A European winter surf tour – Portugal
Previous posts have delved into the potential for surf exploration in France and Spain, we now continue the quest for empty waves as we venture south into Portugal.
Tom Keyes: Oct 2017 – As you travel from Northern Spain, south along the Atlantic coast, you’ll notice the landscape change dramatically. Where the Basque country is lush, green and often damp, the Portuguese countryside offers a harsher less forgiving backdrop. The coastline becomes craggy, the ground a little dustier underfoot, and even the rocks that jut out into the sea seem to present a sharper more extreme version of anything that is found slightly further north. Travelling into Portugal gives a very real sense that you are edging nearer to the equator. Africa is now much closer than the UK coastline. And it shows.
When visiting Portugal, the temptation is to fill the satnav with only one destination: Peniche, specifically Supertubos. The name says it all. Few surf breaks around the world are able to justify such an outrageously arrogant label. But catch a decent winter session here and you’ll be loudly proclaiming it a worthy title. Yet whilst a trip to Portugal cannot be complete without a visit to Supertubes, it’s worth taking your time to get there, exploring the wilderness of the northern most breaks as you marvel at the baroness of the more intimate sections of the Atlantic beaches. The potential for empty quality waves is unlike anywhere else in Europe. The population of surfers is low, and the numbers of those on a trip of exploration even lower, making it a great option for a one off surf trip, or an essential stop-off on a longer journey. We take a brief look at some of the less fashionable Portuguese breaks on route to that inevitable (and hopefully classic) session at Supertubos.
Afife is one of the country’s most northerly peaks and it is often likened to Supertubes, just with one glorious exception, the crowds. Uber consistent, and like its more famous cousin down south it’s a fast hollow wave that will catapult you at freight train speeds from deep within a foam spewing barrel. A SW swell will really see this wave come to life, it’s best ridden on a mid-tide. A worthy first stop on any tour of Portugal’s very best waves.
Due to its northerly location, Afife rarely gets busy, but it won’t be empty. If you want to find complete isolation and eliminate the possibility of sharing headspace, then head for Aguçadoura. French-like in its setup, surf breaks off into the horizon along this vast stretch of sandy beach. The world’s first wave farm a few kilometres off its coastline gives an indication of just what a swell magnet this section of ocean really is. Like France, the sea constantly shifts the sandbars and thus the peaks around. The only way to find the best peak is to take a wander up and down the beach, only stopping when you find perfectly empty waves waiting to be ridden to the shore. However, Aguçadoura is not a place to ride on a big day. Once you get into anything above a 6 foot swell it ceases to play the game, instead closing out mercilessly along its glistening sand, good for nothing other than a suicidal drop into a beach break closeout.
Cabedelo, which sits in the northern outskirts of Porto, is on its day, a world class right hand point break. Previously a competition site for the pros to demonstrate their superiority on the world circuit, steep walls loom up from against the jetty and send long firing rights for hundreds of metres at a time. From October onwards this place really comes alive. With incredible swell consistency, you’ve just got to rely on the wind to do its thing and shape the incoming waves into individual gems.
Although trying to avoid the obvious, there’s one Portuguese name so synonymous with the sport of surfing that it would be almost sacrilegious to exclude it from any list. What was once the smallest of fishing villages, whose income relied on local trawlers bountifully harvesting the oceans produce, has now been thrust front and centre into the global spotlight. It is of course Nazaré. The mere hint of the name evokes startling images of big wave surfers charging helplessly and fearlessly down the choppy faces of heaving pits, that in the rational world, have no place being ridden. Jet skis buzz around the line-up launching their vested partners into the rides of their lives, or into a long period of recovery. It’s a fine line between big-wave immortality and a residence in the nearest hospital bed. To visit the site of this action is a must. Even if the waves aren’t on it’s worth briefly perching beneath the lighthouse that proudly gazes out to sea, just to say you’ve stood in the infamous spot that is now so regularly splashed across the surf media.
If the vast options north of Lisbon (and Supertubes) are not to be glossed over, then the same must be said for those that lie south. The southern tip which wraps from Sagres to the Algarve can be by far the best option during relentless winter storms. Where the centrally located breaks get pulverised by any swell making landfall, Southern Portugal offers some respite from the frenetic power of the ocean, and the opportunity for some shelter. The wave at Sagres itself rarely breaks properly, but it is worth keeping an eye on because when it does, it’s a wave of mythically exceptional quality. And the breaks all along the southern stretch provide different options for when it’s too big, too windy, or both, on the West coast.
It’s worth mentioning that the water in Portugal remains surprisingly fresh. The wind can add a chill to the air so it’s important to pack a sufficiently warm suit. Nothing worse than being forced to call time on a session due to the cold creeping in. And take a phrase book. The lack of tourists to the more remote areas are perfect for scoring empty waves. But it hasn’t given the locals much chance to practice their English, and Portuguese is not the most intuitive language to translate.