The beach town of Nazaré was our first stop after leaving Lisbon. Once a fishing village, the town of 15,000 is now a popular tourist destination. Our hotel was in the main part of town, Praia, and directly across from the beach. March is still off-season, so the summer crowds were missing, and our stay was a relaxing beginning to our trip.
The town’s fishing tradition still exists, but the boats have moved from the beach to the new harbor just south of Praia. Signs of the tradition can still be found- a few colorful fishing boats are on the beach and many of the older women still wear the seven skirts of Nazaré- but, with the restaurants, hotels and souvenir shops lining the beach, Nazaré feels like a typical beach town rather than a quaint fishing village.
Sitting high above Praia is the neighborhood of Sitio. Much quieter and more traditional than Praia, Sitio provides spectacular views of Praia. There are also several historical points of interest. The first is the Santuário de Nossa Senhora Nazaré, a baroque 14th century church that houses Nazaré’s famous Black Madonna, a small statue which, according to legend, was brought from Nazareth by a monk in the 5th century.
Nearby is a small chapel, the Ermida da Memória. The chapel is closely tied to the Legend of Nazaré. According to the legend, the chapel was ordered built by a knight, Dom Fuas Roupinho, who was saved by the Madonna, located just a few feet away on a shrine in a cave, from riding off the fog-shrouded cliff while chasing a deer. Built over the cave in 1182, the small chapel’s roof and interior are covered with azulejos.
To the right is a small monument marking Vasco da Gama’s visit to the shrine before sailing for India.
At the farthest point of the cliff is the Fort of Saint Michael the Archangel. It was originally built to protect Nazaré from Vikings. Today the fort houses the lighthouse and a surfing museum and is one of the prime spots for watching the big wave surfing at Praia do Norte.
To the north of the fort is the famous Praia do Norte, where, in 2014, Garrett McNamara surfed the biggest wave ever surfed, nearly 100 feet tall. The giant waves are possible because there’s a 16,000 foot deep canyon just off the coast that allows waves to build as they travel across the Atlantic. Usually the ocean bottom creates a drag that limits the size of the waves. Not so here. The monster waves at Nazaré have made the beach a mecca for surfers everywhere.
There were no monster waves on the day we were there but the beach was still very impressive, with a wild, desolate look compared to Praia de Nazaré’s bustling tourist feel.
While we enjoyed our time in Nazaré and enjoyed Nazaré’s beach, the fresh seafood and the fantastic views from Sitio, we were glad we were there during the off season. We’re too old to enjoy the crowds and we were happy to not have to wait to be seated at the restaurants. We’ll settle for quiet and peaceful.