Last Updated on April 20, 2024

“I guess there are never enough books,” John Steinbeck once said – a sentiment that resonates deeply in the heart of Óbidos, Portugal. Óbidos stands as a testament to the enduring love for the written word.

I was thrilled to discover this medieval town located an hour north of Lisbon in Portugal’s Centro region. It’s a breathtaking jumble of red-roofs, whitewashed houses, and narrow cobblestone lanes with hues of bougainvillea and potted geraniums adding bright spots of color.

What specifically drew me to Óbidos was its membership in the International Organization of Book Towns and its designation as a UNESCO City of Literature in 2015, honoring the role that books have played in the town’s regeneration and growth.

As a voracious reader with a deep fascination for history, I knew this town would profoundly resonate with me – and it did.

How Literature Revived Óbidos

A ‘book town’ is typically small, rural and brimming with bookshops and literary businesses ranging from bookbinders to publishers. It’s an economically viable model for booksellers and boosts the local economy, as the bookshops draw visitors who stay at local inns and dine at local restaurants.

This concept worked well for Óbidos when the need to rehabilitate buildings and public spaces arose in 2011. The town, home to 3,000 residents, now thrives with fourteen bookshops.

This strategy not only supports the written word in an era dominated by e-readers and digital media, but also integrates printed books into every facet of local life.

Unlike other book towns, though, where new bookshops spring up to align with the book town designation, Óbidos creatively incorporated bookselling into its existing establishments—from art galleries to wine cellars.

While the literary scene in Óbidos is a recent development, it draws on a backdrop steeped in history.

Óbidos Through the Ages

17-century chapel above the main gate in in Óbidos, Portugal.
17-century chapel above the main gate in in Óbidos, Portugal. Photo by Melody Moser.

Over the centuries, Óbidos was controlled by Celts, Romans, Visigoths and Moors before becaming part of the Portuguese kingdom. In 1282, King Dinis famously gifted the town to his wife Queen Isabel as a wedding present.

This tradition of bestowing Óbidos as a wedding gift was continued by subsequent kings, earning the village the affectionate nickname ‘Wedding Present Town.’ Today, thanks to its picturesque beauty, Óbidos remains a sought-after location for weddings.

Wandering through Óbidos isn’t just about strolling through idyllic streets. It’s also about passing by remnants of deep historical significance such as the sixteenth-century Óbidos Aqueduct that spans the municipality, a marvel of engineering that once channeled water to the town’s decorative fountains.

Celebrating Chocolate, Medieval Times, and Literature

Until recently, Óbidos was primarily known for its vibrant festivals. Each spring, the International Chocolate Festival fills the air with sweet aromas, featuring workshops, spectacular chocolate sculptures and competitive cooking displays.

In the summer, the Óbidos Medieval Market transforms the town, bringing the streets to life with jugglers, tavern keepers, knights and maidens.

Now, every autumn, the town attracts book lovers from all over for the Óbidos Literary Festival. The city also celebrates travel literature in the spring at the Latitudes Festival.

Entering the Historic Walls of Óbidos

As I walked through the Porta da Vila, the town’s main gate encased within massive 14th-century stone walls, the connection between past and present was unmistakable. Above me, an 18th-century chapel with gorgeous blue and white azulejo tiles depicted scenes from historical battles, offering a glimpse into Óbidos’s rich legacy.

While I was tempted to climb the steep stairs by the gate for a panoramic view of the village—it’s possible to walk the narrow sentry path along the walls that encircle the town – I stayed grounded because of my fear of heights.

Once through the gate, I suddenly found myself on the town’s main thoroughfare, the Rua Direita, and it felt as if I’d stepped into a fairytale.

Teeming with locals, tourists and street performers, the road pulsed with activity. When I gazed at the flower-bedecked side streets where pastel houses lined deserted, cobbled lanes, it was clear why Óbidos is a favored spot for weddings.

Tastes and Treasures of the Rua Direita

The Rua Direita, Óbidos’s main street.
The Rua Direita, Óbidos’s main street. Photo by Melody Moser.

As I made my way up Rua Direita toward the castle at the top of the hill, a vendor behind a cobalt blue street cart caught my attention.

“Ginjinha d’Óbidos?” he called out.

Drawn by the prospect of tasting the renowned sour cherry liqueur, I approached eagerly. The vendor’s grin widened as he poured a shot into an edible chocolate cup. Closing my eyes, I savored the exquisite blend of flavors.

Delectable!

As I passed several cafés, the delicious scent of freshly baked bread filled the air, and I saw they were selling a traditional festive bread called Bolo Ferradura, usually served as a wedding gift, flavored with anise, cinnamon and lemon zest.

The Livraria do Mercado Biológico

After sampling the delicious sweet treat, I encountered the town’s old vegetable market, now transformed into the Livraria do Mercado Biológico.

Crates that once held produce had been affixed to the walls, floor to ceiling, overflowing with an impressive collection of mostly secondhand books. Several tables were laden with fruit and vegetables.

I purchased a copy of Roger Crowley’s “Conquerors, How Portugal Forged the First Global Empire,” then tucked it into my bookbag before heading outside to dip into handicraft shops along the way.

At the Church of St. Peter, Igreja de São Pedro, rebuilt after the 1755 earthquake that destroyed Lisbon and the surrounding areas, I admired the stunning Baroque altar covered with Brazilian gold leaf.

Further along, at the medieval town square, I pondered the malevolent purpose of the 16th-century stone pillory where criminals were once tied up, beaten and publicly humiliated.

Literary Corners and Cultural Sips

Slightly off the Rua Direita, I found a large bookstore called Livraria Artes e Letras, a lovely shop housed in a former winery. The bookstore specializes in antique books written in multiple languages.

Visitors can also get drinks here, including the ever-popular ginjinha, and a local hard cider made with different fruit flavors.After another shot of ginjinha, I bought some delightful hand-printed, literary-themed notebooks created by Inez, one of the co-owners, who is also a letter-press artist.

A Church Reborn as a Bookstore

Books fill the altar of the Grande Livraria de Santiago in Óbidos, Portugal.
Books fill the altar of the Grande Livraria de Santiago in Óbidos, Portugal. Photo by Melody Moser.

One shop that I especially loved was the Grande Livraria de Santiago, originally the Church of St. James, Igreja de São Tiago, commissioned by King Sancho I in 1186.

Located at the far end of the Rua Direita next to the towering castle, it’s now a bookshop, the first major bookstore to open in the historic town center. Inside, shelves stuffed with books filled the pews and altar, an impressive sight even if you don’t plan to browse.

Óbidos’s Timeless Accommodations

One could easily fill hours, if not days, exploring Óbidos. I didn’t stay overnight, but the city has several enticing options that are as steeped in history as the town itself.

The Literary Man, just outside the city walls, is a 30-bedroom hotel that was built as a convent and now enjoys its literary status, housing some 50,000 books for sale, most in English. Even the décor is literary, with antique typewriters on display in the hallways and posters of famous writers on the walls.

For an upscale stay, the romantic Pousada Castelo de Óbidos, located in the castle, is a fantastic choice, with mesmerizing views and medieval features that date to the 12th century. It was named one of the Seven Wonders of Portugal.

As my visit came to an end, Steinbeck’s words echoed in my mind: “I guess there are never enough books.”

In Óbidos, every cobblestone and corner seemed to affirm this truth.

From the charming bookstores nestled within the ancient city to the literary festivals that celebrate the written word, Óbidos is a place where the love of books is palpable.

It’s a town that not only houses books but lives and breathes them, proving that some places, like good books, stay with you long after you’ve turned the last page. 

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