At the market in the ancient fishing village of Nazaré, Portuguese pensioners shopped for their fruit and vegetables. Retired fishermen chatted over coffee. And a record-breaking American surfer sipped on a cucumber and celery smoothie.
It was Garrett McNamara, a 51-year-old from Hawaii who until recently held the world record for the highest wave ever surfed. And who, for most of his life, had never visited Europe and had to take some time to find Portugal on a map.
“I never envisaged this,” said Mr. McNamara, who tended to surf in the Pacific Ocean. “Portugal was never a destination.”
For centuries, Nazaré was a traditional seaside town, where fishermen taught their children to avoid the huge waves that crashed against the nearby cliffs.
But over the past eight years, those same waves have turned the place into an unlikely draw for extreme surfers like Mr. McNamara, their fans and the global companies that sponsor the athletes.
Tall as a 10-story building, the waves are caused by a submarine canyon —three miles deep, and 125 miles long — that abruptly ends just before the town’s shoreline.
When Mr. McNamara first saw the giant walls of water in 2010, “it was like finding the Holy Grail,” he said. “I’d found the elusive wave.”
Up in the town’s 17th-century fort, tourists now ogle surfboards in the same rooms where the marine police used to store confiscated fishing nets. Out in the bay, professional drivers are testing new jet-skis yards from where villagers dry fish on the beach. In the port, surfers rent warehouses next to where fishermen unload their catch.
“It’s a very interesting mixture of history and tradition — and a surfing community,” said Maya Gabeira, who holds the record for the biggest wave ever surfed by a woman, achieved at Nazaré last January, and who has had a base in the town since 2015. “We’re not the predominant thing here.”
The dynamic constitutes a sea change for both the big-wave surfing world, whose members have historically gravitated toward the surf hubs of Hawaii and California, and the 10,000 villagers of Nazaré, who were used to having the place to themselves over the winter.
The story of how it happened depends on who is telling it.
For Dino Casimiro, a local sports teacher, the tale began in 2002, when he and a group of friends set up a club in 2002 to help popularize water sports among locals, and publicize Nazaré’s waves among foreigners.
For Jorge Barroso, the former mayor, the turning point was in 2007, when he first gave Mr. Casimiro permission to hold a water sports competition off the most northerly — and the most deadly — of the town’s two beaches.