May 30, 2008

The sand sweepers of Nazare

Nazare, on Portugal's Costa de Prata, was once a quaint fishing village. Some guidebooks and Portuguese tourism websites would have you believe it still is. True, you can catch the occasional glimpse of a weathered old man sitting near a beached wooden boat mending a net. And you can feast on dazzlingly fresh seafood at every meal. But Nazare, more than a fishing town, has become the Kingdom of Canvas Cabanas.

Endless rows of multi-colored mini-pleasure domes stand tethered to Nazare's main beach, and the sprawling temporary city is the epicenter of summer life here. Our budget hotel sat on Nazare's main drag across from the beach, and our third floor room was a great aerie from which to watch the rhythm of life in the canvas kingdom.

Daily, by about 11, families that had rented cabanas for the week, month or season had hauled chairs and towels, food and drink, babies and grandmothers to the beach and had settled in for another day of watching sea, sky and each other. The beach, and the boardwalks that ran like streets through the encampment, became a giant living room, community center, social club. A civic hub that buzzed with life until the sun began its nightly drop below the horizon line far out in the Atlantic.
At dusk people brushed off, packed up and headed out, leaving the little tents empty for the night. From our hotel window I'd look down on them, standing in tight, neat rows like little hatted soldiers waiting for the next day's duty to begin.
Just after dawn each day a group of old ladies would arrive at the beach and gather on the principle boardwalk in the still-dark. Wearing dark dresses and aprons and headscarves and well-worn sandals, and armed with pails and hand brooms, they'd exchange a little gossip then get to work tidying up the kingdom.

Stooping, they'd clean the boardwalks and swish their brooms through the sand in front of the cabanas, creating swirling patterns along the beach. They worked quietly, then left the beach before the cabana-dwellers arrived for the day.

Rising at dawn to sit by the window and watch for the grandmothers' arrival became part of my routine. My body clock would wake me in time for the celestial shift change, when the moon, done for the night, would hand sentry duty over to the sun. Just as the sun took over, the sand sweepers of Nazare would appear on the boardwalk, brooms and pails in hand.