Photoessay on Livraria Lello, Portugal’s most beautiful bookshop

It was a dull and rainy day in Porto when I walked into Livraria Lello. And my world was instantly filled with glorious sunshine. Even before I landed in Portugal, this bookshop featured on my must do list, especially thanks to its association with JK Rowling.

In her brief time in Porto as an impoverished writer in the 1990s, Rowling is believed to have frequented this store – and there are even wild theories that it was the inspiration behind the Harry Porter books. Whether that is true or not, it is not tough to believe that the interiors of Livraria Lello made her conceptualise Hogwarts the way she did.

Portugal itself seems to be a land of books, with a cute bookshop on practically every street, and even a whole city of literature. But the crowning glory is easily Livraria Lello, opened in 1906.

As soon as I entered, it was the grand architecture that first caught my attention, especially the stunning Art Nouveau spiral staircase at the heart of the store, that seems to have been created for photography. Then there is the stained glass ceiling and the rich wood panelling that makes it seem more like an ancient church than a contemporary bookstore.

In fact, the whole shop is a selfie-taker’s delight, every single corner offering some kind of unique and attractive frame.

The store has an eclectic collection of both English and Portuguese books, a wide range from popular fiction (including, of course, the Harry Porter series) to books on fine wines and quirky street art.

On that rainy afternoon, I also chanced upon Alice and the Mad Hatter chatting with each other in one corner of the upper floor, inviting kids and adults alike to their tea party.

This bookstore has become such a popular tourist attraction that it now charges 5.50 euros just for entry (redeemable against purchase of books). Despite that, there was a long queue outside the door when I reached; having bought the tickets online earlier, I could march right up to the entrance and make a quick entry.

Perhaps I will be fortunate enough to visit it once again in future, at a time when it is less crowded and it is actually possible to see more books than people!

Friday photo: seaside village

I left a bit of my heart behind in Portugal – on a recent two week road trip through the south of Spain and Portugal. Spain was lovely, but we knew what we were in for. But Portugal, so unexpectedly delightful! Gorgeous views, friendly people, soulful fado music, and oh, that stunning Azulejo tile art…

So, this Friday, a view of Azenhas Do Mar, a seaside village close to Lisbon – and if this does not make you want to pack your bags for Portugal right away, I don’t know what will…

The sound of Salzburg


The Sound of Music is the kind of film that defies both superlative and age. Starring the inimitable Julie Andrews, the movie won five Academy Awards back in 1966, and to this day, remains the third highest grosser in Hollywood. It turns 50 this year, and clearly, nobody is immune from its charm, not even Lady Gaga, whose medley of four songs from the movie stole the show at the Academy Awards this year.

Every year, over 300,000 tourists head to Salzburg, where the film was shot, just to follow its trail. Locals say they have never understood what the fuss was all about, but, they have learnt to take it in their stride, some of them even making a living out of it, with conducted tours, cute memorabilia and stage performances.


Exactly 50 years after The Sound of Music the the silver screen, its charm remains undiminished. In honour of this anniversary, I wrote a piece for Conde Nast Traveller India. Read the rest of the story here

Once upon a time in Copenhagen

I had written about one of the world’s most popular storytellers, Hans Christian Andersen, his life in Copenhagen and works for the Economic Times Sunday Magazine recently: Once upon a time in Copenhagen. He was a fascinating character, his life full of contradictions,and above all, he was a man after my own heart – see this line from his autobiography: “To roam the roads of lands remote, to travel is to live.”



A walk tracing the life and times of Hans Christian Andersen in Copenhagen is fascinating for many reasons. Among them is the fact that many places still look the way they did over 150 years ago, when the writer of some of the world’s most loved fairy tales, lived there.

We meet for the walk one pleasant summer afternoon in front of the town hall – to be precise, in front of the statue of Hans Christian Andersen right by its side. I can barely see the statue, which is photographed endlessly by the hordes of Chinese tourists, who cannot seem to get enough of it. After all, Andersen is one of Denmark’s most famous sons, and Copenhagen’s key attractions even today.

One of the first stops on the walk is a glimpse of the guesthouse – our guide claims that the space was then so crowded that people were forced to sleep standing up – where Andersen spent his first few nights in the city. The most interesting halt on this walk is in front of a tiny window at the basement of the courthouse, once housing the town prison. Andersen was perhaps inspired to write one of his rare happy stories ‘The Tinderbox,’ by the idea of a prisoner gazing out of that window on to a free world.

Born in Odense in Denmark in 1805, Andersen made his way to Copenhagen seeking a better life when he was 14, armed with just 12 kroner and big dreams. His ambition was to shine in the performing arts: the theatre, the ballet or the opera. He trained his eyes on the Royal Danish Theatre, trying his hand at many things, including singing and dancing. With his squeaky voice and gangly looks, he was rather unsuccessful in all his attempts.

Det kongelige teater

Following those youthful pursuits, he became a fairy tale writer purely by chance. It was only in 1835 – a full 16 years after he arrived in Copenhagen – that he published his first collection of fairy tales, which was received warmly. Over the course of his life, he wrote a total of 168 fairy tales, including The Little Mermaid, The Ugly Duckling, The Emperor’s New Clothes and The Princess and The Pea.

Over the walk, we learn that Andersen was a man of great contradictions. He was a bit of a grouch, not always getting along with people; yet he constantly managed to find benevolent patrons for his work. He was known to be stingy and cheap but was always clad in elegant and expensive clothes. And most significantly, this teller of tales for children never married and himself had no children.


Perhaps due to the mild underlining of sorrow in his personal life, his fairy tales were never really the cheerful sort, unlike those of the Brothers Grimm from the neighbouring country of Germany, who contrary to their name, wrote the “happily ever after” kind of stories. Whether his stories – with their tinge of dark humour and irony – can be called fairy tales or not, they stay relevant even today, and have been translated into over 150 languages.

The city is littered with monuments to Andersen’s work. For instance, one his most popular tales ‘The Little Mermaid’ is commemorated in Copenhagen in the form of a statue at the city harbour. Much like the Mannekin Pis in Brussels, this small, unassuming statue – blink and you miss it – is much adored and much photographed by visitors. The Little Mermaid who sits sad, despondent, just like the mermaid from the story, was a gift to the city from brewer Carl Jacobsen, and created by sculptor Edvard Eriksen in 1913. Legend has it that Jacobsen was enchanted by a ballet on the mermaid, performed at the Royal Danish Theatre, and wanted to immortalise the character.

The Little Mermaid

Another of Andersen’s haunts that we visit later is the bustling Nyhavn area by the canal, lined with hotels and restaurants with colourful facades. During his time, these buildings were all houses and he lived for over 20 years in this area, moving from one to the other. Today, along with my Andersen pilgrimage, I find it a great place for an evening of beer swigging and people watching.


It is believed that Andersen was shaped by his keen observations of everyday life in Copenhagen and his extensive travels within Europe. Indeed, his passion for travel shines through, in these lines in his autobiography: “To roam the roads of lands remote, to travel is to live.”

Fittingly, my day ends with a spin through his world, with a joy ride called the Flying Trunk at Tivoli Gardens, one of the world’s first entertainment parks. The seven-minute jaunt recreates some of his well-known stories, making me aware that his stories are still capable of delighting not just children, but also adults.

A French facelift

Bordeaux is a bit worried that nobody looks beyond its wines. It is not complaining, mind you, just fretting. After all, the city did not win the title of ‘best European destination of the year’ on the strength of its luscious reds alone.

Just a decade ago, Bordeaux had slipped into near obscurity, become Europe’s Sleeping Beauty (La Belle Endormie, for the linguists among us).

I was unable to associate that name with the youthful, vibrant city I was seeing around me. Every café was bursting at the seams with locals chugging beer and enjoying the spring sunshine. All the premium stores and boutiques on Rue Sainte Catherine – the longest shopping street in Europe – were doing brisk business, even in the absence of “Sale Sale” signs.


It seemed far removed from a time when the city suffered from congested roads, buildings covered in soot and derelict warehouses near the river. One man, the mayor and former Prime Minister, Alain Juppé is responsible for Bordeaux’s transformation into its current avatar. Over a decade ago, he set about the process of injecting life into his city, pedestrianising the elegant boulevards in the heart of Bordeaux, cleaning up the neglected 18th century buildings and introducing spiffy trams. And the trams themselves: silent and futuristic, using power from underground cables so that ungainly electric wires do not crisscross overhead, marring the gorgeous skyline.

The makeover, which started in the late 1990s, really took an upswing around the turn of the millennium. In that sense, the city was not a Sleeping Beauty but a Cinderella, only in reverse. In a few years, the city was so spruced up that more than half of Bordeaux found its way into the UNESCO list, making it the largest urban heritage site in the world.



I was staying at the Grand Hotel, right opposite the Opera House, known as the Grand Theatre. And there really was no point feeling sceptical about the recurrence of the word grand, for these buildings are nothing but. The first thing that struck me when drove into the city was the magnificence of the neoclassical buildings – somewhat like Paris but on a smaller, more intimate scale. In fact, it is said that the stately buildings of Paris had derived inspiration from Bordeaux’s.


Bordeaux is extremely charming, unpredictable; as I stepped out of the hotel, right in the middle of the bustling Place de la Comedie, I came face to face with The Face, a contemporary street installation by Spanish sculptor Jaume Plensa. This uber-modern artwork looked on to the streets passively, an antithesis to all the grandeur surrounding it, and completely unperturbed by that fact. Yet it did not strike a jarring note on the old-world allure of the square. That is the soul of Bordeaux, the new in harmony with the old, making it easy for locals (and visitors) to embrace both.


On an exploratory walk, I found Bordeaux a classic European town: cobblestoned streets, al fresco cafés and wrought iron balconies jutting out of buildings like curious children. The limestone facades in the old town glowed a burnished gold in the early evening sunshine. And everyone on the streets seemed young, carefree and just happy to be there. So was I – happy to be in Bordeaux, I mean.

And like all great cities, a river ran right through its centre – the Garonne – inviting people to rendezvous there at all times of the day. The riverside also owes its facelift to Juppé, who made it a welcoming place, perfect for both solitary walks and social chatter. The avant-garde water mirror there – le miroir d’eau – is a shallow pool on a granite square on the broad pavement.

Initially it stayed perfectly still, reflecting the splendid, symmetrical buildings of the Place de la Bourse, the royal square dating back to the 18th century. Fittingly, the water mirror has been called the most beautiful puddle in Europe. It is the kind of puddle that makes you want to roll up your trousers and wade right in, and later blame it on your inner child.



It had just stopped drizzling, the sun still playing hide and seek with the clouds. A couple with bright red umbrellas walked on the water (no Jesuvian miracle here; this pool is just a flat strip of water, designed to be a mirror), breaking the general air of greyness, especially in the reflections.

The fountain jets in the middle of the pool suddenly sent up fine, cooling mists, making it seem like the clouds had descended upon us that afternoon. These sprays were created with summer days in mind; other cities have public swimming pools, Bordeaux has a set of fountains. This was possibly my favourite place in the city, a spot I returned to at different times in the day to see the magic of sunlight upon it.

Sitting there, watching children and adults splash about in the water, I thought back to something I heard earlier in the day. Nathalie Escuredo, an expert wine grower (one of the emerging women champions in the region) had said, “Here in Bordeaux, many of life’s problems are solved over lunch and dinner. When we meet friends, we drink coffee for two minutes and talk for two hours.”

Truly, in Bordeaux, there was a pleasant sense that time is but a wispy concept and not to be given much importance. And I believe that is just how things ought to be everywhere.

Oh, and all that I said in the beginning about Bordeaux being more than just wine? That does not mean that the city does not take its wines seriously. After all, the Aquitaine region of France, where Bordeaux is located, has close to 8000 chateaux producing world-class wine.


Nor does it mean that I went away without tasting them. I spent an entire morning at the Ecole du Vin (wine school) sipping, swirling and spitting with a small group of wine novices, as Escuredo introduced us to the wonder that is Bordeaux wine. And on the ground floor of the school was the Maison du Vin bar, serving the best local wines, along with nibbles.

When Her Majesty, the Queen of England visited Bordeaux, she described it as “the very essence of elegance.” This was way back in 1992, before Bordeaux assumed a fresh lease of life. I can only wonder what she would call it, if she were to visit again today.


Getting there

Fly to Paris direct from Mumbai or connecting via Mumbai from Delhi on Jet Airways (Rs. 41,000) and take a fast train to Bordeaux, a journey of just over three hours.

Where to stay

The Grand Hotel De Bordeaux and Spa guarantees a luxury stay in a heritage hotel, whose neoclassical façade was originally created by architect Victor Louis in 1776 (Superior Room with Breakfast from €375 / Rs. 26,000). For a mid-range budget option, stay at the Quality Hotel Bordeaux Centre, a no-frills but popular hotel (Classic double rooms from €99 / Rs. 7000).

What to see and do

Take a walk in Bordeaux’s Golden Triangle, an area littered with beautiful neoclassical buildings and bounded by three fine boulevards, Cours Clemenceau, Cours de l’Intendance, Allées de Tourny. And then head to Place de Bourse, opposite the river and the water mirror, for more majestic buildings. Back at the Place de la Comedie, catch a concert or ballet at the Grand Theatre.

Join one of the beginner or advanced wine appreciation workshops at the L’Ecole Du Vin.

A slightly edited version of this was published in Outlook Traveller, August 2015 issue.

1 2 3 22