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Óbidos: the fairy-tale Portuguese historical village known for its literary culture and chocolate-cupped cherry liqueur

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Located on a hill-top overlooking the Portuguese countryside, Óbidos is the kind of town you’d expect to find on the pages of a fairy-tale book. Crowned UNESCO City of Literature in 2015, the charming historical village rivals even the most popular of romances sold in its bookshops, casting a spell over those who stroll its cobbled streets.

For a village with 3,000 residents, there are a startling number of bookshops and libraries to be discovered in Óbidos. Project Óbidos Literary Town, initiated by bookshop Ler Devagar and Óbidos City Hall, kickstarted the town’s culture of reading and writing through the creation of festivals, concerts, and organised literature classes.

A selection of old and rare books can be purchased from the Óbidos Biological Market housed in the former refectory of the town hall. Alternatively, one of the town’s most iconic buildings, The Church of Santiago, houses the Grande Livraria de Santiago bookshop where customers can attend film viewings, book releases, and exhibitions inside the renovated 13th-century temple.

The Literary Man hotel in Óbidos.

Credit: Katie Treharne

One of the most unique hotels in Portugal and Europe is The Literary Man, a four-star establishment where visitors are free to browse the 45,000 books lining the walls of the hotel. Complete with a fashionable (and book-lined) gin bar, open-kitchen, and reading room complete with a large fireplace, guests at The Literary Man can pay homage to the town’s literary culture from the comfort of their own rooms.

Outside of the cornucopia of bookshops, one of the best ways to absorb the town’s atmosphere is from the medieval walls encircling Óbidos. Accessible by stone staircases, the town’s entire parameter can be walked in approximately one hour with spectacular views over clusters of white-and-blue houses with terracotta rooves on the one side, and, on the other, sweeping views of vineyards, windmills, and grassy expanses.

Splashes of colour, as though from the flick of a paintbrush, bloom within the web of cobbled streets: bundles of bright pink bougainvillea and climbing honeysuckle. Aside from the plant life, the narrow walkways are lined with old-fashioned streetlamps and open up into small squares where people congregate in the evenings.

Rua Direita

Credit: Katie Treharne

The main street, the Rua Direita, is lined with shops and stalls selling traditional gifts such as the local delicacy Ginja de Óbidos, a cherry-flavoured sweet liqueur. On the main street, you can step inside Bar Ibn Errik Rexto to sample the Ginja, unique to the region and traditionally served in small Willy Wonka-esque chocolate cups which complement its sweet aroma.

For two weeks in July, out of nowhere, the natural babble on the Rua Direita is interrupted by echoes of distant drums, followed swiftly by a parade of locals dressed in medieval costumes. For five minutes, every shopper must flatten into a doorway as the street is transformed into a medieval marketplace. Young men carrying heraldic flags and billowing banners make way for a torrent of jugglers, horseback soldiers, and young girls twisting rhythmically to the beat of the drums. 

The medieval parade winds its way down the Rua Direita.

Credit: Katie Treharne

This recreation of the spirit of medieval Europe enhances the medieval ambience which seems to be permanently settled over the village like a light mist. Medieval history is integral to the essence of the town, which was originally captured from the Moors by the first King of Portugal, D. Alfonso Henriques, in 1148. Since then, Óbidos has been lovingly named “The Wedding Town”, having remained the property of the Portuguese Queens until 1883 following its initial gifting to the Queen Santa Isabel as a wedding gift. Óbidos remains a well-preserved medieval town, with its 12th-century fortress still standing impressively at the head of the Rua Direita, nowadays housing a luxury “pousada” hotel.

Whether you choose to visit Óbidos at the height of its festivities, for the town is frequently simmering with people celebrating the Ancient Music Festival (in October) or the International Chocolate Festival (in March), or simply prefer to flick through the pages of a history book in a wine cellar (“adega”), this unique historical village caters to all tastes. Óbidos is truly the jewel of Centro de Portugal, an idyllic and startlingly unexplored village a simple hour’s drive from the capital.

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