Nazaré is a popular seaside town on the Silver Coast in the Oeste region of Portugal. It is most famous for its giant waves which attract world renowned surfers during November, though the historic fishing village offers many other interesting things to do.
The Nazaré Canyon
One may wonder how the quiet surf of the summer turns into monstrous 100-foot waves in the winter. It is due to the Nazaré Canyon. The Nazaré Canyon, some 16,000 feet deep and Europe’s largest underwater canyon, is located just a few hundred feet offshore.
Several elements combine to contribute to the big waves in Nazaré. The canyon’s depth causes waves to move toward shore with more speed than the waves on the shallow continental shelf. Some of the fast-moving waves surge out of the deep canyon and combine with waves on the shallow continental shelf. The result is a section of the wave which is effectively two waves stacked on top of each other.
The huge amount of water brought to shore is sometimes sucked back into the combined wave increasing its size even more. Adding Atlantic storms and wind patterns to the mix, Nazaré ends up with some of the largest waves in the world.
Praia do Norte
It is worth visiting Praia do Norte, the beach famous for Nazaré’s international surfing competitions. The beach may also be viewed from Forte de São Miguel Arcanjo, perched high upon the promontory to the south.
Forte de São Miguel Arcanjo
Forte de São Miguel Arcanjo which is at the west end of the Sitio was constructed in 1577 as a series of fortifications to protect Portugal. When the fort was expanded in 1644, it was dedicated to the archangel Michael, whose image is sculpted above the door.
In the 1807, the fort was briefly occupied by Napolean troops when Portugal disobeyed the dictator’s order to close their ports to their British allies. Without a large army and unable to seek assistance from the British, the Portuguese rounded up many schoolboys in uniform from Coimbra. They surrounded the fort and tricked the French into thinking they were under siege to get them to leave.
In 1903 the fort was converted to a lighthouse, also known as Farol da Nazaré, to guide fisherman at sea. And today it serves as a museum which pays tribute to the surfing culture of Nazaré.
Surfing Museum Inside Forte de São Miguel Arcanjo
One room is dedicated to the science and history of the Nazaré Canyon. Interestingly, when the Germans surrendered in 1945, the commander of U-boat 963 sunk it after he and his crew safely boarded a Portuguese lifeboat. The U-boat lies in the depths of the canyon!
Two of the fort’s hallways feature many surf boards, including those of Guinness World Record holders that have surfed waves as high as 86 feet. Another room features photos of some of these enormous waves!
Finally, there is a viewing platform by the lighthouse which provides magnificent views of both Praia do Norte and Praia da Nazaré.
Praia da Nazaré
While Praia do Norte is very quiet in the summer due to potentially dangerous swimming conditions, Praia da Nazaré is covered with lounge chairs. The beach also features many old boats, including the lifeboat used to rescue the Germans who surrendered from U-boat 963.
Also on the beach is the Estadio do Viveiro – Jordan Santos, a beach soccer stadium named for Jordan Santos, one of the best beach soccer players in the world and a local hero. The stadium holds many soccer games over the summer.
Fisherwomen of Nazaré
Also, on the beach, you will find the fisherwomen of Nazaré. The fisherwomen (or the pescadeiras) have played a significant role in the fishing culture and traditions of Nazaré. Historically, the women dressed in several layers of colorful skirts and accessorized with hand-embroidered aprons, headscarves, shawls, and wooden clogs to keep shielded from the elements as they waited hours for the fishing boats to return from sea. This attire is known as the seven skirts of Nazaré.
There are many stories about from where the number seven comes. Some say the seven days of the week, some say the seven colors of the rainbow, and some say it’s the lucky number seven. I like the story that waves tend to come in a series of seven, with the seventh being the largest, and the fisherwomen counted the waves while hoping for the fishing boats’ safe return.
Today, while still donning their traditional attire, the fisherwomen press butterflied fish and octopus between screens, lay them in the sun to cure, and sell the local delicacies. I have never seen dried octopus and was surprised to learn it isn’t reconstituted or used for soup, but simply eaten dry with a dip.
As a SCUBA diver, I cherish every moment I get with an elusive octopus, so it was a little hard to see them all pressed between the screened boards, especially after having watched the fantastic documentary, “My Octopus Teacher.” That said, I really liked seeing the fishing village culture despite Nazaré being put on the tourism map after Garrett McNamara, a famous US surfer, rode a 78-foot wave in 2011.
Across the street from the fisherwomen and the lifeboats is a monument, Mãe Nazarena. The bronze statue of a women with children looking out to the ocean honors fishermen who went to sea and in some cases never returned.
Further down the sandy Praia da Nazaré is a modern thalassotherapy center called Thalasso Nazaré. Thalasso means coming from the sea. The spa features hot baths with water coming directly from the ocean as well as many other healing services.
While the Praia da Nazaré with its beachfront hotels, shops, and seafood restaurants is the main draw for summer tourism, don’t forget the historic Sitio. The Sitio features winding streets, traditional Portuguese homes, and culture attractions such as the Santuario de Nossa Senhora da Nazaré, the Ermida da Memoria, and the aforementioned Forte de São Miguel Arcanjo.
Ascensor da Nazaré
You can get to the Sitio from the funicular (Ascensor da Nazaré) located at the north end of the beach. The funicular climbs 1,043 feet from the urban beachfront to the historic promontory in 15 minutes and provides excellent views of Nazaré.
From the funicular head southwest to the square where you will find the Ermida da Memoria, Miradouro da Nazaré, and the Santuario de Nossa Senhora da Nazaré.
Ermida da Memoria
The Ermida da Memoria (Memorial Hermitage) is a small, square chapel built to honor Our Lady of Nazaré. Long ago, the Sitio promontory teemed with deer. According to a local legend, in 1182, a nobleman was hunting deer in dense fog. He did not see the cliff until three of his horse’s hooves had left the land. As he was falling to his death, the nobleman called out to Our Lady of Nazaré who appeared before him and stopped the horse. As a result of this miracle, he ordered the chapel be built in her honor.
Inside the chapel, there is an altar and some stairs. Walk down the few stairs to an image of Our Lady of Nazaré protecting the sea as well as the story depicted on the ceiling in 17th century, blue and white tiles called azulejos. The legend may also be seen on the outside of the chapel if you walk out on the Miradouro da Nazaré for a dazzling view of Praia da Nazaré.
You may also supposedly see the horse’s hoofprint outside the viewpoint wall, but the small round hole (with cigarette butts in it), did not seem hoof shaped nor big enough to me. But regardless, it is a good story and we did see a deer when our tour driver took us to an overlook in Pederneira to see all of Nazaré.
Santuario de Nossa Senhora da Nazaré
Slightly further to the west, is the Santuario de Nossa Senhora da Nazaré. The church was constructed in 1377 to make room for a growing number of pilgrims visiting the tiny Ermida da Memoria across the square.
It is home to a revered image of the Virgin Mary. The image, brought to the village by a monk in the 4th century, was said to be carved in Nazareth which gave the village its name. The ornate church also includes gilded woodwork and a cross shaped nave with painted blue and white tiles.
Surfer with Deer Head Statue
Of course, further down the road to the west is the aforementioned Forte de São Miguel Arcanjo. About halfway to the castle you will find an odd, contemporary statue of a surfer with a deer’s head. It pays tribute to Nazaré’s blended history and culture.
Overall, Nazaré feels like a tale of two cities. You’ll find the historic vibe in the Sitio and the urban, modern vibe below the promontory at the beach. ETB