10 Literary Landmarks to Visit in Portugal

When travelers think of Portugal, famous literary figures rarely come to mind, but Portugal is full of beautiful libraries and landmarks that tie back to poets and writers such as Fernando Pessoa, José Saramago, and even J.K. Rowling. If you’re a literary buff, or just love to read, make sure you stop at these places on your next visit to Europe.

Photo by Claude Potts
Libraria Bertrand in Lisbon

10. Livraria Bertrand, Lisbon
Located in the Chiado district of Lisbon since 1732, the oldest bookstore in the world, Livraria Bertrand is not only a literary mecca, but also an architectural masterpiece. With its uniquely Portuguese tiling (called Azulejos) on the outside and stained glass windows within, the Lisbon location is the first of a chain of Bertrand bookstores across the country.

The original bookstore was one of the few buildings that withstood the devastating earthquake of 1755, which destroyed half the city and killed over 250,000 people. The quake took place on a Portuguese holiday known as All Saint’s Day, on which most churches burned candles to celebrate. Unfortunately, these burning candles caused major fires throughout the city that luckily spared this historical landmark.

Housing many English-language books along with maps, travel guides, and more, this is the perfect first stop for a newbie in town.

Livraria Bertrand
R. Garrett, 1200-203 Lisboa, Portugal

 

Café A Brasileira in Lisbon
Café A Brasileira in Lisbon

9. Café A Brasileira, Lisbon
A walk away from the Livraria Bertrand, grab a Galão, the Portuguese version of a latte, at one of the most famous cafés in Europe. This art deco two-storey coffee shop was a favorite among artists, poets, and elites of the early 20th century.

Intellectuals such as José de Almada Negreiros, Antonio Soares, Aquilino Ribeiro, and Fernando Pessoa frequented this café to indulge in absinthe or a bica, the Portuguese version of a shot of strong espresso that originated here in 1905. Many of the painters that once socialized in its wooden booths now adorn its ornate walls, creating a museum within the building during its renovation in the 1970s.

Outside its ornamental green and gold exterior sits a bronze statue of the prized Portuguese poet himself, Fernando Pessoa. Known as his favorite coffee shop in town, Pessoa spent months here creating a prolific literary collection that often delved into extreme views of occultism and philosophy. Sit on the bronze chair next to him, if you have the chance, to ponder the universe and the meaning of life.

Café A Brasileira
R. Garrett 120, 1200 Lisboa, Portugal

 

Casa Fernando Pessoa in Lisbon
Casa Fernando Pessoa in Lisbon

8. Casa Fernando Pessoa, Lisbon
If you’re a big fan of the famous literary figure, do not miss Fernando Pessoa’s home in Lisbon for the last 15 years of his life (1920-1935). Many of his personal items are on display here, such as his notebooks, typewriter, and legendary eyeglasses.

Many seminars, guided tours, and exhibitions are held in this museum, and Pessoa’s entire personal library is available online, as well as in the library contained inside. If you’re hungry, grab a bite to eat at the Flagrante Delitro restaurant, also located inside.

In the summer, the museum combines seasonal flowers with works from the poet to create a unique interactive experience both indoors and out.

Casa Fernando Pessoa
R. Coelho da Rocha 16, 1250-088 Lisboa, Portugal

 

Casa dos Bicos, José Saramago Foundation in Lisbon
Casa dos Bicos, José Saramago Foundation in Lisbon

7. Casa dos Bicos, Lisbon
Translating to House of the Spikes, Casa dos Bicos has been the permanent office for the José Saramago Foundation since 2012. The building itself was built in 1523 and save for the main façade, it survived the great earthquake of 1755. After years of use as storage for codfish (bacalhau in Portuguese) by the Albuquerque family, this Renaissance building was renovated in the 1980’s to its original Moorish architecture.

Saramago, the recipient of the 1988 Nobel Prize in Literature, explored different perspectives on historical events in his works, which have been criticized by the Catholic Church and European Union. Despite these controversies, Saramago’s books have sold over two million copies in Portugal alone.

Inside its entranceway of diamond-like stone spikes in the heart of Alfama, Casa dos Bicos hosts a permanent retrospective of Saramago’s life and work, and it is also rented for special events and exhibitions.

Casa dos Bicos, José Saramago Foundation
R. Afonso de Albuquerque 9 – 1100 Lisbon, Portugal

 

Sintra, Portugal
Sintra, Portugal

6. O Mistério da Estrada de Sintra, Sintra
Much like the foreign movie and book with the same title, Sintra, a small sub-region of the northern part of Lisbon, is best known for its mysterious Romantic architecture that host hundreds of weddings and special events from around the globe every year.

A UNESCO World Heritage site, Sintra is home to a blend of Gothic, Egyptian, Moorish, and Renaissance parks and gardens worthy of a stroll or a cycle. With castles and palaces scattered throughout the city, along with a gorgeous coastline, it’s no wonder Sintra is much loved, but also quite pricey.

A perfect day trip from the city, you can avoid the price of a hotel, but still indulge in Sintra’s picturesque views and famous pastries, Queijadas (sweet cheesecake tarts) and Travesseiros (fluff pastry with almond paste).

Sintra UNESCO World Heritage Site
28 kilometers northwest of Lisbon, Portugal

 

Mafra National Palace, Mafra
Mafra National Palace, Mafra

5. Mafra National Palace Library, Mafra
Though you cannot remove or lend any of the books contained in this massive library, with a scheduled appointment you can visit this extraordinary hallway of rare books that seems to stretch a mile long.

Part of the National Palace grounds located northeast of Lisbon, which also contains a basilica, a convent, and a monument, this Baroque library boasts some of the richest pieces of literature from the 15th to 18th centuries.

The library is known best from references in José Saramago’s book Baltasar and Blimunda, in which the main character explains the meticulous details of the construction of the 220-meter palace, which was a torturous endeavor for those who helped to build it.

Mafra National Palace
Terreiro D. Joao V, Mafra 2640, Portugal

 

Azulejo tiles on Óbidos city gate, Óbidos
Azulejo tiles on Óbidos city gate, Óbidos

4. Óbidos Literary Village, Óbidos
Located on a hilltop in the central coast of Portugal, Óbidos is a citadel town built during the time of the Roman Empire. Besides hosting a traditional Medieval market every July and a chocolate festival every spring, a square of this small village of 3,100 inhabitants is dedicated to bookstores, galleries, and markets for the literary-minded.

Visit the Santiago Bookshop or the Biological Market to read a variety of rare books on travel, gastronomy, wine, nature, design and more while sipping on tea or coffee. Or for the kids in your family, try O Bichinho do Condo, a children’s literary project housed in a building that was once a primary school during Antonio Salazar’s dictatorship from the 1940’s through the 1970’s.

For a more adult literary experience, indulge in a glass of wine at the Livraria da Aldega (or the Wine Cellar Library) while reading your favorite novels.

Villa Literária de Óbidos
Obidos, Portugal

 

Biblioteca Joanina, Coimbra
Biblioteca Joanina, Coimbra

3. Joanina Library at the University of Coimbra, Coimbra
Much farther north in the Tras os Montes province of Portugal, lies the oldest university in continuous operation, the University of Coimbra, which was established in 1290 in Lisbon and then relocated to Coimbra in 1537. In its grounds, the Baroque Library Joanina was built in the 18th century and named after the Portuguese king at the time, João V.

Joanina Library, a national monument, is split into three rooms divided by ornate arches, each showcasing two storeys of carved exotic woods and gold painted ceilings containing a total of 250,000 volumes of works on geography, law, history, science, medicine, theology, and more.

The most visited attraction in Coimbra, the library is open to tours year-round, but is still used as an educational facility for those attending the university.

Biblioteca Joanina, University of Coimbra
Pátio das Escolas da Universidade de Coimbra, 3004-531 Coimbra, Portugal

 

Interior of Café Majestic, Porto
Interior of Café Majestic, Porto

2. Café Majestic, Porto
Located on Porto’s most frequented pedestrian shopping walkway, Santa Catarina street, Café Majestic is an Art Nouveau relic from the era of France’s La Belle Epoque, where the glamorous cultural elite would socialize in the early 1920’s and 1930’s.

In the 1960’s, its stone cherubs, gilded golden arches, and Flemish mirrors once coveted by bourgeois and bohemians, began to decline along with the rise of the contempt for the rich and fancy. By the 1980’s, the coffee shop closed, and though it was declared a public interest building, it did not reopen again until July 1994.

J.K. Rowling claims to have written most of the last installment of the Harry Potter series at a table on the mezzanine, unbeknownst to the patrons surrounding her. While visiting, don’t forget to taste a local favorite, the Francesinha, a Portuguese version of a Croque Madame, slathered in a tomato and beer sauce.

Café Majestic
Rua Santa Catarina 112, 4000-442 Porto, Portugal

 

Livraria Lello, Porto
Livraria Lello, Porto

1. Livraria Lello & Irmão, Porto
In Portugal’s former capital sits the magnificent Lello Library, best known for the inspiration behind the staircases at Hogwarts in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series. Rated among the best bookstores in the world, it’s always bustling with tourists and locals who cannot get enough of its lavish Art Nouveau interior and sprawling red staircase.

Brightened by an enormous stained glass ceiling and built in 1906 near Porto University, some consider it the most beautiful bookstore in the world. If you can nab a table in the bookstore’s first floor café, channel your inner Rowling and order a cimbalinho (Porto’s version of a shot of espresso) while writing the next blockbuster series.

Livraria Lello & Irmão
R. das Carmelitas 144, 4050-161 Porto, Portugal

Holidays in Porto

Portuguese for the Holidays

It’s been over fifteen years since I’ve spent the winter holidays with my Portuguese family back in New England. It’s safe to assume that I miss them. But what I miss most of all is all the food and festivities.

Christmas was a holiday a month in the making, with cookies, pastries, flan and so much more in planning. We shopped, prepped and baked in the week leading up to the big holiday. We were a Portuguese family, and that meant we made enough for a week of leftovers. Nobody could ever complain that there wasn’t enough food. We made enough to feed our small family thrice over.

Christmas Eve dinner traditionally started with boiled octopus my mother would preorder at the Portuguese market a couple weeks in advance. I asked my aunt once why we always had octopus for Christmas Eve. Her reply: because we eat plenty of red meat on Christmas day.

My cousins and I would take off the tentacles and suction them to our fingertips to pretend we were monsters, and then we ate them one by one like Bugles. Now, at every restaurant I frequent from London to LA, I must try the octopus, even though most times, no one wants to try it with me.

Christmas morning started early. First, we opened the remaining presents, next we prepped for the holiday lunch. My mother would set the flan in a large dish, and I would stop myself from sticking my finger in the caramel for a taste.

Before the party could begin, we visited the Portuguese church for Christmas mass, which was always a half hour longer than normal. The kids in CCD (Continuing Catholic Development classes) held a Christmas pageant with a live adaptation of the Nativity Scene, complete with a few extra angels. As a young child, I always played an angel, but my cousin João played Joseph a few times. He was a master at it. Once, we even had a real baby Jesus, but most times, it was just the statue we’d kiss on special occasions.

Later, as my family arrived at our home, we would set out the pitted olives, Pasteis de Bacalhau (cod fish cakes), and Rissois (shrimp dumplings) for appetizers while my mother started to fry her first batch of delicious French fries. The smell was intoxicating (it still is) and I couldn’t help but sneak a few fresh ones while my mother wasn’t looking.

Once I stuffed my face full of olives and fries, the real lunch began, with enough meat to satisfy any carnivore. My family served not just beef, but pork roast, and the adults would fight over who got to suck on the two pigs’ feet. It wasn’t a pretty sight – the fight or the pigs’ feet. My cousins and I stuck with the beef and French fries, with of course, some rice and salad. Starch is Portugal’s best friend.

Portuguese Tarts
Portuguese Tarts

After dinner, once my stomach settled, my favorite part of the day began. Dessert lasted for hours, as we’d nibble on all the different treats for the rest of the afternoon. The kitchen table overflowed with sweets, like caramel flan, Malasadas (fried dough), Rabanadas (French toast), Pasteis de Nata (custard tarts), Pasteis de Feijão (sweet bean tarts), Queijadas (cheesecake tarts), my grandmother’s Arroz Doce (rice pudding), Pão de Ló (sponge cake), Folar (bread with Linguiça; I still don’t quite get why it’s considered dessert), and fruit salad spiked with Port wine.

Our family’s traditions originated in Northern Portugal, in a region called Tras os Montes (which translates to Behind the Mountains), but there are so many more Portuguese traditions from other regions of the country that we don’t celebrate.

Unlike Americans, who hang stockings on their fireplace for Santa Claus to fill, the Portuguese place shoes near their fireplaces instead, for Pai Natal (Father Christmas) or Jesus himself to fill. You’ll also never find a Christmas tree lot anywhere in Portugal, as it’s not tradition to buy a fresh tree every year. Instead it’s more common to find fake trees in people’s living rooms.

Some Portuguese families attend Christmas Eve mass, where the baby Jesus is not yet placed (as he is not yet born) and then come back home to eat boiled cod, potatoes, and broccoli rabe drizzled in olive oil, to celebrate the holiday.

In Azores, a group of islands off the Pacific coast of Portugal, the real presents come on the morning of Dia dos Reis (Day of the Kings) on January 6th. The night before, Azorean children pack their shoes full of straw and carrots, in hopes to lure the horses of the three wise men to their windowsill, where the wise men leave gifts and treats in exchange. This follows a week of caroling right after Christmas, called the Janeiras (or the Januaries). Traditionally, these carolers are thanked with gifts of chestnuts, apples, and cured sausages.

Portugal is full of Catholic and Pagan traditions, throughout the holidays and beyond. Not being in a very Portuguese community now (Los Angeles has only one Portuguese bakery in its 50 mile radius), I search for these foods and festivities wherever I can, to satiate the craving for a taste of home.

Only a few of these treats can I find around my area of Southern California, so I’ve vowed to start making my own. Thanks to blogs and cookbooks, like the ones written by Maria Dias (Tia Maria’s Blog), it actually seems possible.

Since most of my family’s recipes are locked within the minds of the older women in my family, there is no easy way to get them without watching them bake and take notes. And since there aren’t many Portuguese people in my area to celebrate with, I have to recreate some of these traditions with my local American family and friends. Luckily, many of them enjoy adding a few new traditions to their holiday season.

The Voodoo That We Do

My friends don’t believe me when I say my family believes in witches. They don’t believe that I had to carry around garlic in my pocket when I visited my dad’s childhood village, in case the jealous witches there tried to curse me. They don’t believe me, but it’s true.

When I would visit the rural parts of northern Portugal as a child, not many people escaped the poor farm life, and many less made it to America, a place of dreams and riches. Our allegedly rich life spurned a lot of jealousy, and there were a few people who my parents believed would seek vengeance. The garlic kept them away.

But not all Portuguese witchcraft and Pagan beliefs stem from jealousy or spite. Most are based on healing and protection. I grew up without thinking much about not taking food from strangers, or not crossing my silverware at the table. I didn’t even mind when my mother would air a cross with her fingers near my yawning lips. I never questioned any of it until I was older.

I started my first novel without any intention of writing about these experiences, and then, as most writers’ minds work, I found myself questioning every one of these memories. After some research, I couldn’t not write about it. I had to explore it, to question the origin of my own superstitions, which rarely connected with those of the American half of my culture.

Church of Saint Ildefonso
Church of Saint Ildefonso in Porto, Portugal

Why did I always want a black cat, when they were considered bad luck in American culture? Possibly because in Portuguese culture, black cats are good luck. When your black cat dies, it is believed it’s in some way sparing you. Or at least that was what I was told as a child when a truck hit my first cat late at night. Blackie had a penchant for sleeping in the middle of road in the pitch dark of night, but that, of course, had nothing to do with it according to my parents.

When my family would go through months of medical procedures, only to never discover what was ailing them, they often turned to a witch doctor as a last resort. I, too, found a cure that way myself.

I was in grade school when I had visions of bees swarming me when I closed my eyes at night. It frightened me awake every time, and it’s the origin of my fear of bees. My mother, aware that I suffered from sleeplessness, took me to a witch doctor for a diagnosis. The woman suggested it was my deceased great-grandmother trying to communicate with me in the only way she knew how. My great-grandmother wanted to connect with me through these visions, not realizing she was scaring me in the process. I never experienced those visions again.

A Figa charm is used to ward off voodoo spells.
Figa charms like this one are used to ward off voodoo spells such as the Evil Eye.

These Portuguese folk-religious practices, muddled with Roman Catholicism, are common in the rural villages of Portugal. Children and women are especially vulnerable to curses such as the “Evil Eye” and the “Curse of Envy.” Both of these curses can be fended off by wearing a symbol of the Figa, a fist with the thumb sticking out between the index and middle finger, which was first worn in Africa. I carried mine in the form of a charm on a gold necklace I wore daily throughout my teens.

Though they are prevalent in Portugal, these voodoo practices go as far back as the slave trade era of the 1500’s and originate in African culture, which the Portuguese adapted over their years of trading slaves on the African coast now known as Ghana. About four million of these slaves are estimated to have been brought to Brazil, a former colony of the Portuguese empire. This is not a part of my cultural history that I’m proud of, but I will not deny it.

Unlike other European slave trading countries, Portugal and Spain both embraced the Pagan beliefs of their African slaves, and so the rituals of witchcraft and voodoo seeped into their Christian customs. It is so prevalent in Brazilian culture, there are approximately two million followers of a faction of this blended religion, named Candomblé, in South America and Europe, and many dedicated temples scattered throughout these regions.

Centuries have passed, and though my youngest kin no longer practice many of these rituals, there are still a few I prefer to hold on to as tradition. Mainly, eating twelve raisins at the stroke of midnight on New Year’s Eve while making three wishes, even though I hate raisins. It was a tradition passed down by my grandmother, who died of Alzheimer’s many years ago. It’s my way of paying my respects to her every year while rekindling my Portuguese culture, as it seems to slip away every day I spend thousands of miles away from my family.

I don’t practice any organized religion, but I find myself still believing in all these Pagan superstitions ingrained in my psyche. This is why I remain Agnostic. I can’t say any of it exists, but then again, I can’t dismiss these unusual experiences. So until I find proof of one or the other, I’ll continue to keep my silverware separated and my raisins ready.