Thursday, May 8, 2014

Skipping Lisbon, Hitting Nazaré

            Any traveler who has tried to book a hotel online with sketchy Internet for the next destination on short notice knows the feeling: EEEKK.
When it happened to us seeking a room in Lisbon only 48 hours in advance on a national holiday, Robert finally put his finger on a map of Portugal, where neither of us had ever been (but for which we carried air unrefundable tickets) and said, “Forget Lisbon.  We’re going here.”
“Nazaré” read the nearest dot.   That is how we flew in to its airport but skipped one of Europe’s loveliest capitals, at least for the time being, and took a bus immediately to one of its
loveliest fishing towns, where a room we liked was available. We’re here now and an hour ago told the hotel’s front desk we’re extending our stay.

Mornings are for walking, up in the “Sitio” part of town, on a towering cliff with its spectacular view of the bay below. Or in the “Praia” part of town below, which – after the weekend tourists, mostly Portuguese, have disappeared – has the feeling of a Greek village with small cafes and white-painted buildings.  On the high side of town a cathedral housing a black Madonna, believed miraculous, glows inside under a gold coffered ceiling, nearby walls covered with mesmerizing blue tile depictions of saints and secular legends. Twin funicular cable cars climb and descend the cliff separating the two parts of town every half hour or so during daylight, passing each other in the middle of the 1000-foot railway built in 1893, on a 42 per cent grade, a heart-in-your-throat experience (we’ve done it twice now) that locals appear to take in stride.
A few months ago Nazaré became famous world-wide when big-wave surfer Garrett McNamara, who lives in Hawaii, set a world record riding a foamy 100-foot breaker here. 
Photos of the astounding ride are posted around town, and a scientific explanation of the underwater canyon that creates the big ones is available in hotel lobbies.  These spring days the waves are calmer, but surfers paddle out anyway to enjoy the ride.
Nazaré is no longer remote, with Lisbon only about two hours away by bus on fine roads, and no longer very small – population is some 10,000.  A proper tourism desk sits inside a cultural center showing photos and artifacts of the fishing village as it was in the last century, oxen hauling the laden boats up onto the sands as late as the 1970s. Nazaré’s new ibrary (one of my measuring sticks for developed civilization) is clean and well-lighted; we happened in and saw an outstanding two-room exhibit of modern art from Mozambique, once a Portuguese colony.
But the feeling remains here of a town unafraid of its past, with a truly distinct local character, unhomogenized by the wider world. Some women still use the traditional seven-skirt costume of old with its sash in the back, and widows wear black head to toe.  

Old and young participate in the town’s traditional spiritual life, such as we saw yesterday: the annual commemoration – on the same day – of the life of the sea, those lost at sea, and mothers young and old.

A widow watches procession, which also commemorates those lost at sea

Surfers line up for a blessing

Oh, and did I say the food is great?
Pick your fish, it's weighed in front of you and thrown on the grill 
We hope to see Lisbon someday, indeed we must. For this trip, however, serendipity has brought us to this sunny fishing town. I can’t imagine a better first door into Portugal.