If you’re one of those addicts of the extraordinary, this one is for you.
Far enough up the coast from Lisbon, Nazare is only transited by tourist packs during the day. If you avoid the classical summer rage, you find a blue and white village that has not sold its soul to the devil of “leisure” just yet. It is an old fishing village, very old indeed. In the year 700 they were fighting pirates when a legendary couple came into the story: a monk and a king. The king was carrying a sword of bravery and the monk was carrying a statue of redemption. Roderic, the last Visigoth king, settled here with his monk and a statue of Virgin Mary, brought all the way from the holy Nazareth. They may have become hermits for all we know, but the grotto where they resided had a view that could really keep your faith lit.
The statue of Nossa Senhora da Nazare has been protecting the soul of the village ever since. Nazare is a most extraordinary place, with almost a bipolar disorder. Formed by three different neighbourhoods – Pederneira, Praia and Sitio, it is split into two by a rocky promontory. When looking at the ocean, the town is safely and ingenuously nestled on the left side of the rock, enjoying one of the best beaches in Portugal and the most vibrant of colors. Come outside the tourist peaks, in April or May or after mid September and spend a day on the beach, soaking into the radiant sand and the salty wind, intoxicated with the crispiest blue. Pack a picnic with a bottle of Tawny Douro and stop by the Secagem de Peixe. The old tradition of sun-drying the fish still endures here: you will find the secagem right on the beach, and the fisherman and his wife always there, ready to tell you about the true taste of the sea. Maybe you won’t understand Portuguese and they won’t use any English, but you will know that, for centuries, the excess fish caught in the waters of Nazare is being naturally dried, to be preserved for the time the sea “keeps to herself and won’t let us fish”. The fish is gutted and then kept in salty sea water, after which it is let to naturally dry into the purifying sun. The man is talkative and wears a large smile, while his wife illustrates his words by warm gestures, using her clean, sun-dried hands to show you their work, offering the Picasso-like sardines for tasting. Ten years after my first visit they are still there. I hope they are forever.
And then, in the mellow hours of the afternoon, you go to O Sitio, the old town up the rock. You go by car or by funicular, but you take your time on the little streets, absorbing the silence and the humble whiteness of houses. When you get to the heart of it, you feel it in your heart: the simple beauty, the smile, the grace. The main plaza is but a huge terrace hanging above the ocean, guarded by the Church of Nossa Senhora da Nazare. While the church is beautiful, the wow is hidden in the squared little chapel on the south side of the plaza, overlooking the town. You can almost miss it because of the breathtaking views opened to you out of the blue – literally. Do not miss it. It is graceful and quiet like a blessing, and terribly beautiful, all adorned in azulejos (the Portuguese painted ceramic, typically white and blue). Church goer or not, you will prey over there, or make a wish. Because if there’s a place where wishes are granted, this must be it.
After countless snapshots, selfies and happy moments spent on the rock-carved terrace, the best is yet to come. The other face of Nazare, the wild, the enthralling, the dangerous, is revealed on the other side of the rocks. You take the road to the fort and the lighthouse, but leave the car – you would only spoil the discovery. Take the foot path on the rocks towards the tip of the promontory. It is not unsafe, unless you want it to be. The fascination of the rocky heights and the crushing of waves 100 m beneath is formidable. The view opens different angles each step of the way, the ocean is ferocious. By the time you reach the fort, you can see the other side of the promontory, the north beach, endless and desert.
The multiple personality of Nazare hides a secret in its waters. The beautiful promontory faces a very peculiar canyon undersea, a unique rift 230 km long and 5 km deep that commands the movement of waves onto the shores of Praia do Norte. Because of its secret, Nazare sees the most incredible of waves and is the place for giant waves surfers. In 2014 the biggest wave ever surfed was recorded here: 30 m, ridden by Garett McNamara. Surfers know what I’m talking about. The extraordinary catch is that the deadly thrill only works onto the North Beach, leaving the main beach, the one with the boats and the dry fish, completely and utterly safe.
You need to stay for the sunset at the fort. It can be very windy or cold at times, but it really doesn’t matter when you’re there: you feel immortal. Cliff hanger, infinite ocean ahead, all the colors rushing down on you, all the waves crushing madly beneath, and the deadly beauty on your right. The same Praia Norte can look heaven or hell, but you will still be there, watching.