Wednesday, 19 August 2015
Astonishing bookshops and libraries
I'm back in Britain, acclimatising to the change in weather after a blissful holiday in Portugal, combining a stay in Lisbon with a cruise up the gorgeous River Douro. And while I was away, I enjoyed, among many other things, a visit to a contender for the title for "most beautiful bookshop in the world" and some amazing libraries.
Portugal's a country with a rich and proud history. The old empire has gone, and it's not the most prosperous place in the world, but the climate is fantastic and the local people I met were uniformly charming. They like their literature, too. While visiting the very appealing city of Porto, I discovered the ornate and unforgettable Lello bookstore. Surely there is no other bookshop in the world that can charge people three Euros just to go inside? A large part of the attraction is the shop's association with J.K.Rowling, who spent time there in her early days before achieving fame and fortune. I can see why she liked it (and why she liked Porto.) People were queuing to buy their tickets both in the morning and the afternoon when I was in the vicinity. You don't believe me? Well, here they are:
I also visited a trio of fantastic libraries during my trip. The first was at the University of Coimbra, one of the oldest and most distinguished academic institutions in the world. The library is stunning, though to protect the books, photography is not allowed. Suffice to say that it's one of the most impressive I've seen, in terms of beauty and grandeur. I was also amused by the existence of an ancient "academic prison" in the same building, which apparently was a sort of dungeon for student malefactors.
While on the Douro, we had a trip to a variety of places, including Salamanca in Spain (the Douro flows through Spain, but is not navigable beyond the border with Portugal, so you have to jump on a bus). Salamanca is breathtaking, and there is a modern public library in an architecturally spectacular setting - the photo is abov. Some people say it's the most beautiful public library in the world, and I certainly haven't seen a more stunning rival.
Another trip ended up at the Mateus Palace and its exceptional gardens, owned by the family responsible for Mateus Rose. (You can't visit Portugal without drinking quite a bit of wine and port, and some of the port in particular was of quite memorable quality.) Inside,the family's private library, which again cannot be photographed, is another sight to behold. Thousands of perfectly preserved old books. I could have stayed there a very long time, even though I can't read Portuguese....