08 February 2019
I joined the queues in Porto early yesterday to visit Livraria Lello, said by many to be one of the most beautiful bookshops in the world. This is one of the oldest bookshops in Portugal and it is often rated as one of the best bookshops in the world in lists from the Lonely Planet and CNN to Time magazine and the Guardian.
The bookshop in the centre of Porto is visited by thousands of people every day, attracted more by its reputation than its contents. The shop was visited regularly by JK Rowling when she was living in Porto and teaching English, and it is said to have been the inspiration for many of the scenes in her Harry Potter series.
The shop first opened its doors in 1906, and ever since Livraria Lello has dazzled readers and the curious.
The building was refurbished in 2017, when the façade was restored in its original colours, along with its stained glass and its unique twisting, spiral stairs.
Livraria Lello’s shelves are stacked high with vast collections that include first editions, books signed by authors, rare books and recent editions of luxury books.
The origins of this bookshop date back to 1881, when the brothers José and António Lello opened their first shop in Porto. They soon moved their business to Rua do Almada, and in 1894 José Lello bought Chardron Bookshop and its extensive collection and stock, built up Ernesto Chardron from France, who had published the first editions of celebrated works, including books by Eça de Queirós and Camilo Castelo Branco.
The Lello brothers commissioned the engineer Francisco Xavier Esteves (1864-1944) to build a new bookshop on Rua das Carmelitas, and so the renamed Livraria Lello began a new life.
The new bookshop opened on Rua das Carmelitas on 13 January 1906 with the public endorsement of key figures in Portuguese cultural, political, commercial and social life, including the writers Guerra Junqueiro and Júlio Brandão, the director of O Comércio, Bento Carqueja, and Aurélio Paz dos Reis, the pioneer of cinema in Portugal.
The bookstore is flanked by shops and us close to the Porto University Faculty of Sciences building, the tower and Clérigos Church. It faces south towards the Rua das Carmelitas and the Praça de Lisboa.
The colourful neo-gothic façade is decorated with paintings by Professor José Bielman symbolising Art, holding a sculpture, and Science, holding a symbol of anthropology, and has a mixture of architectural style, with neo-Gothic and Art Nouveau elements. Decorative elements complete the façade, with alternating geometric shapes that circuit and the firm’s name, ‘Lello & Brother’, over the bow, all painted in vivid colours that highlight the white paint on the facade.
Inside, throughout the shop, there are the busts of some of the most important Portuguese writers, including as Eça de Queirós, Camilo Castelo Branco or Teófilo Braga.
The rectangular plan covers two storeys, representing a simple mass, covered by a tiled roof. Inside, there are Art Deco elements throughout the building.
But the interior is best known for the forked crimson staircase and the majestic ceiling. This ceiling looks deceptively like carved wood but is in fact painted plaster, a technique also used in decorating the stairs.
The architectural details on the first floor include Art Déco details on the walls and the columns that rise from the lower floor.
The stained glass above is a glass structure measuring 8 meters by 3.5 meters. The words Decus in Labore (‘Dignity in Work’), a golden rule of the house that applies to everyone who enters.
The last few decades have seen a remarkable growth in tourism in Porto and the number of visitors to Livraria Lello. The bookshop had to face the challenge in 2016-2017 of refurbishing the building to accommodate the number of visitors while protecting its primary function as a bookshop yet renovating the interior and restoring the façade and stained glass.
The bookshop has adapted to a new business model, and today admittance comes with the purchase of €5 tickets – the cost of a ticket can be deducted from the price of a book if a visitor is a genuine book-buying customer.
Despite the house rules that discourage ‘selfies’ and try to ban ‘selfie-sticks,’ the forked crimson stairs quickly becomes blocked with tourists who are more interested in their own appearances than the books on the shelves.
But, while Livraria Lello is now a major tourist attraction, it remains true its original purpose: a bookshop for book lovers. And, yes, we spent our two €5 vouchers.
This has become a two-country, or two-city break, staying Porto in northern Portugal, but travelling north across the border into Spain on Wednesday [6 February 2019] and continuing along the pilgrim route to visit Santiago de Compostela.
Before crossing the border between Portugal and Spain, I stopped for breakfast at the border town of Valença do Minho, where the two countries are separated only by the Minho river. This is as far north in Portugal as you can travel by train and it is set in the lush Minho region, surrounded by craggy mountains and wide rivers, with the Minho River forming the natural border with Spain.
It was a foggy morning, and in this peaceful, rustic setting it was hard to imagine how this was once a significant military posting, repelling successive onslaughts from Spanish and French armies.
Valença sits on top of a hill, about 25 km inland from the Atlantic, and is surrounded by defensive walls that have survived as a visible testimony to its key strategic position ever since Roman times.
Valença was of extreme significance during the Middle Ages, with its commanding hilltop view across the border. But this was also along the pilgrim route, and was a stopping point on the on the pilgrims route along the camino to the shrine of Saint James the Apostle at Santiago de Compostela.
But Valença dates back to Roman times, and a Roman milestone inside the fortress dates from the 1st century AD. The inscription reads:
Ti[berius] Claudius Caesar Aug[ustus] Germanicus Pontifex Max[imus]. Imp[erator] V Co[n]s[ul] III, Trib[unicia] Potest[ate] III. P[ater] P[atriae] Braca[ra] XLII.
In other words, it marks 42 Roman miles (62 km) on the road from Braga to Tui and the Emperor Claudius ordered its construction when the Via IV of Antonine was rebuilt.
For a short time in the early morning mist, we strolled through the town’s narrow streets and compact squares as we explored the labyrinth of fortifications, submerged passages and jutting watchtowers, and tried to catch a view from the Baluarte Do Carmo (Carmo Bulwark) across the Rio Minho to the Spanish fortified town of Tui on the opposite bank.
As a stop on the camino, it came as no surprise to find many churches, chapels and religious sites religious sites inside Valença, along with elegant townhouses built in the past by prosperous merchant families.
The local patron saint is São Teotónio, the first Portuguese saint. He was born in Ganfei, near Valença, and was the confessor of King Afonso Henriques.
The churches and religious monuments include the Colegiada de Santo Estêvão Church and the Santa Maria dos Anjos Church, both dating from the 13th century, the 16th century Misericórdia Church, the 17th century Church of the Bom Jesus, and the chapels dedicated to São Sebastião and Nossa Senhora da Saúde.
The Romanesque Igreja de Santo Estêvão, dedicated to Saint Stephen, was rebuilt in the 18th century. The church holds a unique painting of the Virgin Mary feeding the Christ Child, and several panels representing scenes in the life of Saint Stephen.
The Church of Saint Mary of the Angels, a Romanesque church built in the 12th century, has eye-catching decorations and ceiling.
The town is dominated by the Fortaleza, which is one of the most impressive fortifications in northern Portugal. This is an impressive fortress with two concentric walls, two towers and many layers of battlements, bastions and hidden tunnels.
The fortress and its two towers and double walls were rebuilt in the 17th and 18th centuries by Louis XIV’s military engineer, Sébastien Le Prestre de Vauban (1633-1707), who also refortified the Palace of the Kings of Majorca in Perpignan and rebuilt the Fort de Salses, or the Forteresse de Salses, a massive Catalan fortress near Perpignan, and both of which I visited last year [May 2018].
Along the north wall, several old cannons are well maintained in their original positions, pointing north to the river and Spain as reminders of their original purpose.
Portugal and Spain agreed in 1879 to build a road and rail bridge crossing the border. The bridge was inspired by Alexandre Gustave Eiffel (1832-1932). The bridge is still in use although a new bridge was built south-west of the older one in recent years.
Today, the centre of the town has cobbled and stone-paved narrow streets with traditional small shops specialising in hand-made products, including gold, linen, weaving, ceramics and pottery.
Valença has a population of 14,127 (2011) and has been a city officially since 2009. Outside the walls, the new areas include social facilities, schools, a stadium and sports centre, a health care centre, a municipal market and a swimming pool.
Today, the Spanish invasion takes a different form, with bargain-hunting Spanish tourists flocking to Valença city to buy cheap clothes, textiles and linen products. But it was too early in the year for tourists in any large numbers … and I was heading in the other direction, north along the pilgrims’ route towards Santiago de Compostela. On a pilgrim’s way, borders – hard or soft – fade away and become meaningless.