Surf, seafood and skirts of Nazare, Portugal

Punita Malhotra


The small coastal town of Nazaré, 80 miles north of Lisbon, has become talked-about for many reasons, but the most deep-rooted is its long-standing fishing tradition. Standing at the most-photographed lookout of Sitio Square, at a ridge over 100 meters above sea level, you can be assured of the most insta-worthy views of the sleepy town. This quiet little paradise happens to be the home of the largest underwater canyon in Europe. This natural geo-feature creates huge waves of unto 100 feet, at certain times of the year and attracts celeb surfers from all over the world. A legacy of some of the freshest seafood in the country and a tradition of fisherwomen wearing seven skirts, add to the charm of this laid-back destination. So, take your pick of these three different ways to enjoy Nazare!

Watching the surf

Hands down, nature takes all the points for firmly pinning Nazare on the world map. At the Nazaré Canyon, the biggest underwater ravine in Europe, spreading out for miles into the Atlantic Ocean, currents combine with strong winds to create spectacular and gigantic winter waves. This miraculous phenomenon reaches mega-proportions and is best witnessed near the lighthouse, O Sitio. 

The spot became famous for the first time in November 2011 when an expert American surfer, Garrett McNamara, smashed all previous world records by surfing a mammoth wave measuring 78 feet. The news ‘made waves’ all over the globe, labelling Nazaré as the new big-wave surf spot. Locals still share the event with nostalgia and deep pride. The direct impact on tourism has been that thousands of surfers have started visiting the town every year, with dreams of riding high.

Gentler waves are found at other locations, away from the lighthouse and can be surfed all year round. The main beach, Praia do Norte, is a great alternative too. Beginners can take lessons on body-boarding, stand-up paddling at the Nazare Surf School and even hire equipment of all kinds. The surf’s always up in Nazare. Are you up for it? 

Surfers can surf on some huge waves in Nazare

Credit: aleksey snezhinskij

Savouring the seafood

The ocean has always had its perks for this offbeat, west-facing village on the Portuguese coast, and wave surfing just happens to be an incidental, recent pay-off. For centuries, the town’s economy and livelihood has revolved around the ocean for a different reason, and that is fishing.

The evidence is openly on display if you care to stroll along the Praia da Nazare promenade in the direction of the marina. Traditional fishing boats baking lazily under the sun, still recount the 19th-century legacy of fish trawling. Rows of carapau pinned onto wire boards reflect a continuing art of drying and preserving catch, another Nazare tradition dating back over 300 years. This dried and salted small fish is a local favourite, whether sampled as a snack directly off the pavement or ordered off a menu in a local restaurant in town.

Another popular dish is the tomato-based caldeirada fish stew. And if you have a taste for clams, Bulhao Pato should be your first choice. The more adventurous can experiment with the Iberian delicacy, Percebes or Goose Barnacles (underwater crustaceans that live and grow on rocks in the Atlantic ocean). The flavours found in even the simplest dishes in small fishing villages such as this one are somehow much more pronounced. You will agree if you care to experiment with a modest grilled fish, served with raw juliennes of onions, sliced cucumber, chunks of tomatoes, shredded carrot and beetroot on a bed of lettuce and wedges of boiled potato with skin. Feel the crunch of the crispy meat. Inhale the unadulterated aroma. And be surprised at how the flavourful the preparation is with just rock salt for taste.

Should the credit go to the quality of the seafood, the freshness of the air, or the effervescent spirits of the fishermen’s wives, who showcase the best catch of the day with gusto?

Seafood drying in the sun

Credit: trabantos

Chasing the skirts

There’s another fascinating angle to the fishermen’s wives, or ‘nazarenas’, as they were referred to, besides their professional zeal. The story goes back to the times when they used to spend hours waiting for their safe return of their husbands on the beach. To shield themselves from adverse weather and keep warm, they would don multiple layers of petticoats. Times have changed, but the tradition has endured.

The attire is referred to as the ‘seven skirts of Nazare’, but in reality, women usually wear three or four-layered petticoats or skirts. The outfit is accessorised with a hand-stitched and hand-embroidered apron, woollen shawl, clogs, headscarf and flamboyant heirloom gold jewellery.

There are several theories about the relevance of the number seven. Some believe it is a symbol for the seven days of the week, some attribute it to seven colours of the rainbow and others say it could just be the luck factor of the number seven. Whatever be the reason, it’s a charming, timeless tradition, and one you can come across only in Nazare.

People playing Banca on the streets

Credit: AngeloDeVal

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