Today Boris and I are taking a private tour out of Portugal to see Fatima and a few recommended sites within two hours of Lisbon. There are all kinds of tour itineraries and group sizes (at a wide range of prices) to see these popular destinations. Since we are before the high season we were able to get the private tour at a good price.
As a Catholic, I have heard of Fatima my whole life. This is the location where the Virgin Mary appeared to three shepherd children on multiple occasions over the course of six months. It is one of several pilgrimage sites in deeply Catholic Portugal. Ironically, the name of the city is from the name of a Muslim woman who married a Christian ruler.
We started our day with the hotel buffet breakfast once again running into a couple we had met on the cruise ship. Like us, they are taking a variety of tours in and around Lisbon after completing the transatlantic crossing. M’Liss Gee Hinshaw, also a travel blogger, had just done a food tour of the city. You can find her postings at Mlisstravels.com.
There was some confusion with the driver. We were waiting in the lobby 5 minutes before our pick-up time, but he had arrived earlier and spoke to the front desk. The room reservation was in Boris’ name, but I had booked the tour in my name so the driver was told that there was no one under that name staying at the hotel. (I use my maiden name.) Luckily the driver waited outside and after a call or two we met up with him. Our first stop will be Fatima. The countryside was quite beautiful, but with an early morning start I admit to being somewhat tired and closing my eyes a few times.
I was under the impression that our driver was also a guide, but he said very little in the hour plus drive to Fatima. The first place he took us was a gift shop under the pretense of a toilet stop. Ah, let the kickbacks begin. Actually, they had some lovely rosaries so I purchased several for family members. This small community has swelled to 50,000. There is some industry in the area, but at least 40% of the population is there to support the tourism associated with the shrine.
As travel writer Rick Steves put it, “[w]andering through the religious and commercial zones, you see the 21st-century equivalent of a medieval pilgrimage center: lots of beds, cheap eateries, fields of picnic tables and parking lots, and countless religious souvenir stands — all ready for the mobs of people who inundate the place each 12th and 13th day of the month from May through October.”
Our next stop was the village home of the three shepherd children, Lucia Santos and her cousins Jacinta and Francisco Marto. The children reported visions of a luminous lady believed to be the Virgin Mary on the 13th of the month between May and October of 1917. No vision occurred in August as authorities detained and jailed the children for two days. The Virgin Mary appeared to the children in the Cova da Iria fields outside the hamlet of Aljustrel near Fatima, Portugal. Noteworthy is the fact that the visions took place during World War I and brought a feeling of hope to war-torn citizens. The children were grilled relentlessly about the truth of their story; they never wavered. The miracle was recognized by the Catholic Church in 1930.
You are able to go inside the homes of the children, interesting as a depiction of village life during that time more than anything else. Lucia’s great niece has also set up a spot where you can visit her. I suspect she lives off of the generosity of her visitors. The two cousins only lived to 1919 when they died of Spanish Flu. There was a group in the home handing out religious cards noting the centennial of the death of Francisco. Lucia spent the rest of her life in a convent. She died in 2005.
We appear to be just ahead of the big crowds. The buses were rolling in as we were leaving. Leaving the small community, we drove back to the religious pilgrimage site. By now we had figured out that our driver was just that. He actually repeatedly said he was a driver and not a guide. Without conviction, he would give us a canned speech, about a paragraph or two, and then point us in a particular direction.
The shrine covers a large area. Rick Steves provides the following excellent discretion of the grounds: “The esplanade, a huge assembly ground facing the basilica, is impressive even without the fanfare of a festival day. The fountain in the middle provides holy water for pilgrims to take home. You’ll see the oak tree and Chapel of the Apparitions marking the spot where Mary appeared; a place for lighting and leaving candles; and a long smooth route on the pavement for pilgrims to approach the chapel on their knees.”
The large Basilica was completed in 1953. The tombs of the shepherd children are inside. The Basilica has huge colonnades on either sides and reminded me of St. Peter’s in Rome. At the other end of the grounds is the newer church completed in 2007. It holds 9,000 worshipers.
We started our visit by purchasing candles to dedicate to family members. Unlike lighting a candle in a church, these candles are thrown into a raging fire. They came in various sizes and were not expensive. Some families chose candles so large they towered over their head while holding them.
We stopped next for silent prayer at the Chapel of the Apparitions and shared the time with other visitors. At times during our visit the site, young pilgrims spoke or a priest led the congregation in a rosary in the Chapel. From the new church to the Chapel, I saw devotees coming forward on their knees. The very large oak tree sits next to the Chapel.
Boris didn’t want to make the climb to the Basilica, so he sat on the wall surrounding the oak while I went up and in. The church is not particularly ornate and the stained glass very modern, but I loved the grave markers for the shepherd children.
When I came out, Boris was nowhere to be found, so I walked the park grounds to the new church. Our driver gave us the wrong time for Mass, but I did get a peak inside. I also got a picture at the statute of John Paul II, the Polish Pope my mother shares her heritage with. Pope John Paul II visited Fatima three times, initiated the construction of the new church, and offered a relic from the Vatican for the church.
There is also a large museum on the grounds, but our driver did not recommend a visit there. I returned to find Boris at the tree and we completed our visit before crossing the street to grab a quick drink before meeting our driver. From Fatima we drove to Batalha to see the impressive monastery.
A visitor is immediately struck by the exterior of the monastery. Our driver told us he always gets a “Wow”. There is a “shopping mall” next door designed to capture the tourist euros. We had chosen to include a lunch with our tour, so we went first to a restaurant in this shopping area where our driver was well known and had made a reservation. Once again he pointed us in and left us.
We were given bread, olives, butter, which we have found is the standard in seated restaurants. It comes with a small cover charge. We noted the table next to us wanted to save a euro and waved it away when offered. Next we got fried pastries one with a filling of meet, one with seafood, and a third with cheese. I got the salted cod with chips (think thin round potatoes but not the salty ultra thin American variety). Boris had the pork. We ended with traditional desserts. Mine was a pastry with an egg filling; wonderful! Boris had the local beer, while I enjoyed sparkling water.
After our driver’s next canned speech, Boris and I toured the monastery. You can enter the church at no charge, but if you want to visit the rest of the buildings you pay a small fee. Upon arrival, I was immediately struck by the exterior of the unfinished chapels and wanted to include those in my visit so Boris and I chose to pay the fee and see the rest. He probably regretted it later, because I took the time to take a lot of the pictures of this beautiful monastery. I also enjoyed the diminished crowds after the morning and early afternoon in Fatma.
After a look at the church, we went inside the Founder’s Chapel just to the right after you enter the monastery church. Entrance is part of the paid ticket (although no one was checking when we were there). Under the rotunda are the graves of King Joao (John) and his wife Philippa of Lancaster. Four of John’s sons are also buried in the chapel, including Henry, known widely as Henry the Navigator.
At the other end of the church to the left side is the entrance to the cloisters of the monastery and also the pathway to the unfinished chapels. They were more diligent at checking our tickets here. They asked if we had already visited the Founders’ Chapel and stamped our ticket for both areas. This area included a special exhibit and the wonderful arched pathways around peaceful gardens. There was also a gift shop and museum.
The Portuguese Tomb of the Unknown Soldier is in the Chapterhouse and was guarded by military personnel. The space features a star vaulted ceiling. It is said that the ceiling was constructed at great risk and that as a result only condemned prisoners were allowed to work on it.
By far, my favorite part of the monastery was the Unfinished Chapels, built by King Joao’s son Dom Duarte as another mausoleum. The chapels are quite elegant; even the ravages of centuries and the open exposure do not diminish the beauty. In fact, I suggests that it adds to it. The chapels are tall structures with beautiful detail work and lovely stained glass. The afternoon light created colored patterns on the floor as it came through the windows.
The chapels sit near the rear of the main building and are only accessible through a separate door. The main chapel structure is a tall octagonal rotunda with seven smaller, hexagonal chapels branching off it. Most of the chapels are empty except for the pigeon nests: only Dom Duarte and his wife Eleanor of Aragon are interred here.
We rejoined our driver and left Batalha enjoying more of the countryside on our way to Alcobaca. Both the Monastery of Saint Mary of the Victories at Batalha and the Monastery of Alcobaca are UNESCO World Heritage Sites. According to UNESCO, “[t]he Monastery of Santa Maria d’Alcobaça, north of Lisbon, was founded in the 12th century by King Alfonso I. Its size, the purity of its architectural style, the beauty of the materials and the care with which it was built make this a masterpiece of Cistercian Gothic art.”
The driver recommended a bakery across the street for a snack after our visit and told us we wouldn’t need as much time to tour the Alcobaca Monastery. He mentioned that it was not ornate and that we would not be able to enter the cloisters. What he actually should have said was that the cloisters were open for visitors (and feature lovely tile work that I could see through the door) but that we didn’t have time for a visit to any area other than the church.
The monastery is most often visited as a pilgrimage site to see the twin tombs of Pedro I and Ines de Castro. Young Pedro, son of King Alfonso, fell in love with his wife’s lady in waiting. Ines was exiled by the King, but returned upon the death of Pedro’s wife and Ines and Pedro resumed their relationship and had four children. Worried about the relationship between Portugal and Spain, the King ordered the death of Ines. She was murdered in front of one of her children in 1355. The event resulted in a civil war.
Upon the death of King Alfonso in 1357, Pedro ascended to the throne. His first act was to order the recovery and death of Ines’s murders. “[Pedro also] exhumed Ines from her grave in the church of Santa Clara and set her up on the throne and then forced the noblemen, the clergy, and the peasants to bow before his dead queen and kiss her hand.” The story of the couple has inspired poets, painters, authors, and filmmakers. Although damaged by Napoleon’s troops, the tombs remain a visitor’s favorite.