About 35 kilometres north of the Peniche / Baleal peninsulas the mountain ridge running parallel to the coast reaches the ocean again in a fairly dramatical way with a steep cliff pointing out to the sea and a deep underwater channel. This geological oddity in combination with the former lagoon south of the cliff is the major reason for the existence of one of the major attractions of the area.
Up on the cliff and therefore with some protection from pirate attacks – which were very common up until the early 18th century – sits Sitio, now one of three quarters of Nazaré. Since the 13th century it hosts the Santuário de Nossa Senhora da Nazaré which for several centuries was Portugal´s most important place of pilgrimage. Around the Santuário and the large square Largo de Nossa Senhora da Nazaré sprawls the centuries old historic town centre.
The (former) lagoon of Alfeizerão south of the cliff has been completely silted in very short geological times since the 18th century (it is speculated that a Tsunami in the late 18th century is responsible for this) resulting in a large sandy beach which gets crucial protection from the northerly winds by the cliff. This beach has been mainly used by fishermen to launch their boats from the protected beach and only had some simple fishermen huts until the late 18th century when the first permanent houses were built.
Nowadays there is a modern harbour down there and most inhabitants live here in the modern part of the town. Aside from fishing beach tourism has developed big time here and now is one of the economic pillars of the town. For easier access to the historic quarter Sitio up on the cliff a cable car elevator has been built in the 19th century. This cable car is now a heritage by its own.
On the hills southwest of the cliff lies the third quarter of Nazaré, the historic town of Pederneira. It was founded in the 13th century by the abbey of Alcobaça. The two historic – former independent towns – quarters with their cultural treasures and the large beach alone would make Nazaré worth a visit. But in addition to this the beach north of the cliff has very good waves year-round and the deep-water channel in front of the cliff in combination with Atlantic winter swells has made the Praia do Norte a famous – if not infamous – big wave surfing spot known not only amongst surfers.
When the winter swells arrive, the narrow ridge leading from the Santuário up in Sitio to the fort São Miguel Acanjo at the cliff edge fills with thousands of people from the area eager to witness this unique ocean spectacle by themselves while photos and films from the action get distributed around the world in real time and regularly even makes it to the major television news. Big wave - mostly tow in – surfing has become one of the major tourist attractions of the town and gets actively promoted by the major. But televised images do not even remotely transport the intense experience of witnessing a big day here live.
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Check the galleries (2018, January 17th and January 18th) from one of the biggest swells in the past decade and from the town itself to get an idea.