It is another beautiful day as I put on my sandals to go get breakfast. You could be forgiven for thinking it is the beginning of the summer season- it is a brisk 70 degrees, and the sun shines brightly through a cloudless, piercingly blue sky- except it’s the first week of December. As I walk to Baguette, the bakery near my apartment, to get my pão com chouriço (a delicious bread with sausage baked inside it), I hear a middle-aged English couple talking about their walk. The man eyes the small waves he sees with a certain amount of skepticism.
“I hope there’s big waves.” he says, frowning. “I wouldn’t want to have come all this way for nothing.”
It’s not uncommon to hear the waves spoken of in this way. For the waves, of course, have become the new celebrities, a big reason people flock to Nazaré, Portugal in the winter: Nazaré has gained fame in the past few years after having been discovered as having the biggest waves in the world. Garrett McNamara, one of the world’s best big-wave surfers, revealed the town to the world after he surfed a record-shattering 78 foot wave in 2011.
But the man should have no fear: Nazaré’s construction is a unique one. On our side of the beach, it’s uncommon for huge waves to swell up- a large cliff breaks the two beaches in half, and the horseshoe shape of the bay on the south side means that it tends to be a calmer area, more suitable for bathing and swimming. A visitor like our Englishman above would be forgiven for thinking that the stories of the biggest waves in the world were overstated.
But on the other side of the cliff, a different story plays out. The waves rumble and crash on the shore of the Praia do Norte, or the north beach, towering monstrosities that threaten to overwhelm you. The north beach has a different feel: it is wild and untamed, uncombed and desolate, devoid of the bathers and suntanners that dot the south beach. Even on the calmest days, the waves are strong- there have been many walks where the waves looked small from the top of the cliff, but when I finally made it to the beach I was more than a little unsettled to walk too close to the 10 meter waves that crashed along the shore.
And on the other days? Well- the waves are incredible. They are 100 foot colossal monsters, almost reaching the lighthouse on the cliff that overlooks them, like the one at the beginning of this article, and often there are surfers, little dots in the daunting blue tower, riding to escape its crushing embrace. These waves are caused by a 5 kilometer deep canyon that runs to the beach from the ocean, almost 230 kilometers in length. The canyon acts like a guide, funneling all of the power of the tide into a narrow conduit that breaks and crashes on the shore in Nazaré, causing the huge, towering monsters that people come to see.
The town has always been a favorite for local tourism- my father’s parents, who were born and raised in Portugal, often spent their summer days in Nazaré. There has been a definite uptick in travel since the record-breaking wave of 2011, however: the normally quiet lighthouse on the Sitio, or the upper portion of Nazaré, is now teeming with people almost every clear day, and it’s not entirely unusual to see indie documentarians or camera vans parked outside the ancient stone lighthouse.
I happened to be living in Nazaré when the record wave came, and I still visit there as often as I can. To its credit, the town has embraced the tourism with open arms- I had not heard much English there even ten years ago, but in the past 4 years it seems, at least to me, the number of English-speaking tourists has risen dramatically, and the shops and restaurants along the Avenida Manuel Remigio, the town’s picturesque seaside boulevard, have been happy to embrace and welcome the foot traffic to their restaurants.
But much of the tourism and the press has been driven by the waves, by people chasing the monsters that break and rumble just off the shore of the north beach. That’s not a bad thing, but I fear that perhaps the town is getting lost in the shuffle. For Nazaré is more than the waves, more than the 20 second clips of pulse-pounding danger that go viral on YouTube- it’s a fishing village with an interesting and storied background, with lots of history and culture.
In fact, our tourist’s unwitting declaration above, that they might have come all the way to Nazaré for nothing, hurt me a little when I heard it. The remark was, I’m sure, not meant to be dismissive, and it’s entirely possible he did very much enjoy exploring Nazaré proper and everything it has to offer outside of the giant waves. But the fact that he said it was telling- to him, perhaps even unconsciously, the waves were the main event, and Nazaré itself was a consolation prize when in fact it has so much to offer.
The town has not abandoned its fishing village heritage, and it’s not uncommon to see nazarenas wearing the traditional seven skirts that have so long characterized the town, vanishing into the warren of narrow, maze-like streets that criss-cross the town. In another nod to its fishing heritage, I was told once that the streets were like that because of an old superstition: if a sailor was lost at sea, his wife could not look at the ocean for a year, so the town was built so you could cross it without ever seeing the ocean. I’ve never tried it, but it seems plausible based on the odd juts, zigs, and zags the cobbled streets give.
And each of those juts, zigs, and zags thrums with life. There are cafes, and tascas, little restaurants, dotting each street, a menu of mouthwatering scents that you can follow all the way to the beachfront or all the way up to the Sitio. Some are known for their specialties- you can’t miss having Amêijoas à Bulhão Pato (clams in a garlic butter sauce) with a nice cold imperial of beer at Anibal’s, the seafood boat that serves as one of the best dishes at O Luis, or the grilled squid at Celeste.
Nor should you miss the beautiful 14th century church, or the 19th century monorail that still ferries passengers up and down the steep, imposing cliff. I could go on, but I would be belaboring the obvious- that Nazaré has so much more to offer than simply the giant waves that break along its beach, as impressive as they may be.
I was inspired to write this article by our own Eric Macklin, who was impressed by what he considered the forgotten gem of Lisbon (which is not so forgotten to those of us who are Portuguese, being the capital and all). I realized as I read it that most people don’t know too much about Portugal- and even less about Nazaré. And what they’ve been seeing lately are images of the waves, as though Nazaré did not exist outside of the crashing monsters that McNamara, Burle, and countless other big-wave surfers tenaciously chase.
That beautiful 14th church that I mentioned? It’s on the way to the lighthouse, to the cliff with the spectacular views of the waves. But I have yet to to see it on any English-language documentary or article, nor have I seen the intricate, soulful warrens that are so striking to walk down. To the world, Nazaré is a wave and a cliff, that image of a majestic blue crest looming over the lighthouse, but nothing else.
To their credit, some have been working to change that. Garrett McNamara in particular has become a champion of Nazaré, adopting the town even as they have adopted him (he is often spotted at Celeste, the restaurant I mentioned above, around lunchtime). And it’s not as though the waves have been bad for Nazaré that I can see, especially since the biggest waves come in the winter off-season.
But I hope that Nazaré doesn’t just become known for its waves, and that it isn’t just seen as a haven for surfers to test their mettle as tourists watch them. I hope that it’s also seen as a town with tradition, pride, and history, a town that has much to offer beyond just what nature has so kindly granted it- a town with a legacy that gets it a mention in a Rick Steves or Lonely Planet guide.
So come to Nazaré- chase the monsters, the crashing, roaring beasts that terrify and inspire us as we watch McNamara and crew risk life and limb to conquer them. But see the beauty as well- the quiet, powerful history that imbues the paved streets and little warrens, the culture and cuisine that flows through the town.
The beauty is more subtle than the beast- but all the more reason not to overlook it.