Following a well-established tradition, Christmas in Europe in Fátima also included an opportunity for the delegations to visit the environs of Fátima. Renato and his team had thus scheduled two excursions: one on Monday December 4th to Coimbra, and the second outing on December 5th to visit Ourem Castle followed by the ‘Grutas (caves) de Mira de Aire’.
COIMBRA, A STUDENT TOWN PAR EXCELLENCE
Coimbra lies an hour’s journey by road from Fátima, and is indubitably the jewel of the ‘Centro de Portugal’. Thanks to the young guides from the EHF, the travellers in the three chartered buses had the chance to get to know a city whose university was founded in Lisbon in 1290, but transferred to Coimbra in 1537 to its new home in what had been the royal palace. Just think! A university which was named a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 2013. With its 30,000 students who are very proud of their university, the city is also the pride and joy of the whole Portuguese people.
Moreover, it is a real joy to stroll around the city centre with its many and varied little shops, as long as you watch where you put your feet, since the little shiny cobblestones are almost an invitation to fall over! At midday, lunch-time was the moment to discover the Coimbra Hotel and Tourism School of which AEHT Vice-President Ana Paula Pais is Director; her kitchen and restaurant teams had prepared for us a most delicious buffet lunch.
OUREM CASTLE AND THE GRUTAS DE MIRA DE AIRE
The following day, December 5th, we set off on another excursion, this time to the remains of the castle which stands above the plain and the town of Ourem. It is a former citadel, of which the earliest parts date back to the 12th century; it was destroyed by an earthquake in 1755, and between the 12th and 18th centuries several other buildings were erected, including an abbey and a hospital. From the esplanade you can enjoy a 360° panoramic view of the whole region.
GRUTAS DE MIRA DE AIRE
The second stop of the morning was for a visit of the ‘Mira de Aire’ caves.
Though discovered on July 27th 1947, these caves weren’t opened to the public until August 11th 1974. The full length of the caves is a little over 11 kilometres, but the part you can visit is only 600 metres in length, with a descent of 110 metres, around 683 steps and a constant temperature of 17°! Fortunately to return to the surface there is a lift! Our local guide showed us a video before the visit to introduce us to the caves. The section of the caves open to the public is very well laid out and enables you to learn all about stalagmites and stalactites, underground rivers and waterfalls. This little trip to the ‘bowels of the earth’ was a most interesting general science lesson, and incidentally served as a reminder to the visitors that the passage of time in geological terms is completely different from how humans view time. Nevertheless, the guide informed us that in certain circumstances banquets could be organised in the caves!
FÁTIMA: A DESTINATION FOR WORSHIP OF THE VIRGIN MARY
In the Christian world, who has not heard of Fátima, a place of pilgrimage for worshippers of the Virgin Mary in the same way as Lourdes? On May 13th 1917 three young shepherds had a vision of the ‘beautiful lady’ who, according to the official history revealed that she was the Blessed Virgin. In the place where these successive visions occurred, first of all a chapel was built, and then the present shrine which stands above an esplanade where, during the major celebrations, thousands of pilgrims gather in prayer. In 2017 the centenary celebrations attracted hundreds of thousands of the faithful to Fátima.