I love books and I can spend hours in a good bookstore. Porto’s Livraria Lello & Irmão was on my short list of places to visit in Portugal.
Livraria Lello, or the Lello Bookstore in English, is one of the most beautiful and, thanks to J.K. Rowlings, one of the most famous bookstores in the world. When J.K. Rowling lived in Porto, she began work on the Harry Potter series. She was a frequent visitor to the bookstore and the amazing central staircase was the inspiration behind the moving staircases of Harry’s Alma Mater, Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.
Livraria Lello began life in 1869 as Internacional Livraria de Ernesto Chardron. When Senhor Chardron passed away, the bookstore was purchased by Lugan & Genelioux Sucessores who eventually sold the bookstore to the Lello brothers in 1894. The brothers Lello decided to build a new bookstore and hired engineer Francisco Xavier Esteves to build the new bookstore on Rua das Carmelitas, in the shadow of the Clérigos Tower The new Livraria Lello & Irmão opened its doors in 1906.
The bookstore is truly beautiful. The exterior is a Neo-Gothic with vivid Arte Nouveau paintings, including the two figures of Art and Science, painted by Professor José Bielman. Just above the door, in gilt lettering, the name “Livraria Chardron” celebrates the early history of the bookstore.
The bookstore saw an increase in visitors who, driven by the popularity of the Harry Potter books, just wanted to see the interior that gave birth to the fantastic architecture of Hogwarts. Because most of the visitors were not actually there to make a purchase, Livraria Lello began charging an admission fee in 2015, with the price of the admission ticket being deducted from the price of any book purchase.
The interior is truly special. There are busts of some of the greatest Portuguese writers, including Eça de Queirós and Camilo Castelo Branco, The interior has a lot of art deco touches, including the stained glass skylight and the famous forked staircase. The interior seems to be of wood, but it’s actually plaster painted to look like wood.
As you can see from the photos, browsing through the books is a bit of a chore. You have to fight your way through the hundreds of visitors. We did manage to look through the cookbooks but, alas, the selection of English language Portuguese cookbooks was extremely limited. Once I’ve learned enough of the Portuguese language to read in the language I’d love to go back to peruse the selection of Portuguese classics. What I’ve read so far- Jose Saramago, Eça de Queirós and Fernando Pessoa- have whetted my appetite for more Portuguese literature.
My dream is to be able to visit Livraria Lello when there are no crowds so I can browse the shelves for literary treasures that may be hidden there. And while I’m searching for treasure maybe I’ll try to catch a few photos of this amazing store.
Azulejos, the beautiful decorative tiles that adorn buildings throughout the country, are now synonymous with Portugal, but they have a history that spans several countries and cultures. Of Moorish origin, the tiles were not only beautiful, they had a functional purpose as well, serving as insulators against the intense heat of the Mediterranean and North Africa.
Azulejos first came to Portugal from Seville, when Dom Manuel I, during his visit to the Spanish city, was struck by the beauty of the tiles. Originally the tiles were of geometric or floral patterns. Their use rapidly spread throughout Portugal, becoming a popular building material for the outside of buildings as well as being used to decorate the interiors structures.
As the popularity of azulejos grew, so did demand. During the second half of the 17th century, Delft potter makers, whose blue and white pottery was already popular throughout Europe, began producing tiles. The popularity of the Dutch tiles was such that they effectively created a monopoly and shut out many Portuguese manufacturers. Dom Pedro II, alarmed at the rate that the Dutch tiles were taking over the market, banned all imports of azulejos between 1687 and 1698, allowing Portuguese artists to fill the void left by the ban.
Over the next few centuries azulejos remained popular in Portugal. The influence of the Dutch tiles continued to be felt, as the blue and white tiles were the most commonly used, but more and more the tiles were used to depict scenes and tell stories. Art Nouveau and Art Deco designs became popular in the early 20th century as artists such as António Costa and Jorge Colaço began to create works of art from azulejos.
From the stunning São Bento Station in Porto, featuring over 20,000 blue and white tiles, to decorative scenes featuring just a couple dozen tiles, azulejos can be found throughout Portugal. This art form with an international history is now forever a part of Portugal.
This beautiful bronze sculpture, by artist Andre Alves, sits along Coimbra’s famed Rua Quebra Costa, a narrow lane leading to the top of the Old City and the University. The statue honors the tricana, a woman of Coimbra. She’s dressed in the traditional clothing, with a shawl and apron, and carries a pitcher, with which she would fetch water from the Mondego River. I love the way the statue sits along the rua, with her sandals kicked off, as if she’s resting before the long climb up the hill.
One of the highlights of any visit to Coimbra is the Universidade Velha, or Old University. Coimbra University is one of the oldest academic institutions in Europe and probably the most important university in Portugal. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, it is a beautiful and historic University and well worth the visit.
When we set out for Universidade Velha, we knew only that it was on top of the hill that makes up Coimbra’s Old Town. Unfortunately, we chose the hardest, albeit most picturesque way, to approach the University. We entered through the Torre da Almedina and climbed the steep series of stairs known as “the backbreaker”, Rua Quebra Costa.
Rua Quebra Costa is picturesque. Entering through the Barbican Gate and wound our way up the path toward the Torre. Just after the gate we came upon a beautiful sculpture celebrating Portugal’s national music, Fado. After passing through the Torre we found another beautiful piece of artwork, a bronze statue called “Tricana de Coimbra”.
We struggled up the steps, passing the Old Cathedral and the Museu Nacional de Machado de Castro, stopped to catch our breath at the New Cathedral, and eventually made our way to the Old University. It was a trip worth making, but only once. Next time we’ll take the bus to the University.
The Universidade Velha is centered around the Paço das Escolas, or Patio of the Colleges. This was once the Royal Palace of Alcáçova and, beginning in 1131, the home of Dom Afonso Henríques, Portugal’s first king. Almost every king of Portugal’s first dynasty was born here. Interestingly, the first Portuguese king not born in the Palace was Dom Dinis, who founded the University in Lisbon in 1290.
We entered the Paço das Escolas through the Porta Férrea, or Iron Gate. Designed by 17th century architect Antonio Tavares, the gate was the first major architectural work following the University’s acquisition of the Royal Palace in 1537. It’s an elegant structure, with figures representing the University’s major schools at that time, Law, Medicine, Theology and Canons, as well as figures honoring the two kings who figure so prominently in the University’s history, Dom Dinis and Dom João III.
There’s a second entrance to the Paço das Escolas located next to the famed Biblioteca Joanina. The Minerva Stairs were built in 1725 under the supervision of Architect Gaspar Ferreira. The stairs are still one of the main entries into the Paço das Escolas.
Once through the gate you’re struck by the beauty of the Old University. Two things stand out over all others- the bell tower and the statue of Dom João III. The statue, designed by Francisco Franco and erected in 1950, shows a dignified Dom João III looking towards the Palatial home of the University since he ordered it moved to Coimbra in 1537.
The bell tower is the patio’s most prominent landmark. Known as “the Goat”, it was erected in the first half of the 18th century and is the work of Italian architect Antonio Canevari. The bell, which calls the students to class, rings 15 minutes behind the other clock towers in Coimbra. The purpose of the delay is to keep from confusing the town’s inhabitants and the University’s students regarding the various duties signified by the bells each day.
The tower is roofless; it once doubled as an astronomical observatory. Visitors can climb the tower; I’m sure it provides phenomenal views of Coimbra, but we chose not to make the climb.
The main attraction, for many people, is the Biblioteca Joanina. One of the most beautiful libraries in the world, it was a 17th century gift to the University from Dom João V, for whom it is named. Four huge columns frame the front doors of the baroque structure, but this is not where you access the library. Tours of the library start at the bottom of the Minerva stairs, where you enter the Academic Prison. It’s the last existing medieval prison still existing in Portugal and was in use until 1832. Originally the prison for the Royal Palace, it was later used to hold students who committed disciplinary offenses. By the way, the university had its own legal code, separate from the general law of the kingdom.
After a quick tour of the academic prison we’re allowed to climb the stairs to the middle floor, called Depository 4. This is now a museum. Originally, only librarians and the Royal Prison Guard had access to the floor (the guards accessed the Academic Prison from here). Access to the books stored in Depository 4 were restricted to a select group of staff.
The highlight of the library is the magnificent “Book House”. The top level is a series of three chambers with two floors. 72 gilded book shelves hold about 60,000 priceless books, including a copy of Camões’s Lusiads from 1572 and a Latin Bible from 1492. Each room has a fantastic ceiling painting and at the far end of the third room is a beautiful painting of Dom João V. It’s so beautiful that I can’t imagine anyone actually reading in the library.
There are two colonies of bats who live in the library. Their job is to eat the insects that could harm the books. We didn’t see any of the bats, but there are plenty of places for them to sleep during the day.
I’m sure that some people stop their tour after visiting the Biblioteca Joanina, but those who do are missing out. Next door to the library is the Capela de São Miguel, an ornate Baroque and Manueline chapel built in the 16th century and remodeled in the 17th and 18th centuries.
The altarpiece dates from 1605 and in 1663 the interior was covered with tiles. There’s a magnificent baroque pipe organ, built in 1733 by Friar Manuel Gomes to replace the old one, that consists of around 2,000 pipes. The organ is still used on special occasions.
The chapel is full of outstanding religious artwork, including a painting of Our Lady of Conception, the patroness of the University, and another of Our Lady of Light, the patroness saint of students. It’s a beautiful structure. I was inspired enough to try out my limited knowledge of the Portuguese language. “A capela é muito linda,” I told the student at the door. I apparently used it correctly, because he smiled and replied in English, “Yes, it is.”
After a quick break in the cafeteria for a snack and a glass of wine, we moved on to the Royal Palace. The entry to the Royal Palace is the Via Latina, a magnificent staircase built during the late 18th century. It seems to be a popular spot for selfies or group photos, depending on whether you’re an introvert or an extrovert. We’re not really into photos of ourselves so we climbed the stairs and entered the Palace.
There are several really nice rooms in the Palace. First up was the Arms Room, which houses the weapons of the former Royal Academic Guard. The weapons are used today only for formal academic ceremonies such as the opening of the school year and the awarding of PhDs.
Next to the Arms Room is the Yellow Room. Each school has a different color. Coimbra’s School of Medicine’s color is yellow. The Yellow Room is where the School of Medicine’s faculty gather for events.
The Sala dos Capelos, or Great Hall of Acts, was originally the Palace’s Throne Room. Today it is the space where most official ceremonies are held and where PhD oral exams are conducted. It’s a magnificent space lined with portraits of all Portuguese kings except those who ruled during the sixty years when Spain ruled Portugal.
The Private Examination Room was once the room of the King of Portugal. This is the place where graduate students held their Doctoral exams. Traditionally, these were private exams and were done in secret and at night. The paintings lining the room’s walls are portraits of former rectors.
After a visit to the second-floor balcony overlooking the plaza we made our way back down to the Paço das Escolas and took in the view of the Mondego River and Coimbra from the far end of the plaza. The Universidade Velha is just a small part of the current University, but it’s a huge part of its history. There was so much more to see- the Botanical Gardens, for example- but we’ll have to do that on our next visit to Coimbra.
Travel can be stressful, with planes, trains, or even ships that must be caught, unfamiliar roads to follow, schedules to be met and new languages to learn. It’s nice to be able to slow down from time to time and to stop at a café for a coffee or a glass of wine. We experienced a lot of interesting cafés and we took advantage of them to stop and relax for a few minutes on our journey. Here are just a few.
Aveiro is home to one of our favorite cafés, A Mulata. It’s a tiny place on Avenida Santa Joana and a block from the Museu do Aveiro. A Mulata has a nice breakfast and fresh baked goods with a lot of vegetarian options. It was also a quiet place to sit and enjoy a glass of wine or beer. We like quiet.
Porto’s most famous café is Café Majestic. Opened in 1921, this art nouveau café was a favorite of British author J.K. Rowlings, who is rumored to have worked on the first Harry Potter book here. The notoriety that comes with being associated with anything Harry Potter means that the café is always crowded with tourists. We were looking for a nice quiet atmosphere where we could sit and enjoy breakfast and coffee, and Majestic was not the place for us.
Fortunately, Porto has another iconic café just a short walk from Majestic. Named for a Brazilian indigenous people, Café Guarany has been a popular gathering place for Portuenses since 1933. It’s a beautiful restaurant. Renovated in 2003, the interior’s centerpiece are two paintings, “The Lords of Amazonia” by University of Porto alum Graça Morais. We had a wonderful breakfast at Guarany and, later, stopped there again for dessert and coffee.
Braga has a pair of nice cafés in the Arcada at Praça da República, Café Astória and Café Vianna. We chose to have breakfast at Café Vianna. In operation for over 150 years, the café is supposedly where the 28 May 1926 coup d’etat began. Portuguese novelists Eça de Queriós and Camilo Castelo Branco are said to have been visitors to the café during its long history. We enjoyed a relaxing breakfast while we planned our day. Located at the end of Praça da República, it proved to be a nice place to people watch.
Coimbra is home to another interesting historic café. Located in what was once an auxiliary chapel, Café Santa Cruz has a wonderful interior, with vaulted ceilings and stained glass. Opened in 1923, it’s another great place for coffee and a snack. It’s location on Praça 8 de Maio and next door to Igreja de Santa Cruz make the café a good place for people watching.
One of the more unusual places we visited on our tour of Portugal was Mercado do Bolhão, Porto’s famous market in the city’s historic center. The market dates to the first half of the 19th century, when the city decided it needed a central market for vendors to sell their goods. In 1914 the current building was opened as the market’s home. It’s a two-story neoclassical structure with an open courtyard where many of the vendors are located. In 2006 the market was classified as a place of public interest.
While much of the merchandise is now geared towards tourists the Mercado do Bolhão has been able to maintain the feel of a traditional market. There are stalls offering fresh vegetables, fish, meat and flowers as well as wine and tourist offerings such as cork products and souvenirs. The baked goods looked nice and the fishmonger had huge octopi for sale. One vendor offers live rabbits and chickens. A few cats laze in sunny spots.
We didn’t experience it, but the female vendors are rumored to use crude language that would rival my own mastery of curse words. Since the use of foul language is supposed to be a sign of higher intelligence in people, we’ll give them a pass.
I’ve read that shortly after our visit to Portugal the Mercado do Bolhão was moved to a temporary location while the existing building is renovated. I’m glad that the city values the market so that they will renovate it rather than tear it down to make space for a new venture. Hopefully the market will retain its unique character when it returns after the renovation.