“ Address: R. das Carmelitas 144 / 4050 - 161 Porto / Portugal / Tel: 222 002 037 „
When you travel around a lot and move country as much as I do you become rather blasé about your surroundings and some of the wonderful architecture that is right under your nose. Then on the other hand there are some buildings that you never grow tired of and love to visit several times in one year. One such architectural delight that shines out among all others is just up from the oval church and huge tower of the Clerigos Church in Vitorio (Porto Centro), Here, you will stumble across one of the most beautiful bookshops ever.
The Lello and Irmao Bookstore has been selling books in the same shop since 1906 and it still has a very antiquated feel about the place. What makes this store so special, you may wonder? It's not just the fact that I have never seen so many books under one glorious roof it really is an exquisite building. I can't emphasise how beautiful the interior and exterior of the building are - there aren't enough adjectives to describe this building - you will just have to visit to see for yourself.
The building was erected in 1906 and built in a neo-Gothic style. The stained glass ceiling will give you neck ache as you arch your back to look at the intricate designs and colours. Wood carvings and fine stucco is interesting to look at as you wander around wooden shelves holding 60 thousand books or more. Some are new, others second hand and yes, there are some in English, French and Italian.
Before you ascend the ruby red painted steps take a look at the underside of the carved staircase. Intricate leaf designs embedded in the palest of blue lacquer, swirl round and round, not once but twice, and then again, leaving you feeling a bit light headed and with one one of the most memorable images you are liable to encounter. Then, it's time to take a deep breath and, slowly glide up the double staircase until you find the galleries. These are generally bursting with customers browsing the beautifully designed shelves. Bookstores are generally quiet but not this one - as well as being a working store it is also a huge tourist trap and has thousands of visitors every day. The shop can get very noisy with tourists chatting and taking photos of the galleries. The best time to visit is in the evening as the gentle lights from the street cascade over the front façade giving it a very romantic look.
The massive array of books covers Portuguese fiction, non fiction, poetry, religious, art books (one of the best collections, I've come across) and maps; some new and ancient. Books about Porto the city, its history, culture and art can be found here as well as many books regarding port and the history of the Douro and the Barcos Rabelos (traditional boats on the river).
Standing at the top of the staircase looking into the heart of the store you may get the impression of clutter and chaos. That's because there are so many books and they are not always stacked in an an orderly fashion. A lot are displayed behind glass fronted cabinets, others are on open shelves and some are piled neatly on the floor. Intermingled with all the books are staff and customers milling around in a busy-body fashion.
I wouldn't say service was quick in the store and you will have to join a queue to pay for any books you wish to buy but for me that isn't a hardship because I am always mesmerised by the creative designs of the roof and how the light slowly trickles in behind the stained glass patterns of flowers and birds. I always drift off to another time and never really feel like I am in a bookstore but rather inside an old Portuguese parador or even one of the old villas perched on the sierras of Sintra. Whenever I am in the queue I erase the rest of the customers from my vision and imagine the building full of poets like Byron, Shelley and Camoes sitting in comfy chairs reading leather bound scripts and sonnets to each other.
When I finally wake up from all this beauty and tune into the real world again it is usually time for a milky beverage and I really love to have a long glass of milky coffee or Galao (in Portuguese) in the small cafe in the upper gallery. You can have a bica (small strong coffee), glass of wine or even a small glass of port as you sit on a comfortable chair, people watch, chat, read a book or magazine. The cafe is quite small with only four tables and a tiny bar that used to be the counter belonging to the shop.
Don't be alarmed if you hear a clicking or chugging sound - it is only the sound of an assistant pushing along a cart filled with books. There is a special track that runs along the shop floor. I think this is a novel idea - like a miniature train.
You can find this exquisite shop on Rua das Carmelitas at number 141. The square outside the church and near the bookshop is traffic free so although busy with pedestrians you don't have to worry about the crazy drivers in Porto.
Shop opening times are: Monday-Friday from 9.30 - 7 and Saturday from 9.30 until 1 pm. Closed on Sundays.
The opening times of the cafe are a little different: Monday - Friday from 10am until 7.30pm. Saturday 10am until 7pm. Closed Sundays and Public Holidays.
A beautiful building/shop to visit when in Porto - don't miss it!