But locals are fighting disillusion and apathy with a remarkable upsurge of religious fervour. The town's parish of Caxinas is dominated by a new church built in the form of a vast boat, a Noah's Ark with curved walls and a sloping deck-like floor that faces out to the Atlantic. It is dedicated to Nosso Senhor dos Navegantes - Our Lord of Seafarers.
Neither the influx of funds since joining the European Union in 1986 nor half-hearted diversification efforts have prevented economic crisis afflicting this remote corner of Europe. But in Vila do Conde, with churches and chapels at every turn, thousands pour their savings into the seafarers' church, where they attend up to five services a day.
The worshippers who stream down the steps after first mass at 8am are overwhelmingly women, black-clad in mourning for sons and husbands lost at sea; their faces, gnarled hands and crooked legs bearing witness to generations of hard labour and poverty.
Father Domingos Ferreira de Araujo has a plump handshake and a steely glint in his eye. Dressed in a smart suit and tie, he lives in one of the most spacious villas in town. "All the money to build the church was contributed by parishioners. We are the biggest fishermen's parish in Portugal," he says proudly. And he bustles away, a typed list of his day's appointments fluttering in his fingers.
Vila do Conde's dockside is even quieter than usual. Local sardine fisherman have taken advantage of a deep-sea trawlermen's strike - now in its fourth week - to unload at the bigger port of Matosinhos near Porto, in the hope of getting a better price for their catch. A number of Vila do Conde fishermen rest in the dockside cafe at Matosinhos, slack and weary after a night at sea, watching a television talkshow with that faraway mariners' gaze.
Trawlermen travelled to Lisbon last week to demand the government raise their wages. They cooked a caldeirada - a traditional fish stew - on the steps of parliament. But instead of hurling the dish at MPs, these Portuguese of gentle customs set a long table and invited politicians to share their frugal meal, providing wine and tabasco sauce. Only one MP joined them.
Meanwhile in Vila do Conde, the briskest moment of the morning is provided by women selling fish from little handcarts on the street. This is illegal, but as one of them cheerily acknowledges: "If we take a stall at the market we have to pay taxes, it's more expensive. Anyway it's a tradition to sell on the street." Another uncovers her cart to reveal not fish but T-shirts and leggings. A fish-seller since she was nine, she now finds better pickings selling cheap clothing. "There's no money in fish any more," she says.
Their fish are handouts given to the fishermen from the boats. When the catch is unloaded, a couple of crates are held back and divided among the men to take home. This, too, is illegal, but it helps to feed hungry mouths.
Francisco Graca, a boatman on the dockside, admits breaking all the rules, including using nets with illegally fine mesh that trap fish often too small to sell, stripping the sea of future stocks. "I have to use the `killer nets'. I don't like them but I can't make a living otherwise. Once in a while I get fined, but it's worth the risk. Controls are not very effective."
Anibal Sousa, 77, who retired 18 years ago, is playing cards on the waterfront with his former shipmates. He remembers when 13 boats at a time were being built in the local shipyard, now grassed over and deserted. His son is a fisherman, working in Spain where he has lived for eight years. "The only way to make a living from fishing is to leave and live abroad," the old man says.
But he points with pride to a league table of local boats' contributions to the seafarers' church. Top of the list of some 300 boats is Ajudado de Deus (Helped by God) which contributed 627,500 escudos (pounds 2,120). The contributions fund elaborate processions and fiestas to honour the Lady of Help, the protector of sailors. "The church is wonderful. It is the heart of our community now," Mr Sousa says.
A rainbow suddenly brightens the sky, but it promises no crock of gold for the fisherfolk of Vila do Conde. They must settle for spiritual consolation.
Elizabeth NashReuse content