I often get asked to rustle up an itinerary for bright people who have chosen Portugal as their holiday destination, as many expats do I’m sure. It’s like putting together a degustation of dishes, some standards well done, some wildcards. It requires boiling down the entire country into an essence of Portugal. You’ve got to get the balance right; something sour, something hot, something sweet…
and something salty, and this is Nazaré.
I’m somewhat fussy when it comes to beaches, and Europe’s offerings are frequently disappointing in their size, surf, beauty and temperature. Nazaré however has an impressive girth of pebbly-sand and proper surf. Actual record-breaking, mutant waves, about once a year.
Despite having serious surfing credentials, it hasn’t been taken over by the generic surf culture which can make the most exotic of locations feel like you never left Dee Why. Ericeira, down the coast, is a little bit like that. It’s not foreign enough for me. Far worse however are those completely artificial beach ‘resorts’ in the Algarve which would be practically uninhabited if the English left. I don’t know what Vilamoura is all about but it doesn’t seem like any Portugal that I know.
Nazaré is a living breathing fishing village full of old people doing their usual thang. Like hanging out at the fish drying racks that cover a good chunk of the beach, suggesting there must be a heck of lot of fish soup going on behind closed doors.
Just as you’d be hoping there is a multitude of fishy restaurants, most of them mercifully typical and unfancy. If there’s anywhere in Portugal to have sardines, this is it, although I once spent a week in Nazaré ordering nothing but arroz de marisco, an equally idiosyncratic Portuguese dish. Nazaré has got the authentic seafood thing going on; try an omelet de camarão, big plates of pippies, grilled cuttlefish. And it all goes perfectly with the best Portuguese invention ever, vinho verde.
Nazaré does have a couple of classy hotels but they don’t interfere with the general atmosphere of unpretentiousness about the place. The waterfront is a jumbled bunch of crusty buildings that look like there might have been an attempt at seaside resort style early in the last century, but nothing dominates over the small and basic blue and white houses that perpetuate throughout Portugal.
One of the many delights of Nazaré are the apartments rented by a tough gang of Donas who will accost you on the street with a brazen display of competitiveness, somewhat unusual behaviour in Portugal. Their accommodation offerings range from the spartan with doilies to fake flowers with doilies, so all you have to do is grab the one with the panoramic ocean views for an extra €10 a night. Last time I was there it was still a world class bargain at about €80 for a three-bedder.
Beneath the surface, these Donas represent the matriarchal society that underlies Nazaré. A traditional fishing society, the men would go out to fish and the women would sell the catch, placing them at the head of familial financial affairs. The treacherous swells would tragically make many women widows, in such numbers to form strong bonds, command respect and endure, playing a much stronger role in business and governance than was usual in Portugal, as a result. The strength of the women has become an intrinsic characteristic of Nazaré, as natural as the powerful seas themselves.
The best area of Nazaré is Sitio, which you get to via funicular. My dog wookie has taken this ride but he didn’t enjoy it nearly as much as I did. Frankly I think that Portugal’s funiculars and elevadors are one of its major drawcards. Like the llamas in Peru.
Sitio has the views and therefore the best places to stay. And probably the best restaurants too. And the best miracles; as here on this spot in eleven hundred and ahem, a horse didn’t go off a cliff when Dom Ahemahem, the rider, prayed to The Virgin; therefore there is the cutsiest tiniest tiled little chapel and you have to go down the teeny staircase to look out the weeny window – and when that’s done then you’ve seen the most important of the touristy things on offer. Although there are also the unique multi-skirted ladies with carts of full of nut and bean delectables… which go well with beer… which you drink after the beach… so it all makes sense really.
If you are too sunburnt or already have skin cancer you might find yourself perusing the shops. There is a lot of crap and there is the typical portugalia that you can get anywhere, but what’s unique to Nazaré (and quite possibly unique to beach towns worldwide) is its wool. I know it’s a stretch to try and appreciate the soft cuddly feeling of naturally woolly goodness while wearing a bikini, but pick up some hand knitted socks or a jumper and you’ll be fondly reminiscing Nazaré when it’s cold and miserable.
I’m ashamed to admit I don’t know of any traditional pastries particular to Nazaré. I must have been already very satisfied, I guess.