Walking into Porto on the Camino Portuguese, I instantly fell in love with the city. A trip to the stunning Livraria Lello bookstore tipped me right over the edge.
It seems ridiculous to fall in love with a building and its content, but I did, and I encourage you to include this store on your itinerary if you are heading over to Portugal.
I love books, I love reading, and I set myself a goal to read about 70 books each year. I don’t have a favourite genre and read everything from historical fiction, political analysis, fantasy and young adult, self-improvement and the ‘Classics’. Probably the only topics I don’t read are romance and crime thrillers. Just not my cuppa!
Reading somehow completes my day and I seem to be drawn to any bookstore within the vicinity. They are like magnets and, even if book shopping is not on my agenda, they lure me in. It was then only natural that I would answer the siren call of Livraria Lello in Porto, Portugal.
Livraria Lello was opened by the Lello brothers, José and Antonio, in 1906. The brothers were prominent members of Porto’s bourgeoisie and intellectual circles and became heavily involved in Porto’s public affairs at the turn of the century.
According to the bookstore brochure, “bookseller activity in Porto at the beginning of the 20th century was very much tied with other cultural, intellectual and artistic circles. There was a clear and close relationship between booksellers, publishers, authors, thinkers and artists, all of which often partook in the same social events and formed ties to each other’s families”. I can imagine the store being the hub of boisterous conversation and argument, all to tease out literary and political ideas.
Walking up to the bookstore, I was surprised to see how unimposing the building is from the street. Unfortunately for me the neo-Gothic façade was covered in hoarding and scaffolding in preparation for renovations. Understandably that detracted from the visual impact. Having said that, the parts that I could see were obviously beautiful, just not as large as I was expecting.
The other thing that surprised me was that you had to pay to enter the store AND join a queue. They limit the number of people who can be inside at any one time and when I finally got inside, I could see why.
I walked in and stopped in my tracks.
My mouth fell open and I was overwhelmed with the beauty and grace of the art deco design. I just didn’t know where to look first.
Have you ever experienced that feeling? The feeling of awe and knowing that you have arrived at a truly special place? Or was that just all those books hypnotically calling my name?
The layout of the store, again not as large as I was expecting, is layer upon layer of warm, carved timber polished to a rich hue. The books are lovingly and carefully displayed, but all the while encouraging you to browse and touch. It is a very tactile space, except when it comes to the oldest and rarest books kept behind glass doors and up on high shelves away from grubby fingers.
I quickly saw why they limited visitor numbers as it was very cosy inside with so many gawking tourists, just like me. The bookstore is so popular that they had to develop a range of rules:
- “Lello is a place dedicated to books and reading, please keep quiet and help us preserve a calm and pleasant environment.
- If you are to take photographs, please do so in a way not to disturb other visitors and customers.
- Due to its confined spaces, please try not to use ‘selfie sticks’ and help us keep a free flow of visitors when using the staircase.”
I edged between the shelves and up the Crimson Staircase to the upper floor. The staircase is a glorious work of art amongst many other beautiful fixtures and fittings in the place. In 1930 it was described, “thou who walketh the room, shall then see a staircase which is a piece of surprising allure for its apparent lightness which masks the audacity of its design. One feels the urge to climb and yet fears one’s weight may make it crumble”.
The staircase truly does warrant such superlatives as it scrolls and swirls its way up to the second floor. The story goes that JK Rowling was heavily influenced by the design and décor of the bookstore and incorporated much of its style (and the staircase) into the mythical Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Rowling lived in Porto for a few years until she divorced her husband and returned to the UK to live in Scotland. The art deco design of the entire store, especially the swirling staircase, would have to be the perfect inspiration for the magical and shape-shifting décor of Hogwarts.
Upstairs is a café and a few small tables encouraging you to linger. I pounced on a small upholstered chair in a secluded nook and sat back to take it all in. It was hard to process all the beauty I was seeing. Wherever I looked was an ornate carving or a panel of brightly-coloured stained glass. The books are almost a secondary consideration in this store, important of course, but not the first thing you see.
How wonderful it would have been to spend more time there and actually buy some books. As I still had another 248km to walk to Santiago de Compostela in north-west Spain, the thought of carrying the extra kilos of paper neatly cooled my book lust!
Perhaps on my return trip to Porto to one day I will make up for lost time.
Or perhaps I should just plan a bookshop tour of the World?
Care to join me?
What: Livraria Lello is an unlikely tourist attraction and makes a pleasant change from the more traditional touristy sites.
Where: Livraria Lello, S.A. Rua das Carmelitas, 144 4050-161 Porto, Portugal
When: Daylight savings time: Every day from 10am to 8pm. The rest of the year: Monday to Friday from 10am to 730pm. Saturdays and Sundays from 10am to 7pm. They are closed on Christmas Day, New Year’s Day, Easter Sunday, May 1st and June 24th.
Why: Books, art, books, culture, history, books, beauty and more books.
How: Entrance fees are now Euro5 per person and are refunded against any book purchase.
Who: Every nationality and age possible. Books are available in Portuguese, English and Spanish.
Related Posts: To see what else there is to see and do in Porto have a read of my post written after my 2016 visit.
Related Blogs: For more beautiful bookshop inspiration, see what the BBC thinks are the top 10 bookstores in the World.
Read About it: I could not finish this post without giving a nod to the genius of JK Rowling and the pure wizardry of Harry Potter. All the novels are available from Book Depository.
#porto, #portugal, #travelinspo #bookheaven