Paw prints and irreverent graffiti – Magical afternoons in Santarém

A chance discovery leads the kids to a magical place, giving me the opportunity to explore a wonderfully authentic Portuguese city.

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.

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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.

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Child #3 in the bookshop. In sunglasses…?

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.

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The kids at Santarém cathedral

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…).

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I can almost see Lisbon from up here!

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.

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Peak tourist season in the Igreja de Graça, Santarém

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.

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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).

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Igreja São João de Alporão (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

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:

Travel Notes & Beyond
Untold Morsels

MummyTravels

Author: daisythebus

Father-of-four based in Luxembourg. I write about "off the beaten track" travel adventures with my family. Expect to read about nature, outdoor activities, the arts, authenticity, and alternative ways of discovering the world around us.

16 thoughts on “Paw prints and irreverent graffiti – Magical afternoons in Santarém”

  1. It’s so sad to see beautiful old places like Santarém disappearing from the map. I’ve never heard of this town and have never been in Portugal, but I hope to be able to see it someday. #TheWeeklyPostcard.

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  2. I love going places where you are the solo outsiders, but sometimes not knowing a place makes those more difficult to find, especially when you are in a place for a limited time during travels or holiday. Thank you for sharing charming Santarem and authentic Portugal!

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    1. I totally agree. And the best thing is that there are far more “little known places of the world” than the marketing departments of tourism organisations would have you believe. You just need to take some risks and go find them. Thanks for reading, and greetings from Luxembourg.

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  3. That made me laugh about the Portuguese explorers grave – we often joke how Portugal is so unassumed, in Britain these same places would have at least a gift shop erected, if not a National Trust Acorn planted in the front of it. You’ve gotta love Portugal for this! We’ve not been to Santarem yet but it’s definitely on our list! #farawayflies

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    1. To be fair, there is a small plaque outside the church informing about Pedro Alvarez Cabrel’s tomb; I just didn’t spot it until later. There is also a small information stand (you can just about see it on the photo – between the 1st and 2nd columns on the right hand side) but I can’t remember if they sold gifts. Even if they did, I’m not sure they would do much trade – I returned to the church a few days later and I was still the only visitor. If it was in the UK, it would have had a gift shop, entrance fees, café, audio guides and “interactive visitor experience” ;o)

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  4. Sounds like the perfect travel discovery! I love the quirky, unusual places unearthed on travels and Santarem sounds like my kind of place. Plus, I’ve never been known to walk past a good bookshop… Thanks for linking this travel gem up to #FarawayFiles

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  5. I love that you found the Portuguese anti-Disneyland. What a fantastic place to explore and discover hidden treasures like the tomb of Pedro Alvarez Cabrel and that fabulous street art. There is definitely charm in its faded beauty but as you pointed out, what is the future? I hope places like Santarém can be preserved in some way for future generations. Thanks for sharing with us on #FarawayFiles

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  6. Santarem – you’ve made me fall in love with it! It looks like one of the quirkiest places imaginable. So sorry I can’t help with the v-sign question. Does it mean victory, in mainland European countries? #Citytripping and #FarawayFiles

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    1. Santarém is subtly wonderful. If you are on a very strict time budget in Portugal, visit somewhere else. But if you can invest time in discovering its quirks and nuances it is very rewarding indeed. I genuinely fell in love with it too.
      In Luxembourg, the inverted “V” sign simply means the number 2. But I am really curious as to whether this graffiti has a deeper significance, particularly due to its strategic location at the door to the church. Thanks for reading!

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  7. I still cringe when my (French) husband makes a V sign for the number 2, but for him it’s not rude, just the way to express 2, so I would probably automatically see the street art as rude too. It’s a great picture no matter whether he’s saying 2 or eff off! I was in Portugal around the same time as you this summer but I’m afraid to say we didn’t go to (or even hear of) Santarem. Clearly we missed out. #FarawayFiles

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  8. Thanks for the introduction to Santarém – I’ve never heard of it before but it sounds – and looks – like a wonderful place to visit. Sad to hear that it is showing signs of delay. Hopefully by writing this and spreading the word it will become more of an attraction. #citytripping

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  9. What a fabulous discovery – I love Lisbon, and am just back this summer from a break not far from Sintra but I have never heard about Santarem before. It sounds a lovely find and hopefully at least a few people (myself included) will read this and make the trip, as it’s far too lovely to fail – my daughter would adore the bookshop for starters. Thanks for linking up with #citytripping

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    1. Santarém is wonderfully authentic, and definitely worth a visit. In fact, my post doesn’t do it justice principally because I didn’t take enough photos (I only thought of “blogging” about it afterwards). I’m glad you liked it anyway.

      The bookshop was an astonishing find; a real gem. We are still telling everyone that we meet all about it! Note that all the books and activities are in Portuguese, but the owner and activity leaders do speak English, and our kids (who are 1/4 Portuguese but don’t speak the language very well at all) had no issues joining in.

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