On September 14, 1182, Dom Fuas Roupinho, Alcalde of Porto de Mós, nearly plunged to his death while hunting deer on the cliffs above Nazaré. A quick pray and a spot of divine intervention saw horse and rider plucked from thin air.
‘Today we have Grant McNamara and jets skis instead’. Laughs João our guide.
If you walk through the twisting cobbled streets of the Promontório do Sítio, high above the ocean, you pass the tourist shops with their woollen ponchos twirling coyly in the sea breeze.
Step around the occasional tour bus and make your way down to the lighthouse you’ll find a fusion of Nazaré’s past and present – Veado the surfing deer. The statue, an anthropomorphic deer headed surfer, shaped by Agostinho Pires and Adalia Alberto, stands watch over the cliffs and the peaks below.
Through history the coast has been regularly assaulted by vikings, pirates and privateers but today a different set of princelings come to raid Nazaré’s wealth.
Nazaré, as far as the world is concerned, is Portugal’s, and Europe’s, big wave epicentre but only a few souls ever risk it.
If you’re interested, you’ll need a jet ski, one of those inflatable wetsuit vests Shane Dorian invented, a crew of equal bat-shit craziness and a pair of balls bigger than a twelve foot deer-man hybrid.
There are few places in the world that can, and do, cater to the beginner and the insane world record hunter
The central coast of Portugal, the Costa de Prata or Silver coast, is a surfer’s wet dream. There are few places in the world that can, and do, cater to the beginner and the insane world record hunter.
From the groms in Peniche to Garrett ‘G-MAC’ McNamara beneath the cliffs at Praia do Norte, the Silver Coast has everything. It’s easy to get here via Faro or Lisbon, the food is amazing, the infrastructure for surf holidays as easy and sublime as you could hope for. And it’s nearly always firing!
From beneath the Veado’s unblinking gaze we check the surf. To the south Praia da Nazaré. looks benign.
It’s doing its best Mediterranean family resort impression; turquoise seas, white townhouses and promenades with colourful modesty tents.
Yet turn your head 180 degree to Praia do Norte and you’re looking at the Skeleton Coast’s angry twin. Pushed ahead of the northwest swell it is wild and unchecked, a solid eight foot shore break rifles down the beach. It is hatred personified.
João is still on his phone checking other spots, keen for us to get in. None of us are keen to to get in here. The beach is out of control, angry and massive. Eventually he hangs up ‘Nah, it’s not good, sem problemas. There’s always a wave at Peniche. Lets go get barrelled. Vamos!’ We’re all happy about that.
We’re paddling out at a solid head high at Baleal. You can spend longer circling Newquay looking for parking
We change in that beautiful desiccating heat that the UK gets four days a year, that heat that dries out those damp bones and lights the soul. Shirts come off and our white flesh heralds our very recent arrival.
Portugal is not a new spot. Over the last three decades it has risen from idle backwater to its role as European surf powerhouse and its potential as a wave mecca.
With Tap flights from Manchester and London it’s just hours away and certainly quicker than attempting to get to Bude on a bank holiday. Within two hours of touching down we’ve checked Nazaré, eaten and headed to Peniche.
Now leashes are on, there’s a series of token stretches and, before the rest of the British surf community has made it to Taunton Deane services, we’re paddling out at a solid head high at Baleal. You can spend longer circling Newquay looking for parking.
The sea is full of people from all over the world. Surfers of every level brought together to worship in the bright Portuguese sun. There are waves enough for everyone from the tiniest nipper to the oldest grey warrior.
The region is a shining example of surfing’s cheerful inclusivity. Set after set roll through as the breeze carries barbecue smoke along the coast. Even in these crowds there’s enough for everyone. The surf is solid, consistent and plentiful.
It’s a civilised Morocco where post surfs mean wine and pastries rather than tetanus and panicked calls to insurance companies.
The grittiness stops the place from becoming too civilised
A few hours later, salted and exhausted, we chill in the bar thankful for the shade and the cold beer. Pinched between two beautiful headlands the beach at Peniche rolls south towards the town and the 16th century Fortaleza fortress, the last stop for political prisoners in a dark period of Portugal’s past.
While surfing has lent a slight air of gentle gentrification it’s still a working port. The grittiness stops the place from becoming too civilised. just back from the dunes fisherman still tend their nets, scrub decks and grumble at EU fishing quotas.
“I used to think my grandson was lazy. Always just playing in the waves”. The father and grandfather carefully stitch and knot the roiling polypropylene nets as we talk. “but now he can make a living without all this nonsense.
Not all of us come back each winter. Then there’s the cost of running a boat and the many, many moods of the EU. He is better teaching tourists to have fun. The boy is always smiling. Only sometime there is fish but there’s always waves.”
Peniche always has waves thats true, “but autumn is best” says Joao, vindicated. There’s a reason the WSL brings the circus to town in October. Portugal fires somewhere on almost every swell and tide.
Tiago Pires, the crown prince of Portuguese surfing, showed the world that not only did the country have world class waves but could produce world class surfers. As we recline frazzled and fatigued in the Bar Da Praia Baleal we divide our attention between the sets and the WSL on the TV.
Portugal’s new princeling Frederico Morais takes his surgical precision to Jeffery’s Bay and the top 44.
Combo-ed by the golden child Florence, Morais keeps his head and in the dying African light pulls a ten out of the bag sending John John packing.
The rest of his event was filled with 8’s and 9’s, and, if Filipe Toldeo hadn’t been on an absolute tear, the young Portuguese would have lifted the J-Bay trophy in his rookie year.
There’s a reason why the Portuguese dark horses are the ones to put your money on, the country is unfairly blessed with waves – peak saturated bays, hidden points, mysto reefs, slabs and the world’s biggest at Nazaré. There’s nearly always something firing.
Full of sardines and coffee we pile into Jose’s van. With the boards on the roof, chargers and drinks holders its all so civilised and luxurious after years crammed into underpowered pintos.
We head out of town to gain a little culture before the evening’s surf. Strolling through the medieval Óbidos, regaled in heraldic pendants and banners, we’re thankful for a little cooling shade. Amongst the elderly tourists wander colourful minstrels, jesters and jugglers.
Bus loads have come up from the coast to enjoy the medieval festival and gorge themselves on wooden platers of spit roasted hog, rabbit, lamb, quail and local sausages as armoured soldiers battered the living daylights out of each other in jousts and melees.
But we’re now keener than ever to get back to the coast and get wet again.
We scout the coves and bays around south Peniche, passed painted fishermen’s cottages and monstrous fish processing plants. Succulents cling to the cliffs wobbling in the stiff wind but on this northerly swell we’ll have to head further south to the wide expanse of Santa Cruz.
The town itself is pretty and far less popular than its northerner neighbours. It caters more to locals with a little more knowledge and less need for surf schools.
The pristine bay spills away offering countless peaks stretched along five miles of beaches. Each section is divided up with their respective restaurants, bars and cafes take your pick from Navio, Mirante, Pisão, Física, Centro, Santa Helena, Formosa or Azul, depending on the peak you like.
For the next two days we’ll haul ourselves out after each session, cross the burning sands and collapse into the cool haven of these cafes to rehydrate and consume yet more seafood, pastries and coffee.
On the last night as I sat in Noah, watching the sun die to live Angolan jazz, it seems almost inconceivable that Portugal isn’t rammed to the gills with surf tourists.
It seems to offer up something, somewhere for any level and on clean safe beaches. There might be another chance to surf before heading to the airport tomorrow.
One last hurrah so our ears are still full of sand and seawater as be push through customs but as we order another round of local Arinto and Alentejan red it seems increasingly unlikely, and that’s sem problemas, sem problemas at all.
Photos Luke Gartside