The simple farming village of FÁTIMA changed forever on May 13, 1917, when – according to the witnesses themselves – the Virgin Mary announced herself to three young children. It was the first of six apparitions that transfixed first Portugal and then the Catholic world, which now regards Fátima as a fixture on its pilgrimage calendar, second only to Lourdes in France. As Fátima’s celebrity has increased exponentially, so has its size and importance. Farming village no more, Fátima has a basilica that attracts millions – not to mention hotels, pilgrims’ hostels, cafés and restaurants, as well as souvenir shops that each year explore new levels of tackiness.

Quite what you make of it all depends largely on your beliefs – it is, after all, a place built entirely on faith. To see it through the eyes of believers you really need to come during the major annual pilgrimages (May 12–13 and October 12–13), when hundreds of thousands of people gather here from throughout the country. Most walk and for a few weeks before the dates each year, it’s common to see pilgrims in reflective jackets, marching along Portugal’s highways in the blazing heat, with some completing the final part of their journey shuffling penitently down the esplanade on their knees. The death of the last surviving child witness, Lúcia, in 2005, was marked as a national event – amid blanket media coverage she was buried in the basilica in February 2006, and it’s no exaggeration to say that the entire country came to a halt to watch.

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