A few months ago our motorhome tour of Portugal took us up the Atlantic shoreline of the Algarve. Having been completely entranced by the beauty of the beaches, craggy cliffs and raging seas we didn’t expect to be so enthralled yet again by the Portugese coast. A trip to Peniche, Baleal and Nazare was all it took and once again we were in awe and treated to some quite astonishing sights.
It started in Peniche. We’d been to a few towns in the previous few days and thought some time by the sea would be nice. Peniche wasn’t too far away and caught our eye on the map, jutting out into the sea with a lighthouse at the end. It was an island until the 16th century but after years of silt build up it is now joined to the mainland. There is a motorhome aire nearby but we chose to drive right to the farthest point all the way to Cabo Carvoeiro lighthouse and park there on the cliff top, not being entirely sure what we would find.
As we pulled up our jaws dropped when an immense, leaning rock stack came into view, standing at a precarious angle, being thrashed by powerful, pounding waves. It didn’t seem possible for the rock to be stood there like that but it was! In the distance you can see all the way out to the Ilha Berlenga, a small ocean ravaged island occupied only by a few fisherman and a sanctury for birds.
As the sun started to go down several other people arrived with cameras on tripods, as we were, hoping to get some stunning sunset shots. There was also a quite comical sight as one particular couple were obviously trying to get the perfect instagram sunset yoga pose but as the woman hopped about on one foot with the other leg bent up behind her it didn’t quite work out! As it was, the cloud was a bit too dense and although the sky turned orange it wasn’t one of the best. With the sea and rock directly visible through our front screen though we weren’t complaining and retreated inside to watch as it darkened further and have dinner.
The next morning brought blue skies and the inevitable Atlantic breezes. As we’d driven up the day before we’d noticed that the coast had been quite dramatic for about 2km so we set off with a flask and packed lunch for a leisurely scenic stroll. We noticed two mammoth flat slabs of rock in the water and as the waves flowed back and forth over them they reminded us of two giant basking whales. There are hundreds of giant cracks and cavities in the rocks, some impassable but some wider crevices can be walked through, leading to narrow mysterious tunnels which we peered into.
You can see swirls of erosion in circular shaped holes and in some cases round vertical tunnels narrowing into small openings at the bottom where you can see the sea rushing through below. We walked and watched for a few hours, stopping for a drink in a small cafe so we could use the loo and enjoying our picnic on the rocks. We walked back to Buzz feeling rather windswept but invigorated, refreshed and happy. It was late afternoon now though and we had a boring chore to attend to.
The laundry had been building up and we really couldn’t put off doing the washing any longer! Getting in the motorhome and driving to the nearest place we could find we noticed traffic queuing at several fuel stations. We knew Easter was on the horizon but couldn’t believe they would all be closing and a quick bit of online research revealed the reason – a trucker’s strike. According to the news even airports were running out of fuel. As luck would have it there was a laundry facility on the Inter Marche fuel forecourt so we bunged the washing in the machine, drove back out and got in the long queue of cars waiting to fill up, knowing we would have been sitting around anyway waiting. Feeling relieved at getting a full tank we parked up back by the machines and as we did several of the fuel pumps were closed down as they gradually ran out. We only had to queue for about 20 minutes and paid about 1.33 euros for diesel but some friends in Lisbon had to queue for an hour and paid 1.47 euros! Suddenly we were feeling quite lucky.
Driving back to the town we chose to park by the moat and the Fortaleza de Peniche. This sombre 16th century fortress was historically a dreaded jail with a severe regime, later becoming a refuge for arrivals from former colonies. You can visit the small museum, exhibition and old cells for an insight into prison life here and try to imagine the grim realities of the conditions they faced. As the early evening sun bathed it in warm light it didn’t look all that bad!
That night it poured with rain and by morning the ground we were on had turned wet and sludgy. We were parked just a few inches away from the edge which dropped down to the moat and for some reason we had backed up onto the levelling chocks, so had to go forwards to get off. Hoping we weren’t going to slide straight off the edge (yes, I’m exaggerating just a little bit!), we gingerly crept forward just enough to pull them out. We then backed out without a problem and set off for Baleal and its island, just a short way along the coast.
The island of Baleal is joined to the mainland by a narrow road and path with a sweeping, sandy beach either side. It’s another popular surfing destination and suitable for a range of abilities. The beaches take turns receiving the brunt of the sea and while one is rough and raging the other tends to be calmer and kinder for the less experienced. There’s plenty of parking space here so we parked up and went to get out. The battering wind was so strong though, it was pinning the cab door closed and I could barely open the door on my side to get out! Sand and spray was flying sideways as we forced our way across the causeway towards the village, having to make a real effort to keep upright. To say it was worth it would be an understatement. We hadn’t researched Baleal beyond a quick read about its surfing activities and as we rounded the corner the whole landscape changed yet again. With the flat sandy bays behind us we picked our way forward over an awkward uneven surface, venturing out to the end of the rocky peninsula.
By this point we were having real difficulty actually just standing up. There’s no shelter here, its totally exposed to the full force of the harsh wind whipping up in sudden gusts. The waves rolled in bringing a refreshing salty slap to the face every now again – nothing like a good exfoliation in the morning! The further we got the more dramatic it became. The rocks were an incredible sight, all fallen sideways like books on a shelf. There are a couple of buildings perilously close to the edge which doesn’t exactly look ideal. They must get absolutely freezing in the winter. No need for air conditioning in the summer though!
Completing a full circle around the island we stumbled back to the road, continuing round to the sheltered side and a snug little cove harbouring a handful of small fishing boats. Visit complete we pushed through back along the causeway to Buzz and a warming cup of coffee setting off again shortly to our next destination, Nazare.
Historically a fishing village, Nazare is now a town now famed for its colossal waves and surfing beaches. Fish is still very prominent though and as we walked along the main promenade we could see rack upon rack of sardines and mackerel air drying in the wind. Tables on the pavement were laden with flattened out octopus, spread out in the sun, with women touting for business. Traditionally the fishwives of Nazare would wear ‘The Seven Skirts’, while waiting for their menfolk to return to shore with their catches. The seven layers were said to represent the 7 days of the week, 7 colours of the rainbow and any number of other legends, myths and lucky beliefs about the number 7, hoping for their husband’s safe return after a harsh day at sea.
We were there for something else though – the waves – and this is where the ‘glory’ comes in. It’s not only waves that smash here but world records too. The current world record for surfing the highest wave is held by Brazilian Rodrigo Koxa who rode an enormous 80ft monster of a wave here a few years ago. In December 2018 a British man, Tom Butler, tackled an even bigger Nazare wave said to be nearer to 100ft high, likening it to ‘running away from a raging bull’. He has to wait until the WSL Big Wave Awards on May 2nd 2019 to discover whether it has been officially recognised and he can take the glory of a brand new world record for himself.
Nazare can quite rightly boast some of the biggest waves in the world and the reason for them is a hidden secret under the sea. A monumental canyon 140 miles long and up to 3 miles deep begins just offshore. As the might of the sea comes over the canyon the strength is intensified and the already immensely powerful waves are magnified. This is no place for beginners and only the very experienced can surf here. We took the 1889 funicular up the hillside to Sitio and walked along to the Fortress, a historic site that was started in 1577 and now includes a lighthouse which can beam light out 15 miles. The views from the top of the town are wonderful, with sandy bays stretching and curving out each side with the main Praia Nazare beach to the South and the Praia do Norte to the North.
The fortress itself offered some shelter from the wind and we perched on the wall for a while watching the one solitary surfer out on the sea, brave enough to give it a go. Walking around to the back of the fortress there is a steep ladder leading down to a viewing platform. We climbed down to get closer to the pounding waves and listen to the rush and roar of the water before climbing back up and taking a look at the surfboard exhibition inside the fort. We finished our visit with a wander around the town admiring the fine collection of fishwife capes and fisherman jumpers before taking the funicular back down and going back to Buzz.
We’ve totally enjoyed this part of the coast and watching the waves. The most giant waves can be seen in Nazare from October to February so we missed the best of them but what an awesome sight that would be to see waves that big. Giant waves of unimaginable size. Maybe we’ll have to return ……