In 1917 whilst the world raged in war and Portuguese soldiers died in their thousands at the Western Front, the little village of Fatima was typically impoverished and destitute of hope. Then something happened that changed the fortunes of Fatima, and indeed those of the Catholic church around the world. Three young children claimed to have been visited on several occasions by both an Angel and Mary, Mother of God.
Their claims were initially disputed by the local authorities and shunned by the church but as word got out, thousands of people began to gather in Fatima every month hopeful of sharing the visionary experiences of the ‘three little shepherds’. Matters reached a climax on 13 October 1917 when, across an area of 600 square miles, thousands of people witnessed a cosmic event now known as ‘the Dance of the Sun’.
Lucia Santos and her younger cousins Jacinta and Francisco Marta repeated messages that they had been given emphasising the need to pray, and especially to say the Rosary, to secure personal and world peace.
Interestingly a complex message was given to Lucia prophesying the future role of Russia and communism in ‘annihilating nations’ and persecuting the Catholic Church.
A ‘secret message’ has since been interpreted by Church authorities as prophesying the assignation attempt on Pope John Paul II in 1981 who believed his life was saved by the direct intervention of Mary, and who gave the bullet that was fired into his body as a gift to Fatima.
Of the three, Jacinta and Francisco died soon after the visitations, having caught a fever. Lucia became a nun and lived until her nineties. On hearing of her terminal illness, Pope John Paul II sent a message by fax and her family have said that on her deathbed, and blind, Lucia asked to hold the sheeny paper that contained his words of comfort to her.
Fatima today is unrecognisable from how it must have been more than 100 years ago. The scrubby pasture lands outside the village, where the children claimed to have been visited several times by Mary, is now a sea of concrete. The original rustic shrine marking the spot is now a stone column topped with a small statue of Mary set in a glass case within an open air and uber-modern chapel of stone pews and glass walls.
A flaming furnace flanked with iron racks for burning candles is a veritable pyre nearby. Black clouds of billowing smoke poured out from it, as well a procession of coughing and watery-eyed pilgrims. I hoped for a quiet Lady Chapel elsewhere in which to light a candle, but sadly none was evident which seemed a little odd and a bit disappointing.
We walked out of the massive complex and along the main road of roundabouts and towering hotels punctuated with gigantic stone statues of the ‘three little shepherds’.
A pathway took us up and into the olive groves which at least gave a sense of the village’s original rural setting.
In a small rocky grotto, we found where the children claimed to have first been visited by an Angel who described himself as being ‘the national guardian angel, the Angel of Portugal’. It was not hard to imagine their little flock of sheep and goats nibbling nearby.
It was a national holiday weekend, with the Monday being celebrated as Portugal Day. Before then, Fatima was hosting a Festival of Children and families were already arriving in their thousands at the complex ahead of the next day’s celebrations and special masses.
Portugal has a problem with its children – there aren’t enough of them. Its population crisis has been described as a ‘perfect storm’ of increasing numbers of elderly, the migration of working-age people to major towns and cities, and lower-than-average fertility levels.
Packed in amongst a hundred or more motorhomes we chatted to a ‘long termer’ chap who stunned us by announcing that he’d been staying in the complex’s car park for two and half years. Apparently, someone else had already clocked up three years! Whilst we appreciated the friendliness and free drinking water, we couldn’t face a night in the never-ending traffic chaos of new arrivals, so moved on to spend the evening at Batalha.
Its impressive monastery, dating from the Middle Ages, is a fantasy in limestone and writhing with twisted columns, seashells, exotic flowers, saints, angels and apostles.
It fairly bristles with pinnacles and parapets, and sports gigantic flying buttresses and Gothic carved windows. In the early evening sunshine, it shone a warm palate of ambers and creams, with one single minaret sandblasted a pure ivory white.
In stark contrast, its vast and vaulted interior is plain but would have originally been painted. Its sheer size is overpowering, and the excited exclamations of other visitors bounced up and around its massive stone-pillared heights in an acoustic chorus of wonder.
This incredible abbey was built to commemorate the Battle of Aljubarrota in 1385. Against the odds, an army of 6,500 Portuguese repelled the 30,000 strong force of Juan I of Castille on a mission to claim the throne of Joao d’Avis. Joao prayed to Mary for help and vowed to build an abbey if victorious.
Another war, the First World War, is commemorated with an iron work ‘the Unknown Soldier’ gifted from Neuve Chapelle in France in thanks for the effort by Portuguese soldiers on the Western Front.
Two very different cloisters separate the interior. The Clausto Real (Royal Cloister) is a riot of writing stonework created in the Maueline fashion. This high art sculpture work reflected a rampantly glorious Portugal in her sea-faring days and uses nautical motifs of rope, knots and seashells intertwined with flowers and vegetation to decorate arches, windows and columns.
Alongside it the simple Claustro de Dom Afonso V is refreshingly plain and like a glass of clear, cold water after a heady night on red wine. We both enjoyed strolling through it on our way to the ‘unfinished chapels’ of 1437.
Designed as a mausoleum for Duarte I, King of Portugal and Algarve (1433-1438) the whimsically named Capelas Imperfeitas are perhaps the most perfect thing about the abbey. Featuring seven chapels which complete an octagonal building roofless under an open sky, the Manueline work by the renowned architect Mateus Fernandes is sumptuous and life-affirming even as a reflection upon death.
In a charming twist, a pair of rather gorgeous purply-grey sheened Palomas (pigeons) were busy making their nest under the protection of a gable of saints and seashells.
One of them clearly wanted a stray twig that was near to my feet. I bent down and tossed it gently across to the bird who chirruped and bore it hastily aloft. A small moment, but a happy one in a magical place!