The Faith Travel Association’s second product development trip was a journey to Fátima, Portugal, one of the most important Catholic pilgrimage sites in the world. Hosted by Isabel Machado of ACISO–Associação Empresarial Ourém-Fátima, the trip offered a group of six tour operators the opportunity to learn the story of Fátima and experience the culture, history, food, and hospitality of the region.
The origin of Fátima as a faith destination began with three peasant children from Aljustrel, a small hamlet near Fátima. While herding sheep in May 1917, the three cousins saw a vision of a woman dressed in white; she identified herself during six apparitions as the “Lady of the Rosary.”
Our tour included various sites directly related to the Fátima story, as well as other cultural and historical sites of interest in the area. On our final day, a tour of Lisbon provided a taste of the big city.
Sites related to the Fátima story
Wax Museum of Fátima
Our first stop was a guided tour of this museum, the perfect way to get an overview of the Fátima story, with the added bonus of taking photos with a very realistic wax replica of Pope Francis. (Note: Do not touch the Pope, even if he is a wax figure.)
Shrine of Fátima
We next walked to the nearby religious center of town to visit the Basilica of Our Lady of the Rosary, completed in 1953; the Chapel of the Apparitions, built in 1919 on the site of one of the apparitions; the Basilica of the Most Holy Trinity, built in 2007; and the outdoor esplanade, where the famous candlelight procession is held at night.
Our guide pointed out that Fátima had the advantage of building the shrine area in a large open space to accommodate the increasing crowds that are drawn here. The ultra-modern basilica built in 2007 has a capacity of nearly 9,000, and the open esplanade area can accommodate up to one million people.
The Candlelight Procession
The procession is held nightly from May through October, and people from all over the world—of all ages and all faiths—join together in this spiritual tradition. It starts with mass at the Chapel of the Apparitions, followed by the priest-led procession in the large esplanade. Behind the priests, the statue of Our Lady of Fátima is carried atop a magnificent spray of white flowers, lifted high as the crowd slowly follows behind, singing and praying in various languages.
Be sure to get there early enough to purchase your candle, available in the covered area to the left of the open-air chapel. Everyone in our group participated at least once in this event, and some went multiple times. It’s something worthwhile to experience, regardless of your faith.
We started our second day by visiting this museum, conveniently located steps away from the shrine area. We were met by Sister Kathleen, an American nun who helped our group learn of the many fascinating items given to honor Our Lady of Fátima.
Sister Kathleen highlighted important gifts, such as the spectacular gold crown that is placed on the statue of the Virgin Mary on special occasions for the Candlelight Procession. The pure-gold crown contains 2,600 precious stones as well as an unusual design element: the bullet that injured Pope John Paul in 1981. Because John Paul credited Our Lady of Fátima for saving his life on that fateful day, he donated the bullet for this purpose.
With each gift she explained, Sister Kathleen weaved in a connection to the story of the three shepherd children and their faith, her faith, and somehow, our faith—or lack thereof. We all agreed that she was the most gentle, intriguing, and thought-provoking tour guide we had ever had.
Aljustrel and Valinhos
These two small towns are a short bus ride from Fátima. In Aljustrel we visited one of the humble homes of the shepherd children. We were able to go inside the home to observe how the family lived, and we saw sheep outside in a small paddock.
At Valinhos, we followed the original path the three children regularly walked from their homes to their sheep-tending work in Fátima. Now the path includes the 14 Stations of the Cross, culminating with the Hungarian Calvary, a magnificent sculpture (a gift from Hungarian Catholics) of Christ’s crucifixion that sits atop the Chapel of the Via Crucis.
Cultural and historical sites
Museum of Sacred Art and Ethnology
This museum is operated by an order of Consolata priests that originated in Italy. Here we viewed a large collection of Portuguese religious art dating from the 14th century that reflects the life of Jesus, along with folk art collected from Portuguese colonies in Africa, the Americas, and the Far East, where Portuguese priests traveled as missionaries. It’s not every day that you encounter a room dedicated solely to sculptures of baby Jesus, and another to various crucifix designs.
Grutas da Moeda
A short drive from our hotel, the Grutas da Moeda, or “Coin Caves,” are 1,150 feet in width and 147 feet in depth (350 meters by 45 meters), making them accessible for most. Guided tours are available, and they showcase the interesting underground limestone formations. Wondering about the cave’s name? A legend says that a rich man carrying gold coins was being chased by robbers, fell into a sinkhole, and dropped his bag of coins into what turned out to be this cave.
It was a misty day when we arrived in this charming seaside town just 45 minutes from Fátima, but we still enjoyed stunning views from the cliffs. We tried outstanding seafood at São Miguel Restaurant overlooking the ocean, and we had time to look into some of the appealing shops. There’s a lot to like about Nazaré.
Monastery in Alcobaça
Alcobaça is the home of a massive 12th-century monastery and is a UNESCO World Heritage site. Considered a masterpiece of Cistercian Gothic art, this medieval monastery was one of the first Gothic buildings constructed in Portugal and remains the largest church—with the largest cloister—in the country.
Monastery in Batalha
We traveled just 12.4 miles (20 kilometers) from Fátima to reach the small town of Batalha, where we visited a UNESCO World Heritage site from the 14th century, the Monastery of Santa Maria de Vitória. This magnificent structure is one of the best examples of Portuguese Gothic style with Manueline elements.
Olive Oil Museum
Portugal is the fourth-largest exporter of olive oil in the world, and we learned all about that process at the Olive Oil Museum. Located in the first olive-oil press room in Fátima, this museum tells the story of olive oil production in the area, including the equipment used in bygone days. A guided tour was followed by olive oil tasting and a visit to the gift shop, where we bought local products like cheese, handcrafted items, and of course, olive oil.
A quick half-hour from Fátima lies the small city of Tomar, where we visited the Convent of Christ, a UNESCO World Heritage site. Built in the 13th century, this former convent and church is a combination of Gothic, Romanesque, Renaissance, and Manueline architectural styles. Tomar also offers a quaint town where we enjoyed the small shops, and on the outskirts of town, stopped to view aqueducts built in the 15th century.
It’s easy to take a day trip to Lisbon, which is just 79 miles (127 kilometers) to the south, to take in the sites that the capital offers. We visited the very ornate Jerónimos Monastery and Santa Maria de Belém Church, a UNESCO World Heritage site constructed in the Portuguese Gothic Manueline style, where the explorer Vasco de Gama is buried. We enjoyed a bus tour of the city to see iconic seaside parks and monuments, including Belém Tower, the 16th-century gateway to Lisbon, and the Padrão dos Descobrimentos monument, a tribute to Portugal’s many explorers.
Top photo: FTA product development trip participants in Alcobaça
Photo by Kay Saffari