Written by Hannah Dürr
Header Image by Hannah Dürr
The sparkling blue water feels as if we’re in Hawaii, while the sun warms us mildly like at the Mediterranean Sea — but the enormous mountains of water that crash relentlessly onto the shore remind us where we really are: in the middle of the European winter in Nazaré, Portugal. The legendary fishing village where the biggest waves in the world break. On the bright days, the mood is exuberant and feels like summer camp. On the tough days, there’s a tension in the air, like in the most dangerous fighting rings. It swings between extremes.
And how I ended up here? Even now, it still sometimes seems like a dream to me.
My long journey to a winter in Nazaré
I’m Hannah: german-raised mountaingirl and oceanchild with a passion for everything nature and camera. My story with Nazaré actually started in France, in the small but world-famous surfing town of Hossegor. I traveled there often, loved the Atlantic coast like no other place, and just felt so at home every time I sat there by the sea looking at the waves. Shortly before I started my studies, I decided that, when the time came, I definitely wanted to do my internship abroad.
Time passed, one thing led to another, and despite the pandemic and other obstacles, I moved to that very French surfer town in October 2020 to work in a small surf film production during my internship semester. However, a strict lockdown in France meant that we had to spontaneously change all plans, and we ended up in Nazaré, Portugal for the rest of the winter. A place I always dreamed of visiting, but never had the chance.
That was the first time. I lived in Nazaré for two months and, through our work on a big wave documentary series, got a deeper insight into the surf scene there than I ever expected. Still under the influence of Covid and travel restrictions, I got to know the otherwise well-visited little town in unusual tranquility. I learned to love the people and the surroundings and immersed myself in Portuguese culture for the first time. In Vini dos Santos I found one of my best friends there. The Brazilian surfer who spends his winters in Nazaré chasing the biggest waves made a huge impact on my time there, and we supported each other a lot — me helping him with photography and media-related things, him helping me with surfing and just by being a friend to me in this (still) unfamiliar place.
But above all, it was the work on the documentary, in the midst of the international team of filmmakers, that shaped my time there and from which I took a lot away. As a passionate photographer with a growing enthusiasm for film, and also an oceanlover who grew up “landlocked” in Germany, I could not have imagined a better place — while back in Germany everyone was sent to work from home, I spent day after day on the cliff, on the beach or in the water, either with my camera or my surfboard.
I did not think that I would see Nazaré again so soon and so intensively. I thought the chapter was closed, at least for now; yet this was only to be the introduction to my story with this place.
Last winter semester, it was time for me to write the final thesis in my media design studies, and since I had moved more and more in the direction of film production over the months and years since the internship, I decided straight away to also write my bachelor thesis in that production company. For the second time, I moved to Hossegor at the beginning of October, and for the second time, we unexpectedly ended up in Nazaré again soon after — only this time I had almost five months ahead of me in this special place.
A Nazaré winter fairytale
Somehow everything was the same and yet everything was different. The place and I, we were familiar, but both not the same as last time. Nazaré was buzzing with activity from tourists, surfers and professionals working in all sorts of media production, ready for a new season of heroic performances in the ocean. I was older, had learned a lot in the last two years, and had also meanwhile acquired a water housing for my camera. In the past year, very much inspired from my first time working with water cinematographer Vincent Kardasik, I had found my absolute passion in swimming with my camera and capturing the magic of surfing from this very special perspective.
I was like a sponge, eager to soak up everything I could learn here — and for someone like that, Nazaré is a wonderful playground and classroom, because the media buzz around the big wave scene attracts creatives from all over the world. As part of my thesis and work, I immersed myself in the world of a large-scale documentary production, and in my free time I used every minute to pick up the camera myself, learn from my colleagues and friends, and make contacts with arguably some of the most inspiring people in the world.
The world in Nazaré
My roommate was a Spanish photographer and surfer as well as an aspiring filmmaker, and we grew to love each other like sisters. Then there was Johannes, a German drone pilot who was always up for a profound conversation or a spontaneous surf trip. There was Jon, an American colleague, who would never grow tired of answering my endless questions about the camera or film production, or endlessly driving along the coast in search of a nice wave. There was Letícia from Brazil, with whom I spent hours and hours on the cliff taking photos while sometimes getting so lost in our conversations that we almost forgot about the cameras.
There were Wagner and Giane, my hosts from the first time, who integrated me into their family like a daughter and spiced up each shared Brazilian dinner with cheerful singing and guitar music. There were Julie and Vincent from France, who had brought me here in the first place and were patiently there to answer all my questions, Karl from Sweden, to whom ‘boring’ seemed to be a foreign word, Tiago from Portugal, who always had had a laugh to share, Mikey from England, who always had an exciting story or a fun barbecue in store, the photographer Heidi from Norway, whose love and fascination for the beauty of nature is evident in every picture.
And of course there was still Vini, who again this winter made sure I got way out of my comfort zone. Let me tell you one of those stories.
Praia do Norte close-up
As soon as we leave the harbor on the jetski, the swells of the sea lift us high up and let us sink down again, and with it my heart, which sinks into my (neoprene) boots. I’m no longer sure if this is the best or worst idea ever, as I sit behind Vini clinging to the jetski’s ridiculous retaining strap, and we speed across the great bay of Nazaré straight toward Praia do Norte — the place where the legendary biggest waves in the world break. Vini thought it was time for me to take a closer look at them.
I’ve never sat on a Jestski before. And certainly not on the open sea. Something in me carefully wonders whether it might have been appropriate to try this out in peace on a lake, and not directly near the most dangerous waves in the world. But I don’t have much time to think, because we’re approaching the scene, and every second is too intense to be anywhere but in the present. And I trust Vini blindly, knowing that he would never put me in danger. At least not knowingly. I mean, any jet ski can crash unexpectedly, can’t it?!
I have never experienced so much water in motion. The surface of the sea rises and falls so tremendously as the gentle waves glide underneath us that it makes my heart race every time. We are far behind the zone of breaking waves, in safety, so to speak. Safety has never felt more unsafe. But I’m slowly getting used to the unfamiliar perspective. Admittedly, the waves are not particularly big for Nazaré, but even a small swell here is the biggest I’ve ever experienced up close.
We stay for a while and gradually approach the breaking waves. The most impressive aspect out here is the soundscape. The resounding noise of the crashing waves emphasizes their size and power once again. It’s a part I don’t know yet from watching the monster waves from the beach, and it’s definitely an absolutely immersive experience with goosebumps guaranteed.
When Vini asks me at the end if I don’t want to jump into the water to take a picture of him on the ski, my first reaction is, “You’re nuts”. But he assures me that there won’t be any waves breaking where we are, and I’m already having itchy feet to finally get some saltwater on my head. Nazaré is not the ideal place for the usual vacation surfer, and I have not been in the ocean at all since when I arrived a few weeks ago. So I slip on some fins and jump off the jetski. Suddenly, I feel as happy as a little seal to finally be in the water — and not only that, but to swim in the ocean in Nazaré, at Praia do Norte!
The rest of the afternoon and evening I do not come down from my Nazaré high, so pumped up I am from this adrenaline-filled little excursion. For the surfers here, it’s their workplace, their life. But for me, it was definitely one of the most exceptional experiences ever.
The magic of Nazaré
Nazaré does that. It gives you these absolutely incredible moments. The most beautiful sunset, the majestic waves, the most unexpected and kind encounters, the most impressive natural phenomena and the clearest starry sky. But Nazaré is not a wellness hotel. Nazaré is beautiful, but it is also tough. The weather is harsh, the storms powerful, the trails muddy, the atmosphere tense, the sport life-threatening, and the stakes high.
But that’s what makes it so special in the end. Everything is a part of the game, and every hard situation is a life lesson — every beautiful one a gift from the universe. And for both of them, and everything in between, there are people here by your side to share them with you.