Set high on a forested mountain outside of Braga, Portugal, the Catholic shrine Santuário Bom Jesus do Monte was commissioned by the Archbishop of Braga so the faithful could walk the Stations of the Cross for penance and contemplation.
It wasn't on our radar at all until our tour guide suggested a detour. She thought we would like it, and we did.
Why this Catholic shrine is different
Having been completed only two centuries ago the Shrine of Good Jesus of the Mountain is new by Portuguese standards. It hasn't been the site of any miracles or visitations, but it's a popular pilgrimmage site anyway.
What makes it worth visiting is the Sacred Way, a magnificent baroque staircase that zigzags up the mountain to the shrine. Each year during Holy Week penitents climb the staircase on their hands and knees. Since we didn't fall into that category, we took the easy route – driving up – so we could experience the church and the dramatic view of the surrounding countryside.
It's worth spending time to enjoy the tree-covered area surrounding the cathedral. It's peaceful in its own right and there are quiet nooks where you can sit and enjoy a bit of solitude.
The infamous Bom Jesus do Monte Staircase
With such a dramatic staircase it's no surprise that this is the most photographed Catholic shrine in Portugal.
A handful in our group bought tickets to ride the water-powered funicular to the bottom (oldest in the world) but those of us with strong knees chose instead to descend the marble staircase on foot.
We wanted to see its terraced gardens and allegorical fountains close up.
There are eight fountains – one on each landing – and each is an allegory for something: the wounds of Christ, the five senses, the three virtues. And of course, since it is a Catholic shrine after all, there are statues and chapels for each Station of the Cross along the way.
As our guide Marta promised, Bom Jesus was worth the effort, even though we didn't walk down all 600 steps.
We stopped to take an ice cream break halfway down the staircase. When our bus met us there, our knees were most grateful. We caught up with the funicular-riders at the bottom of the hill and returned to Braga in time for dinner.
Have you ever visited a Catholic shrine or another religious sanctuary? Share your experiences below.
Our visit to Bom Jesus do Monte was an unplanned part of a post-conference blog trip offered by Visit Portugal and North Tourism Bureau. Special thanks to our guide Marta, who did everything she could to make our trip memorable. All opinions are our own.