Lifestyle & Culture

Giant waves of Nazaré: Portugal’s most impressive natural spectacle draws big crowds including ‘crazy-ass surfers’

Flickr (Jorge Santos)

(Editor’s note: It’s Big Wave season right now through March in Nazaré, Portugal. See more details at the end of this post.)

It had been on my bucket list from the very beginning; since I moved to Lisbon four and a half years ago. But earlier this year, I finally made it! I went to Nazaré to watch the most gigantic waves I have ever seen. And thinking back now, it seems almost unreal that with my own eyes I saw bigger than house-sized waves moving through the ocean, their roaring a dense compressed thud through the moist air while –even more incomprehensibly – crazy-ass surfers threw themselves down the steep slopes of these life-threatening beasts!

However, this had already been my second try to attend this breath-taking natural spectacle. I had been impatiently checking the alerts on since the beginning of the so-called Big Wave Season which runs every year from September to March. Throughout this period, occasionally, the winter swell is amplified by Europe’s largest submarine canyon (reaching depths of up to 5 kilometers and running right in front of Nazaré’s coast) to produce waves up to 30 meters in height.

Last December, officials finally announced that the conditions were right for a Big Wave Surfing Competition. Excitedly, I hopped into the car early in the morning with my partner to drive up north from Lisbon for one and a half hours to the small coastal town. But the closer we got, the mistier it became.

We followed the signs to O Sítio, a viewpoint on the farther side of the upper plateau of Nazaré overlooking the Praia do Norte, the beach where the magic happens. But when we finally arrived around 9 a.m., we – along with hundreds of other potential onlookers – found a town covered in thick mist.

But hope dies last.

After all, it was still early morning hours! Therefore, we optimistically parked our car in a residential area and walked down through the town towards the light house. After grabbing a quick breakfast in a small café, we finally arrived on top of the hills flanking the coast line, whose rock face forms a natural amphitheater for the marine stage. However, the fog curtain hadn’t lifted yet. Next to countless other optimists we patiently waited, listening to the sound of breaking waves and a commenter who interrupted the expectant murmuring every now and then through loudspeakers with gloomy meteorological pronouncements.

The highly anticipated show, however, turned out to be a no-show!

After three hours of futilely staring into the unyielding fog, we finally surrendered and decided, heavy-heartedly, to trudge home. But the vicissitudes of nature did nothing to lessen my resolve!

Finally, a clear day. (Photo courtesy of Miriam Thaler)

Four weeks later I was back with a group of friends at the same spot, another day, another surf competition and this time with a clear ring-side view. The moment I caught the first glimpse of the watery, roaring giants rolling towards us, my heart skipped a beat or two. One look at the ant-sized surfers being towed into the waves made me feel like a cardiac arrest was perilously close. The
sight of these daredevils riding down at high speed, often only barely escaping the violent point break and in some cases being swallowed completely by it only to emerge some cruelly dilated moments later, felt like a defibrillator jolt was called for if I were ever going to get my pulse going again.

Unsurprisingly, all these thrills had left us hungry! We decided to walk down to the lower part of town to grab a hearty late lunch at the ocean promenade along the Praia da Nazaré. Here too, impressive waves were breaking violently against the shore. These were by no means in the same class as their otherworldly cousins we had seen earlier. Those, however, we could still observe as moving mountains across the horizon advancing towards the coast.

It was an age till we could turn our eyes away from this view and leave Nazaré behind. One thing is for sure, this is definitely not going to be my last encounter with Nazaré’s Big Wave (standing safe and sound with both feet on the shore, of course!)

(Editor’s note: The Nazaré competition is going on now. Red Bull TV is the exclusive streaming partner for all WSL Big Wave events in 2022. This includes the Quiksilver Jaws Big Wave Challenge presented by TUDOR and the TUDOR Nazaré Tow Surfing Challenge presented by Jogos Santa Casa. The waiting period is open for both events and runs until 31 March.)

About the author:

Miriam Thaler is a PhD student in Culture Studies in Lisbon. Exploring foreign places and getting to know different people, their stories, ways of life and world-views has always been her passion. After finishing school she lived and worked as a volunteer for one year in the South of Chile.

Her B.A. in Cultural Anthropology brought her to Munich and Paris. Iceland called her during her Masters for an ethnographic research stay and the shooting of a documentary. 

See more of Miriam’s posts here.

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