Editor’s Note: Diary from Portugal is a series from a trip around Portugal with Ace Buchan, Mikey February, Pedro Boonman, Clay Marzo, and, on occasion, Nic von Rupp. It was made possible by The Perfect Chapter and Visit Portugal. This is the second installment. See the first one from Cascais here and the third from the day of the decade at Supertubos here.
Cascais, as I have said on many occasions, is one of my favorite places in the world. I live in a very small town that’s mostly made of mud in the winter. I am at war with the bears, who have decided that our garbage cans, no matter how I secure them, are their own personal buffet. I find myself slopping through the mud, plucking the slimy detritus of our old food from our driveway weekly, lest our neighbors think we’re the dirty people in the neighborhood.
Cascais, though, is white and tiled and clean. The air is fresh. The ocean breeze blows past fancy people doing fancy things in front of fancy places. As much as I love home, Cascais is a breath of fresh air from the drudgery of a long Canadian winter. So when I left, I was sad to go. In the van was our guide Maria, Ace Buchan, and Mikey February.
Clay Marzo, his partner Leilani, Carlos of Surfetv, and Alex of Hidden Bay Resort were somewhere behind us, while Pedro Boonman was somewhere ahead of us with one of the best surf photographers in the business, Andre Carvalho. We finally were made aware of our destination: Peniche. The plan revolved around Supertubos, which I hoped to be able to surf. As you’ll find out, though, my hopes were dashed by my own (lack of) talent and the fact that when we would pull up at dawn the next morning, Supertubos was, as Pedro Boonman would put it with a slightly awed look on his face, “one of the biggest days I’ve ever seen there.” Since it was my first time seeing it, it was bigger than I’ve ever seen it, too.
Leaving Cascais and heading north up the Portuguese coastline is a trip made for van camping. One day in the future, I will return and be a cliché in a rented van chasing waves. Portugal truly is a stunning place — all white painted concrete houses, splashed in places with colorful tiles and terra cotta-style roofs. Laundry dries gaily in the salty breeze, hanging off a thousand balconies overlooking the Atlantic. Wind turbines spin lazily in the distance, their size belying their true speed. Immense fields of grapes stretch over the land, their occupants brown and gnarled, waiting for the day they begin to bear the fruit that creates some of the finest wine that’s ever passed my lips. Spindly, thirsty Norfolk pines sit along the roadside, backed by rows of planted eucalyptus draining the soil of all moisture. Only a few billboards spoil the views, mostly for Burger King. In Portugal, it’s a Whoppa! Always with an exclamation mark.
As we drove towards Peniche, something occurred to me: everything moves slowly in Portugal except the traffic. It’s as though the drivers all realized that they have spent far too much time drinking wine and laughing with friends in beautiful cafés, and now they must make up for it by driving as though they have a baby crowning in the backseat and the hospital is still an hour away.
We did, however, make it to Peniche. Which was nice, because it turns out that it’s just as nice — if not nicer — than Cascais. Everything was white and bright when we arrived. The houses, the sand, the wispy cirrus clouds drifting to wherever clouds drift to. Stunning golf courses roll towards the sea, their perfect green fairways butting into the dunes standing guard over miles of empty beaches. When we arrived, Nic von Rupp was there waiting for us, a Von Froth sweatshirt on his back and a freshly minted third Perfect Chapter title under his belt. Jéjé Vidal, an exceedingly friendly surfer from São Tomé was there with him, as was Pedro Boonman, the latter of which had a freshly minted Perfect Chapter second-place finish under his belt.
The waves were not good. The breeze was unseasonably cold and the surf was rudely shoved from behind by the onshore wind.
“Shoulda brought a twinnie,” Ace laughed, glancing over at Clay. “Looks like California,” he responded. Still, though, they are professional surfers and there were waves, so the boards came out and so did the wetsuits. The water here is warm by my Canadian standards, average by Mikey’s South African standards, and fucking freezing by Clay and Ace’s tropical standards.
As we stood on a bluff overlooking what was, to my eyes, nearly unsurfable waves, Clay pointed to the south. “Look at that one!” he said, rubbing his hands together the way he does when he’s excited. It’s as though he’s trying to start a fire with two sticks. “There’s no one on it!” There was no one on it, I thought to myself, because there was no wave.
So, of course, Clay paddled out to this wave that did not not exist. As Clay is likely to do, he surfed this wave beautifully. He surfed it in trunks, as well, because he appears immune to the cold. He surfed for a long time. He was the last one to come in, picking his way carefully over the dunes towards us with a towel draped over his shoulder. “I just see a wave with no one on it,” he told me, “and I try and make something out of nothing.”
Mikey, Ace, Nic, Pedro, and Jéjé paddled over to a different wave, which was equally as bad in my eyes. They too proceeded to surf it beautifully, turning those sloping, windblown trash waves into stunning little canvasses painted with the finest of brush strokes. The photographers were hidden in the dunes like peeping toms with only the best intentions, their shutters clicking away.
The waves that day, just a day or two after the Perfect Chapter ran in conditions that were far better than anyone could have hoped for, were dreary. Rui Costa, the man in charge of the event, is a bit of a wizard, I think.
“Rui made the best call ever,” Boonman told me as he was toweling off. “That was the best day of the year at Carcavelos. There are so many moving parts with a contest like that, so making the call with 72 hours notice must put so much pressure on him.”
And so, with that, we packed up and headed to our new digs in yet another stunningly pretty town called Caldas da Rainha. We ended up at yet another restaurant called Tasca do Joel that served one of the best dishes I’ve had so far in my life.
Food and drink is life in Portugal — long lunches and longer dinners are the hinges of one’s day-to-day existence here. Pica pau de atum, a tuna dish served in some kind of sweet garlic vinegar sauce, is something I could happily eat every day for the rest of my life. Clay ate immense amounts of freshly baked bread, sopping up that sauce. The only thing that makes him as excited as waves do is food, and Portugal has great food.
After lunch, we had another stop to make before our new hotel. And, like everything else in Portugal, it took my breath away.
Óbidos is a mediaeval town that looks as though you’ve walked through a time warp. Built before the Romans showed up in the Iberian Peninsula, King Dinis gave it to his wife, Queen Isabel, in the 13th century. After it became part of the queen’s estate — the Casa das Rainhas — it did very well. Over the years, more and more was built within its walls. Now, soaring parapets protect a castle surrounded by a maze of streets lined in small white houses. Orange trees grow in every corner, their branches laden with sweet fruit. Jéjé couldn’t help himself and lay down on his stomach on an outer wall, plucking a handful of oranges to hand out to all of us.
Manueline porticoes and a strangely high number of churches, some with bars over the open window and all still with fresh flowers on altars, allow the visitor to feel what it might have been like way back then. Small carts offer ginjinha, a local cherry liquor, in tiny chocolate cups.
There’s a certain gravity to the place; a solemnity easily spoiled by the stuffed animals and tourist trinkets on offer where a person whose hands laid some of the millions of stones that make Óbidos probably lived.
“I feel like such a tourist here,” Clay told me from atop one of the outer walls. We were looking down on the place, its ancient streets crowded with visitors taking selfies. Still, though, it is a step back in time. I stood on a wall as the sun dipped and church bells began to echo through the streets. It’s hard not to feel overwhelmed by the past in a moment like that. Standing on stones put carefully in place hundreds of years ago by someone long dead tends to give me a strangely melancholy feeling in the pit of my stomach. But in a nice way, if that makes sense.
As we drove away from Óbidos, we passed an old aqueduct, its arches built hundreds of years ago, now looking over a highway full of cars. It’s slightly sad to compare the beauty of what those old hands made with the asphalt roads crawling with speeding vehicles, but progress marches on unflinchingly. In time, what we’ve created will be looked at by future people. I wonder if they’ll feel the same way?
As evening began to pull the curtains on the day, we arrived in Caldas. The streets are narrow and cobbled, Peugots fighting for parking and eventually finding it wherever the car will fit. Graffiti covers some of the buildings.
At dinner that night, as I asked about Caldas, Andre Carvalho said something that I thought was a joke. “You know what the most famous Caldas handicraft thing is?” He asked. “It’s dicks. Small dicks, big dicks, anything. It’s dicks.”
The next morning was another early one, our alarms going off well before dawn. The streets were dark and empty as I walked out of 19 Tile, our little boutique hotel. Peacocks strut through the triangular courtyard there, standing at the doors of the rooms, looking as though they would like to come in. Walking into the darkness, Leilani, Clay’s girlfriend, was standing in front of a glowing window. She was laughing to herself. I looked over her shoulder to see what was funny. There, in the yellow light of the storefront, was a small display of ceramic dicks. Small dicks, big dicks, anything. They were dicks. Caldas is apparently known for making large amounts of ceramic penises. Small ones, big ones, anything. Ceramic dicks. Tomorrow, we will head to Supertubos. And it will be good.