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Seaside Traditions in Portugal’s Nazaré

By Rick Steves
Nazaré and its beach, as seen from Sítio neighborhood, Portugal
A funicular climbs to Nazare's Sítio neighborhood, where locals farm instead of fish. (photo: Dominic Arizona Bonuccelli)
Traditional dancers, Nazaré, Portugal
Jovial folk bands in festive costumes bring life to the sandy sidewalks of Nazaré. (photo: Rick Steves)

As we've had to postpone our travels because of the pandemic, I believe a weekly dose of travel dreaming can be good medicine. Here's a reminder of the fun that awaits us in Europe at the other end of this crisis.

Tucked into a far corner of Europe, just two hours north of Lisbon, is one of my favorite beach towns: Nazaré, an Atlantic Coast fishing town turned tourist retreat. Visitors are greeted by the energetic applause of the surf, widows with rooms to rent, and fishermen mending nets. This is a place to relax in the Portuguese sun among cork groves, eucalyptus trees, ladies in petticoats, and men who stow cigarettes and fishhooks in their stocking caps.

Nazaré strikes the ideal balance between romantic old-world Portugal and bustling seaside resort. Though most locals seem older than many buildings here, the town feels like a Portuguese Coney Island — humming with young people who flock here for beach fun. Off-season, it's almost tourist-free — the perfect time to take in the wild surf and get a feel for the local way of life.

The town's layout is simple: Super-skinny streets with sun-bleached apartment blocks stretch away from an expansive, wide beach. The beach sweeps between the new harbor in the south, and the cliffs to the north, capped by the old-town neighborhood of Sítio.

It seems that most of Nazaré's 15,000 inhabitants are in the tourist trade, but it's not hard to find pockets of vivid and authentic culture. Somehow traditions survive, and the townspeople go about their old-school ways. I like to stroll through the market and wander the back streets for a fine look at Portuguese family life. Laundry flaps in the wind, kids play soccer, and fish sizzle over tiny curbside hibachis.

Nazaré is famous for its traditionally clad women who — at least according to local lore — wear skirts with seven petticoats (one for each day, or for the seven colors of the rainbow…or make up your own legend). While the story is somewhat of an invention for the sake of tourism, there is an element of truth to it. In the old days, women would wait on the beach for fishermen to sail home. To keep warm in the face of a cold sea wind while staying modestly covered, they would wear several petticoats so they could fold layers over their heads, backs, and legs. Even today, older and more traditional women still wear skirts made bulky by several — though not as many as seven — petticoats. The ensemble is completed with house slippers, an apron (hand-embroidered by the wearer), a woolen cape, head scarf, and flamboyant jewelry, including chunky gold earrings (often passed down from generation to generation).

Nazaré doesn't have any blockbuster sights, but its people-watching could keep you busy for days. The beach, tasty seafood, and a funicular ride are the bright lights of my lazy Nazaré memories. A funicular, which leads from the beach up to the Sítio neighborhood — was built in 1889, the same year as the Eiffel Tower (and was designed by a disciple of Eiffel).

With its own church, museum, and main square, Sítio feels like a separate village on a scenic bluff. Up here, a stone memorial honors the nobleman and explorer Vasco da Gama, who stopped here before leaving Europe for India. A tiny adjacent chapel sits on the spot where a statue of the Black Madonna hid in the rocks throughout the 400 years of this region's Muslim Moorish rule (before it was rediscovered during the 12th-century Christian Reconquista).

Down along the beach, local folk music groups play and dance proudly for visitors. On my latest trip, I was treated to a show by the town's oldest group, which has been kicking up Nazaré's sand since 1934. If they're not on the beach, you'll find them dancing on a sidewalk inlaid with fine Portuguese stonework.

When these dancers were younger, the vast beach at Nazaré was littered with colorful fishing boats that would be hauled in by oxen or teams of fishermen. But ever since a new harbor was built south of town (a 30-minute walk away), the working boats have been kept out of sight — only a few historic examples still ornament the sand. On the boardwalk, squadrons of sun-dried and salted fish are crucified on nets left under the midday sun. Locals claim they're delicious, but I'd rather eat barnacles!

Barnacles (percebes), my sentimental favorite here, are sold on the street like munchies. Merchants are happy to demonstrate how to eat them: like boiled clams, washed down with local beer. Fresh barnacles are expensive, as they are difficult and dangerous to harvest from rocks they cling to amid turbulent waves along the coast. But rip off the tough outer skin of one of these guys and pop it in your mouth, knowing it was harvested just hours ago…and it's worth the expense and all that trouble.

With its black-shawl tradition and beachy hospitality, Nazaré is a great spot for a vacation from your vacation. Kick back and share a bottle of chilled vinho verde on the beach at sundown, and enjoy the endearing charms of tranquil Portugal.