My eldest daughter noticed them first. Paw prints, distinctly feline. Green, pink, yellow, orange, red… the more we looked the more we found, all over the sun-scorched cobblestones of Santarém’s old town. We followed them (of course we followed them!) and what we found was quite extraordinary.
“Aqui há gato” is a children’s bookshop. A proudly-displayed certificate on the wall informed us that it was recently voted the second best bookshop in Portugal – not bad at all, particularly considering that its bookselling space is only about the size of an average living room, and much of this is taken up with a gnarly old tree. But look closer: the tree has a wise old face peering out of the trunk, there are lanterns hanging from branches, fairies dancing around its base, and even a malevolent witch flitting through the leaves on her broomstick. Behind a sliding door decorated with fairies and magical plants, kids were practicing some expressive dance – just one of the many activities organised by the bookshop during the summer months.
We were spellbound; we immediately purchased a handful of books and signed our older kids up for some upcoming activities. The small matter of the children barely speaking any Portuguese was hardly discussed: this was a magical place, and the language of magic is universal.
Another upside of the kids being at the bookshop was that I now had the time to explore Santarém properly. And I loved it. Tourists to this region of Portugal typically visit Lisbon, Obidos, Sintra, and these are all admittedly rather wonderful. However, cities like Santarém can teach the curious tourist more about “everyday life” than any museum, attraction or guided tour.
With time on my hands I wandered the shady, narrow streets, gazing at the stylish azulejo-covered houses, with their elegant first floor balconies and the morning’s laundry festooned from second-floor windows. I drank tiny bicas (coffee) in friendly cafés (all of which had free wifi, by the way) and marvelled at the consistently delicious pastéis de nata.
Nuns taking selfies?!
More than once I made my way to the Portas do Sol, a public park built into Santarém’s ancient fortifications. From here the views over the Tejo (Tagus) valley are so breathtaking that I – quite literally – inhaled deeply every time I peered over the edge, letting the the warm air from the valley floor fill my lungs.
I don’t think I have ever been in a place where everyone seemed so relaxed and happy; kids played in the grassy areas, teenagers deep in their smartphones chased Pokémon invisible to me, couples chatted in the shade of immense plane trees, friends enjoyed cold drinks on café terraces, and a group of nuns excitedly took selfies at the viewpoints (now there’s a sequence of words I never thought I would write…).
But here’s the strange, wonderful thing, the thing that gives hope to all travellers everywhere who think there is nothing left in Europe to be discovered: I never heard any language other than Portuguese at the Portas do Sol. That’s right – as a foreign tourist, I always had this little bit of public space perfection all to myself.
Irreverent graffiti and understated monuments
On another day I wandered into a church, its wide-open doors inviting me to shelter from the blistering afternoon heat. As my eyes adjusted to the dark interior, I began to appreciate that the Igreja da Graça was much bigger than it seemed from outside.
At the back of the church I was startled to discover the austere tomb of Pedro Alvarez Cabrel, the Portuguese explorer who discovered Brazil in 1500. No pomp, no circumstance; no bells, no whistles; just the final, simple, resting place of the bloke responsible for the fifth largest country in the world, sombrely overseen by sentinel Portuguese and Brazilian flags. As I looked back up the church, past the zero other tourists sharing this important monument with me on an August afternoon, my eyes drifted below the rose window and back out of the main entrance. And there, just visible through the streaming light, some excellent graffiti on an opposite wall depicted a shady-looking character giving an irreverent two-fingered salute* directly into the church. I looked at the tomb, I looked at the church, I looked at the graffiti. Honestly, I didn’t know what to make of it, but I smiled for a long time afterwards.
Santarém is full of gems like the Igreja da Graça. Just a few narrow side streets away, the Torre das Cabaças bell tower is considered so important to Portuguese architectural heritage that a model of it, along with the rose window at Graça, features in the “Portugal dos Pequenitos” park in Coimbra. Directly opposite Cabaças, the crumbly old church of São João de Alporão is exactly the sort of picture-perfect monument that a tourist dreams of finding in an ancient southern European town, its wildflower-bearing stone walls whispering promises of valiant stories and hidden secrets (alas, it was TOO crumbly at the time of my visit and thus temporarily closed for repairs).
Tourism to the rescue?
But here’s something else that I noticed, something very sad: despite all its treasures the old Santarém is sick, perhaps even dying. Without any exaggeration, I would say that the majority of the commercial buildings in the old centre are empty, and most look like they have been that way for some time now. A quick glance inside the surviving shops and you will occasionally see a lonely shopkeeper and shelves half-stocked with stuff that no-one buys anymore. Of course there are happy exceptions such as the funky cafés and the wonderful kids’ bookshop, but the hard truth is that life is leaving old Santarém and springing up elsewhere: perhaps in the shiny new identikit mall on the outskirts of the old city, maybe the big-name megastores littering the main highways, perhaps even unable to escape the lure of nearby Lisbon.
Tourism could help. I can’t help but think that if even a tiny fraction of the tourists flocking to Lisbon would make the one hour train or car journey north to Santarém, they would discover something different, something wonderful, something authentically Portuguese. In addition, the money they would spend in Santarém’s independent hotels, cafes and shops would likely make a real positive difference to the local economy.
The kids emerged from their final afternoon of activities at Aqui há gato with beaming smiles, arms laden with their artistic creations, and even a few new Portuguese words in their vocabulary. There are cheaper ways of keeping your kids entertained on holiday, but at €12 per session their three afternoons of inspiration and creativity cost approximately one half of a one-day ticket to Disneyland. Santarém has a lot to offer, and it gave us all some great experiences; I can only hope that we gave enough back.
Daisy the bus visited Santarém in early August 2016
(c) 2016 Jonathan Orr
*To the best of my (admittedly limited) knowledge, the “V-sign” as an insult is generally restricted to the British Isles and certain other Commonwealth countries only. So I really don’t know what this “shady-looking character” is trying to tell us. Suggestions / explanations would be greatly appreciated!
I’ve linked this blog post to a few travel blog “link-ups”, all of which are full of interesting tales from the road. Please go check them out: