Óbidos is a small medieval town located in the central west part of the country, around 80km north of Lisbon, the Portuguese capital. With an area of less than 150km2 and 3,100 residents, the place is still one of the most lively and interesting destinations in Portugal.
Did you know there are 14 bookstores in this town?
Don’t worry if you don’t know. Many people haven’t ever heard of Óbidos, and that is why I would like to give it the attention it deserves, especially as a bibliophile.
Obidos today has become the perfect spot for a weekend getaway or a one-day trip for its scenic landscapes, its historic buildings, an overall relaxing atmosphere, and for being a small town so close to the capital.
The history of the town isn’t concrete. However, archaeological evidence confirms that the town was an early settlement of the Celtic tribes. Then, during the time of the Roman Empire, it was turned into a Roman outpost. Years after the fall of the Western Roman Empire, in the 8th century, it fell into the hands of the Moorish, who had fortified the town. The place was taken back in the 12th century by the first King of Portugal, Afonso Henriques, and had been the property of Portuguese royalty till the monarchy collapsed in 1910 and became the Portuguese Republic. Presently, the town is managed by the Municipality of Óbidos.
Even though the place has entered the modern era, everything about the town feels so historic, that it almost feels like it’s frozen in time. The white houses with borders painted in the colours of the Óbidos flag, yellow and indigo, cobbled streets, the medieval castle and churches, the little shops, the wall around the city and street music are just some of the things that contribute to that feeling. The feeling of history and nostalgia.
The town can be visited all year round, not only for the scenery but because the town hosts a multitude of festivals and events every year, always giving tourists a reason to visit. In addition to that, the city has undergone major changes in the past decade, so much so that today, the town has more books than it has people.
Let’s find out why.
Why does Óbidos have so many Bookstores?
In 2013, the local authorities, in an effort to economically and culturally revive the historical town of Óbidos, brainstormed a project called the Óbidos Vila Literaria or the Óbidos literary town.
The town was already hosting its seasonal events such as the Medieval Market, the Christmas village, the international chocolate festival and the opera festival every year, but they were thinking of better ways to sustain themselves for the long haul. This resulted in the decision to put their efforts into developing the town through literature.
The town hall collaborated with Ler Devaga, a well-known bookstore in Lisbon. They planned to convert the town into a cultural and literary centre. One with a chain of bookstores with spaces for art exhibitions, concerts, conferences, readings, performances and more. They’d also create residency programs to provide a space for artists to create and present their projects.
Ler Devaga saw potential in repurposing the Church of Santiago into a bookstore, which is abandoned and in ruins at the time, and together they actually managed to convert it into a unique bookstore that seemed so unconventional that it gained a lot of media attention when it opened up.
A few years later, continuing with their efforts, in 2015, the town hosted its first literary event called FOLIO. Later on, in the same year, they gained recognition from UNESCO as one of the 20 cities of literature in the world. Also, joining the UNESCO network of creative cities, a project that began in 2004, to encourage interaction between cities that have selected a creative art for the development of their towns culturally, socially and economically.
With these series of events, more and more bookstores opened, in an effort to live up to the city of literature status and to make books and information more accessible to the locals. Old and abandoned buildings such as churches, schools, wine cellars, and other such unconventional spaces are being reused and being transformed into bookstores. As a result, today there are 14 bookshops and a total of around 500,000 books in a town with just 3,100 people. These books are mostly in Portuguese, written by Portuguese authors. However, a large variety of English, French and Spanish books can also be found.
Some of these establishments were even converted into cultural centres offering programs and workshops for young people interested in creative careers. Others have been created into spaces for residency programmes and spaces as entrepreneurs willing to work in creative businesses. Thus, fulfilling their part in developing the town.
Óbidos has become a significant place for literature and the arts today. It is safe to say that creativity is being valued more than ever and facilities to provide guidance for the youth to pursue the arts professionally have given them the opportunity to feel at ease with their choices.
FOLIO- International Literary Festival of Óbidos
The event is spread over eleven days, where accredited writers, publishers, editors, illustrators, musicians, painters, booksellers, poets, teachers, politicians, journalists and other people in the field of creative arts from around Portugal and abroad visit Óbidos to network, exchange ideas, to discuss collaborations on future projects and to interact with the general public. It also serves as a platform for exhibitions, concerts, book presentations, workshops, performances, seminars, debates and more.
Three years after the first event, in 2018, the Municipality of Óbidos decided to use FOLIO to honour Portuguese poetry first published in any of the Portuguese-speaking countries. This was done by creating the Armando da Silva Carvalho Literary Award programme.
This year’s FOLIO will be held between 14th and 24th October.
Out of the 14 bookstores that are housed in Óbidos today, the following are the most unique:
The church of Santiago was built in the 12th century, next to the castle of Óbidos but an earthquake in 1755 destroyed it completely. It was restored in 1772 and was in use until the last decade when the church was abandoned and in complete ruins once again. After Ler Devagar and the town of Óbidos renovated the space, it metamorphosed into a two-storey bookstore with wooden shelves while still retaining the original artistry of the church.
Currently, it is one of the most prominent buildings with a collection of books of all genres available in most European languages, including English. The venue also hosts exhibitions, book launches, debates, film screenings for people to spectate and participate in throughout the year. And for visitors not really interested in books, the place doubles as a leisure spot where hot beverages are available.
The bookstore is an excellent example to show how both history and heritage can be preserved while simultaneously creating a space buzzing with opportunities for the overall development of the town. It goes to confirm that anything can be achieved by simply thinking outside the box.
Livraria do Mercado Biológico
Also known as the Organic Market Bookstore, is a place that sells fresh local produce as well as books on travel, food and wine in multiple languages. The shop was previously a vegetable market. The vegetables are sold in memory of the venue’s original purpose, plus the books are displayed in wooden crates that were once used to carry and store vegetables.
Livraria da Adega
Also known as the Cellar Bookshop, is built over what was previously a wine cellar. It sells books of various genres, mostly written in Portuguese and occasionally in other European languages. The books are displayed in old wine crates, which act as a souvenir of the original cellar. The store even has a cafeteria and bar with a selection of fine Portuguese wines and other wines from the Old World. Additionally, the venue is also used for frequent Literary Town events such as lectures, book presentations, theatres, workshops, seminars, exhibitions, etc. Finally, the venue even features a co-working space intended for entrepreneurs in the creative sector.
Bus Stop Bookstore
This is a small bookshop located in proximity to the main bus stop of Obidos. The place sells books of various genres in European languages. This further demonstrates the town’s commitment to being a city of literature.
World’s Largest Literary Themed Hotel
The Literary Man Hotel also counts as one of the town’s bookstores but, because it is an establishment with many functions, it needs a segment of its own.
The building was seemingly converted into a hotel from a convent in 1965. The Literary Man as we know it today was opened in 2015. The same year, the city was named a literary city by UNESCO.
This place has approximately 65,000 books making it the hotel with the most number of books in the world. And, it also makes it the world’s largest literary-themed hotel.
From the lobby to the restaurant, to the bar, to the bedroom, you’ll be able to find stacks of books everywhere. The books can be read on-site, they can be purchased, or borrowed.
Some interesting facts about the hotel:
- The names of the cocktails at the bar are based on books.
- They have comfortable and cosy sitting areas next to warm fireplaces where one can curl up and read from the selection of books available.
- Their wine cellar, which unsurprisingly also has a bunch of books, doubles as a relaxation centre where they offer bibliotherapy services along with other treatments.
This has to be any book lover’s dream hotel. Click here to visit their official website.
Impact of becoming a City of Literature
One of the objectives of the Óbidos literary town project was to make books and information more accessible to the locals. Providing more access to information empowers the citizens with valuable knowledge which proves useful, especially to the youth.
Through the programme, the town also wanted to provide aid and guidance to those interested in literature and creative arts through the introduction of relevant programmes and the arrangement of workshops.
Furthermore, the authorities wished to encourage international cooperation and provide a way to connect artists with other artists around the world. This is made possible through international events such as FOLIO, where the town is connected with other regions of Portugal as well as foreign countries. This fosters interaction and collaboration with educational establishments, students, teachers and researchers from around the globe.
In summary, the town found an innovative way to make the abandoned buildings useful again without stripping off their essence and heritage value. This inspired more to come up with such creative ideas to fulfil their role as a city of literature, ultimately adding to the town’s cultural value. In the process, they also ended up creating a new type of tourism product. The new product will give tourists another reason to visit the town, which will help generate revenue to sustain themselves. The recognition from UNESCO makes their tourism product more genuine, communicating authenticity, quality and trust to future visitors.
Lastly, through this project, the town finally has a concrete identity as it will now be known as the Portuguese city of literature.
The Protector of Books
In this post, we learned about a small town in Portugal that is similar to one of the places described in fairy tales. A town that doesn’t seem to belong in this era. But, it must adapt to ensure its survival and they choose to do so through books and literature.
As hard copies of books slowly become a thing of the past in other parts of the world, Óbidos is using these very books to their full potential, to their benefit. Just like the fortified walls once preserved the town for over 700 years, it is now preserving the very concept of books.
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