth­er­hood that man­age it. I’m sure that hope was present too, but this is nor­mally kept in the mind and heart. Many pil­grims prob­a­bly hoped for heal­ing, for­give­ness of sins, or per­haps for res­ur­rec­tion in the next life. Me? I sim­ply hoped to one day re­turn to Por­tu­gal. That, and to never have to walk up­hill ever again.

Above, left: A gateway in the city of Braga

Above, right: Prepa­ra­tions for the fes­ti­val of São João at Braga (Both images: © Garry Shaw)

Above, top left: Per­gola – Foz area

Above: A street in Porto, with the city’s cathe­dral in the back­ground (Im­age: © Garry Shaw)

Above, bot­tom left: Cléri­gos Mar­ket (Images: Mu­nicí­pio do Porto)

Left, top: A foun­tain rep­re­sent­ing the sense of smell, on the Stair­way of the Five Senses at Bom Je­sus do Monte (Im­age: © Garry Shaw) Left, mid­dle: The Church of São Fran­cisco, Porto (Im­age: CC BY-NC-ND - Livio) Left, bot­tom: The glit­tery in­te­rior of...

Above, right: A chapel along the first stair­way of Bom Je­sus do Monte

(All images: © Garry Shaw)

Above, top left: The Capela da Ago­nia, along the first stair­way of Bom Je­sus do Monte Above, bot­tom left: Within the cat­a­combs of Porto, be­neath the Casa do Des­pa­cho of the Third Or­der of São Fran­cisco

Above: The cru­ci­fix­ion scene in the church of Bom Je­sus do Monte (Im­age: © Garry Shaw)

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