I’ve grown accustomed to the reality of Sundays in Europe, that enforced “day of rest” since anything and everything will undoubtedly be closed. The blessing of that both in Germany and Spain is that in your search for something open you rediscover the beauty of the outdoors (when weather permits) and you find yourself smiling and nodding with so many happy strangers strolling through a German forest or along a Spanish beach. It’s pleasant, healthy, and somehow renews you in a way that shopping or running errands just can’t. No surprise there. It’s a truth that nature feeds the soul and these days in all too busy lives, most of us are quite malnourished.
We hadn’t a clue what to expect of Portugal, but assumed it would be like all other places we’d been where Sunday is concerned especially on Easter. After all, we were near Braga, the Easter capital of Portugal where religion is taken more serious than in the southern parts of the country. It ought to be quiet, right?
Apparently resting on Easter isn’t what the Portuguese had in mind. I awoke at 7am to the sound of roosters and fireworks that didn’t stop the entire day. Clearly, Jesus is risen and it’s time to make some noise! The otherwise blue morning sky turned to thick smoky haze with each boom and crackle. I thought they came from one of the churches, but throughout the day the fireworks continued from different areas – even at the house next door where a baby was being Christened. Perhaps the Portuguese are like the Valencians using fireworks to announce and celebrate everything.
Kristi and Tiara stayed back to rest and play Easter bunny when it was time. The rest of us went to Braga. I thought if there was anything going on, it would be there.
Portugal surprised me within three minutes. It was near noon on Easter Sunday and shops were open. Groceries and cafes, small local stores. A large group of casually dressed men stood outside a pizzeria talking with each other. It was a sunny day and everyone was outside together. Families in their gardens, friends meeting on street corners. Everyone outside soaking up the sun after a bad winter and enjoying the holiday. They were alive. And of course, they should be, but I’ve been more accustomed to the silence of holidays in Germany when the towns seem “dead.” Not a car on the road nor a person in sight.
We made our way to Braga, then up an unusually narrow, curvy cobblestone road (apparently the back way) to Bon Jesus, a Catholic pilgrimage site built high on the hills above Braga. Breathtaking. I’ve become desensitized to beautiful churches. Really, it’s sad, but Europe has so many of them that on trips with the girls, I often hear, “no, please, not another church!” And sometimes I feel the same, snapping a few photos of the outside and walking on. But this one. If you were to take it and plant in among the congested antiquity of a European city center, it would be “just another church,” but here on this hill surrounded by meticulously landscaped gardens and a fairy tale staircase, it becomes a church my kids can really get excited about. They did, in fact, get excited, and never did step inside the church.
Just below the church and its gardens is this staircase – a series of platforms with stairs on both the right and the left sides. Each platform has a different fountain in the center and three different statues on top. They tell stories though I couldn’t decipher all, but here, it’s not just latin sayings or imperial quotes, but actual scripture verses carved into the stone. It’s all very grounded and real without so much of the mysticism that can creep into religion. Simple green buildings sit on either side of the staircase on several levels. They are drab and run down with iron bars on the windows, a wax covered grate with red and white candles sitting on it and a blue sign with a coin slot that says, “esmolas,” offerings. Inside each one is a different scene from Christ’s life.
We walked all the way down the stairs, then all the way back up. Kirk and the girls took the little water powered tram down the hill and back while Jeff and I looked inside the church.
The place was buzzing. Old couples sat on the moss covered stones with picnic lunches. Children ran around. It wasn’t quiet or solemn, but happy and full of life. The cafe was packed with families drinking coca cola and eating ice cream. We went through a strange man made cave with stalactites, then up to the gazebo on top following the path even higher to find a small lake with boats behind the church. An older balding man in a slacks and a sweater vest took our money – 1.20/person for the 30 minute ride. Kirk paddled mostly. Arianna and Luci took a turn together. I took pictures from shore.
Such a lovely place. History and beauty brought to life by the flow of people there, the families, the couples, the tourists… probably more touristy in the summer, but today, just perfect.
Hungry tummies took us to Braga where a men were walking around “helping people park” for tips, I’m sure. We finally gave in, were directed by a man on foot to a perfect, free parking spot, or, at least free until I tipped him for his help. It was helpful, after all.
At first, Braga was exactly what I expected to see on Easter. It was silent. An older couple walked by us arm in arm. A few teenagers sat on a bench by an empty square. We walked by 4 old churches and inside a 5th without seeing many people at all. We were ready to turn around and leave thinking food would be impossible to find and then we found the main street, with shops closed, but cafes open and a steady flow of people walking by. It led to the main square, a large fountain, a popcorn vendor, and most of Braga. They were all there. So many people. Not uncomfortably crowded, but with that perfect balance of people that it seems celebratory and invokes a feeling of camaraderie. It must have been magical because I let my girls get McDonalds burgers and sundaes – something they have done only one other time in the last 5 years.
A leisurely walk back to our car. Kristi and Tiara would be hopping around the yard with baskets of eggs about now and we didn’t want those chocolates to melt in the sun.