In a trip I regard as the best holiday of my life, this day stood out as a highlight. While every day of our holiday brought delights the trip to Batalha and Fátima introduced us to unusual extremes. Batalha was a story of restrained simple inspirational beauty, while Fátima was something else entirely. But read on …
I relive last year’s fantastic holiday by bringing posts over from the trip blog. This doesn’t aim to be identical to the trip blog, but an improvement, with text edits and more / better photos. Find all these posts under the tag: Spain2015.
17 September 2015: It’s been an amazing day in Portugal. It’s as though we’ve stumbled into some kind of religious pilgrimage. While figuring out where we wanted to go after our night in Valença on the border with Spain Deb came across mention of the Monastery of Batalha, some 300 Km away. The photos looked amazing so we decided to go there. We thought we may spend the night nearby.
However, after visiting the monastery and having lunch we found we could drive to caves called Mira de Aire not far away, and then we found the caves are near Fátima so decided to spend the night there.
I took a tour of the caves, which were somewhat interesting. What really astonished me though was our cave tour guide, a young geologist finishing her degree. We were only a small group of 5 Portuguese speakers and me, the English speaker. Our guide explained all the features in both languages, then told me as we left that in the summer, at peak season, she usually has to explain in 5 or more languages.
In New Zealand you’re lucky if you can find a tour guide who can do more than one language.
With that out of the way, let me tell you about Batalha and Fátima, both stunning places, each for a different reason.
As you exit the motorway into Batalha you can see the spires of the mainly Gothic monastery standing tall. Then you wind through the quiet streets for a few metres and there it is. The decorations and overall appearance are breathtaking. The buildings sit in the middle of a vast square, with their arches and knobbly decorations and gargoyles.
These gorgeous buildings were created over about 150 years beginning in 1386, as thanks for the help of the Virgin Mary in winning a battle.
This dazzling architectural ensemble was born out of a promise the King, João I, made in thanks for his victory at Aljubarrota, a battle fought on August 14, 1385, which assured him the throne and guaranteed independence for Portugal.
Go inside and the hugely tall vaulted ceilings and long views are truly awe inspiring. Tall stained glass windows are there. Decorations high and low on the tall pillars are there. Some bare stone walls are adorned only with a tiny cross.
Batalha moved me. It seemed a place where the spirit could soar.
The official population of Fátima is around 12,000. Just under 100 years ago 3 village children apparently saw a vision of a lady dressed in white who said she was sent by God with various messages.
You’d think the parents would have told the kids to stop telling stories and get on with their chores, but instead they encouraged them.
In retrospect: Spain and Portugal are deeply religious countries. As I wrote in another post, The lessons of the churches:
Christian iconography is woven into the fabric of Spanish life.
If you ‘bathe’ in Christian symbols all day long, it’s not really very surprising that you see Christian miracles all around you, that you accept that three kids have seen the Virgin Mary in the forest and been given messages from God. But back to the original post …
The lady appeared half a dozen times over the next few months, revealing secrets from God. One day the general public saw a miracle where the sun behaved strangely.
The site was marked with an arch and cross, but then the faithful started travelling to the site which gradually developed into the huge complex here today. Hundreds of thousands of people visit on the two days each year that mark special events, but the rest of the time it’s just thousands who visit each day.
The town centre seems to consist of exclusively white or pale coloured hotels, shops, restaurants and religious buildings. There are hundreds of shops and stalls crammed with religious paraphernalia. Our hotel has a huge picture of Mary in the lift, wearing an enormous crown. The hotel has a busy chapel and a gift shop filled with crosses, statues of Mary, Jesus, candles, and trinkets bearing icons and so forth.
The Sanctuary is huge, with an enormous open area with crowd control barriers permanently in place. There are masses going on all day. One building had a lot of smoke coming out of it. When we drew closer we could see it contained hundreds of candles and visitors were adding more all the time.
We saw two middle-aged women across the square working their way on their knees from the ‘high point’ down to the open-air chapel — a distance of maybe 300 metres. There are statues of popes. There’s an enormous (and beautiful) crucifix made of steel at one end of the square. The Sanctuary is capped by a tower topped with an enormous gold crown, with a cross above all.
Clearly the faithful come here to find a cure, a salvation, an ease for their troubles.
I’m not a believer, but am not one to try to deny anyone else their beliefs. Seeing all this though troubles me while filling me with a degree of respect. My belief is that there is no independent benefit to be derived from a pilgrimage to a site like this, or from walking on one’s knees to earn some kind of grant from God. It pains me to see people doing this kind of thing.
I hate the notion that if one is somehow penitent enough or prays hard enough that God will grant mercy.
Yet I admire these people whose belief is so strong that they will make a pilgrimage, endure pain and hardship to try to earn what they need.
Fátima troubles me. It seems a place where something is terribly awry. It exemplifies the worst, most base, aspects of spirituality, cashing in on people’s beliefs.
In retrospect: as I look through my photos for this post I realise that a key aspect of Fátima is the clash of scales. The town itself is tiny. It has the very narrow streets typical of this part of the world. The huge tourist buses filled with pilgrims from all over Europe have to squeeze carefully through the streets.
Yet the hotels are huge (and also the best equipped buildings I’ve ever seen anywhere for people with physical disabilities). The Sanctuary is huge. The square in front of it and the numerous chapels and so on around it, all part of the complex, are huge. Next to the Sanctuary are a dozen or more parking lots, each the size of a football stadium, to cater for the thousands of vehicles that bring pilgrims and tourists.
The crucifix at the top of the square is huge, the gold crowns on depictions of Mary and the Sanctuary are huge.
There are so many gift shops and each is stuffed, not with the usual tourist frippery, but with every imaginable Christian symbol or icon on every imaginable item: keyrings, drinking glasses, pillows … you name it.
On the one hand you have a village and 3 children who told a story of a miracle. On the other, 100 years later, you have an enormous industry.