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Surfing Lessons (And Life Lessons) on the Southwest Coast of Portugal

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(all photos by Elizabeth Montalbano)

Guest blogger Elizabeth Montalbano spent a month in the Algarve region of Portugal where she learned far more than just how to catch a wave. Here, the NYC—based technology journalist, who writes the thoughtful blog Isn't It Pretty to Think So?, describes the magic of the southwestern Portuguese coast.

When I went to Portugal to learn how to surf for the first time last September, little did I know how a randomly planned week-long holiday would change my life.

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I had plans to attend a friend’s wedding in England, and wanted to park myself on a beach somewhere in southern Europe following the weekend celebration. A Google search led me to the Algarve Surf & Yoga Retreat in the southwest Algarve region of Portugal near the town of Aljezur (pictured right) for an all-inclusive week-long program of yoga and surfing at several of the area’s stunning local beaches. I didn’t know much about Portugal but friends had recommended it, so I booked myself for a holiday.

On that first trip I immediately fell in love with southwest Portugal, which hums with a unique vibration because it straddles two worlds — the laid back world of largely foreign surfers and the easygoing world of the locals. The latter largely still earn their livelihood by farming the arable land, exporting cork and fishing, and they maintain an affable, yet distanced relationship with the surfers that pass through looking for good waves.

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So charmed I was by the region when I visited, the surfing itself seemed at the time just icing on the cake. However, the first time I caught a wave and felt the ocean launch me forward thrilled me with a happiness pure as the first giddy blush of a new infatuation, and I knew I had to return, and soon.

I arranged to spend a month in a tiny guest house near Aljezur from mid-April to mid-May, working my day job as an international technology journalist for three weeks and taking a weeklong holiday in the middle of the trip.

Though it’s a well-kept secret in the U.S., Europeans and as well as surf enthusiasts from as far-flung as Australia and South Africa know Portugal’s Atlantic coastline as a popular surf destination. The southwest in particular is a hidden gem, with 50 miles of the coastline south of Lisbon preserved as a natural park called the Costa Vicentina, accessible by a two-lane road called the N120.

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An unspoiled array of rocky and sandy beaches face the wild Atlantic Ocean, which thunders to a shoreline that stretches from the towns of Sines to Sagres, the latter marking the southwestern-most point of continental Europe with a lighthouse at the point from which the fabled European explorers took off in search of new worlds.

Aljezur lies about halfway between the two towns and a bit inland, but close to several popular surfing beaches, including Praia de Odeceixe, Praia da Amoreira, Praia da Arrifana (pictured right and at top) and Praia de Monte Clerigo. All are accessible by traveling on short distances off the N120 and are well marked and well maintained.

Aljezur and sleepy neighboring towns like Rogil, Maria Vinagre and the particularly charming Odeceixe sit nestled between rolling hills thick with eucalyptus and cork trees that wind their way between rivers and small farms. These towns, which provide all of the amenities for the area’s visitors, feature some of steepest, most narrow streets imaginable, their borders dotted by terracotta-roofed houses made of stone and earth.

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Praia de Odeceixe

I had modest goals for the surfing I planned to do during my month in that little house, Casa Marcuja, which was set back about a kilometer off the main road between Aljezur and Rogil and is one of two owned by a charming German woman named Irma Ey who’s lived in the region for more than 20 years. I wanted to be able to reliably stand up on a surfboard and also properly “drop in” on a wave so I could surf not the whitewater of already-broken waves that beginners do, but unbroken or so-called green waves where the real action — and the real surfers — are.

I did indeed accomplish those goals — but those skills were not the only thing my newfound love for surfing taught me.

Surfing has been mythologized in many cultures, and with good reason. From an athleticism standpoint, it’s an incredibly difficult sport and requires someone to be in pretty decent shape just to learn. To be truly good at surfing one has to be in peak athletic condition, and to do it as much as possible. It’s one of those sports that you can lose your momentum very quickly if you’re not practicing every day. On the other hand, it will also whip you into shape faster than you can imagine, and dedicated practice every day will yield unexpectedly fast results.

Aside from the physical aspects of the sport, there is a more personal, spiritual side to surfing that is less widely discussed, although some works of popular culture — surfer Dana Brown’s fantastic surf documentary Step Into Liquid and the surf memoir In Search of Captain Zero by longtime surfer Allan C. Weisbecker — have captured this aspect well.

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                 Praia da Amoreira

It’s hard to describe the soul of surfing to someone who hasn’t done it, and it feels like a hideous conceit to try to do it when you’re merely a novice. But once the surfing bug bites you and you start thinking of yourself as a “surfer” as opposed to someone who does not surf, there really is no going back to your previous way of life.

When you’re surfing, you’re constantly reminded of something bigger than you, something so huge you really become aware of just how small and insignificant you are. If you don’t believe me, try going nose down and crashing into a shoulder-high breaking wave, caught up in the earth’s biggest washing machine and at the mercy of the ocean until it decides to spit you back to the surface again.

But at the same time as you feel insignificant in the face of force much more powerful than you, you also feel like a part of this amazing whole — part of the wave and the ocean that serves it up and the planet that depends on that  ocean to support everything that lives on it. I know that sounds pretty far out, but give surfing a try for awhile and see if you don’t at least catch a glimmer of how this feels.

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Praia de Monte Clerigo

Lessons learned on the way to becoming a better surfer also are good ones for getting more out of life. Patience is essential, as is the ability to adapt quickly to an ever-changing set of circumstances and the ability to think quickly on your feet (or off them, as is more often the case).

These are all things applicable to life, which, like the ocean, is not always something that cares about your schedule, your plan, your needs and desires. Like the ocean, life does its own thing and expects you will learn to roll with it, because that’s pretty much the only choice you have.

Interested in learning how to surf in Portugal? FInd out about surfing schools here.

5 Responses to Surfing Lessons (And Life Lessons) on the Southwest Coast of Portugal

  1. Cat Iwanowicz August 11, 2009 at 10:56 am #

    Wow Elizabeth! So well written that I am buying tickets today! Hang ten sister bear!

  2. Aly August 11, 2009 at 12:30 pm #

    So jealous! I have always wanted to learn to surf. It is definitly on my list of things to learn while out travleling! The pictures are amazing as well, great post!

  3. Gwen McCauley August 11, 2009 at 2:26 pm #

    Hiya
    I don’t surf but love to spend time on each visit to the Algarve watching the surfers. My favourite west coast beach is Amoreira. It has become a must see on every trip. I love it on calm days, on stormy days, when the surf is up and when the sand & spray are blowing enough to cut you to shreds.
    Aljezur is probably my favourite town in all of the Algarve. If I were to spend serious time in the area, I’d probably spend it based in Aljezur. The drive cross-country from the Monchique area is a lot of fun. One day the sea was so stormy that we could easily see breaking waves that looked liked whitecaps as we crested a hill some 15K inland.
    If you’re interested in photos & short stories of my many experiences in the Algarve, feel free to visit http://myalgarve.wordpress.com.
    I’m actually kind of conflicted about writing about this wonderful little corner of the world. I’d hate for it to lose it’s charm by becoming overrun with development like so many parts of the Algarve. And yet, it is such a joy to spend time there that I can’t keep my mouth shut! I guess that’s a good kind of conflicted, eh?
    Thanks for a great article and a wonderful wave of memories.

  4. Joe Lindsay August 11, 2009 at 3:18 pm #

    Very nice, looks like I need to add Portugal to my list of planned trips. Nicely written and you really conveyed the vibe of the place. It really sounds great, like a place I may find too comfortable…take care… Joe

  5. Richelle of Bodysculpt Fitness and Yoga August 19, 2009 at 12:43 am #

    Wow! Sounds beautiful. Do you or have you ever been to a yoga retreat?

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