Finding stories in Portugal & the Netherlands

I just came back from two short but full weeks exploring Porto + Lisbon in Portugal, and Amsterdam + surrounds in the Netherlands.

While I was away, I became a little obsessed with writing TripAdvisor reviews, only because I’d found them so helpful when I’d been scouting hotels/restaurants/medieval churches etc. to visit, and I wanted to give back to the community. When you sign up as a TripAdvisor reviewer, you’re meant to pick your ‘Travel Style’ from a list of badges such as ‘Nightlife Seeker’, ‘History Buff’, ‘Foodie’, ‘Eco-tourist’, and so on and so forth. I struggled with this, because I’m kind of just a person who wanted to see beautiful and strange sights and learn some interesting things about the world and its inhabitants. I didn’t have a specialty.

But if I had to pick a specialty, I’d say that I did gravitate towards places that had some kind of literary significance – notable bookstores, spaces writers & artists frequented, attractions that celebrated story or literary culture in some way. Here’s a quick collection of those places, their history and my experiences.

1. Guerra Junqueiro House Museum – Porto, Portugal

This lesser-known attraction is the 18th-century home of a famous Portuguese poet, preserved and turned into a museum that boasts an intimate and impressive collection of Portuguese silverware, ceramics, jewellery, furniture and religious artwork. While the collection isn’t ‘literary’ as such, it seems in line with the poet’s vision of preserving and promoting art and cultural artefacts. You can read Junqueiro’s poem The Digger in English here. The melancholy nature of it seems common in Portuguese art.

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(Casa Junqueiro exterior)

2. Livraria Lello Bookstore – Porto, Portugal

Livraria Lello is one of the oldest bookstores in Portugal, and one of the most beautiful in the world, according to sources such as the Guardian, Lonely Planet, myself and now you, once you look up all the photographs. The rich wood, pressed copper and stained glass decor is so gorgeous, you almost forget to stop and look at the books. Luckily there’s a cute little cafe on the top floor where you can sit and have a coffee and admire it all.

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(Staircase inside Livraria Lello)

3. The Majestic Cafe – Porto, Portugal

This historic cafe, with its stunning art nouveau decor, has been frequented by significant Portuguese politicians, artists, writers, academics, and other important public figures since its opening in 1921. (Including, apparently, everyone’s favourite J.K. Rowling when she lived in Porto in the 1990s and was penning a little story about a wizard.) We had some fantastic cheeses and glasses of port here. It was quite busy and cramped inside, so I’d say it’s a better place for artistic conversation than artistic meditation these days.

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(The Majestic Cafe exterior)

4. Livraria Bertrand – Lisbon, Portugal

This is meant to be the oldest bookstore in the world, founded in 1732. It was destroyed in 1755 by the earthquake that annihilated basically everything in Lisbon (seriously, look it up), but was rebuilt shortly after. The bookstore’s stock and interior now resemble the clean and bright shelves of chain bookstores such as Waterstones or old Borders (R.I.P), but the decor and furnishings hint at its longstanding history. (I picked up a copy of Pessoa’s selected poetry here, as it seemed necessary I check out Portugal’s most celebrated poet when in his home city of Lisbon).

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(Livraria Bertrand on Rua Garrett)

5. Lisboa Story Centre – Lisbon, Portugal

This one doesn’t necessarily have literary history attached to it, so much as it’s an example of history presented in a literary way. The Libsoa (the local way of spelling Lisbon) Story Centre is an interactive museum where you’re given an audio guide that leads you through colourful and entertaining exhibits that present Lisbon’s impressive history in chronological order, beginning with the Phoenicians. It’s like walking through a pop-up history book, with a notable segment being ‘the earthquake room’, where you hear and see the story of the 1755 earthquake played out.

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(Exhibit at the Lisboa Story Centre)

6. The Anne Frank House – Amsterdam, Netherlands

This is, of course, a must-see for any visitor to Amsterdam, literary significance aside. But as a young writer, I was struck by the experience of walking through the house where Anne and her family had lived in secrecy for all those years, and seeing the physical journals in their glass cases at the end of the tour. Everyone finds a different way to connect to Anne’s story, but for me, it’s a testament to the power of the written word, and the importance of preserving human experiences.

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(Anne Frankhuis from across the canal)

7. Efteling – Kaatsheuvel, Netherlands

This is a theme park a little outside of Amsterdam that celebrates all things fantasy, fairy tale and folklore. It’s the closest I’ve ever come to stepping into a different world. The attention to detail in this wonderland is astounding–every inch of it is a work of art. Park highlights include the Droomvlucht – a suspended carriage ride through multiple fantasy settings, and Raveleijn – a live stunt show featuring trained ravens, swordfights, and real horses on fire. The dragon rollercoaster is also a must-do, because it’s a dragon rollercoaster.

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(Entrance to the Droomvlucht ‘Dream Flight’ ride at Efteling)

8. The Bench – Amsterdam, Netherlands

I’ll end on a contemporary one. Fans of John Green’s young-adult novel The Fault in Our Stars will know that a part of the book/movie is set in Amsterdam, and you can visit the very bench one of the story’s most heartbreaking scenes takes place on. I found it. I sat on it. I felt sad.

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(Hazel and Gus’s bench by the Leidsegracht canal)

I saw other amazing things too, like the still-sturdy walls of Sao Jorge Castle, the dim halls of multiple port cellars, vibrant Porto from the dizzying heights of a cable car, the gorgeous floral universe that is Keukenhopf Gardens, and Sunflowers by Van Gogh IRL. Even the non-literary places were rich in story and personal experiences. I’m glad to have seen it all, and to have brought little pieces of multiple worlds back in my suitcase.

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The Real Oz

As I mentioned in my previous post, I’m writing something at the moment that deals with Australian mythology and folklore. But what, you may ask, exactly is that?

Last week, we celebrated Australia Day–a national holiday much contested for its choice of date (sometimes referred to as ‘Invasion Day’, etc.). Debates aside, it’s become a day for the lucky majority in our country to celebrate being Australian. Now, I’ll be honest. Growing up, I never felt a vast amount of pride about being Australian. It wasn’t that I was ashamed, or disliked being Australian…it’s just that I didn’t connect with what I understood our national identity to be. Beaches, beers, barbecues, and the bush. Thongs and stubbies, akubra hats and flannelette shirts. Kangaroos and Vegemite, surfboards and football. It was a motley and abrasive collection of attributes that I didn’t really feel was me, or my idea of my country.

Despite growing up in Australia, I was actually born in Canada, and moved over here, to beautiful British Columbia, as soon as I graduated from university. I thought that maybe I could identify with being Canadian more than being Australian. But what I’ve realised, after two years of living in Vancouver, is that it isn’t so much your country that shapes your identity, as it’s your identity that shapes your idea of your country.

Absence makes the heart grow fonder and I’ve realised now that I do adore Australia, my sunburnt land. But it’s not quite for the reasons a lot of people celebrate on Australia Day (though drinking Little Creatures beer, eating pavlova, and dancing to Crowded House and Jimmy Barnes in a little Australian pub in Vancouver on January 26 was certainly heaps of fun). As I wrote about the other day, I’m a lover of folklore and legend, of mystical beauty, of the magic in nature, and of the fantastic. And even though Australia isn’t commonly seen as a place where these things are abundant, if you’re looking for, it, you’ll find it.

So, we come to the main point of this post (I’m a wandering writer; I apologise). Researching for the project I’m currently working on has made me realise that, although there is information available, there are few extensive archives dedicated to the myth, lore and legend of Australia. So I’ve decided to create a Tumblr of my findings, which you can explore here:

Beneath The Ghostly Gums

I will, of course, be paying tribute to the wonderful Dreamtime stories of Australia’s Indigenous people, as well as the many other fantastic aspects of our country, of which there are, surprisingly, many. I hope it will provide inspiration for some, including myself.

My Friend, Fantasy

With the recent release of the first installment of Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit trilogy, and the impending airing of the third season of HBO’s acclaimed Game of Thrones, I feel as if there’s been a renewed interest in the fantasy genre among my social circles as of late. This makes me happy, as I think fantasy sometimes gets a bad wrap among literary minded people.

While studying literature and writing at university, it was a constant source of frustration for me, and some of my peers, that fantasy was only ever begrudgingly touched on, and normally only in very specific discussions about genre or popular fiction. Whether or not any kinds of fantasy stories deserve a place in the ranks of ‘high’ literature is a debate I don’t want to start, nor do I feel I’m qualified to. What I will argue is that fantasy is definitely important.

Fantasy stems from mythology, legend and folklore, all of which gave birth to the the idea of creative storytelling as a whole. The concept of ‘story’ has evolved a lot since its beginnings, but I can’t shake the loyalty I feel to mythology and folklore. Even when I don’t intend to, I find elements of fantasy creeping into my writing. Mythology, particularly that of fantastical creatures, was the first kind of story I fell in love with as a fairy-fascinated child. And what you love as a child often sticks.

Tales Before TolkienI’m in charge of book buying at my work and I’ve recently made sure to have multiple copies of this book, Tales Before Tolkien: The Roots of Modern Fantasy, in stock. It’s a collection of what its editor, Douglas A. Anderson, calls kunstmärchen, a German word meaning ‘literary fairy tales’. These are fairy tales “composed by a single author rather than stories merely recorded from oral traditions.” From The Elves by Ludwig Tiek to The Woman of the Wood by A. Merrit, Tales Before Tolkien collects the stories that sparked the imagination of Tolkien and countless other fantasy writers after him. It’s a great anthology and seems to give more weight to fairy tales and fantasies than the oft-produced collections marketed mainly for children (not that these are less valuable! It’s just nice to see fairy tales being presented from all angles).

It’s been difficult for me, since graduating, to reconcile the seemingly clashing love I have for reading and writing both ‘literary’ and ‘fantasy’ fiction. I’ve been trying for a while to fuse the two together, and have only just managed in the last few months to stick to a novel idea that’s actually gained momentum and may see completion in the near future. Funnily enough, living away from Australia for the last two years has made me appreciate the myth and majesty of my homeland, and I’ve decided to set the story in its native bushland. So we’ll see what comes of it.

I’ve had numerous personal influences in my quest to find, and create, this fusion of fantasy and literature, with one of my favourites being Lev Grossman’s The Magicians series. It’s both wickedly intelligent and a bundle of fun. I had the pleasure of hearing Grossman talk on a panel in 2011, and his love for fantasy, and eagerness to play around with it as much as possible, is evident in person and on paper. I very fervently recommend it.

I’ll continue to chase my unicorn, and will definitely be updating if I have any success. For now, I’ll eagerly anticipate March 31st’s GoTs premiere, and leave you with two interesting observations on the topic of fantasy fiction and mythology from two great men who should know what they’re talking about.

“From the wildness of my heart I cannot exclude the question whether railway-engineers, if they had been brought up on more fantasy, might not have done better with all their abundant means than they commonly do.”

On Fairy-Stories, J. R. R Tolkien himself. (To me, this quote speaks to the idea of fantasy as a stimulus for creativity in general, be it artistic or technical. Keep in mind it was said during the 1930s).

“[Fantasy and sci-fi readers are] the best audience in the world to write for. They’re open-minded and intelligent. They want to think as well as feel, understand as well as dream. Above all, they want to be led into places that no one has ever visited before. It’s a privilege to tell stories to these readers, and an honor when they applaud the tales you tell.”

How To Write Science Fiction and Fantasy, Orson Scott Card (another great book I always try to have in stock at work).