Tradition and tourism coexist in Nazaré, Portugal, a quaint coastal town 124 kilometres north of Lisbon. The relationship between the two is subtle. Neither overwhelms the other. At least, that was my experience in May, before the tidal wave of tourists descends on the town in July and August.
Nazaré’s charm is its absence of grandiose buildings and monuments. It’s unpretentious, and that’s part of its appeal. It exudes an atmosphere of times gone by, a window into the old world of Portugal with its rich and colourful traditions linked to fishing and the sea.
Seduced by references to fresh seafood and traditions practised by local residents, booking a four-night stay seemed like a relaxing contrast to the frenetic pace of our five-night stay in Lisbon. Mind you, we had second thoughts when a flight attendant on our TAP Portugal flight into Lisbon used the term “boring” at our mention of Nazaré. This theme was echoed by a fellow passenger on the bus from Lisbon who described it as a holiday destination stuck in an era fifty of years ago.
It sounded perfect!!
As our Rede expressios bus pulled into Nazaré, I found it bigger than expected. But then, Nazaré is divided into three distinct sections. As its name suggests, Praia (meaning “beach”), borders a fine-grained sweeping sandy beach. Above Praia sits the medieval hilltop village of Pederneira, and Sítio (meaning site or siege), the rocky headland offering stunning views of the coastline. If you’re a world-class surfer chasing monster waves, you might count the Praia do Norte as a fourth district.
Still, Nazaré is small enough to be explored on foot, and had a lot to offer during our three-day stay.
Until the seventeenth century, most of the fishing neighbourhood of Praia was covered with seawater. Once the sea retreated, a hamlet of whitewashed red-roofed houses sprang up, on a grid of streets running both perpendicular and parallel to the beach. Sprinkled with seafood restaurants, humble hotels and laid-back pubs, the compact residential area is dominated by beautifully maintained whitewashed homes. Linking them are lines of laundry fluttering in the breeze above narrow cobbled streets.
Adjacent to the beach is Avenida da República, lined with unassuming hotels, cafés, gift shops, bars, and restaurants. An interesting feature of the thoroughfare (and at the bus station) is the presence of women with multilingual signs advertising “quartos, chambres, rooms, zimmer” to rent. Most of the rooms are located nearby, in the quiet neighbourhood behind the beach. If you’d like to experience the charm of staying in a private home, and paying half the rate of a cheap hotel room, check out what’s available.
The tiled boardwalk beckons pedestrians to stroll from the base of the Sítio cliff face at the northern end of the beach to the sheltered harbour to the south.
Before the harbour was built in 1986, the beach was littered with boats dragged up above the tide by oxen, and later, tractors. What a colourful sight that must have been! At the time of my visit, three traditional fishing boats rested on the sand as a reminder of that rich seafaring past. They’re colourful and narrow, with sleek upturned prows designed to cut through the breakers after being launched from the beach.
During July and August, Nazaré attracts holidaymakers to a beach packed with multicoloured umbrellas and beach tents. Further along the seafront, people still dry their catch of fish in the sun.
Pederneira and Sítio
The early settlements in Pederneira and Sítio provided refuge against pirate raids. As can be expected, these neighbourhoods offer a treasure trove of religious shrines, historical monuments and architectural delights just waiting to be uncovered.
At more than 100 metres above sea level, the view of Nazaré and the Atlantic Ocean is magnificent. Take the funicular up to Promontório do Sítio, and watch the picture-postcard coastal views unfold gradually from the cliff face.
On the square close to the cliff, is the small chapel Ermida da Memória commemorating “The Legend of Nazaré.” The legend dates back to a foggy morning in 1182, when local nobleman Dom Fuas Roupinho was out hunting on horseback. At the last moment, he realized that the deer he’d been chasing had led him to the edge of the cliff, near a grotto housing a small statue of Our Lady of Nazaré. Just as he was about to fall to a certain death, he cried out to the Madonna to intervene. To honour this life-saving miracle, Roupinho ordered a chapel to be built. A painting illustrates the tale, depicted as well in hand painted tiles. The supposed footprint of Roupinho’s horse is engraved in a stone found in the crypt below the chapel.
If you stumbled across Vasco da Gama at some point in your history studies, you may be interested in his connection with Nazaré. Near the chapel is a pillar with an inscription commemorating Vasco da Gama’s visit to Nazaré after his voyage to India. It was here the famous explorer offered thanks to Nossa Senhora de Nazaré for his safe return.
In the main square sits the beautiful Santuário de Nossa Senhora da Nazaré (Sanctuary of Our Lady of Nazaré). In 1377, because of the increased number of pilgrims to the Ermida da Memória, King Fernando had a church built near the chapel to house the statue, which is now on display in a small niche above the altar.
Within the square stand stalls staffed by women wearing the “seven skirts of Nazaré,” seven colourful layers of skirts covered by an embroidered apron. It’s said they represent the seven days of the week, the seven colours of a rainbow, the seven waves in a set and many other biblical, mythical and magical references involving the number seven. Women of old would await the safe return of their men on the beach in cold, wet, and windy conditions, wearing the multiple layers to keep warm.
Praia do Norte
Sítio separates Nazaré’s south beach (Praia) and the more precarious and perilous Praia do Norte to the north, home to some of the world’s biggest waves. The offshore Nazaré Canyon and seasonal storms combine to make Praia do Norte a hotspot for big wave surfing. There are several lookout points a short 500-metre walk from Sítio’s main square. One is the popular Forte de Sao Miguel, now a lighthouse, built in 1577 to protect Nazaré from pirate raids. Depending on the conditions at the time of your visit, grab a vantage point to admire the monsters, or equally appealing views of a calm ocean and deserted beach.
Rede expressios offers a direct service from Lisbon. The two-hour trip costs in the range of 10 euros.
We stayed at the Hotel Oceano, Avenida Da República Nº 51, a short five-minute walk from the bus station. Breakfast was included, and the reasonably priced room was clean and comfortable.
Most people I know head to the Algarve. Nazaré, with its close proximity to Óbidos, Alcobaça, Fátima and Peniche make it a perfect base from which to explore the area.
Have you visited Nazaré? What was your experience?