Big Wave Nazaré | A magic place in Portugal
Nazaré. The small Portuguese coastal town is world famous for giant waves and surfers facing massive forces of nature, mastering some of the largest waves on the planet with their surfboards. At the beginning of March the atmosphere is very special, in the almost empty holiday resort – almost mystical.
The market hall in the middle of Nazaré. Saturday morning. I look for a table in front of the small café at the north end of the big market hall. The functional building conveys its very own charm with a dark metal construction as a roof structure, and skylights letting in some daylight. I have found a seat from where I can watch the awakening city in its “microcosm of the market hall”. The rich colours of all the fruits are wonderful, the bananas just piled up by the market woman still shine wet. Fish and vegetables supplied by the farmers of the surrounding countryside. Herbs and thick bouquets of laurel. Regional products are offered, such as sausage curls, hung on hooks and countless variations of Portuguese cheese. Vivid hustle and bustle, but the atmosphere is always relaxed. I decide to let myself drift, although I look forward to the possibility of photographing the surfers in the big waves. I have been following wave forecasts on the Internet for weeks. For Saturday and Sunday there are predicted some higher surfable waves. But the prognosis is not safe. Even the athletes and their teams with jet skiers and complex logistics can never predict with absolute certainty whether the big wave, a record wave, will appear on a special day. But often there are these blissful days Nazaré, especially in autumn/winter, when the biggest waves of the planet roll in. Sometimes record-breaking.
Galao, big waves and world records.
I buy myself one more galao. While waiting for the Portuguese coffee, I have a look at the framed pictures on the walls. Photos, sport devotional objects – soccer, I suppose. Then I notice a large, signed poster. It shows the U.S. surfer Garrett McNamara surfing down a wall of water. In 2011, the Hawaii-based Big Wave surfer broke the world record in Nazaré. The huge wave was almost 24 meters high. that record-breaking ride suddenly made the once simple fishing and holiday resort world-famous. Since then, the community has invested heavily in big wave surfing – in safety and in building sports centers – to provide athletes with training opportunities so they can prepare themself perfectly for their big ocean mission. The number of visitors to the fortress with the small red lighthouse has increased steadily since 2011. Pictures of the huge monster waves towering behind the lighthouse are going increasingly viral on the Internet. And now, even in winter, visitors come to Forte de Sao Miguel to see the waves, the surfers and a permanent exhibition dedicated to them. Sebastian Steudtner’s surfboard also hangs in the vaulted hall of the fortress. The only German Big Wave surfer has been living in Nazaré for years. He has won WSL XXL Big Wave Awards twice, in 2010 and 2015: with a wave surfed in Maui/Hawaii in 2009 and then with a wave in Nazaré, where he is – as one of the locals – allowed to drive down to the fortress by car. From where you can see far and estimate with the necessary technical knowledge whether there will be waves – big ones.
More and more people appear at the market. Many women wear a kind of traditional dress. They wear headscarves with various patterns and knee-length skirts. Like Lisbon, Nazaré has many rampant streets. The “modern” city is built on a slope and there is an old town with a pilgrimage church on top of the cliffs. Now, in the transition from winter to spring, the train is still out of service, with which the tourists go up the rock in the summer season. There is a very long stairway, too. From the old town on the cliffs it is not far to the fortress with the red lighthouse.
I leave the market hall, it’s drizzling lightly outside. The view is a little misty. I walk on the promenade along the beach and through the sleepy town. I like this mood. Sometimes carnivalists pass by. I see groups of disguised young people hanging out on the beach – Pirates, Clochards and princesses. It’s the carnival weekend. The music plays, it sounds like a mixture of folk and punk rock. Scattered carnivalists create a somehow surreal atmosphere in the relatively deserted holiday resort.
There is movement in the sea. Two people race with a jet ski towards the the rock with the fortress. Now I quickly get into the car and drive up to the north beach. Praia do Norte, has become a trademark. The name of the beach symbolizes enthusiasm for Big Wave surfing – far beyond the borders of Europe.
Praia do Norte
The Atlantic ocean roars. Stopping the car on the parking lot, having a look on what is going on on the ocean I notice one jet ski in the waves. I grab my camera and run to the beach. The closer I get to the massive power of the Atlantic ocean, the more surfers and jet skiers I can see. The sight is really poor. After some first pictures I decide to drive to the fortress. The air is wet from all that the spraying water so it is better to put on the rain protection for the camera. But the sight from this place is much more clear. I look down to the Big Wave surfers and see them clearly paddling. Today there won’t be any massive surfable waves to witness but my fascination for this place is beginning to manifest.
Something between poetry und violence.
The rainbow-coloured waves that dissolve over the surfers in uncountable coloured particles of water are incredibly beautiful. Fascinating how the athletes move with the sea. “Is that Sebastian Steudtner down there”, the German tourist asks, with whom I spoke in the morning at the hotel about Carnival Nazaré versus carnival in the Rhineland. When I can see Steudtner’s logo on the surfboard with the tele lens, I confirm. “That’s why we’re here, that’s what we wanted to see,” he says. Sebastian Steudtner won’t stand up on the board this morning anymore. The jet ski soon takes him back to the harbour. Some other local surfers and those from the international community, which formed in Nazaré for Big Wave Surfing, use some smaller waves for training. While we are watching this, a Portuguese visitor tells me about the gigantic waves he saw here a few years ago. “Epic, they piled up enormously behind the lighthouse,” the man from Lisbon reports, reminiscing. The Bigwaves are created thanks to Nazaré Canyon, a geomorphological phenomenon that enables the formation of perfect surfable giant waves. It is the largest underwater canyon in Europe, running about 170 kilometers along the coast, the canyon reaches a depth of 5,000 meters. Although today there are no giant waves to be seen, the beautiful rainbow waves, the perceptible power of the waves and the beauty of the connection that surfers make with all that – all those people present seem to be impressed without exception.
I sit on the wall on the beachfront Nazaré town and watch the chestnut roasters. Boys playing football on the beach sometimes disturbed by dogs. Occasionally the only single one carnival truck passes by. Then I have to duck down in front of the paint bags, which come flying with force. I like the small street stand of the chestnut roaster, actually it’s more like a cart with a smoke kettle on it. It hisses and smokes, the smell of the roasted chestnuts is tempting. Those who walk up the promenade in direction to the harbour pass a beach section on which numerous wooden stands are lined up. Fish are dried on these stalls. Women sitting at the roadside selling the dried fish. The preservation of fish by drying is very popular in Portugal. Even in supermarkets hang large dried cod halves for the preparation of stockfish dishes.
Sunday morning once again: surf-action. Today the waves are bigger, the sea does not show up that angry and the sight is clear. Bright light, the sun is shining. And today I also see Sebastian Steudtner surfing some waves. These wave rides last so long that my arms get heavy under the weight of the big lens. Some of the water sports athletes move very far out into the blue ocean. Scaring and impressive at the same time, when the forces of the ocean show up that full of energy. The ability of the well-known Big Wave surfers to deal with the forces of nature is obviously immense. Meticulous preparation and the ideal technical equipment make it possible for extreme athletes to conquer such waves and much larger mountains of water.
One last look from the cliffs to the city where Carnival is celebrated under the warm sun. Then I head back to the airport of Lisbon, which is easily reachable within an hour.
To observe the energy of the ocean at this magical place is epic. I come back in autumn or winter, when the big waves show up.
Fotos: (c) Simone Fust
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