If there’s one place you have to go in Porto it’s Livraria Lello.
It’s said that this beautiful bookshop is where JK Rowling enjoyed a coffee whilst she was teaching English in Porto, and where the germ of an idea – about a boy wizard, and a school with magical twin staircases – was born.
I stumbled across Lello by mistake at first as I was wandering down from the Rua de Santa Caterina attempting to find my way back to the hotel. It was a happy accident. I’ve always loved bookshops, but I have never seen a bookshop as beautiful, as inspiring as this one.
There’s been a bookshop at 144 Rue das Carmelita (just around the corner from the Clerigos Tower, a hard-to-miss Porto landmark) since 1869 and Lello itself has been in situ since 1906. From the street the gothic facade – all spires and arched windows – beckons you in. It doesn’t invite you. That would be too polite. It’s more like a magical spell that comes over you and drags you in through the forboding front door into a cavern dedicated to the pleasure of reading and writing.
At it’s opening (as Lello) in 1906 Abel Botelho paid tribute to its architectural magic by calling it a “beautiful temple to the divine cult of emotion and idea…”
He left out ‘magic’ and ‘wonderment’ and ‘fantasy’.
Entering Lello is like walking into a set of Hogwarts from Harry Potter. The place smells of that peculiar (but wonderful) smell of thousands of slightly-dusty books. From floor to ceiling the carved wooden bookshelves are filled with books, and in the front of the store piles of books are displayed – jumble sale style – imploring visitors to rifle through their pages. I saw all kinds of books. From the Karma Sutra to Euripides and Jamie Oliver’s latest cookbook – in Portugeuse, of course. Upstairs, via the red forked staircase there’s even more books and a small cafe and a couple of chairs, where JK Rowling once sat.
Or so they say.
Whether that’s true or not, I didn’t care. It seems likely given the cavern like room and the ornate carved wooden ceilings and pillars, like arms full with letters of learning. It’s hard to not see the magical moving staircases of Hogwarts in the forked red staircase at Lellos. So much so that as I climbed it I half expected it to move beneath my unsteady feet.
The staff told me that this was the reason why photography and videography is strictly forbidden in Lellos. Apparently a tourist had been so intent on capturing it on camera she fell down the stairs, and created considerable damage. Ever since photography has been strictly banned. And it is strictly upheld with staff members positioned at key points throughout the store requesting ‘no photos’.
But I’m just a girl who can’t say no. And won’t accept ‘no’ for an answer!
In the end I negotiated exclusive access to Livraria Lello so that my Englishman (the better photographer of the Vegemitevix team!) could capture the insides of this beautiful store.
I still smile as I think back to our morning at Lellos. Imagine being in such a beautiful place, surrounded by books, in an atmosphere imbued with centuries of learning and passion and, yes, emotion and ideas..
All this mixed in with the smell of floor polish and the early morning light catching the colours of the stained glass ceiling, making fairy light patterns on the carved wooden floor. I do believe this was Harry Potter’s Porto, but even if it wasn’t, for me, at least, it was my inner librarian’s version of heaven.
Where: Livraria Lello 144 Rue das Carmelita, Porto, Portugal
When: Open from 10am
Why: To enjoy a truly magical atmosphere, where moving staircases and boy wizards exist
How much: Free to enter. Though I dare you to not spend anything. Not even a wee fridge magnet to remind you of Livraria Lello, the most beautiful bookshop in the world?