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HOME > Classical Novels > Through Portugal > II BRAGA AND BOM JESUS
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The famous port-wine is grown upon a well-defined region nearly sixty miles up the river from Oporto, and, interesting as the manufacture is, the arid and inhospitable-looking land of terraced hillsides, where the glorious grape grows upon the loose, stony soil, offers little attraction to the seeker after the picturesque. To the north of Oporto, and indeed in most of the province of Minho, the wine produced, though varying in excellence, is generally of stout claret character, not unlike the Rioja wine grown in the north of Spain. But North Portugal, though cultivated like a garden wherever possible by a peasantry probably unequalled in Europe for self-respecting independence and laboriousness, thanks largely to causes that have made them practically owners as well as tillers of the soil, does not strike a cursory observer as being naturally fertile. For miles together, and as far 35as the eye reaches, pine-clad hillsides stretch: beautiful straight pines, rising in huge forests or isolated clumps, the light-green feathery foliage shining against the clear indigo background of the sky, high above the sandy soil carpeted with a thick soft cushion of pine-needles. But closer view shows that down in the sheltered valleys between the hills and on the lower slopes there nestle hundreds of little vineyards and fields of maize and rye, the staple breadstuffs of the people.

The peasantry live well in their way, and are not content with inferior food. Not for them is the poor makeshift of white bread and the fat cold bacon of the English farm hand. The bread of rye with an admixture of maize flour, the broa or brona, as it is called in north-western Spain, is dark in colour and coarse in texture; but it is a fine sustaining food, upon which, in Galicia, I have often made a good meal. The ever-present dried codfish, bacalhau, cooked with garlic and oil, and sometimes with rice, flavoured with saffron, is also not by any means a food to be contemned, unpalatable as it is to those who taste it for the first time. But this, although forming the staple fare of the Minho peasant and 36small farmer, does not exhaust his menu. There is for high days and holidays the savoury estofado of stewed meat and vegetables, of which the Portuguese peasant housewife is pardonably proud; there are olives, onions, and fruit ad libitum, and good, sound, new wine, tart, but not unpleasant, at the price of the cheapest small beer in England.

But the foreign visitor who comes simply for a short pleasure trip on the more or less beaten tracks will not be expected to regale himself upon this peasant fare, good as it is in its way. Of mutton he will find little or none, but veal, especially in the national stew, he will see at most meals, and ox-tongue, with a rich sauce, will appear on the table more frequently than is usual elsewhere. A thin, and, it must be confessed, usually tough steak, to which the adopted English name of beef (spelt bife) is given, will be placed before him pretty often, and he will find both the thing and the word omelette—which is never used in Spanish—universal in Portuguese dining-rooms.

Through a glorious country of pine-clad uplands and sheltered vineyards the railway runs from Oporto to the former great city of Braga, in Roman times Bracara Augusta, and capital of the whole north-western part of the Iberian Peninsula. 37Its position on a slight elevation in the midst of a vast undulating plain or cuenca, surrounded by mountains, has made of Braga the natural emporium of the province, and in each succeeding racial dispensation a royal seat and capital; and it remains to-day, though shorn of its splendour, the ecclesiastical capital of the Spains, claiming precedence over imperial Toledo for its archbishopric and primacy. It is a busy, prosperous place, humming with little spinning and weaving factories, where woollen and cotton fabrics are turned out in great quantities, and hold their own not only here in Minho, but in the rest of Portugal and far Brazil and Portuguese Africa.

At the railway station at Braga, in the outskirts of the city, a noisy, assertive little steam-train of several carriages is waiting in the street, and with much puffing and whistling, it carries the travellers up the slope into the narrow thoroughfares of the town. It is Sunday, and the streets are thronged with gaily-dressed people, the women, heavily decked with the ancient gold jewellery, long earrings, heavy neck chains, and crosses upon the white shirt that covers the bosom. Across the shoulders of most of them there is a brilliantly 38coloured silk handkerchief, whilst their full-pleated short skirts are usually of some thick dark-coloured cloth, and upon their heads here in Braga they often wear, like their sisters in Oporto, the peculiar round cloth pork-pie hat, with the curling silk fringe on the top of the rim. The men are less picturesque in their Sunday trim, for many of them wear felt wide-brimmed hats instead of the workaday bag cap; but even they have usually added a bit of colour to their sombre masculine garb in the form of a bright scarf encircling their waists to do the duty of braces.

Under the Porta Nova the fussy little train rushes, and up the narrow, picturesque street, the top-heavy stone scutcheon upon the eighteenth-century gate striking at the very entrance the dominant note of the ancient city. Here and everywhere the archiepiscopal insignia, the tasselled hat and mitre, and the Virgin and Child on the city arms, tell that the place from the earliest Christian times has been an ecclesiastical seignory. Churches, too, greet the eye at every turn; most of them massive seventeenth and eighteenth century structures in the peculiar style mentioned in 39the description of the Church of Mattosinhos in the last chapter: brownish grey granite outlines and salient points, with dazzling white plaster spaces between. Opposite one such church, in a tiny pra?a leading off from the main square of the city, the Largo da Lapa, I came across a picturesque scene worthy of the brush of John Philip. In a corner of the little square of San Francisco was an ancient recessed fountain in the wall, and around it, with water jars high and graceful like Roman amphor?, there fluttered a group of women waiting their turn at the jet. Moving to and fro and clustering in the deep shadow contrasting with the blinding sunlight, these full-bosomed, black-haired women, with fine Roman heads and flashing eyes, were so many points of glaring colour, forming a brilliant giant kaleidoscope, whilst the chattering of many tongues, the jest and taunt thrown over the shoulder to rival or to swain, the careless laughter, seemed to blend and fill the languid air with a vague harmony to the ear, such as the mixed discordant colours in their aggregation produced to the eye. By the side of the gay fountain stood the contrast that heightened 40its effect. A frowning monastery with heavily grated windows high upon the wall, from which glowered evil faces and thrust thievish hands. For here, again, on this happy holiday afternoon in Braga, the gaol-birds held their levee. Beneath their bars stood their womenkind and children, consoling or grieving; and little bags hung down at the end of strings from the windows to receive the gifts it pleased their friends to send up to the sinister rascals, whose hoarse ribaldry or whining appeal broke in ever and anon upon the gay chatter of the fountain. As if in irony, the church that faced the monastery prison bore upon its front the name the “Temple of the Sacred Order of Penitence.” Of contrition one saw little sign on the part of those who from behind their bars looked for all their weary day upon the church commemorating the unmerited self-reproach of the “Seraphic Father St. Francis.”


There is one thing throughout Portugal that may be unhesitatingly condemned, and here in Braga the evil is as patent as elsewhere. The old traditional and, in many cases, historical names of the pra?as and streets have been changed wholesale and wantonly for those of 41passing and second-rate celebrities, political and otherwise. In Braga the ancient Largo da Lapa has been turned into Largo de Hintze Ribeiro, after the leader of the Liberal party in the Cortes, and there is hardly a town in Portugal in which the principal squares and thoroughfares do not bear the name of Hintze Ribeiro, or of his rival politician, Conselheiro Jo?o Franco. Serpa Pinto and Mouzinho de Albuquerque, two fire-eating African explorers, who in the jingo colonial fever of a few years ago, when the feeling against England ran high, were made heroes, are commemorated in streets innumerable throughout Portugal, to the exclusion of names which were often quaint and significant landmarks of long ago.

The palace of the Archbishops of Braga hardly corresponds in appearance with the high claims of the primate, for the church in Portugal is sadly shorn of its splendour, and part of the rambling palace is a ruin; but the cathedral offers many points of interest. Enthusiastic local antiquarians are confident that the first edifice was raised by Saint James himself in the lifetime of the Holy Virgin. But, however that may be, the present 42church certainly dates from the twelfth century; and though, as usual, the seventeenth century did its best to spoil and smother its primitive simplicity; yet, as in the case of Oporto Cathedral, which that of Braga much resembles, the stern solidity of the original work stands out clear from the frippery by which it is overlaid.

The narrow nave is divided from the aisles by massive low clustered granite pillars supporting slightly pointed arches, above which spring the simple groins that form the vaulted roof. At the west end the church is darkened by the gilt wooden ceiling that supports the choir and the great gilded organ with spread trumpet pipes that is the pride of the cathedral. The choir itself, raised upon a loft and occupying the whole west end of the church, is of surprising magnificence; carving and gilding have run wild; cupids, cherubim, angels, musicians, and fabulous monsters jostle each other exuberantly upon choir stalls, lecterns, and panels: all the caprice, skill, and invention of sixteenth and seventeenth century Portuguese art have been lavished upon the work. And the effect is rich in the extreme, but utterly 43incongruous with the sober early ogival of the church itself. Even in the nave the massive granite pillars have been crowned by later vandals with florid capitals of carved gilt wood. The walls, too, are much covered with pictorial blue and white tiles, and the effect of this, though inartistic, is quaint and not displeasing. From the tiny cloister of plain romanesque there opens the chapel of St. Luke, where in two splendid sepulchres lie the bodies of the Leonese princess, Teresa, and her Burgundian husband, Count Henrique, to whom she brought the county of Portugal in the late eleventh century. These are the progenitors of the Kings of Portugal, the parents of Affonso Henriques, of whom we shall hear much later; and to Donna Teresa is owing the re-foundation of the Cathedral of Braga. In the side chapels, in the cloisters, and in the sumptuous chapel of St. Gerald, the patron saint, there lie dead and mouldering archbishops not a few; one of them, it is said, incorrupt after eight centuries, though in consequence of the flesh having been varnished he has the appearance of a mulatto, and shows to this day the honourable scar across his 44cheek that the warrior archbishop gained whilst fighting valiantly by the side of the Master of Avis at the ever-memorable battle of Aljubarrota, that gave the regal crown of Portugal to the illegitimate scion of the House of Burgundy. Another coffin there is, just inside the west door, that has for most people a still more human interest. It is of gilt copper, apparently French in design, bearing upon its lid an effigy of a pretty boy of ten, the little Prince Affonso, whose bones lie within, and who died at Braga in the year 1400.

The exterior of the cathedral has, like the interior, been much spoilt by later builders, the little square towers having been crowned by a mean-looking balustrade and crockets; but the exterior of the sixteenth-century Lady Chapel is a favourable specimen of the peculiar florid Portuguese renaissance style called Manueline, of which I shall have more to say later. Here at the Lady Chapel at Braga it is more restrained and presents fewer daring departures from the Gothic canons than elsewhere, though the surprising intricacy of the parapet and pinnacles show that the new spirit was strongly moving when it was built. That the artists who executed the work were Spaniards 45from Biscay is probably the reason why in this instance the peculiar and more questionable features of the style are less conspicuous than in the productions of native Portuguese craftsmen of the same period. The other churches of Braga have little show. They are mostly rococo seventeenth-century structures, granite and plaster outside, and nightmares of carved gilt wood inside; but almost under the shadow of the overloaded rococo fa?ade of Santa Cruz there is a lovely little early ogival votive chapel standing by itself, and containing a characteristically Portuguese group of the dead Christ, infinitely touching and beautiful.

And so through the quaint old streets the stranger finds his way, passing by a house here and there whose balconies and windows are covered with the intricate wooden jalousies that linger still as a tradition of oriental civilisation. The whole place is bathed and flooded with vivid sunlight, except where the lengthening shadows fall almost purple in their depth; and wandering without special aim, past the public garden called the Campo de Sant’ Anna, towards the outskirts of the city, I found myself at the foot of a steep hill rising suddenly on the left of the walk. 46Climbing it, I found a little plateau on the top with a tiny quaint seventeenth-century hermitage chapel, the Guadalupe I learned was its name, under a clump of shady planes and chestnut trees. Around the plateau was a dwarf parapet upon which two lovers were sitting, oblivious to all around save each other; but as I reached the parapet, and my eyes took in the prospect spread before me, a cry of wonderment at its marvellous beauty sprang involuntarily from me, and aroused for a moment the attention of the youth and the girl, who sat with their backs to the landscape, caring nothing for such things. It was but a glance they gave me, and I could enjoy thenceforward without interruption or notice the rapture I felt from the scene, the first of many such peculiarly Portuguese prospects of rolling valleys and soaring mountains to be gained from comparatively low elevations; scenes such as in other countries can only be attained after long and arduous climbs up high mountains. I soon found, it is true, that this view from the Guadalupe in Braga was but a trifle in comparison with many others to be encountered in the course of a few weeks’ travel; but when it first burst unexpectedly upon me it filled me with an ecstasy 47that no subsequent prospect, however fine, could produce.

Just below me was a tangle of vines, and then a mass of oaks, planes, cork-trees, and acacias, with their fluttering light foliage, descending in a gracious ocean of greenery of every shade across a broad valley till they climbed half up the glowing red mountains miles away. White houses gleamed amidst the trees, and upon every hill-top a hermitage or shrine stood out with its shining cross above it. But that which attracted the eye most was what looked like a giant white marble staircase of immense width, leading right up the side of a wooded mountain spur opposite, upon the summit of which, at the head of the stupendous stair, set deep in the verdure of woods, stood a huge white temple. Seen from the Guadalupe, the architectural approach up the mountain side to the place of pilgrimage above looked almost too vast to be made by man. Beyond, on the right, rose a majestic range of granite peaks, bare of vegetation, and scattered to the summit with tremendous boulders; and over all the setting sun threw a glow of golden light that tipped the grey granite with crimson, orange, and purple, and deepened the shadows of the climbing 48woods to umber and to black. The light fell, and by-and-by only the crests of the red and grey mountains glowed, for the woods across the vast plain lay in the black shadow of the peaks. But still, white and gleaming, like a stupendous staircase of shining silver, there shone, clear from the surrounding gloom, the great pilgrimage of Bom Jesus do Monte. And so in the gathering twilight, sated with the beauty of the inanimate world, I slowly wandered down into the pulsing city again, leaving the lad and his lass still whispering on the parapet, alone in their happy blindness.

From the door of the hotel in the Campo Sant’ Anna the tyrannical little street train that bullies Braga several times a day carries us to the foot of the Bom Jesus on the spur of Mount Espinho. For nearly two miles of continuous gentle ascent the road passes through a long stretching suburb of humble houses; and then a quarter of a mile through a close grove of shady trees brings us to the outer portico of the sanctuary, a white gateway at the head of a flight of steps, backed apparently by a dense luxuriant wood. Hard by the portico is the starting platform of an elevator railway, by which pilgrims may, if they please, 49dodge the rigours of the penance, and arrive at the summit without exertion. This course, on my arrival, commended itself to me, and I left until the next day a full exploration of the place. On the summit of the spur, by the side and behind the great church, white outlined by brown granite as usual, there lies a land of enchantment. Vegetation of surprising luxuriance is everywhere, giant trees full of verdure nearly all the year round, mosses, ferns, and flowers in every crevice. Gushing fountains and cascades, rustic bridges, and sweet winding paths through the woods, everything that can conduce to tranquil repose and comfort is here, with air so pure and exhilarating at this great elevation as to raise the most depressed to vivacity. On a picturesque little clearing on the summit there are two or three hotels, the principal of which, the Grand Hotel, a long one-storey wooden building overhung by great trees, I can vouch for as excellent.

The sanctuary is naturally a great resort amongst the people of Braga in the hot summers on the plain, and I cannot conceive a more agreeable place to pass a few days for rest at any time of the year; but the special religious element draws many devotees who conscientiously go 50through the pilgrimage to the shrines, and on the 3rd of May and Whit Sunday especially many hundreds of pilgrims flock to the sanctuary for devotion as well as for pleasure. The astonishing feature of the place is, of course, the devotional approach to the church up the side of the mountain, and it is difficult in a few words to give an idea of the eccentricity of the structure. It may be admitted at once that the taste displayed is atrociously bad, for it belongs to that eighteenth century which has loaded Portugal with rococo monstrosities; but the very vastness of Bom Jesus, and its exquisite position, save it from triviality; and looked at as a whole, either from above or below, the effect is grandiose in the extreme.


Some sort of sanctuary had existed here from the fifteenth century, but it was not until the middle of the seventeenth that a miraculous figure of Christ drew to the hermitage large numbers of pilgrims, and gradually in the later eighteenth century the present structures grew under the care of successive archbishops of Braga. Standing upon the spacious open terrace before the church on the summit I looked down soon after sunrise upon the scene spread before me. 51If the view hitherward from the Guadalupe was fine this was more striking still. Wreaths of grey mist still floated in the valley far below, and the vast plain with Braga in its centre embosomed amongst trees, and surrounded as far as the eye reached with red-roofed hamlets, still lay in grey shadow. But ridge over ridge, crag beyond crag, in the background rose the mountains all tipped with shining gold with chasms of tender heliotrope; and then, before the mind had well realised the beauty of the contrast, the whole plain woke and smiled with sunshine.

The platform or terrace upon which I stood with my back to the church was flanked with granite obelisks and statues, and fronted by a wide stone parapet with a beautiful stone fountain above it. By two broad flights of steps at the sides a lower landing, or platform, was reached with an arched fountain set in the face of the wall, then by steps down to a similar platform, whence a pair of flights led to yet another, and so on, the parapets and balustrades in each case being surmounted by obelisks and statues, the fountains on the wall-faces being, like the figures, an extraordinary mixture of sacred and mythological art. 52Each alternate pair of platforms, after the first six, extending right across the structure and paved with the favourite black and white stone mosaic, was flanked by two shrines or little open chapels, each with a beautiful life-sized coloured group of figures representing scenes in the passion of our Lord. Half-way down there was an entrance from one of the platforms into a lovely old-world terraced garden, overflowing with flowers, palms, and sweet-scented verdure, and overhung by the dark yews and pines that bordered the graded descent from top to bottom. At length after descending many flights of steps and passing many terraced platforms with fountains, figures, and obelisks, a large mosaic-paved semicircular space was reached, ending in a stone parapet. Turning and looking upwards from here an extraordinary effect was presented. The alternate zigzags of the stairs and the faces of the walls, indeed all the architectural features, were outlined, like the great church towering far overhead, with brown grey granite, and faced with perfectly white plaster. Stage upon stage the great staircase rose, its parapets at the side and the centre line being marked by statues rising alternately one over the other at each 53successive stage of the ascent. Dark greenery, palms, yews, acacias, orange trees, and trailing flowers overhung the ascent on each side, and it was not difficult to understand the devotional fervour of pilgrims, who with tears and contrition toil up this vast via dolorosa by the hundred on the special anniversary, worshipping at the affecting shrines on the landings, and ending in an agony of remorse at the foot of the miraculous Christ which is the main attraction of the Sanctuary. Nor is the scene looking down over the parapet at the bottom of the main flight less striking. Sheer over the precipice you see the billowy masses of dark thick woods far below. On one side of the wide mosaic landing is a stair leading to another chapel, and so down by a succession of zigzag flights, bordered by thick greenery, to the porch, set in its grove of yews, and leading to the outer world. But mere words are weak to describe the charm and beauty of the Bom Jesus. There is nothing quite like it anywhere else in Europe, and as sanctuary, health resort, and architectural curiosity it deserves to be better known than it is.

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