When we first travel somewhere, we see nothing quite so clearly as the usual categories of tourist destination: the monuments, the museums, the restaurants. Take one step deeper, and we find ourselves in places like cafés and bookstores, the latter especially having exploded in touristic appeal over the past few years. Take Porto’s grand Livraria Lello, which bills itself as “the most beautiful bookstore in the world” — and has arguably done so too successfully, having drawn crowds large enough to necessitate a cover charge. Perhaps we’d have a richer experience if we spent less time in the livrarias and more in the bibliotecas.
That, in any case, is the impression given by the Kings and Things video above, which presents “Ten Magnificent Historical Libraries,” two of them located in Portugal. Standing on a hilltop overlooking Coimbra, the Biblioteca Joanina “is sumptuously decorated in Baroque fashion,” and “contains intricately carved furniture and bookshelves made of exotic woods as well as ivory, and is embellished with cold and chinoiserie motif.” As for the centuries-old volumes on those shelves, they remain in excellent condition thanks to the Biblioteca Joanina’s being one of only two libraries equipped with “a colony of bats to protect the books from insects.”
The other is in Lisbon’s, Mafra Palace, which “contains what is arguably one of the world’s most beautiful libraries.” Completed in 1755, it’s decked out with bookshelves “decorated in the Rococo style.” The stretch of the aesthetic spectrum between Baroque and Rococo dominates this video, all of its libraries having been built in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Unsurprisingly, most of them are in the Old World, from the Saint Gall Abbey in Switzerland to the Library of Trinity College Dublin to the National Library of France (the Richelieu site in the thirteenth arrondissement, not the modern François-Mitterrand Site decried in W. G. Sebald’s Austerlitz).
Instragrammable though they may have become in this day and age, these venerable libraries all — unlike many tourist-spot bookstores, where you can’t hear yourself think for all the English conversations going on around you — encourage the spending of not money but time. They welcome the traveler looking not simply to hit twenty capitals in a dozen days, but to build a long-term relationship with a place. And not just the traveler in Europe: the video also includes a destination in the United States, the “cathedral of books” that is Baltimore’s George Peabody Library. The true connoisseur will, of course, follow a visit to that august institution by taking the Silver Line north to hit up Normals Books & Records.
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.