Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Outside of Lisbon

We spent two of our days in Portugal doing tours of areas immediately outside of Lisbon.

On Saturday, we visited the Placio Nacional de Queluz, an 18th century palace with formal gardens to match.
Walking into the first room of the palace and then looking at the gardens afterwards, I was reminded of the Chateau de Versailles. From there, after dropping me back at the hotel to deal with an upset stomach, Kathy and Becca continued on to Sintra and its neighboring villages.

The writer Jose Saramago rightly describes the Palacio Nacional de Sintra as a “building whose individual components are characterized by fantasy, insensibility, bad taste and improvisation” with “the romantic excess of the exterior” not deserving “the bourgeois excess of the interior.”

Each exterior of the Palacio seems to have a different imposing exterior, some painted, some tiled, and some with turrets.

Balustrades and the domes on top of many of the turrets add to the Moorish feeling of the place. The town itself, with narrow streets, also reflected this mood.

From Sintra, Kathy and Becca drove along the coast to Cabo da Roca, with its spectacular views of the coast. They traveled through resort towns and upscale fishing villages. Cabo da Roca is the westernmost point of all continental Europe. There’s a lighthouse and a monument there with the words of Portugal’s national poet, Luis de Camoes, declaring that this is "where the land ends and the sea begins".

The next day, a Sunday, we headed out to Fatima, the place where Our Lady of Fatima is said to have appeared to three peasant children back in 1917.

The esplanade at Fatima is huge –much bigger than Saint Peter’s Square, where we’d been the previous year on the same day--and could easily hold more than a million people with no problem.

On one side of the square is the Capela das Aparicoes, a simple building next to the oak three where Mary appeared. All that exists in the building is a simple altar surrounded on three sides with an aisle, where people who are taking vows to say the rosary on a regular basis move on their knees from one end to the other, and plain benches on which to sit and pray. To the left of the Capela das Aparicoes is a place of where large, five foot candles, can be bought and lit in honor of Mary. On the right of the esplanade is another small chapel, the Perpetual Adoration Chapel, where the host is continually exposed so that people can gather before it in silence and prayer.

But the largest building on the site is the basilica, which was begun in 1928 and finished in 1953. Mass was going on while we were there, so we only got to see a few of the fifteen altars it contains. The sanctuary itself didn’t impress me much, although I did enjoy the stained glass windows at the very top of the basilica walls. On the right side of the basilica are the stations of the cross, done in mosaic and reflecting a much more modern sense than is actually true. And of course, behind the basilica is a huge gift shop, where you can buy religious statues, rosaries, and just about any other kind of Catholic paraphernalia you could think of. Seeing it all, one wonders how many tears Mary has wept on behalf of the poor as the money was used to build this site. Or, as Saramago summarizes the area, “only faith can save Fatima, not the beauty it does not possess.”

We left the formal site of Fatima, drove past statues of the three children watching over their sheep, and went to the much, much poorer area of Fatima to see the houses of the three children involved in the appearances. First we saw the house of Francisco and Jacinta Marto, then the house and lands of their much wealthier cousin, Lucia dos Santos. I was surprised by the latter, since historically Mary appears to the poor, not those who are wealthier land owners. Joachim, our driver, suggested that Lucia was included in the vision because of her considerably poorer cousins. It left me wondering, however, why the poorer cousins died within a short time after the appearance, but Lucia lived to a ripe old age and only died a few years ago.

As we were looking at the statue of the angel’s appearance that’s been put in one of the fields that Lucia’s family owned, Joachim also gave us a lesson on cork trees and how cork is made. Somehow this struck me as much more satisfying than what I’d learned about Fatima.

From Fatima we headed in the direction of Obidos, the place I most wanted to see in Portugal.

We stopped at Batalha, where we saw the magnificent abbey cathedral with its Gothic pinnacles, spires and towers and soaring interior.

We all enjoyed both the church and the small square outside with its shops and sat in the square, enjoying a few of Portugal’s traditional pastries as our quick “late lunch” break. From there we drove through the Pinhal de Leira, a 700-year-old pine forest growing in sandy land that reminded me very much of the drive along the Pilgrim highway on Cape Cod. We sat in bumper to bumper traffic to get into Nazare, a small fishing village with local women, each dressed in a series of short skirts and selling nuts and dried fruit, lining the squares. The sun was beginning to sink as we drove out of the area and headed to Obidos, our last stop of the trip.

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