Pilgims Progress: Braga and Fatima

Tuesday 31st March 2009, Vila Chã, Portugal
We travelled inland from Carminha yesterday along delightful winding roads almost devoid of traffic, up into the hills that rise immediately behind the coastal strip of the Costa Verde. Our route wound through sunny, flowery meadowlands of sheep, cattle and goats and passed through pretty rural villages. One such, where we stopped to look at the bridge over the river Coura was Vila de Mouros where everything seemed to be asleep in the sunshine.

Bridge, Vila de Mouros

View from the bridge, Vila de Mouros

Vines and flowers, Vila de Mouros

We continued up into the hills, following the course of the river, through a landscape of eucalyptus trees and bright yellow broom. The road was narrow but reasonably surfaced, though the signing was pretty ineffectual and our map useless.

On a deserted road high in the hills of northern Portugal

Modestine prepares to cross the bridge. Northern Portugal

We were heading towards Braga and were anxious to avoid the motorway, preferring to see something of the countryside. Turning off onto a side road we were soon completely lost in a network of tiny lanes that deteriorated into unmetalled tracks. In a tiny hamlet, where even the dogs turned to stare in wonder as we passed, we came to a complete halt when the route ahead became nothing but a broken track covered in slurry and goats' droppings. Ian announced he was going to ask directions and, map in hand, approached a man leaning on a gate watching us. The man's eyes never left Ian's face. Almost certainly he had no understanding of maps. He'd lived in his village all his life and Braga was perhaps the furthest he'd ever travelled from home. He'd probably never met an Englishman before either. He must have thought Ian very odd waving his map and making up the Portuguese as he went along! How could we get to Braga without using the motorway? After much thought we received a one word reply – No! He simply repeated that to everything Ian asked until we gave up, reversed Modestine up the narrow lane and drove off while he and the dogs watched us go, all quite expressionless!

We meandered for miles through the countryside before eventually exiting onto a major road and finding our way to Braga around lunchtime.

Praza da Republica, Braga

Braga is called the religious capital of Portugal. It has over 35 churches in addition to the cathedral. We didn't really warm to it as a city. Parking was a problem as is always the case in large foreign cities where we don’t know our way around. Eventually though we left Modestine in a side street and walked into the town centre. It is the run-up to Holy Week and there were purple banners throughout the town and the front of the Cathedral was swathed in purple silk, as was the interior. From the outside it was quite a pleasant building but inside it had been given a baroque make-over and was a cornucopia of gaudy altars, picture frames, fonts, columns and overweight cherubs clutching bunches of gilded grapes. The organ was possibly the most massive baroque structure we have ever seen. You are spared photos as cameras were banned. Generally the cathedral was a rambling place full of side chapels, ossuaries and reliquaries. There are a lot of fervent believers in Braga and many of them were wandering around the cathedral, falling on their knees before the altars, raising up their arms and praying aloud, almost transfixed by the golden images of the saints.

Cathedral, Braga

Porta Nova, Braga

Tiled staircase at the library, housed in the Bishop's palace, Braga

It was hot and it was with some relief I realised Ian didn't wish to admire the architecture of the other 35 churches (as no doubt are you!) We wandered the streets of the town, amazed at the number of places selling religious artefacts. Most were idealised and rather gaudy. Infant Jesus's on golden cushions, silver crucifixes, saints clasping their hands in prayer etc. Frequently they were cheek by jowl, so to speak, with shops selling scanty ladies undies – knickers and nick-nacks.

That is perhaps why the town failed to jell with us. There is no old quarter, the modern shops have simply been placed in amongst all the churches, monasteries and old civic buildings. There were pleasant gardens with shady seats and lots of flowerbeds, it was clean, there were modern shops but it lacked something.

Public gardens, Braga

We needed money and in view of the terrible current performance of sterling we decided to use the Portuguese bank of the Holy Ghost hoping He would take good care of our investments! At least His Paymaster would be unlikely to retire Him on a massive pension and any big bonuses He received would be more likely to be spiritual than financial!

Bank of the Holy Ghost, Braga

Deciding we'd had enough of Braga we pressed on towards Porto. About twenty miles north of the city we found a campsite on the coast, reasonably priced and almost at the end of one of the city's new metro lines.

(We spent a couple of days exploring the delightful city of Porto. There was just so much to see we are making it into a separate blog which will follow shortly. Meanwhile this one continues with our activities after we left Porto.)

Thursday 2nd April 2009, Tomar, Portugal
It occurs to us that we have not yet had a spot of rain since we left England on 12th March! Every morning we wake to bright sunshine and some English people we met this evening told us they left England four days ago where it was freezing cold. Here it is frequently almost too hot during the day though night and morning can still be very chilly.

This morning we left our campsite 25 kilometres north of Porto. It is still our intention to head for Salamanca but while we are in Portugal we decided we should go south and take in Lisbon before moving back into Spain. Much of the day has been spent driving. We try to avoid the auto routes as far as possible. It saves paying the tolls and we see far more of the country. However, there are times when it is so much easier to use the motorways. Getting round Porto for example. It took us swiftly across the top of one the beautifully curved bridges that span the river Douro, the city of Porto way below us, avoiding untold hazards driving through the city.

We have encountered several charming incidents while we have been in Portugal, on both occasions when we were lost or helpless. Seeing us fathoming out the automatic ticket machines for the Porto metro a lady approached. She spoke no English but asked if we understood French. She then explained exactly how the transport system works and helped us buy the right card. (Actually they are rather like the London Oyster cards.) Today we were lost in a complete maze of cobbled streets in the back roads of Vila Chã, trying to find our way onto a more main road. A passing van pulled up beside us and signed to us to follow him. For ages we bounced over cobbles and round bends, turning all ways through the maze of streets. We even stopped while he indicated he needed to speak to his friend trying to fix his battered tractor! He returned and drove right to the motorway to Porto, waved goodbye and drove off!

Once clear of the city we turned off the motorway and followed the coast road south. At last, in one of the towns we passed through, we found a supermarket of comparable quality to those at home, plus a Lidl which looked exactly like the ones at home, selling exactly the same things – except for the uninspiring Spanish and Portuguese cheeses, dried salt cod and jars of preserved lupin seeds. So we now have food again! We are even eating strawberries and cream!

We seem to be turning into religious groupies! Having visited Lourdes, Santiago de Compostella, Assisi and numerous other religious hotspots throughout Europe we could not pass so close to Fatima without taking a look.

In 1917 three young children saw a vision of the Virgin Mary. She asked them to return at the same time on the 13th day of every month for the next six months. Each time she reappeared to the children, who were attended by a growing multitude of ardent Portuguese Catholics – though only the children could see her. On her final manifestation, with 70,000 people surrounding the children, the sky was lit up by a fireball and there were miraculous healings of the sick. Since then the Portuguese have turned Fatima into a shrine that is so huge in scale it makes Lourdes seem tiny and the square in front of the basilica is large enough to accommodate over 1,000,000 pilgrims – and it sometimes needs to be!

Two of the three children to whom the Virgin appeared, Fatima

Huge esplanade and original basilica, opened 1953, Fatima

Of the three children, two died a couple of years later during the Europe-wide flu epidemic while the third became a Carmelite nun and after her death she was buried in the basilica at Fatima in 2006 along with her two childhood companions.

There is a statue of Pope John Paul II in front of the new basilica. He made the pilgrimage to Fatima several times.

Statue of Pope John Paul II, Fatima

Mass was taking place when we arrived but when it ended we looked inside and duly filed past the three tombs of the children where people were kneeling with their rosaries, praying, and there were as many nuns as tourists fluttering about. Outside huge candles smelling of beeswax were for sale with eager queues waiting to buy. Around the pilgrimage site there were modern hotels and countless shops selling religious artefacts. We could have purchased our very own wax limb or boob if we so wished. These are placed in front of statues of the virgin as a reminder to her to help cure the afflicted body part.

Religious ornaments for sale, Fatima

It was certainly worth our while visiting the site, though I am rather glad I never joined the trip organised by the nuns of my convent school back in the 1950s. I think I'd have got a tad bored. It's the sheer scale of the place that amazed us. It's all done in gleaming white stone and looks very bare and new – which it is. The new Church of the Holy Trinity is a windowless circular structure opened in 2005. Inside it is devoid of decoration, apart from the modern reredos, but has a pleasing, tranquil feel despite having seating for over 9,000 people! There is also a hospital attached to the site run by the nuns.

Entrance to the new church, opened 2006, Fatima

Altar of the new church, Fatima

We had no great desire to explore the rest of the town which is entirely devoted to tourism and pilgrims. The nearest campsite we could find was nearly forty kilometres away at Tomar. This we discovered is a Unesco World Heritage site, so we have made our way here through pleasant, rolling hills covered in eucalyptus trees. The campsite is rather rural and is run by a friendly Dutchman speaking perfect English. We will discover what Tomar has to offer tomorrow.