Ourém - Portugal

A short drive to the north-east of Fátima lies Ourém, a loftily-perched medieval town clustered around an ancient, well-preserved castle.

Often missed by visitors en route to the region’s important Catholic shrine, the town was donated after the Christian reconquest in 1178 by the first king of Portugal, Afonso Henriques, to his daughter Teresa who subsequently granted it feudal rights and developed the area two years later.

Ourém lived through a period of sumptuous richness in the 15th century when the Count of Ourém, Dom Afonso, built several grand monuments and converted part of the castle into a palace, some of which was destroyed by Napoleon’s troops during the Peninsular War.

Local legend insists that in the 12th century, Gonçalo Hermingues, a gallant knight known as the Traga Mouros (Moor Devourer), captured a Moorish woman named Fátima on a military expedition. He subsequently fell in love with her and they got married after she converted to Christianity. The couple lived on his large estate which he named Fátima in her honour, an area that now encompasses the famous religious sanctuary. She later changed her name to Ouriana, hence the town’s name.

An imposing fortification with extensive views of the surrounding countryside existed in Ourém since the time of the Moors, and very probably before. Set imposingly on top of a conical-shaped hill, Ourém Castle was further fortified and embellished in the 15th century and it has scarcely changed since the Middle Ages.

Entered through two massive gates, and merging with the ruins of a Renaissance palace, the castle was the recipient of some two hundred years of imaginative fortification. Once the prison of a kidnapped queen, it was seized in 1246 from King Sancho II by a group of riotous barons headed by Raimundo Viegas de Portocarreiro, a brother of the archbishop of Braga. Within the castle’s fortifications exists an impressive manor-house built by the 4th Count of Ourém, Dom Afonso (grandson of King João I), in the 14th century.

Nearby, the Church of the Visitation houses the mortal remains of the Count of Ourém, lover of the wicked queen Leonor, stabbed to death in the royal palace in Lisbon by the future King John I in 1383. His Gothic and highly ornate white limestone tomb in the crypt has a recumbent figure attributed to the sculptor Diogo Pires the Elder who worked in Coimbra in the last quarter of the 15th century. Dating back to the 15th century, Ourém’s splendid Gothic fountain cuts a striking figure right in the centre of town.

Standing on a high-lying plateau a short distance south-west of Ourém is Fátima, a pilgrimage centre of immense international dimensions. Often described as the ‘Lourdes of Portugal’, Fátima is the site of the visions of the Virgin Mary witnessed several times in 1917 by three local peasant children.

A 25km drive due west of Ourém brings you to Batalha, home to one of one of the most striking Gothic-style monasteries in the whole of Europe. Classified as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1983, its key feature is the Founder’s Chapel built as the resting place of King João I and his English queen, Philippa of Lancaster (daughter of John of Gaunt) and their sons, including Prince Henry the Navigator.