Head to Lisbon’s Caparica Beaches to Witness the Ancient Art of Xávega Fishing

Xávega, or blind fishing, is one of Portugals most ancient traditions
Xávega, or 'blind fishing', is one of Portugal's most ancient traditions | © James Rajotte / Culture Trip
Francisco Henriques

To get the freshest fish in Lisbon, you should head 20 minutes out of the city to the Caparica beaches, where teams of fishermen practise the ancient art of xávega, or traditional trawl fishing, before selling their catch at improvised stalls.

The ancient art of xávega fishing is one of Portugal’s most treasured historical traditions

Every day around noon, Mario Raimundo’s crew meets in front of the beachside metal shed where their equipment is stored. Raimundo is usually the first one to arrive, followed closely by an old friend, also called Mario, who’s an expert at untangling and repairing nets. As trivial as this may sound, the nets are monstrous things and a single hole can ruin a whole day of fishing, which makes Mario a very valued crew member.

The fishermen of Costa da Caparica are among the country’s remaining few to practice xávega

If the sea seems friendly, they head out to the beach. Mario Raimundo does this small trip on his tractor, carrying the net and a bunch of local children who have been eagerly awaiting this moment. Mario lets them help with the fishing (although he doesn’t really need it) in exchange for pocket money.

The art of xávega is passed down through generations

The boat, S. José, is named after Mario’s stepdad, who taught him the xávega art and led the crew before him. When José passed away, he left the boat and two tractors to Mario’s mother, who is now 96 years old. She used to help with the fishing, but nowadays she prefers to watch.

Xávega, or ‘blind fishing’, is one of Portugal’s most ancient traditions
The Costa Caparica Beaches are near Lisbon, on Portugal’s west coast

Five men board the boat, carrying the fishing net and oars, while the rest of the assembled group – women and children included – push it to the sea. Local legislation dictates that the boat engine cannot be used right off the beach, so the men take turns rowing until the recreational area is left behind. This is the hard part, the one that makes them wish for more helping hands.

The fishermen work hard in all conditions

Once the boat reaches the red floater marking the dropping point, the men carefully unfold the fishing net and drop it into the ocean while navigating parallel to shore. They do this for a few hundred metres, until there’s no net left in the boat, before heading back to the beach.

If the sea looks friendly, the xávega fisherman set sail

The lucky dip of xávega fishing

What follows seems to be a long wait, with the tractors towing the long cables attached to the fishing net. In the old days, before the tractors, about twenty men were needed for the task. Usually, it’s during the towing that the beachgoers take notice and start getting closer to the action.

Just one hole in a net can ruin a whole day’s work

Once the net reaches the shore, brimming with fish, seagulls circling, the beach comes alive with excitement. The catch is not always so good, however. Normally, fishermen choose where to cast their nets according to what they hope to catch. That’s not the case in xávega fishing. Xávega is always done the way Raimundo’s crew does it, with fishermen dragging a huge fishing net back to land, catching all the fish close to shore – which can be plenty or, on a bad day, none at all.

Mackerel is a key catch for Xavega fishermen

The fishermen of Costa da Caparica are among the country’s remaining few to practice xávega, which is also called ‘blind fishing’. Ask them what they’re hoping to catch and the stock response is: “I’ll let you know afterwards”.

The fish is sold fresh when the boats reach the shore

Most xávega crews operate at night, when fish roam closer to shore. Raimundo, a weathered veteran with more than 30 fishing years under his belt, trades profit for sunshine. On this particular day, though, he has an order to fill: 30 crates of mackerel. His crew hastily sets them apart. The rest of the fish is to be sold on the spot at good prices, which everyone is well aware of – there is much elbow-brushing among the beachgoers, all of them with smartphones and cameras on hand.

The battle with seagulls on the beach for the best of the day’s catch is always a public one
Seagulls are always in attendance when the Xávega fishermen bring their catch into the Costa Caparica Beaches

It is said that job satisfaction comes from a balance between money earned and personal achievement. What xávega fishing lacks in the salaries department, it certainly makes up in recognition. While they’re sorting and selling fish, the fishermen are local stars, with the whole beach fighting for their attention – children included, who innocently see this as a chance to feed the seagulls. The fishermen play along, handing them small fish that aren’t fit for sale.

People of all ages crowd the beaches to see what the fishermen bring in

Unfortunately, this scene generally only plays out in the summer months. The rest of the year, the fishermen lead a lonely life, left to face the cold wind and sea by themselves. That’s partly why the xávega art is slowly dying out. You might want to take the time to witness this cultural legacy first-hand while you still can.

Now is the time to witness this legacy, before it disappears completely

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