Centro region, Nazaré: place of sea mists and big waves

Nazaré: place of sea mists and big waves

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Nazaré was a most welcome sight after a long day of travelling from Leiria to Batalha and then to Alcobaça to visit two of the most famous monasteries in Portugal. A rather fraught journey by public bus from Alcobaça to Nazaré had left me feeling stressed and in need of a beer and a comfortable bed, the latter of which was waiting for us as we had booked two nights in Nazaré, a seaside resort on the Costa de Prata (Silver Coast), for rest and recuperation halfway through our week-long trip around western Portugal. After dropping off our bags at our hotel we went for a walk along the promenade, marvelling at the long expanse of golden sandy beach, which seemed to go on forever, and the imposing cliff to the north of the town, with the funicular track and eye-catching mural, topped by the neighbourhood of Sítio da Nazaré. We were too tired to investigate the town any further that evening and went off in search of a nice bar, which we found in the Praça Souza Oliveira, just off the sea front.

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Praça Souza Oliveira, Nazaré

After a good night’s sleep and a light breakfast we headed to Sítio da Nazaré, which was the original village of Nazaré until the eighteenth century, as until that time what is now the seaside resort of lower Nazaré was under the sea. Being at the top of the cliff, 110 metres above sea level, also meant that the inhabitants were less likely to be attacked by the pirates that roamed the seas. We took the modern funicular (Ascensor da Nazaré) which runs on a track built in 1889 to the top of the cliff where we stepped out near the Miradouro do Suberco, a wonderful viewpoint overlooking the sea, beaches and town of Nazaré below.

Sítio da Nazaré is dominated by the Santuário de Nossa Senhora da Nazaré (Sanctuary of Our Lady of Nazaré), a beautiful Baroque church which houses a small black wooden statue of the Virgin Mary breastfeeding Jesus, rumoured to have been carved by Saint Joseph (the father of Christ) and painted by Saint Luke. The statue is believed to have been brought to Spain from Nazareth in the fourth century (it is from this that Nazaré got its name) and then brought to Sítio da Nazaré in the eighth century where it was hidden in the rocks during the period of Moorish rule. The statue and church are connected to a famous legend which tells of Dom Fuas Roupinho, a nobleman, who in 1182 was hunting deer on the cliff. A sea mist came down and the deer he was chasing ran over the edge of the cliff. Dom Fuas’ horse was about to follow it over the edge when Dom Fuas cried out to the Virgin Mary and she appeared and made the horse stop at the very edge of the precipice thus saving Dom Fuas’ life. Dom Fuas built the Ermida da Memória (Chapel of Remembrance) as a shrine to the miracle and to house the little statue of the Virgin Mary.

It is said that the hoof prints of his horse can still be seen at the Bico do Milagre (Point of the Miracle) where it happened. The statue now has pride of place in the altar of the church which was built in her honour in the fourteenth century by King Fernando I and visitors can have the unusual experience of climbing up stairs behind the altar to see the statue close up and being able to look out over the nave from there. Also in the area behind the altar is a small chapel with beautiful eighteenth-century azulejos and an area of votive offerings to Our Lady of Nazaré, including replicas of children and limbs in wax and models of boats. For me, the highlight was a naïve painting near the entrance of the nave depicting the miracle of Dom Fuas.

Attached to the church is the small Museu de Arte Sacra (Sacred Art Museum) which has a collection of religious artefacts, such as robes, votive offerings and statues, including the affecting carving of Nossa Senhora das Dores (Our Lady of Sorrows). The church is located in a large square which has a pretty bandstand in the centre and stalls selling souvenirs and local products including knitwear and dried fruit and nuts.

Many stalls are run by women wearing traditional costume, which consists of coloured blouses and headscarves, embroidered aprons, gold earrings, long woollen socks, mules and the famous seven skirts of Nazaré, a narrow-waisted full skirt which has a thick outer layer and six or so thinner under layers. In the past there was a practical reason for wearing this type of skirt combined with an element of superstition which goes back to the mid-twentieth century when women would sit on the beach waiting for their menfolk to return from a fishing trip. The outer layer of the skirt was used as a shawl protecting the head and shoulders while the other layers covered their legs and it is also said that the women used the skirts to count the waves, believing that waves travel in sets of seven and hoping that their menfolk’s fishing boat would come to shore safely before the seventh and biggest wave. Although nowadays this costume tends to be worn on festival days and by women working in the tourist industry, older women watching over the fishing drying on the beach can still be seen wearing it.

Just behind the church, hidden away in the Rua Brito Alão, is a small peach-coloured theatre, Teatro Chaby Pinheiro, an eclectic building which includes art nouveau elements designed by the architect Ernesto Korrodi in 1907, and which is worth seeing for the eye-catching theatrical mask surrounded by musical instruments on the gable. A short walk from the centre is the bullring, which is still used for bullfights, but was not open to tourists on the day we visited. In fact, there were no tourists around in this part of the town; despite being so close to the centre it was a typical Portuguese neighbourhood with facilities for the locals, including a small grocery shop selling the cheapest bottle of water I have ever bought in Portugal!

In the other direction from the square is a path that leads to one of the most famous surfing beaches in the world, Praia do Norte, and the Fort of São Miguel Arcanjo. The fort is famous for a rebellion against the French invadors in July 1808 when a local resistance group made up of townsfolk, using any weapons they could get hold of, took back the fort where the French were quartered. Nowadays the invaders are tourists who come to enjoy the views of the coast. At the entrance to the beach is a striking sculpture in marble and steel called ‘Veado’ (‘Deer’, 2016) by Agostinho Pires and Adália Alberto, which shows a human body with a deer’s head holding a surfboard, combining the two things that Sítio da Nazaré is famous for, surfing and the legend of Dom Fuas. Praia do Norte holds the Guinness World Record for the biggest wave ever surfed (at 24.38 metres) by the Brazilian surfer Rodrigo Koxa on 8th November 2017. A photograph in the small surfing exhibition in the Fort of São Miguel Arcanjo shows a wave rising high above the fort, as if to engulf it. Luckily the sea looked very calm on the late September day that we were visiting and there were no surfers on the beach; they come in search of the big waves in the winter months.

There is an explanation in the fort as to why Nazaré gets such high waves; it is due to a 5km-deep underwater canyon. In very simple terms, the deep water of the canyon crosses the shallower continental shelf and the difference in depth, combined with a build up of water in the cove which then meets a current coming from the other direction, creates very high waves which break when their height is equal to the depth of the water. Due to the currents, even on a calm day the sea off Praia do Norte is not a safe place to swim and there is great respect for the fishermen who go to sea off this coast in vulnerable fishing boats. It is not surprising that there are so many monuments around Nazaré dedicated to the people of Nazaré, including the bronze statue ‘Mãe Nazarena’ (‘Nazarene Mother’) on Avenida Manuel Remígio, which depicts a Nazerene woman carrying a representation of the cliff and Sítio da Nazaré on her head, harking back to the days when the women carried heavy items on their heads, and holding two children in representation of her role as mother and fisherman’s wife. Also on Avenida Manuel Remígio is ‘Monumento aos Náufragos’ (‘Monument to the Survivors of Shipwrecks’), which is an emotive statue in marble showing a woman holding a drowned man with his head resting on her lap. In Largo dos Cedros is a fountain (sadly in a state of disrepair), ‘Monumento à Mulher da Nazaré’ (‘Monument to the Woman of Nazaré’), which has azulejo-panelled segments depicting scenes of village life in the past including a fishing boat being pulled onto the beach by oxen, men mending their nets, women carrying water in containers on their head and washing their clothes in a stream. Nowadays the fishing boats depart from the harbour to the south of the town, but traditional fishing boats from the past are exhibited along the top of the beach with information panels about them and rows of frames with fish drying in the sun watched over by the older women of Nazaré show that fishing is still an important part of Nazaré’s identity.

A gentle stroll from Sítio da Nazaré down the zigzagging path back into lower Nazaré took us past a huge mural, painted on the side of the cliff by Erick Wilson, of the fort and lighthouse with a huge blue wave behind it, which can be seen from miles away. On the seafront road we passed by two small, pretty, azulejo-covered chapels hidden among the abundance of modern hotels, restaurants and gift shops: Capela de Santo António na Nazaré (Chapel of Saint Anthony in Nazaré), built in the late-nineteenth century with donations from the fishermen, and Capela de Nossa Senhora dos Aflitos (Chapel of Our Lady of the Afflicted), dating from 1760.

Leaving the seafront we headed into the backstreets of the fishermen’s district, which retains a traditional feel with narrow cobbled streets of whitewashed houses and washing hanging from the balconies. From here we continued up to the fishing harbour at the far end of the town, which is a reminder that Nazaré still is a working fishing town and that the fish served in the local restaurants is freshly caught.

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Fishing harbour, Nazaré

All day we had noticed a sea mist over the town that continuously moved around, at one point completely obscuring Sítio da Nazaré and later covering the area to the east of Nazaré. However, by the late afternoon it had started to envelope lower Nazaré and as we sat at a seafront café we watched the beach and town slowly disappear in the same kind of mist that nearly killed Dom Fuas all those centuries ago.

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Azulejo panel of Nazaré (1929) at Valado do Frades station

Nazaré is accessible by bus from Alcobaça, Caldas da Rainha, Peniche, Leiria, Lisbon and Valado dos Frades (where there is a train station on the Linha do Oeste regional line). A taxi from Valado dos Frades to Nazaré costs approximately €9.

Forte de São Miguel Arcanjo: €1 entrance. Open every day 10am-6pm.

Ascensor da Nazaré: €1.20 one way. Runs June to mid-July and mid-late September 7.30am-midnight; mid-July to mid-September (and a few other holidays) 7.30am-2am; October to May 7.30am-8.30pm.

Santuário de Nossa Senhora da Nazaré, Largo de Nossa Senhora da Nazaré, Sítio da Nazaré: Open April to September 9am-7pm; October to March 9am-6pm.

Museu de Arte Sacra in the Santuário de Nossa Senhora da Nazaré: €1 entrance. Open July to September 10am-7pm; October to June 10am-1pm and 2pm-6pm.