On Foot to Fátima: A Beautiful Journey During the Month of Mary

‘If you can look, see. If you can see, notice …’

Clara Raimundo and her husband successfully completed the Nazaré Route to Fátima.
Clara Raimundo and her husband successfully completed the Nazaré Route to Fátima. (photo: Courtesy of Clara Raimundo)

I have lost count of how many times I’ve been to the Sanctuary of Fátima in Portugal. And yet, every time I arrive there, it feels like the first time. Built on the exact spot where, in 1917, the Virgin Mary appeared to three shepherd children, the entire venue has a truly special and welcoming atmosphere.

And it is never empty, no matter what time of the year. But these days in May, when the anniversary of the first apparitions is celebrated, thousands of pilgrims arrive every day, alone or in groups. Many of them (it is impossible to say exactly how many, as the Sanctuary does not keep this record) come on foot, covering dozens, or even hundreds of kilometers, over several days. What drives them to make such a sacrifice?

Each pilgrim will have their own personal reasons, but I can share mine. Even though I live relatively close to Fátima (about 150 kilometers, or 90-some miles, away), and I can easily get to the Sanctuary in my car in less than two hours, my favorite way to get there is by walking.

Firstly, because it strips me of what is superfluous and unnecessary. In the backpack I put on my shoulders, I can only carry the essentials; otherwise, I will not be able to reach my goal — and how liberating this experience can be.

Also, when we are pilgrims, we adjust our rhythm to that of nature. We fall asleep shortly after the sun sets, and we wake up shortly before it rises, in a much more balanced routine than the often-hectic schedules of daily life.

Furthermore, walking sharpens the senses. We need to pay attention to the directions on the way: sometimes attached to a tree, sometimes painted on a rock, other times as signboards — but these directives prompt us to be much more attentive to everything else that surrounds us.

“If you can look, see. If you can see, notice,” wrote the Portuguese author José Saramago in his Essay on Blindness

When we go on pilgrimage, it is almost impossible not to notice. As we walk, at a pace that is inevitably slower than the daily whirlwind, we notice the nature that surrounds us, the landscape that is being transformed, and the sound of the ground beneath our steps, in perfect harmony with the birds chirping, the person who walks beside us, and we realize: God was right when he “saw that it was good” (Genesis 1:12).

And, just as the external landscape transforms as we walk, our “inner landscape” also changes. 

Those kilometers of road where each person remains silent to pray, and also the times of community prayer when we go on pilgrimage with other people. bring about a change in us.

Similar to what happens with the Camino de Santiago, there are several signposted routes to get to Fátima, starting from different geographical points in Portugal. On the official website of the Fátima Walking Routes, there is information about itineraries, which offer safe and pleasant conditions for pilgrims and walkers heading to the Shrine of Fatima, avoiding busy roads in favor of dirt tracks and small rural roads.

This time, because I only had two days available, I chose the shortest route: the Nazaré Route. I think it is the ideal route for those who are visiting Lisbon, the Portuguese capital that hosted World Youth Day 2023, and want to experience a pilgrimage on foot to Fátima.

The best thing is to take the bus from Lisbon to Nazaré the day before, which is exactly what my husband — who accompanied me on this pilgrimage — and I did. Going the day before will allow you to not only start walking very early the next day (which is very important, to take advantage of the cooler hours and not arrive too late for overnight accommodations), but also to watch the unique sunset over Nazaré Beach, which is the origin of the other name of this walking route: Caminho Poente (in English, “the route where the sun sets”).

Nazaré Beach
Be sure to watch the unique sunset over Nazaré Beach. (Photo: Courtesy of Clara Raimundo)

There are even those who walk this route in the opposite direction — it is marked in both directions — and call it the “Portuguese Finisterre,” referring to the route of around 100 kilometers (62 miles) that connects Santiago de Compostela to Cape Finisterre, in Galicia, Spain, which many pilgrims walk after arriving at the Santiago cathedral.

Arriving in Nazaré the day before also allows you to enjoy the region’s wonderful cuisine at dinner, since this small village is mainly known for two things: world-class surfing waves and some of the best seafood you can find in Portugal. Be well nourished for the long walk that awaits you!

Bear in mind that the itinerary officially begins in Sítio da Nazaré, a neighborhood on the top of a cliff, where the historic Sanctuary of Our Lady of Nazaré and the Memory Hermitage stand. According to tradition, this hermitage was built by the order of the knight Dom Fuas Roupinho in 1182, after Our Lady of Nazaré saved him from falling off the cliff when he was following a deer on a horse.

If you start walking around 7 a.m., the cable rail system will not be working yet, so you will have to spend your first energies climbing the zigzagging steps until you reach the top of the cliff. The good news is you will enjoy the superb views along the way and, even better, from the top of the promontory.

In fact, that is another thing I love about walking to Fátima: You always find some unexpected compensations along the way. And you learn to value the simple things, like a cloud that temporarily provides shade or a fountain with cool water.

Walking to Fátima
Walking to Fátima offers lovely views.(Photo: Courtesy of Clara Raimundo)

But walking is demanding, especially if it’s very hot, or if it rains. And, invariably, after a few kilometers, pain befalls our feet and legs, there is an occasional blister, or an injury … and we want to give up.

The Nazaré Route, despite being short, is particularly demanding because it has many climbs. And we, almost at the end, still did an “extra” one — it was so demanding that it began to resemble rock climbing. We soon discovered why: We had made a mistake along the way. At a certain point, we started following the signs of a trail race that had taken place a few days before, instead of the signs for the Nazaré Route. 

We continued to climb. The worst part is that, after a few meters, we could not even find the signs for the trail race. We were officially lost. With prayer and an assist from Google Maps, we identified the nearest café and called for directions. The man who answered was friendly and understanding and said that the same thing had happened to a group of pilgrims the day before. Fortunately, he knew the area like the back of his hand, and with his explanations, we were able to return to the Nazaré Route.

With this digression, we lost an hour and walked at least a couple of extra kilometers, precisely at the hottest time of the day. We were relieved to have overcome the challenge, but were extremely tired. But we continued, we supported each other, and we talked about how pilgrimage is also this: accepting that pain is part of the path, just like in life. Sometimes we get a little (or totally) lost. But it is also about discovering, in the most difficult moments, a strength that is not ours — and someone, or Someone, who helps us find our way.

The last few kilometers seemed longer than all the others. But when we entered the Sanctuary, the pain, for a moment, disappeared. The heart exulted with gratitude for the opportunity to have walked, rejoiced for having reached the goal, and was filled with hope and confidence. In a kind of flashback, I looked back and realized that we were no longer the same ones who had started walking, just a day before, next to the sea of Nazaré. I already missed the moments we had experienced — even the most difficult ones — and was ready to face the challenges that lay ahead with a renewed perspective.

The pain returned — and lasted more than a week, but feeling it became a bittersweet experience: In the discomfort it generated, it brought back to my memory that beautiful journey.

Just like Cardinal Tolentino Mendonça, who often goes to Fátima on foot, once wrote: “Pilgrims know that Fátima begins long before and continues long after.” 

Clara Raimundo is a Portuguese journalist who works for 7MARGENS, a digital newspaper that specializes in religion and human-rights topics. She studied religious journalism at the Catholic University of Lisbon and has been the editor-in-chief of My Pope Magazine in Portugal. She contributes to Catholic News Agency.