Booking It in Europe - Volume II!
The Lello Bookstore in Porto.
Hello again. When last I wrote, we were zipping off to France. For the second part of our trip, we didn’t spend a whole lot of time in bookstores as our time was short and we did have so much else to see! I know there are many, many more bookstores we missed, but we only had six weeks! However, we did see one exceptional bookstore in Portugal, and a few other places that were fascinating. I’ll try not to make this a long boring “my summer vacation” travelogue.
Our next stop was St. Malo where we visited a walled city that just oozed history. It was originally built during the Middle Ages and quickly became a haven for privateers, corsairs, and pirates as it was a fortified island at the mouth of the Rance River. It was very badly damaged during World War II by German bombers, but has been tastefully restored blending the antiquarian with the new so that you feel the history but have all the conveniences. We wandered the city all afternoon bumping elbows with ghosts and other gawky tourists, and then took the ferry to Jersey Island.
We have a gilder friend who lives on Jersey Island, which is part of the Channel Islands off France. They belong to the U.K., but during World War II, the Channel Islands were the only part of Great Britain that was occupied by the Germans. The Germans planned to use them as a stair-step to occupy England and also to keep an eye on the French coast. Instead, they just made the inhabitants and a lot of Russian prisoners, who were brought in as slave labor, miserable. I had just read a wonderful book before we left home about Jersey’s next door neighbor, Guernsey Island. It is called The Guernsey Island Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Shafer and Barrows. I highly recommend it.
Perhaps our favorite place on Jersey Island was the Parish Church of St. Brelade and the Fisherman’s Chapel. We’re not religious, au contraire, but we love beautiful architecture. The church was small and very ancient, being “Shrouded in the mists of time and the legends of the 5th and 6th centuries wandering Celtic saints.” The church began developing in the 12th century, added onto in the early 13th, more in the 14th, 15th, and mid-16th, which is pretty much where it is now, though it's been restored many times. Some of the intricate drawings that are in the archways are absolutely beautiful. They were fading away, but were redone during World War II and then again in the 1980s.
We found only one bookstore on Jersey Island, The Printed Word, (jerseybookshop.co.uk.) They specialize in new, local Jersey books, Channel Island books, general books about the U.K., and gifts. They are happy to ship worldwide. We didn’t have a great deal of time to spend book shopping there as we were being chauffeured by our hostess and didn’t want to make her wait for us. It was my first time driving on the wrong side of the road and I must admit it was hair-raising for the first half hour or so.
Booking It in Europe - Volume II!
Inside the Lello Bookstore.
Three days later we were on the train headed to Barcelona and then by airplane to Lisbon, Portugal. We actually found more bookstores in Lisbon, and later in Porto, than anywhere we had been, except maybe Amsterdam. We walked the streets of Lisbon for several days, took a road trip with a terrific guide to Sintra and a park and palace called Pena. It looked like something out of Disneyland and is considered the finest example of 19th century Portuguese Romanticism. There is a Moorish Castle, Monserrate Palace, and a 16th century Franciscan hermitage on the grounds, as well. While we were on the trip we went to Cabo da Roca, the place that the Portuguese sailors and explorers considered “The Place Where the Earth Ends.” There is a lighthouse dating from 1772 there. It is the westernmost point of the European continent and they believed that if you sailed from there to the west, you would fall off the Earth. The sea roils and crashes against the rocks and the cliffs remind one of the roughest parts of the Oregon coast. It is quite beautiful to behold.
But back to bookstores, or one bookstore in particular. We found a number of small bookstores in Lisbon and with the exception of one small store, we found no English language books, or very few and a poor selection at that. Of course, we were only there about four days and could not cover the whole town.
By this time, we were in serious need of a Laundromat. It might surprise you to know that there are none in Portugal – we asked everywhere. I took to rinsing out clothes and hanging them in the windows of our hostel rooms at night. It took the whole next day to dry, but we made it through a week and a half that way. There are many laundries where you can take your clothes and they will do them, but it is prohibitively expensive – the equivalent of $4-$5 for a shirt and $2-$3 for each pair of undies.
We left Lisbon by train and traveled to Porto. This is where port wine was invented and at one time it was their principal export, excluding fishing. We sampled some and it was quite tasty. At 10 Euros a glass, we didn’t drink much of it. Wine was much more reasonable.
Porto is the home of The Lello Bookstore or Livraria Lello in Portuguese. It is one of the most famous, and in my opinion, one of the most beautiful bookstores in the world. Working at Lello’s (if you speak Portuguese) would be a bookseller’s dream. The only drawback is that it is packed with people all the time. Also, it is packed with books of every kind imaginable – old, new, antiquarian, you name it. We noted quite a few foreign language books; English, German, French, Spanish, but of course, most of the books were in Portuguese. It was established by Jose De Sousa Lello and his brother in 1894 then moved in 1906 to its current location. It was built at the height of the Art Deco movement in Europe by a well known Portuguese engineer and architect, Francisco Xavier Esteves. It is neo-gothic on the outside, high Deco on the inside with beautifully kept woodwork, curving banisters, graduated stairwells, incredible stained glass in the ceiling and windows, ladders along the walls, and a small, cozy coffee shop upstairs (which was closed when we were there). After Lello’s we really didn’t want to go to any other bookstores, so we went for coffee and marveled at what we had seen and at the booklet we bought full of pictures of the store. I suspect they sell more pictures of the store than anything else!
Booking It in Europe - Volume II!
Libreria de Bilbao.
After Porto, we trained north to Spain and rented a car for a week to tour the coast of Spain. The highways were great and it was spectacular country with beautiful beaches, the majestic Pyrenees Mountains, castles on just about every hill, and the first of many Anton Gaudi buildings, the Capriccio, a house he designed as a vacation house for one of his Barcelona clients.
The last bookstore we visited was directly across from the amazing Guggenheim Art Museum in Bilbao, Spain. The Guggenheim had a three-story wire puppy statue in front of it packed with potting soil and flowers that gave the puppy its colorful spots. It was a gas. The bookstore was called Libreria de Bilbao. It was quite modern and clean. They had a few English language books, mostly new books. We were sort of lost and had gone into the store to ask how to find another bookstore that we had heard about, Libreria Astaroloa. As it turned out, the very nice clerk spoke quite excellent English and was dying to use it. We asked about the other store and she told us that it was owned by the same person who owned the store we were in, but that it was mostly antiquarian books. She gave us directions and we hiked for an eternity to get there just in time to find it closed. Darn! The windows looked interesting.
The most frustrating experience of the trip was in San Sebastian. We had driven most of the day and were pooped. San Sebastian is in the heart of the beautiful Basque country right on the ocean. We had reservations at a small hotel in downtown San Sebastian and a great map of San Sebastian. However, though we had specific directions on how to get to said hotel and all the street names on the map were in Spanish, all the street signs were in Basque. Basque bears no resemblance to Spanish (which I sort of speak), Portuguese (which we picked up a bit of), or French (which we know not at all). It is a language totally unto itself with a lot of Xes and Zees. After an hour and a half of trying to figure out where we were, we found the hotel. We also found that it had recently been gutted and was no longer there. We finally gave up and drove thirty miles down the road to a wayside hotel.
Next day we zipped through Pamplona, getting only slightly lost in their morass of streets, and on to an amazing walled city from the 17th century called Ainsa where we spent the night. Our hotel room looked out over the mighty Pyrenees Mountains and we found a really good, eclectic Mediterranean restaurant. They had a fascinating craftsman’s museum there with tools and articles from the 16th century on to about the 1800s, which we enjoyed very much.
Booking It in Europe - Volume II!
We finally arrived back in Barcelona to spend our last five days wallowing in the Gaudi buildings and the Picasso Museum. I’ve never been particularly interested in or impressed with Picasso, but we thought we should give it a gander. His early art work looks like the stuff you see taped to a soccer mom’s refrigerator. However, the Anton Gaudi buildings were stupendous. Gaudi was a genius and his buildings are spectacular. But this is a bookseller’s column, so don’t get me started. I can only recommend that you go to Barcelona to see his creations.
Our last visitation was to the Museu de Xocolat in Barcelona. An astounding collection of exhibits made of entirely chocolate accompanied by a nice fattening chocolate bar to nibble on as we ogled the displays. Imagine six running horses pulling a coach, all in chocolate!
When we got tired of museums, we were content just to amble La Rambla, a triple-wide street about thirty blocks long where everyone parades back and forth and the main occupation seems to be shopping. It is lined with tourist traps, a zillion restaurants, and funny little specialty stores as well as booths full of general junk. One is assailed by pushy waiters who practically drag you off the street into their restaurants. And so we left the next day, recommending Spain as a very cool place to visit, and maybe even to live if you get out of the big cities. It has about every kind of environment one could ask for. If I had to pick one place to stay, I think I’d take Comillas.
We felt lucky to have seen three such exceptional bookstores; Lellos, Shakespeare & Co., and Abbey Books, as well as all the little eclectic bookshops of all kinds that we ran into. We saw lots and lots of other fascinating, historic sites, but there isn’t time or space here. If you are traveling on a budget, as we were, we highly recommend the Lonely Planet guides as we had them for all the places we went and they were chock full of info on places to stay, eat, and visit.