“The coffee in Portugal should come with a warning,” Francisco says, smiling down at the jittering fingers I held out to him that proved his words right. “It’s strong.”
I’d woken up early, my head heavy with jet lag after 24 hours of travel. I can’t sleep on planes or in public, really, so when I arrived in Lisbon at just after one in the afternoon — about five in the morning in my regular time zone — I was giddy. Loopy with exhaustion. Shirt reeking of old sweat. Hair greasy with airport stink and airplane air. I call it the travel sticks — that gross, sticky feeling one gets after a long stint on a series of flights. Coffee grounds in your mouth and eyes burning with lack of sleep. I found a guy with my name scrawled on a piece of paper hanging off a railing out front of the arrivals area.
“I’m André,” he told me, his hand stuck out over the railing. “André Pinto.” He smiled hugely at me, big teeth in a thin head above the willowy frame that seems common in surf photographers. Strong, but thin. Flexible. Unbreakable. André is a photographer here in Portugal, a Carcavelos local who takes mind-blowing photos. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that his local spot has mind-blowing waves on its day, and it doesn’t hurt that there are countless other mind-blowing spots within spitting distance along this stretch of coastline when it is not on its day.
André led me through the airport underground parking like a lost child. We found Luis, or Luis Driver, as he’s named in my phone, and thanks to him, I arrived at the hotel in a big black van. “I usually dress up in a suit and tie,” Luis laughed when I collapsed into the front seat, “but you are surfers, so I don’t.”
Luis, as I will find out, is a deep well of knowledge when it comes to Portugal’s history. He’s not a tour guide, he assures me, he just doesn’t like driving long distances with strangers if he has nothing to say, and facts fill the void. So he tells me fact after fact after fact. Facts about the huge, ancient stone fortresses we pass by, facts about Lisbon, facts about Portugal in general. According to Luis, Ian Fleming, the man who wrote the James Bond novels, was a spy here. Casino Royale, published in 1953 and the first of the Bond books, was modeled after The Estoril Casino, an enormous, beautiful building fronted by a sprawling expanse of grass and a bluish-green statue of Fausto Cardoso de Figueiredo, a Portuguese businessman who did well enough to become a bluish-green statue. The owners didn’t want Fleming to use the casino’s real name at the time, because he wasn’t an accomplished writer yet. Someone is kicking themselves right now, but The Estoril Casino is doing just fine without its name in a Bond book.
The hotel Luis drops me at is freakishly nice. The Oitavos, it’s called. A wall of blue glass glints in the sun, mirroring the sky and hiding what lies within. Another large statue stands in front, bluish-green again. She has serious Freddy Mercury energy. The Oitavos sits on a golf course of some acclaim, The Oitavos Dunes, and from my balcony, I can see waves that send enormous plumes of spray into the sky above one of the holes. Behind the flag are rows of long-period swell, marching unflinchingly towards the shoreline where they will break and die and produce the enormous waves at Nazaré and the flawless beach break tubes at Carcavelos and Supertubos. The little white flag on the seventh hole waves at me in freshening offshore breeze and I know that the event I’m here for, The Perfect Chapter, called it right.
The Capitulo Perfeito is a one-day thing, so organizers make damn sure the day it runs is the best possible day of the winter. They have to because that’s what the event is all about. No slogging through heats in the hopes that it’ll get good in a few days for the final; just one day packed to the gills with perfect waves. “We have a commitment to the fans where we only give the go-ahead for the contest when we can guarantee a proper show,” said Rui Costa, the organizer of the event. “We have the best tube riders in the world in the Perfect Chapter, guys who can go out and get 10-point rides in conditions that are practically impossible for the average surfer, so we’ll wait for a day that can put them to the test.”
When I arrive, the hotel staff acts as though I knew them when we were children, but I’ve been away for a long time and we are long-lost best friends. There is a round of handshakes, which is odd at a hotel, but very nice. The manager comes out to see me. “We put you in a corner suite,” he says, “so you can see the sunrise and sunset.” He tells me to have a round of golf then sends me to the bar, where another long-lost best friend builds me an enormous gin and tonic in a pint glass as my room is prepared. Boa fucking tarde, I think to myself, gin banging into my sleep-deprived brain.
That night, I ordered room service. Espaguete, sopa do dia, and vino tinto. Spaghetti, soup of the day, and red wine for the uncultured swine. Then another half-bottle of vino tinto from the mini-bar, because it is affordable here and maybe I can expense it. Six euros, about $6.50 USD. Those aren’t mini-bar prices. Apparently, the surfers are staying here but I haven’t seen them yet. With any luck, I’ll get a few quotes out of some of them at some point.
When dawn broke, it turned out the manager was right. The sunrise cracking the huge hotel room windows is incredible; that dim-light sort of sunrise that sneaks up on you with its beauty. There’s no burst of light as the sun breaks the horizon, but a heart-wrenching slow pour of soft colors into the sky. The inky black turns to dusky purple and then to a burnt orange, happening all at once but so slowly it’s unnoticeable. The sun fights its way through a bank of low-lying clouds, and a thin rain whispers sideways toward the ocean on the offshore wind. I drink an espresso on the balcony, an amazing one, then three more with a breakfast of delicious little pink turkey sausages and roasted pumpkin slices. Bom fucking dia, I think to myself, espresso banging into my newly-awakened brain.
Luis picked me up a few hours after the surfers left to wait for the call on the beach. We drove together down the winding coast road towards Carcavelos beach. It is stunning, to say the least. Enormous stone walls that date back centuries stand guard against pirates and would-be invaders of the past. The ocean is huge and it is clear that the swell is well and truly here. A phalanx of organized lines are stacked as far as the eye can see, and they’re headed for Carcavelos. After a ten-minute drive, we are in front of the contest site. Mist fills the air and the contest flags are doing a celebratory dance in the wind. We’re pulling to a stop when I interrupt Luis’s history lesson about Europe’s Age of Discovery with two whispered words: “Holy SHIT.”
I look out the tinted passenger window to see a perfect A-frame peak, split by two unknown surfers. They vanish behind the curtain for a few seconds, then simultaneously get spit out amid a maelstrom of spray. Rainbows form in it, and the surfers are briefly silhouetted against the mid-morning sun. They are jersey-less; not competitors, but two locals who are surfing down the beach from the event itself. Behind them, there is no one. Waves pour through, pummeling both the surfers who paddle frantically to get back outside and get another one. I can almost taste their frustration as they duck dive wave after wave, each more perfect than the last, in an arm-busting effort to get one more. It is an effort they will undoubtedly repeat over and over through the course of the next few hours, because the Perfect Chapter organizers know what they’re doing. Today is perfect, as in Perfect Chapter perfect. From the driver’s seat, Luis says something about a fishing village. I am not listening.
I have been to a lot of surfing events in my career, and one thing that I have learned is that spending too much time in the areas that wristbands get you into is a mistake. It’s far better to mingle, to walk, to move away from the inner-workings of surfing’s little clique. I’ll take the free food, but the interesting stuff in a surfing event is generally the stuff that happens outside the competitors’ area. Yeah, the waves are great to watch, and yeah, the surfing is entertaining, but places with good waves usually have a lot more to offer than good waves. So I walked. I walked a lot. Twenty-three kilometers, or about 15 miles, according to my watch.
Carcavelos is unlike anywhere I’ve ever been. Wandering away from the bustle of the contest, I find a row of pretty little restaurants and surf shops. They sit just above the sand on a gangway that is full of stylish Europeans wearing a strange mix of British upscale peacoats, Tibetan silk hippy robes, and Lululemon spandex tights, sometimes all at once. Everyone is put together. Everyone is beautiful. Silver foxes jog shirtless along the gangway through clouds of pungent cigarettes, french perfume, weed, and ocean mist. They dodge beautiful women with thick hair and red lipstick, smiling families with pretty children, and unleashed dogs that are exceedingly, annoyingly polite. A big beer and a plate of calamari is lunch, and the view is good, to say the least. It is a surf town without the heroin needles and meth heads. It is surfing, but classy. It’s surfing, but European. I feel uncultured for not knowing this existed until now.
I looked over the edge of my glass straight down the gullet of huge tubes. Wide-open, spitting tubes, filled with a surfer pumping for dear life to escape. Surfers who excel in barrels excel for one reason: they pack more closeouts than anyone else. They turn and go, consequences be damned. The highlight reels show the ones they make, but the nuts and bolts of tube riding is wearing a cylinder on the head over and over again. These are the surfers who are in The Perfect Chapter, voted in by fans via an online voting system. Broken boards were not a rare sight; I counted eight, and I wasn’t even keeping track. I stopped counting after that, but there were more. The beer was cold, the calamari was so-so, and I have never felt more content to simply sit and watch.
I left before the event finished. One thing about covering a surfing event is that it’s generally easier to do from a hotel room. Live coverage has commentators telling you things. You can rewind to hear what they say. Reporting on-site is a wasted effort, so I left during the quarter-finals. I called Luis and he spouted facts at me before we stopped to get a bottle of wine. Cheap wine; delicious wine. If you like wine, you like Portugal. Four euros for a bottle that is 100 times better than anything I’ve had at home. When I was in the lineup with my bottle in hand, Luis texted me an image of another bottle. “Espirito do Coa,” he wrote. “Great wine that you can buy at Lidl.” Luis is the best driver I’ve ever had.
I’ve got a few more days in and around Cascais. The forecast is promising. The food is incredible, the waves are even better, and the wine tops them both. If you’re looking for a place to go on your next surf trip, I beg you: pick Portugal. Come and see the Perfect Chapter, whether it’s at Carcavelos or not. It might be at Nazaré, or maybe Supertubos. It’s been at both before but no matter where it is, as far as I can see, it may well be the best place on earth. Just watch out for the coffee. It’s strong.