Standing at the entrance of the library of the Mafra palace, it is easy to believe that the world is orderly. In the pristine silence of this space designed by architect Manuel Caetano de Sousa, we have everything we need to understand the world of the 18th century. There are science and mathematics books in the shelves near the entrance, so we can learn the laws of the physical world. Further ahead, there are bookshelves with travel diaries that tell us about lands near and far. Dictionaries and grammars teach us the rhythms and intonations of foreign languages. If we use them to master Greek and Latin, we can enjoy the classics of antiquity, tales of love and war, stories about gods and humans. Walking the 88 meters of marble floors that take us to the end of the library, we reach the shelfs devoted to the mysteries of the soul.
The palace of Mafra and its library were built with the riches from Brazil. But the money ran out and the gold decorations that had been planned for the library were never executed. It is just as well, because the white Nordic-pine shelves give this library an elegant simplicity that looks modern.
It was here that José Saramago, a Nobel laureate, found inspiration for his famous novel about the construction of the Mafra Palace as seen through the eyes of two young lovers, Baltasar and Blimunda.
If you’re traveling in Portugal, don’t miss the chance to experience the resplendent tranquility of the Mafra library. And don’t forget to take a notebook, in case the muses that inspired Saramago whisper in your ear.
Travel is like so much else; we get what we put into it. You’ll enjoy a trip to Portugal much more if you learn a little about the rich history of this small corner of the world.
But what should you read? Travel guidebooks reduce centuries of history to a few lines, leaving us with little more than a boring list of names and dates. History books, on the other hand, are often so dense with scholarship that it is easy to get lost.
Luckily, John dos Passos, a great American writer whose father was from the island of Madeira, produced a highly readable account of Portugal’s age of discovery. His book introduces us to the main protagonists that shaped this golden era. Through their triumphs and defeats, their joys and tears, we learn the story of Portugal.
John Dos Passos, The Portugal Story: Three Centuries of Exploration and Discovery, Doubleday, 1995.
It’s not like Óbidos needs any more attractions. This beautiful medieval town is a must-see destination in Portugal. Inside its castle walls live the echoes of an age of chivalry that is long gone.
Now that books are disappearing, their cellular fibers replaced by electric impulses, Óbidos has created unique bookstores in ancient spaces.
One of our favorites is Livraria do Mercado (the market bookstore). It occupies the wine cellar of an old manor house and doubles as an organic market. Here, the fruits of the land share the space with the fruits of the imagination, everything stored inside one thousand rustic wooden boxes.
Another favorite is Livraria Santiago which occupies a 12th century church. It is a peaceful place where books wait in silence for the readers who seek their blessings.
These bookstores transformed Óbidos into a literary village, a place where the thick castle walls protect the precious art of reading.
Click here to see the list of Óbidos bookstores.