This little pink slip of paper is like the golden ticket for Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory. It gave me access to one of the world’s most beautiful bookshops, Livraria Lello in Porto. To walk into this exquisite little shop requires some effort, particularly in high season. Potential visitors have to queue in a separate building to purchase a ticket at the cost of 4 euros (redeemable against a book purchase). Another queue awaits outside the shop itself, before you can enter and take your first look at the famous crimson staircase.
On a Saturday morning at the end of January there were no queues at all, despite my concerns that we might be waiting for hours. But the little pink card, with its quotation, “So many books, so little time” still felt like a winning lottery ticket.
The building, with its intricate Neo-Gothic façade, has been an inspirational bookshop in the city since 1906 when brothers José and Antonio Lello opened its doors. Their company motto can be seen in the centre of the striking stained glass ceiling: Decus in labore (dignity in work). The brothers were important members of Porto’s intellectual circles and their shop became a focus for culture and art within the city, where performances were held and authors revered.
It’s said that JK Rowling, during her years living in Porto, was a regular visitor and it’s hard not to believe that she wasn’t in some way influenced by the detail of the interior when she imagined the staircases in Hogwarts. I wonder if the Harry Potter film-makers also took a peek?
Even with all the visitors taking photos it still has the ability to enchant although I do hope it can retain its charm in future years. This photo of mine below is what you might see when you search for images of the bookshop online. But I’ve tidied it up a little. The real staircase when we visited is actually in the second picture: the white patches are peeling paint. I’m sure they do repaint it regularly but it must be a concern: to preserve the beauty of such an important building in Portugal without completely restricting tourists. 4 euros probably isn’t too much to ask.
If I thought Porto would provide me with enough literary stimulation to last until the end of the holiday, I hadn’t anticipated being blown away by even more books and their beautiful surroundings in Coimbra, the next stop on our three city Portuguese break. One of Europe’s oldest universities was established here. It chopped and changed its location between here and Lisbon from 1290 onwards, eventually making Coimbra its permanent home in 1537.
Perched on the top of a hill, on the corner of a vast courtyard, is the Joanine Library (Biblioteca Joanina). King João V commissioned it in 1717 and it truly is a masterpiece of Baroque design. The front portal was erected as a triumphal arch but its grandeur can only hint at what’s in store once the doors are open. Photography is forbidden but thankfully some official photos are available online so this will give you some idea of how magnificent it is.
Three rooms are linked by arches and the 60,000 books here, of the quarter of a million housed in the library in total, are reached by a balcony and recessed wooden ladders. The shelves are gilded against green or red walls, with Chinese designs. Look up and you will see fabulous trompe l’oiel effects giving a 3D appearance to the paintings. I was giddy with excitement: was this even more astonishing than Livraria Lello?
As an antithesis to the grandeur and opulence of the library itself, visitors can also walk down two floors to the academic prison. Installed under the library since 1771, though it was in existence in another location from 1593, it was used to house students who had committed disciplinary offences. The small, vaulted rooms had no direct light so must have been a pretty miserable place to be imprisoned. Thankfully it was abolished in 1832: current students must be very relieved about that.
My favourite story about the library? It is also home to a number of bats which have proved to have an unusual symbiotic relationship with the books they live alongside. The bats protect the books from insect damage (mainly moths) by eating them. Since this happens at night, any tables and the odd grand piano are covered up by large leather sheets to protect against post-prandial bat poop.
I couldn’t recall reading anything particularly bookish with reference to Lisbon until, on our walking trail, provided by our holiday company, Inntravel, there was mention of a record-breaking bookshop. It would have been quite easy to miss it altogether but on Rua Garrett, in the Chiado area of the city, is a shop, Bertrand, which has the proud boast of being the oldest bookshop…in the world.
There has been a bookshop operating here in Lisbon since 1732, with a change of location after the 1755 Lisbon earthquake. Guinness World Records have provided a certificate, which is proudly shown in their window, to acknowledge the longevity of the store. It’s an attractive shop; light, airy and quite contemporary inside. Nothing like the old, musty interior I had imagined. Bertrand now has over 50 branches throughout Portugal: good to know it’s still going strong after 285 years.
Disclosure: We booked our own holiday with Inntravel but were offered a discount in exchange for a review of the trip. All opinions are my own.
Inntravel (inntravel.co.uk 01653 617000) offers On the Waterfront, a walking and rail discovery of Portugal’s three great cities, Lisbon, Coimbra & Porto from £580pp based on two sharing including 6 nights’ B&B in 4-star hotels, self-guided city walking tours, and rail journeys Lisbon to Coimbra & Coimbra to Porto. Available 2 January-24 December. Flights (cost extra) into Lisbon and out Porto. The holiday can be taken in the opposite direction, flying into Porto and out Lisbon.