Fátima has been one of the most visited pilgrimage sites in the world: twice to three times as many people make it here compared to Santiago de Compostela. Now that Pope Francis has canonized the two children who purportedly saw Virgin Mary appear to them here 100 years ago, we can only guess at the traffic, auto and human, that you’ll experience getting into the city.
In Batalha, just three minutes and 2km outside of Fátima, is the Grutas da Moeda (the coin cave), a 45-meter-deep cave that spans over 350 meters in length. For the religious, it’s a buried cathedral. For the pagans, it’s just a friggin’ cool cave to explore.
The legend surrounding the discovery of the cave system goes back to 1971, when two hunters were chasing a fox and saw it enter a hole underneath the bushes. The hunters decided to find out what was down there and, once inside, found themselves standing in a gallery full of spectacular limestone formations. They continued exploring the caves for several months until a group of geologists and speleologists came to do an official study. The caves were finally opened to the public several years later.
Don’t think you’ll be able to just walk in, though. The price of admission is 6€ but it includes the obligatory guided tour and a sample of the local moonshine afterwards. Usually, we try to stay away from guides altogether, but this one made the experience even richer, especially for those of us who know diddly squat about geology. The tours are offered in a variety of languages. Our guide was fluent in English and Portuguese and got by with basic French.
The cave got its name from the legend of a wealthy man who was attacked by a gang of brigands hungry for his bag of coins. During the scuffle, the man fell into a sinkhole that led to the cave system, still carrying the bag of coins. No one knows what happened to the wealthy man, but his coins were scattered inside. The Algar da Moeda (coin sinkhole) is the name of this particular sinkhole, so it was only fair to extend the idea to the rest of the area.
The price of admission began to feel quite cheap. For just under an hour, we were led through all of the natural galleries inside, ogling ancient stalagmites and stalactites, cavernous ceilings, crystals growing on walls, and more — lit spectacularly. Each gallery is named after the limestone formations it contains, and holy moley are they impressive: the Lake of Happiness, the Nativity Scene, the Water’s Grotto, the Shepherd’s Room, the Waterfall, the Red Cupola, the Maritime Room, the Flawed Chapel, the Red Dome, and the Spring of Tears.
This is truly a sight worth seeing.
Largo das Grutas da Moeda, 2495-028, São Mamede
GPS: 39.62577N, -8.7075W
+351 244 703 838, website
Oct – Mar: Daily, 9h – 17h; Apr – Jun: Daily, 9h – 18h; Jul – Sep: Daily, 9h – 19h