Fatima (Fátima) is Portugal's answer to Lourdes and it is an important destination for pilgrimages. Over four million pilgrims visit Fatima every year to see the spot where, on May 13 1917, three of the village's children saw a vision of the Virgin Mary. The three shepherd children, Lúcia, Francisco and Jacinta, then saw five further visions on the 13th of every month and an increasingly large number of people came with them. Only the children could see the visions, and only Lúcia heard the message to return every month, so the miracle was understandably greeted with muted enthusiasm at first. The children were even arrested and interrogated but they did not alter their version of the story. The government thought the Church was making it up to try and drum up some zeal in its dwindling congregation, and the Church couldn't decide whether it was true or not.
Still, by October, Fatima in Portugal was the recipient of 70,000 pilgrims who witnessed the Miracle of the Sun, claiming that the beams of multicoloured light shot down from the sky and cured blindness and other terminal illnesses. Whilst this cured some of the crowd members' scepticism, only the children could see the Virgin and only Lúcia could hear her message.
Three secrets were told to Lúcia that day. One predicted peace (bear in mind that WWI was raging at the time); the second predicted troubles with Russia; the third remained secret until 2000 when the pope revealed that it had predicted an attempt on his life that took place in 1981. The full text of these secrets is to be published after further preparation, apparently.
What used to be the small, inconsequential town of Fatima is now home to a gigantic Basilica, capable of holding a million worshippers inside and on the esplanade, which is larger than the piazza at St Peter's in Rome. It was completed in 1953 and contains the tombs of Francisco and Jacinta, who died in the 1919 flu epidemic. The original oak tree where the Virgin appeared was decimated by greedy souvenir seekers; it has been replaced with a new tree and Chapel of the Apparitions. The atmosphere in Fatima during the May and October pilgrimages, when 100,000 people gather here, is phenomenal. Lúcia is a nun in Coimbra and came to the gatherings in 1982 and 1991. A wax version of the miracles can be seen at the Museu de Cera (€3.50) and tacky souvenir shops vie for the attention of devotees throughout Fatima.
Sadly, lots of the beautiful old buildings have been pulled down to feed the mass tourism machine, but a couple of gems remain if you look beyond the kitsch.
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