We drove up to Bom Jesus do Monte after lunch. The road wound up with hairpin bends. I sat with my back to the hills, facing the church as the 3 o’clock bell rang. It was a euphonic display of dash and parry, of clash and feint. All too short, brief and seductive as push up bras beneath a tight fitting top with an open neck. What harmony was that, what hymn from childhood, heard and hummed in the drowsy half-slumber of vespers?
A most magnificent magnolia, ivory with the faintest plume of green white wine, festooned the lookout post. Down below, orange trees with, surprise surprise, orange orbs hanging myriad and multiple, many lying on the garden floor.
It was a warm day except in the breeze. The dark clouds were moving swiftly across the valley. Down below was Braga. Across in the background the wall of hills arched like battlements against the distant sky just in case an alien race of giants might return whilst we watched and guarded against their descent.
Gradually more and more people arrived. Elderly couples – by which I mean older than me – ambled up the hill and went into the church. Out of the sun it was early spring. In the courtyard in front of the chrch there were statues of Caiphas, Herodes, Pilatus, Annaz, Joseph de Arimathea, Nicodenos, Centuriao, and Pilatos; and by the entrance, Jeremias and Isaias.
In the sanctuary of Senhor Bom Jesus do Monte, an elderly woman in black dress and boots and purple coat, climbed up the pedestal on which a statue of Jesus was placed, clasped its torso in a love embrace, kissed its thighs, its abdomen, its side as if in rapture. No, she was in rapture. She clambered down and looked back to meet my eyes. I had espied an intimate and private moment of passion, of earthly lust even, sensual and sexual. Here was a living human being with blood coursing through her flesh, embracing cold symbolic stone as if it were alive and breathing. Then she moved to touch the Mary next to Jesus and noisily kissed its forehead. This Mary had 7 daggers thrust into her chest, a concrete image of agony!
In the gardens, the camellias were just over. There was an abundance of flowers, but the colours had faded to a brown dung color. The vitality and innocence of the petals were corrupted, shriveled and involuted.
Further away from the cathedral, we suddenly came across a surprise, much like discovering Lhassa of the imagination after a tedious trek up the Himalayas. What splendor surrounded by cedar and spruce, a peaceful lake of the purest delicacy, like satin fluttering in the breeze. A clutch of boats snuggled close to one another, to keep warm, to stay safe.
The delight of Bom Jesus de Monte was the walk down the front. Maria Dolora has the water pipes straight through her eyes. She is constantly in tears – sorrowful and inconsolable Maria, mother of God. At the bottom, you can look back up at the cathedral: it is like a crown on the summit, with the bell towers and cross mounted to call attention to God, to faith, and to lift the eyes to heaven. Each stage of the ascent was concealed, cleverly, beautifully behind an interlacing network, perhaps even a tessellation of sculpted cards. Bathed in the golden evening light, it was symbol and sculpture, also architecture and sanctuary. The chapels are the stages of the cross.
At 5 pm, from below the echo of the bells was diaphanous and sheer in texture, expanding in the air, trilling and seeking out what was unbelief and teasing it with splendor and desire.
Bom Jesus was only the prelude to Guimarães. And here Nosa Senhora da Boa Marte (Our Lady of the Good Death) was surrounded by 8 cherubs and Our Lady had her eyes shut and her hands in prayer. She was all gilt.
For lunch, we sat at Praça Santiago, in the sun, at the Tapas Manias tables. There was an efflorescent magnolia in front of us. It was a profusion of teeth and porcelain, of white and pink tongues and broad smiles. In the wind, it rained a flurry of petals, rushing and dancing. There were pigeons everywhere making that awkward noise between a croak and its own echo. It can also sound like an appeal for mercy. The pigeons are pecking at the ground, briskly and urgently. A large male ran after a female who outran him. Our male was glistening purple neck, straight up and purposeful but yet he failed to catch up with his quarry and he gave up, much too soon in my view. The expenditure of energy – the economy of mating is carefully judged, an instinctive accounting of balance, loss, gain and deficit.
The square was now fully ablaze with light, an effulgence that was not easily open to description, not unlike the mercurial transience of everything that is pleasure, everything that stands between light and dark, brilliance and utmost despair even as it unfolds.
Last night we had dinner at Felix, a family run place. I had grilled dourade and duck rice for Jan. Our waitress had a solicitous smile, one that asked for forgiveness for troubling you even when she had served you promptly and politely. A combination of succor and care laced with the gentlest demand upon your purse. The light in the square reminded me of her desire to merge into the background, to tread somewhere in the shadow. She was that, a doorway from the square into a house.
The wonder of Braga was that wherever you were, the bells constantly summoned you. I was sitting in a newly discovered square, one that was a confusion of color. Another bell tinkled in the ear. These were pansies laid out in yellow and purple, bruised spectacles and magical, stars twinkling in the ear. The Café Brasileira is the home of coffee. It is a meeting point. The cakes and pastries were irresistible. The windows opened out to the world outside and in the afternoon, life walked by in the magnificence of gaits and posturings, of dress and high heels. And at night, indoors, around the tables you saw what it meant to be friends, or family, or courting and in love. There was solace and solitude. In a corner, a face was turned inwards to itself, there was melancholy too, the color of espresso.
Photos by Jan Oyebode