Marilia Correia has spent the past two weeks waiting for the pope. “We arrived early to avoid the chaos,” the 76-year-old says.
She and her husband travelled the 200 kilometres from Vila Nova de Gaia to Fatima in the centre of Portugal, where the Virgin Mary is said to have appeared in 1917, for the event.
Initially, things were quiet, but that calm has now been displaced by bustling activity as hundreds of thousands gather ahead of the visit by Pope Francis on Friday and Saturday.
According to the Catholic Church, some 45,000 pilgrims arrived on foot. Carlos, 65, Miguel, 60, and Antonio, 56, came by bicycle, starting out from the Vatican and completing the 3,000 kilometres on Thursday.
“Cycling against war,” is how Carlos sees their trip.
Any papal visit draws people in their hundreds of thousands, but a visit of this kind is “even more important” in staunchly Catholic Portugal, as the historian Jose Pacheco Pereira wrote recently in the newspaper Publico.
The estimate of 8 million visitors put out by the ACISO regional chamber of commerce is presumably way too high. The RTP television broadcasters’ guess of at least a million was likely to be closer.
The particular problem for this town of some 11,500 inhabitants is that there are just 7,500 hotel beds to cater to the crowds convening to mark the 100th anniversary of the apparition on Saturday.
Parking, camping and tent capacity is also limited, even though the town is used to coping with visitors – some 5.3 million people made the pilgrimage over the course of last year.
Many townspeople have seized the opportunity to cash in. The Jornal de Noticias newspaper has reported that a guesthouse is charging 920 euros (1,000 dollars) for a Friday-night stay in a double sleeping bag.
The beds in the guesthouse have long since been reserved. But there are rooms still available elsewhere. The Rosa Mistica guesthouse is offering a double room for 1,650 euros – without breakfast.
The Hotel Lux Fatima Park, where a room normally costs between 50 and 60 euros, is demanding 2,000 euros for this special night.
In anticipation of the papal visit, the local bishop, Dom Antonio Marto, urged local business to charge “moderate prices.” Few seem to have listened.
Online agent Airbnb was offering a simple double room “in the neighbourhood of Fatima” for 755 euros. The room is, in fact, 30 kilometres away.
Prices for the period have shot up even in Lisbon, which is 130 kilometres away.
Many Portuguese are outraged, as shown by a wave of protest in the media at the “extortion” and “deception.” Others have railed against “scandalous prices” and “satanic exploitation” of the faithful.
Many in the country are fully acquainted with hardship following years of cuts to social services and state austerity. Around 20 per cent of those in work have to make do on the minimum wage of around 600 euros a month.
“The love of money is the root of all evil,” was the biblical quote seized on by the portal NiT.
Maria Tereza Lameiras, a marketing expert from Lisbon who is making the pilgrimage to Fatima along with a group from her fitness studio, expresses understanding for the phenomenon.
“The laws of supply and demand are operating,” she told dpa, while simultaneously urging religious solidarity.
“Why should only those who are better off be able to see the pope? Faith is for everyone,” Lameiras believes.
The price rises have affected bus rental prices as well. Nevertheless almost all the 3,000 buses in the region were booked months ago.
“Obviously, we are concerned about the speculation,” the rector of the Fatima shrine says. But he adds that he and ACISO insist that people should not generalize about the price hikes, despite extreme isolated cases.
Fatima aims to seize its chance and to grow. The papal visit “is not the end, but rather the start of a new chapter” in boosting tourism to the region, says Paulo Fonseca, the mayor of the Ourem municipality that includes Fatima.
Fatima, where on May 13, 1917, the shepherd children Francisco and Jacinta Marto and their cousin Lucia dos Santos saw an apparition of the Virgin for the first time, is changing rapidly.
Last year a number of trendy bars and restaurants opened. A McDonald’s is being planned.
Francis is the fourth pope to visit Fatima. In 1967, Paul VI came, and John Paul II visited as many as three times – in 1982, 1991 and 2000. Benedict XVI followed in 2010.
However, no pope has drawn quite as many people to Fatima as this son of Argentina. Pereira has an explanation. Francis “points out what has to be attacked, and he supports what has to be supported,” the historian says.