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VANS, VIBES, AND SURF TRIBES: WHY PORTUGAL IS THE CALIFORNIA OF EUROPE

willow mcdonough1 Comment
VANS, VIBES, AND SURF TRIBES: WHY PORTUGAL IS THE CALIFORNIA OF EUROPE
 Photo: Sheli Spring Saldana

Photo: Sheli Spring Saldana

Always in search of an active and affordable holiday, a friend suggested Ericeira, a small town on the southern coast of Portugal. Deemed a world class surf reserve, Ericeira attracts surfers from around the globe for its unique waves suitable for all levels. After looking at a handful of photos, I booked the 2-hour flight from Barcelona to Lisbon.

Hey San Francisco, meet your twin: Lisbon.

Portugal’s capital city in mid-July felt like stepping into an oven. I hopped off the bus in Lisbon’s city center feeling overdressed, and was faced with a trek up a ridiculously steep hill to the hotel. Perched at the bottom of the cobble stone street was a graffiti clad cable car; I looked around and was immediately struck by the similarity to my hometown of San Francisco, California. And at that moment I realized I had neglected to do any research on Lisbon, not even a Google image search.

Nearly overheating as I made it to the top, the view of the city overlooking the Tagus river was gorgeous and then I literally did a double take. In the distance was the ‘25 de Abril Bridge,’ which is a spitting image of the Golden Gate bridge in SF in both color and design. The similarity to the look and feel when you drive across is uncanny! In fact, the same American company who built the Bay bridge in SF, oversaw the construction of the 25 de Abril Bridge.

 photp: travelchannel.com

photp: travelchannel.com

Gleaning a quick history on Lisbon, I learned it’s the oldest city in western Europe, and one of the oldest in the world. Similar to SF in its small population, I found the essence of the city sophisticated yet approachable, multicultural, and incredibly charming. Even though the cable cars are mostly a tourist attraction these days, it was a fun way to see the important landmarks, viewpoints, and the oldest and most historic neighborhood of Almafa.

 Photo: winespectator.com 

Photo: winespectator.com 

Add in some Google buses, tech bros, and bone chilling fog – and Lisbon, you could very easily double as San Francisco’s twin -- albeit a much more grown up version with over 20 centuries of rich European history and culture behind it.

 The Billabong takeover: surfing is a lifestyle

As we made the 30-minute drive from Lisbon to Ericeira, I couldn’t help but notice the resemblance to California’s rugged cliffs and coastline. Having neglected to write down an exact address for the guest house, my bus driver kindly circled a few times and then let me off to ask for directions. As I stood on the side of the road just a stone’s throw from the ocean clearly looking lost - a dusty van with a large Surf School logo pulled over. By chance they were headed to my destination, and I happily piled in with the exhausted salty and sun-kissed surf students.

Ericeira is one of those idyllic old school fishing villages with narrow cobble stoned streets, white washed buildings, modest shops, and expansive Atlantic Ocean views. Like California with its proximity to the ocean and perfect conditions for growing grapes, both fresh seafood and wine are at the core of Portuguese culture and cuisine.

For generations, fishing has been the primary livelihood for coastal dwellers in Portugal. In Ericeira in particular, that has changed with surfing as a national sport. Ericeira was made famous for its beautiful beaches and recognition as a world class surf reserve, alongside Malibu and Santa Cruz in California. Surfing has become the most essential aspect to the local culture and economy.

And there is no mistaking the surf and board sport influence on this tiny village. As soon as you roll into town the familiar surf brand logos dominate the newly constructed main street. There’s over 15 surf shops, 22 surf schools, and 4 shapers in town. Board shorts, flip flops, and sun-bleached locks is the uniform, and a van the ideal way to get you and your board from beach to beach.

 #Vanlife

#Vanlife

In town I met a handful of expats from other countries in Europe. It seemed their motivation to call Ericeira home was for similar reasons people migrate to California: those seeking the alternative, outdoorsy, adventurous, and active lifestyle.  

That night I was invited to join them for dinner at a restaurant run by friends of theirs. I quickly got the sense it was a tight knit community, and was grateful to have connected in as I was traveling solo. Conversations at the table centered on the day’s events in the water, tomorrow’s swell, and where it’s going to be ‘pumping’ over the next couple days. I sat there excited to be there, for being around like minded people who clearly were drawn here for the same reason. I just didn’t expect to have such a familiar vibe ever since stepping off the bus in Lisbon.

As it neared midnight, and we finally finished our last bit of food, talk of a full moon surf started to circle. As I sat and wished for another layer of clothing and a warm bed, one of them asked if I was going to join. “Seriously, right now?!,” I said. This guy could not be serious.

Several vans screeched in unison into the beach parking lot. The energy was palpable as 20 or so people excitedly put on wetsuits, waxed their boards, and raced towards the ocean. I followed quickly behind and tried to take photos of the experience, but most came out blurry in the darkness.

 Surf Tribe

Surf Tribe

1 AM: All you could see was the occasional shimmer of white wash, and all you could hear were tribal shrieks in the distance as the first group paddled out. The second group were women, most of whom had transformed from their casual waitress attire at the restaurant into fearless surfers. As they stood on the shores edge with boards in hand, I was finally able to capture a clear photo of their silhouettes illuminated by the glorious full moon.

That night I witnessed a tribe in their natural element. A tribe with an undeniable joy for life bonded together by the love for their sport. Over the following days I caught more glimpses into a community who regularly shares meals, sits around bonfires telling stories, takes road trips in caravans, sleeps under the stars, and howls at the full moon while surfing at midnight.

It felt like a home away from home – from the warmth and openness of the people, beautiful beaches, fresh food, stunning landscapes – and a sophisticated European city so closely intertwined with a vibrant surf culture.