If you ever find yourself in Cascais, Portugal, please walk past the beaches.
Head into the heart of the old town, but do not stop. Ignore the line at Santini’s ice cream shop, pay no attention to the imposing fortress and whatever you do, stay far away from the small market in front of the Marechal Carmona Park.
You’ll have time for this stuff later.
For now, keep your eyes straight ahead and walk away from all the activity and crowds. Follow your map towards those picturesque homes and traffic-less streets of the quiet neighborhood just west of the town center. Keep walking, even when you think you’ve gone too far. You’re on your way to the real highlight of Cascais.
Your destination is 310A Avenida Emidio Navarro.
You’ll know when you’ve arrived. While the sign on the sidewalk is small and simple, the massive, unmissable hanging plant, with its bold pink flowers, covering the entire front facade, makes this address stand out among the others.
And now, all that’s left to do is enter.
Welcome to Arte No Livro Bookbinding and Restoration.
During our random stroll through the part of Cascais that apparently few other travelers stroll around, we found ourselves attracted by the word “livro” (book) on the sign. Had we been walking on the other side of the street we would have easily missed it.
Once inside, and expecting a bookshop, we stepped into a world not so much like a bookshop at all but very much unlike any other world we’ve wandered through before.
We knew nothing about the art of bookbinding. I probably never gave it more than a few seconds thought, if that, in my entire life. But that was all about to change.
We were greeted by Fernando, the 68 year old owner of Arte No Livro. His father, Vitor, started the business back in 1917, becoming one of the most well known bookbinders in all of Portugal. Once he passed away, Fernando took over.
We then met his daughter, Andreia, who gave up her career in 2010 to dedicate her life to the family tradition.
After hearing the initial story of the business, we had a couple of questions, and before we knew it, the answers were provided by a complete tour of the peaceful and intriguing two-room operation.
Andreia seemed more than happy to take a break from her work in order to show two foreigners around, and to explain every aspect of what they do, even though we clearly were not going to bring them any books to be re-bound.
The variety of strange-looking and well worn machines and tools they use today to restore books are all original, most of them dating back 60 years. They all still function exactly as they should.
There are book parts scattered everywhere, along tables small and large, shreds of paper, book covers, spines…there are pieces of book parts galore as well.
The dying books dropped off by customers from around Portugal rest silently on the tables and shelves until it is their turn to be brought back to life. These are the books so precious to someone that those people are willing to spend good money to have the binding stripped, pages unsewn and covers removed, all so that they can be replaced with finer, more stunning and sturdier versions.
Fernando uses a narrow tool to carve off an old book cover while his daughter shows us the delicate sticks she uses to create beautiful engravings on the front covers of newly restored books.
In the far back corner a lone and comfortable lounge chair waits patiently for anyone looking for an ideal spot to read. A reading lamp next to it is more than ready to provide the light.
While the main room of Arte No Livro is dimly lit and the wooden furniture heavy and serious, the overall atmosphere remains light and cheery. It’s the atmosphere of a hidden place lost in time, yet containing so much joyous wisdom, limitless love and delightful devotion.
If you told me a bookbinding business would be the highlight of Cascais for us, you know how it goes. A chuckle perhaps? Or a wave of the hand in that ‘you’re silly!’ kind of way?
But it’s true. It was the highlight of Cascais. And it’s also why I love travel.
We remained inside for a mere half an hour, however, this is far more than you would think given the size and focus of the place.
Our final ten minutes were spent flipping through the books on the public bookshelves. There was an attractive pocket sized book about an island in Amsterdam, elaborately bound, certainly with a history that most likely nobody knows. A couple of books on those shelves we’d heard of, most we hadn’t, yet there we were touching and opening them all, as Andreia had instructed us to do.
It was impossible to not feel a child-like happiness while inside. It was also impossible to not feel a deep appreciation for the power and potential of all books and even more, for the dedicated, yet seldom-considered, craftsmen and craftswomen who keep these books alive.
To those involved in the respectable art of bookbinding, I offer a genuine salute to you.
As we finally turned to leave, we noticed what appeared to be a remarkably tiny book in a display case. It was the size of the finger nail on my pinky finger.
We asked Andreia if it was a real book.
She smiled widely, opened the display case and took out this magnificent thing, with its highly detailed cover and pages full of actual text inside. You’d need a very strong magnifying glass to read it but this naturally made the book even more impressive.
All we could do is shake our heads in wondrous disbelief.
With that we said our goodbyes and thank you’s, thank you’s which were as sincere as could be.
We came to Cascais for the beaches and the old town. And sure, we spent time at, and thoroughly enjoyed, both.
But if you ask me about this quaint fishing village outside of Lisbon and my eyes light up with a trace of some fondly remembered secret, you now know where that light comes from.
Luckily, that secret place is open to everyone. And it’s well worth discovering.
Are you ready? Do you have any ‘highlight of Cascais’ experiences to share from your own travels?