Exhausted, we stood at the top of the steps, gazing at the church before us. Everything around was quiet, but we could here some noise from inside the building. Nicolas went into the porch of the church and poked his head inside the door. He came back over to where I was stood and shook his head.
"They're holding a mass."
There was a silence as we looked at each other and contemplated the fact we had climbed 600 odd stairs for nothing.
We really need to stop trying to stop visiting churches on Sundays," I said.
We had taken a detour back on our visit to the Douro valley to visit the town of Lamego. It's one of Portugal's biggest pilgrimage sights, and, even though we had arrived in darkness the evening before, it had immediately been clear why. At the end of the long main avenue, a brilliantly lit golden stairway ascended to a massive church high above the town. Surrounded by darkness, it seemed to be floating - a stairway to heaven.
The next day, once you could see the forest surrounding it, the stairway looked rather less mystical, however no less impressive. We set off to check it out. Although we had climbed a similar baroque staircase in Braga, the Igreja de Nossa Senhora dos Remedios was even more impressive. As we climbed, we passed immaculate garden, azulejo tiles and fountains set into the staircase. Admiring the setting made the climb much less painful.
However, the climb would have felt less painful still if we had been able to look in the church. Portuguese churches vary in their attitudes towards tourists. Some are delighted for you to visit. Others put big signs up saying "COME TO PRAY, NOT TO TAKE PHOTOS." This church went for the the middle ground of not permitting tourists during religious ceremonies.
That was fine by me. I have a very British aversion to interrupting people, and I would rather stick pins in my eyeballs than walk into a church and start admiring the frescos during a mass. I have a fear the priest is going to point at me and ask "WHAT ARE YOU DOING HERE?" in a booming, Gandalf-like voice.
We left the worshipers in peace and headed back down the steps to the car to go to our next destination, which was, unfortunately enough, another church.
Things didn't look great when we arrived at the Mosteiro de São João de Tarouca to find we were the only car in the car park. In fact, aside from a cat wandering around the village, we couldn't see any sign of life. We wandered up to the church to find the door open, and a helpful lady inside who informed us we were free to walk around and take pictures. We were blown away when we saw the interior - as in all Portuguese churches there was some gold, but the beautiful tiles and paintings were what made it special.
It seemed incongruous that this little village had such an elaborate church, however the reason is it used to be attached to a monastery built in the twelfth century. The monastery fell into disrepair after religious orders in Portugal were disbanded in the early 1800s, and the result is an austere looking ruin which you can clamber around in.
Our final stop of the day was a short drive further south to the hill town of Viseu. It was a Christmas shopping day, with festive music being pumped out of speakers all over the place, and a market selling mulled wine in the town square. I immediately took a liking to the place.
We wandered around the the narrow lanes of the old Jewish Quarter and eventually made our way to the crest of the hill, to be faced with not one but two churches.
"Well we're here now," said Nicolas, heading towards the more modern white and granite Portuguese style one. It was completely devoid of life, and the interior would have been impressive if we hadn't just seen the basilica in Tarouca.
At this point church fatigue had set in, but the Cathedral on the other side of the square was looming above us, and felt we should at least go and give it a look.
As we set off across the square towards the entrance, we noticed some well dressed ladies ahead of us entering the church. In their smart trousers and court shoes, they were far too well dressed to be tourists.
A few moments later, a priest come out onto the steps in his robe. We felt his eyes staring at us. I felt distinctly not well dressed in my jeans and trainers
"On second thoughts," I muttered to Nicolas, "I've seen enough churches today. What if we just got lunch instead?"
Casually, as if it was always our plan, we veered off in the direction of the Jewish Quarter, where we went for a delicious and meaty roast lamb lunch.
Perhaps the Cathedral of Viseu was the best church of the lot, and the priest was simply welcoming us into his beautiful church. We'll never know. One thing is for sure though, while we're in Portugal, we will never run out of churches to see.