Having lazed around at Peniche for a couple of days, it was time to do a little more driving and head inland.
Our first destination was the cumbersomely-named but scenic Parque Natural das Serras de Aire e Candeeiros. As its name suggests, this natural park contains two mountain ranges – the Aire and the Candeeiros ranges. Although it is undoubtedly scenic, we didn’t really linger all that long in the area and by mid-afternoon had arrived at our stop for the night, Fatima.
This was a revelation – in two ways. The first was the Portuguese penchant for family picnics on Sunday afternoons. We had stopped for lunch in a lay-by on a scenic stretch of road in the mountains. At lay-bys above and below us we could see families doing the same – not just grazing on a pre-packed sandwich, but enjoying a proper meal, often with three generations of a family present.
However, this was nothing compared to the sight that awaited us at Fatima. The parking area – a large, municipal car park and recreation area – was absolutely packed with people, cars and motorhomes – all enjoying a Sunday picnic with family and friends. I wish we had got a photo but we were preoccupied with driving through the throngs and trying to find a parking space.
By some miracle we did find a space – an actual motorhome space where we could stay overnight. This led to our second revelation of the day. Fatima itself, for those who aren’t familiar (we weren’t), is one of the biggest pilgrimage destinations for Catholics in Western Europe. Every year, around six million people make their way to Fatima, often on foot, to pray at the Santuario de Fatima, the site of the Fatima Apparition.
The apparition refers to the claimed experience of three children from Fatima, who on 13 May 1917 saw an apparition of the Virgin Mary that was ‘more brilliant than the sun’. One of the children even claimed to have heard the apparition speak – suggesting that they return on the 13th of each of the next six months. By 13 October, the story had spread and 70,000 people turned up in the hope of seeing the apparition again. Although ophthalmologists claim that the rays of light the hopeful observers saw were simply the result of staring at the sun for too long, the legend was cemented and every since then, Fatima has been the target of increasing numbers of pilgrims each year.
Our arrival at Fatima was fortuitously a week before the 12th/13th May, when the majority of pilgrims arrive. The number of visitors to the Sanctuary was already impressive, as was the size of the recently completed courtyard outside the basilica – said to be twice the size of St Peter’s in Rome. The church itself is huge and an even larger one has recently been finished and is said to be able to hold 9,000 people. Needless to say, the surrounding area of the town is filled with tacky religious souvenir shops that cater solely to the pilgrims.
Distance driven: 72 miles