Author’s Note: It’s only been about six months, but I did tell you to stay tuned for a post about the Chapel of Bones in Faro, Portugal. I may not be the most prolific blogger in the blogosphere, but I do end up carrying the weight of unfulfilled promises with me. I mean, I owe a guy $20 from high school, and although I haven’t even seen him in almost a decade I still plan to make good on that…
Even as our short visit to Faro, Portugal last December was harrowing in the sense that Hannah lost her wallet and her phone and sprained her ankle bad enough that she’s still dealing with the repercussions over six months later, it still somehow sits atop my favorite places I’ve ever been. This may be because it was so different from most places I had been before (it was my first jaunt that far south in Europe, though we’ve traveled to other wonderful southern European destinations since then). Or maybe it was that Faro was a bit smaller and more self-contained than metropolises like Istanbul and Athens and Berlin.
Faro had no shortage of interesting things to see or do (although we unfortunately were limited by a public holiday that coincided with our visit). But it also didn’t demand that you spend all your time seeing and doing. Instead, we felt invited to relax on our trip to Faro. To wander the streets aimlessly, to enjoy long meals with jugs of wine, to read on a balcony in the Portuguese sun.
Whatever it was, it left its mark on me. Our personal tragicomic experiences aside, I fell in love with Faro and Portugal, and when I imagine an escape now I imagine the Algarve. I can’t wait to go back.
Between relaxing, we also found time to explore some of the wonders of the city and region. One of the standout sites that I felt we absolutely had to go to was the Capello dos Osos, the Bone Chapel that was erected behind the Igreja do Carmo, a Carmelite Chapel built in 1719.
The Igreja do Carmo itself is a fantastic, ornately decorated chapel. It was also fantastically creepy, given that we knew what lay in its cemetery…
Still, we took time to appreciate the intricate details of its interior decorations. Everything was stunning, and it amazes that the church is still an active place of worship. I think I’d be spending much of my time tracing the edges of figurines and and detail work with my eyes. Perhaps that’s exactly the point, given that mass would have looked somewhat different in 1719 to the post-Vatican II Catholic mass of today.
And yet, the real attraction lay beyond.
So we followed the sign for the Bones Chapel past the right side of the altar, and entered a series of rooms filled with statues and paintings. The rooms were not well lit, and I felt a shiver crawl down my spine. I’m sure that it was simply because I didn’t know what to expect from the bone chapel, but everything felt a bit otherwordly as we journeyed out into the cemetery behind the church.
After walking first in the wrong direction and finally coming around the corner, we finally approached what we came for: The Capello dos Osos.
The chapel was built in 1816 from the skulls and bones of some 1200 Carmelite monks that had lived and worked in Faro in times past, exhumed from their rest in the overcrowded cemeteries.
The contrast between life and death is stark here. When you are standing inside facing the bone-constructed altar, behind you are the laughs of children playing. Abutting the chapel is an elementary school. That their play space shared ground with literal skeletons did not seem lost on the kids. They would periodically creep toward the building before running away screaming, making a game of it.
Fascinatingly – though perhaps because of the ample sunlight – the chapel itself was not nearly as creepy as the rooms we had to walk through behind the main church to get to it. Instead, it was a place of macabre fascination, a reminder of the thin barrier separating life and death, of the fragility of human existence. Though I can’t say I’d want to stick around til dusk, the skulls seemed less menacing and more, well, just there. Indeed, the screams of the children were, in their way, more fright-inducing than the old monks who watched us as we came and left their current resting place.