With boards waxed and boardshorts packed, surfers head to Portugal’s wave-rich coast for the ultimate European surf odyssey
Tell any inhabitant of the southern hemisphere that you’re a British surfer and they’ll regard you with wild-eyed wonder as they consider the implications – pouring rain, howling winds and temperatures cold enough to freeze the bits off a brass monkey. All of which is fair enough really.
But there’s a flipside to that coin in the abundance of surf breaks littering our doorstep, aka Europe. And nowhere is this truer than the Atlantic coast of Portugal, specifically between the cities of Porto in the north and Lisbon in the south.
Benefiting from cheap, quick and easy transport links, Porto is less than two hours from Heathrow aboard Portugal’s TAP airline. Arriving early, I jumped aboard the new brand-new train service at the airport and met up with my ex-pat mate at the city’s main station. A quick car rental later and we were pouring over local maps, hungry to get in the water and wash away the lethargy that only air travel instils.
Heading south, the first break we made for was Espinho, a few kilometres away from the industrial and potentially polluted Porto breaks. Home to a fun right-hander that breaks off a long groyne, Espinho’s wave is suitable for surfers of every level and is frequented by friendly locals and littered with every surfer’s favourite post-session haunt: cheap, eclectic bars.
Timing our trip with a big Atlantic swell, we immediately lucked into some good waves and enjoyed two sessions over the course of the day, stopping only to refuel at one of the numerous beachfront bars that pop up seemingly randomly as the seasons change.
Stoked to get such good waves straight out of the blocks, we were feeling buoyant and treated ourselves to a room at the beachfront Hotel Apartamento Solverde, a giant, ugly block comprising self-contained apartments that mean you can relax to some home cooking with amazing ocean views. Clean and with a secure car park, it was a little above our budget but was worth the extra euros, and what we spent on accommodation we easily saved on dinner out.
After a brief dawn surf the next day, we were back on the road and keen to see what else this beautiful coastline had to offer. We dropped in on a legendary local break we’d heard rumour of, called, simply, ‘Trol’ (a mutant left-hander reserved purely for the expert and insane), but to our dismay (okay, relief) the swell wasn’t big enough to get it working.
Hugging the coast, we next entered the Aveiro district, a rural, picturesque and extremely serene part of Portugal that reflects the country’s laidback lifestyle, with slow moving locals and a hardy café culture we were more than happy to indulge in. Aveiro is known as the Venice of Portugal but doesn’t suffer from an inundation of tourists like its Italian counterpart. South of here is an enormous stretch of beach that runs all the way to the bustling town of Figuera da Foz. Cruising down towards Figuera, the surf wasn’t up to much, thanks to prevailing onshore winds, so we decided on a day trip inland to sample some local culture.
We headed towards the spa town of Luso for a stroll around the leafy streets and a sampling of the famous local spring water, then moved inland to the incomparable Bussaco Palace, set deep in the grounds of a forest of trees imported in ancient times from around the globe. The monastic palace is extraordinary, packed full of histories of battles and royalty and religion – it is a must-visit. Unless the surf is pumping, of course.
Driving back south-west, we intercepted the coast at Figuera da Foz and headed for the surf break at Cabadelo to the south of the town’s river mouth. A regular stop on the professional ASP World Surf Tour, this crunching right hand wave breaks off the rock groyne and was the best wave we surfed all trip. Holing up at local surf hostel The Paintshop in Figuera (it recently appeared on Channel 4’s A Place In The Sun), we took full advantage and stayed for a couple of days, checking out the bustling night scene for post-surf entertainment. A great town benefiting from a great surf break, Figuera is a jewel on the Portuguese coast, cool enough to warrant a standalone visit in the not-too-distant future.
Back in the car and almost reluctantly heading south, ahead lay two days of a smorgasbord of beach breaks. From Batalha to Alcobaca and down, we surfed with dolphins at Sao Pedro de Moel and got pounded in the shorebreak at Pedrogao.
Then we hit the infamous Nazare and Praia da Norte, a finger of deep water that pushes out into the Atlantic and generates waves seven metres in height on a big swell. Strictly for the very best surfers and the very possessive locals; we watched from the safety of dry land before heading down towards the more forgiving waters of Peniche and Ericeira.
Surfing at some of the smaller, more secluded bays like Sao Martinho do Porto in this region, you get a real sense of the captivating diversity of Portugal’s Atlantic coast. Surrounded by an arid, craggy coastline littered with myriad bays and beaches, yet only a couple of hours from Lisbon, we could have been anywhere on earth, and the few other surfers in the water seemed as awe-inspired by the natural stage around us as we were.
It was the last time we surfed near-empty, near-perfect waves on our journey south, as the big beaches of Lisbon – Praia Grande, Praia Guincho – loomed large and were consistently more crowded and urban. But there’s the crux, and the best thing about a road trip like this: once you’ve made it to your destination, you have to turn around and do it all again on the way back to where you started. It’s like two holidays for the price of one!