Nazaré: The world’s new big-wave Mecca

Foreigners could be starting to wake up to Nazaré’s potential thanks to American surfer Garrett McNamara, who recently caught there the world’s biggest wave.

Beaches Features Living in Portugal Thermal Tourism Tips 4 Tourists Tours What's New — 14 February 2013 by Marina Watson Peláez
Nazaré: The world’s new big-wave Mecca

Quaint and colourful fishing boat in Nazaré (Photograph: All Rights Reserved/PDV)

When American surfer Garrett Mc Namara broke his own world record last January by riding the world’s biggest wave, the small picturesque town of Nazaré slipped into the limelight from dusk to dawn, breaking headlines around the world.

McNamara was taken out on a jet ski from the picturesque fishing town to Praia do Norte (north beach), where he caught the monster wave. But the strand is usually accessed by a funicular, which takes you up on a panoramic ride to Sítio, an old village perched on top of a cliff offering ever-changing sea views over the surrounding coastal plain and typical Mediterranean vegetation.

Here you can visit the fort of  São Miguel de Arcanjo, where McNamara got married last November and where hundreds watched him surf the historic 30m wave in January. Sítio is also known for its Sanctuary of Our Lady of Nazaré, a rich Baroque building whose original foundation dates back to 1377, erected to house the sacred image of the Lady of Nazaré.

Though it’s usually desolate in winter months, on good surfing days the village is bustling with intrepid surfers and that’s mainly down to McNamara.

“The first time we went there,” he tells Portugal Daily View, “there wasn’t a single car for the whole month we were there. But now you can’t drive down to the cliff on a big day.” He also says it is “amazing” how many people go to visit the town’s lighthouse now. 

Sítio is linked to Pederneira, another old village on an even higher hilltop, where you can visit the Pederneira Belvedere and the 17th century Misericórdia Church.

 Big-wave surfing and tourist euro-injection

Foreigners, especially surfers, could now be beginning to wake up to Nazaré’s potential. The area is geographically blessed, thanks to its peculiar undersea geography — a deep canyon which creates the kind of heart-stopping waves ridden by McNamara. Thanks to surfing, the village could grow economically. Miguel Sousinha, who is in charge of municipal agency Nazaré Qualifica, told financial newspaper Diário Económico that the impact of surfing on Nazaré’s economy could be around €1m a year. And the media potential has been valued at €10m, compared to a previous €100,000 a year before McNamara caught the astounding wave. Nazaré has been investing seriously in the sport since 2010, when the town spent over €500,000 on the “North Canyon” project.

Despite brimming with tourists during the summer, the town is still a quiet, seemingly abandoned place on ordinary winter days. You would think such exposure to the small picturesque town would lead its tourism to swell but one week after McNamara put it back on the map, PDV found a melancholic atmosphere, where women still wear brightly-coloured skirts or dress entirely in black if their lives have been marked by a tragedy at sea. Fishermen prepare nets on the beach and women lay out fish to dry on racks on the sand.

The tradition of Nazaré begins with the constant motion of the tides and ends with the warmth and friendly atmosphere found in the town and especially in the Municipal Market, where today even the old women selling fish know about Garrett McNamara. Encarnação de Jesus, a 68-year-old fish trader who grew up in Nazaré and has been working since she was seven, only hopes the town will gain more popularity thanks to him so that more people will attend her stall.

The Mercado is a colourful and intriguing environment where one can hear stories of the past and see the locals wearing their traditional costumes. “I always wear this because I always have. It’s the tradition,” says Justina Baião, proudly showing her self-knitted five-layer skirt. And she explains that she only wears the typical seven layers during the town’s popular celebrations, such as Carnival.

The 78-year old says she is called Justina Baião, though she can’t spell her name. Not many women of her age in the town can. She explains the traditional seven skirts as representing the days of the week. “I had a tough life,” she says, “I did so many jobs. I carried fish to the factories, I worked with rice and olives.” “We only ate bread, which was called devil’s bread. And only ate meat during the Carnival,” she adds. Despite the hardships she has known, Justina has a warm, inviting smile and twinkling eyes.

It is also this friendly atmosphere that keeps drawing McNamara back to the town. “It’s stuck in time, in its own little world,” he says.

Where to eat in Nazaré

Nazaré is brimming with traditional quality restaurants, all offering locally-caught fish of all kinds. Surfer McNamara says he regularly goes to the restaurants A Celeste and Taberna d’Adélia.

A Celeste (Avenida da República, 54) has three small rooms decorated with images of Nazaré dating back 100 years and a terrace where Celeste herself – the owner –, cooks on an outdoor stove. The restaurant’s specialities include seafood açorda (mashed bread with seafood, garlic and coriander), fish stews and special rice, as well as bream and lobster.

Taberna d’Adélia, (Rua das Traineiras, 12) is a typical seafood restaurant with cosy decor and tasty, freshly-caught fish and shellfish.

Portugal Daily View also recommends Restaurante Marina Bar situated in Avenida Manuel Remígio, by the town’s new port (Porto de Abrigo), which has a wooden, marine decor and looks over the quaint and colourful boats.

The restaurant’s owner and waiter recommended a delightful dish of goraz (red sea bream) served with potatoes and salad, which was simple but impressive with hints of lime and pepper and a “secret” sauce. It was hard to choose between tasty-looking fish, including Bacalhau à Marina with aromatic herbs and green pepper, and oven-roasted shrimp.

Other popular dishes include pork steaks and octopus fillets and there are also several vegetarian dishes, including wild rice with mushrooms and spinach, and several risottos and pastas. Prices are also very reasonable: You can eat for €15 with a glass of wine included.

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Marina Watson Peláez

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