“This is paradise,” my friend Nelly said about Nazaré, the town about midway up Portugal’s western coast she calls home.

Nazaré’s south beach and town as seen from the Sitio neighborhood on the cliff above.

Nelly was born here. Her father, a commercial fisherman, moved the family to Canada and the US seeking a better life. Ultimately, when she was a teenager, the family decided there was no place better.

Nazaré is a quiet fishing village with a little bit of a tourism and surfing vibe thrown in for good measure. Locals say that the more things change around them, the stronger their bond becomes with the important traditions: family, God, and community.

I will be honest, the first I heard of Nazaré was in a surf documentary. Some crazies were chasing the largest waves to surf. In the middle of winter, they descended on a small village with two beaches separated by a massive rock outcropping with a fort and a light house.

One side was relatively calm. On the other side, there were surfers riding 100 foot waves to the golden shore. That’s all I needed to see. I’m not a surfer but I love both nature’s extremes and people who can harness that power.

I added that to the old bucket list. But, it turns out those waves only arise in the dead of winter. We visited at the exact opposite time of year.

Not distracted by the majesty of a roiling Atlantic, we were able to discover the real Nazaré.

Back streets and narrow alleys leading to the wholesale market that is open just in the morning. Fisherman and their wives who dry fish on the beach. Women in traditional skirts with seven petticoats hawk everything from old style cookies to change purses made of cork.

Nazaré strikes a balance between old-world Portugal and bustling seaside resort. The 15,000 full time residents are probably all employed in the tourist industry in one way or another, but they also keep the traditional lifestyle alive to share with visitors.

“We live traditional lives,” Nelly said. “We keep the traditions going, but we’re in the modern world too.”

On a narrow street, a block or so from the beach, I met a couple of men washing the percebes (small black barnacles) they had harvested from the rocks. These are a favorite snack among the locals, but they can be extraordinarily expensive (I heard €200 per kilo) if you don’t gather your own or have a friend who does.

Cleaning percebes

Nazaré offers so much more than beach vacation like you’d find in Florida or the Costa Maya.

There is a stunning cliff neighborhood with its own church, fort, and lighthouse. For those seeking a cardio workout, there is a steep pathway from the south beach town to the cliff top. (Don’t worry…for €2.50 you can take the funicular, if you’d prefer.)

Up on the cliff, in the Sitio neighborhood, there’s an ornate 19th Century church, Igreja de Nossa Senhora da Lapa, a bustling market, and even a tiny cave shrine to Our Lady of Nazaré. A statue of the virgin, which legend has it was carved by St. Joseph and brought to Portugal by a hermit who lived in the cave in the Fourth Century.

The cave shrine
The altar at Igreja de Nossa Senhora da Lapa

An easier, less steep path, through trees, flowers, and limestone outcroppings winds its way down the other side of the cliff to the Praia Norte. It’s easier, perhaps, because it was forged by surfers, carrying boards, on their way, to take on 10 story, 59° waves in the middle of winter.