I found my book mecca in Mafra

I’m married to my kindle. I never leave home without it. I know, I know. For years I banged on about never, ever going electronic when it came to books. I wanted to be able to touch the pages, smell the print, turn back and reread. I spent enough time on a computer without adding more, I said. But when the airlines started their draconian restrictions on baggage, toting half a dozen books with me on holiday became too expensive. So I gave in. Reluctantly.

Fast forward a couple of years and I’m hooked. I’m completely sold on the idea. I can’t imagine life without my baby. Right now, the 200 books I have on my kindle weigh as much as a short paperback. I have a membership to a digital library so I can check out books I’d like to read but don’t particularly want to keep. And I’m reading more than ever, because it’s all so convenient.

That said, I still love the feel of a real book and some titles I still choose to buy in hard copy. I’d never consider getting rid of the hundreds of books on my various shelves and were I to move, my books would come with me, regardless of the expense. I’m a bookaholic and last month I found my book mecca in Mafra.

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Back in the 1700s, King João V promised to build a palace and monastery if he and his wife, Maria Ana of Austria, were to have a son. Some might say he went a little overboard with this baroque convent and palace, built on the back of gold from Brazil that was flowing into Portugal at that time. It’s nearly 38000 square meters – that’s nearly four hectares – with 1200 rooms, thousands of doors and windows, 156 staircases, and 29 courtyards. That’s a lot of gratitude.

The palace is huge. Massive. Goes on for miles. The Queen had her wing, the King had his, and the bit in between was home to chapels, anterooms, a hospital, the kitchens, and various other royal salons. We toured them all. Or at least we toured every room that was open to the public.There’s a notable difference in style between the two wings, one oozing oestrogen, the other awash with testosterone. All of it fascinating.

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The games room, with its forerunner to the modern-day pinball machine, was special. The hunting room, with its dead heads and furniture made from various animal parts reminded me a little of something I saw in Macedonia. Not for me, thank you, but hats off to putting the parts to good use. It was the hospital ward that got me. All the beds face an altar so the monks could hear mass even while they lay on their sickbed. Back in its heyday, 330 monks were in residence.

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As we reached the end of our map (and you need a map to find your way around the building), before we turned the final corner, I could smell the books. It was a heady, powerful scent of old manuscripts, faded ink, and leather bindings. Intoxicating.

The magnificent Rococo room is tiled in marble is 88 m long x 9.5 wide and 13 m high. With 36 000 books or thereabouts, it shows just how well-read people were back in the day. Apparently the library was used as the Emperor’s war chamber in the 1996 film Gulliver’s Travels. Can’t say I recognised it from that, mind you. But nonetheless, it is spectacular.

A sign clearly states that books cannot be removed without permission from the king. And as there’s no longer a king in the country, they’re there to stay. Definitely worth an afternoon if you’re in the vicinity.

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Have I sold out?

I did somethinebook1g yesterday that I’ve never done in my adult life. Ever. Not once in living memory. And I’m racked with guilt today. I feel like I’ve sold my soul, gone over to the dark side, crossed a line of no return.

I left the flat for the airport without a book in my bag. Usually I take one book for every two days I’m away – and this time I didn’t take any, not one, even though I had two staring at me lovingly from the kitchen table as I left.

Last month, after years of dithering, I broke down and bought a Kindle. I blame it on the airlines and their meagre baggage allowance. If it hadn’t come down to a choice between wine and books, I’d never have crossed the line.

I love my books. I haul them with me whenever I move. I have boxes of them in the attic at home and my shelves in Budapest are double-stacked. I have converted plants stands to book stands and regularly have stacks of the blighters lining my hallway. I classify them as long-term relationships or one-night stands, the latter being those in which I’m not emotionally invested.

I love the feel of them. The smell of them. The sound of them on a quiet afternoon when I curl up on the couch and hear nothing but the turning of a page. And I like the look of them. The more books someone has in their home, the more I trust them. There’s no scientific explanation for that, but I’ve never laid claim to excessive rationality. I just like people who like books.

Ann Marlowe, writing in the Tablet in January, wouldn’t be impressed with me. She writes about accumulation, and the need to purge, to get rid of books in favour of a minimalist-style Kindle.  Space is of  the essence – but then, which would I prefer? A room with packed bookshelves or one with bare walls… both, cried she, I want it all.

Earlier this year, there was an article doing the rounds about how people retain less information when reading an ebook than a real book… and it’s all to do with turning the page.

When you read on paper you can sense with your fingers a pile of pages on the left growing, and shrinking on the right. You have the tactile sense of progress, in addition to the visual … [The differences for Kindle readers] might have something to do with the fact that the fixity of a text on paper, and this very gradual unfolding of paper as you progress through a story, is some kind of sensory offload, supporting the visual sense of progress when you’re reading. Perhaps this somehow aids the reader, providing more fixity and solidity to the reader’s sense of unfolding and progress of the text, and hence the story.

Anyway, after a month of looking at the thing in its box, I took it out yesterday, charged it up, and downloaded some free books just to try it out. I’m half-way through the first one and I know why it’s free.

One good thing about my Kindle, though, is that it lies flat and I can read and eat at the same time. Which is a bad thing, too, as I should be doing one or the other if I’m serious about learning to be present. Another good thing is that it always weigebook 2hs the same. Which is a bad thing, too, as I’ve no sense of how far along I am in the book (and no, the percentage metre on the bottom just doesn’t do it for me).

So why do I feel guilty? Perhaps because I’ve been swearing for years that I’d never go there.

A man I like a lot – Stephen Fry – reckons that books are no more threatened by Kindle than stairs by elevators. So I shouldn’t feel as my going over to the dark side is endangering the species.

Another man I like a lot – Douglas Adams – reckons that lovers of print are simply confusing the plate for the food. Fair point. Words are good (or bad) wherever they’re written.

And as for Stephen King – If you drop a book into the toilet, you can fish it out, dry it off and read that book. But if you drop your Kindle in the toilet, you’re pretty well done. Enough said, but as I can’t remember ever dropping a book down the loo, that argument doesn’t really hold water. 

I will persevere though and see how me and my new friend get along. Rome wasn’t built in a day and considering the Tablet I bought last year has only seen the light of day once, I should make a better effort to be more tech savvy. And, of course, there’s always the weight issue.






Books in Óbuda

There’s nothing quite like the smell of old books. Stepping into one of the many antikvárium (shops selling old books) in Budapest is like stepping back in time. Shelf after shelf groans under the weight of millions of words, miles of paper, and litres of ink. To find one that has an English book section, however small, tucked away in a corner is a find indeed.

I have been taking the bus to Buda [thank you, BKV, for extending the route of the No. 9 (the mutant child of the former 109 and 206 routes) to my neighbourhood] for about a year now over to Kolosy tér in Óbuda. I was early one day and had time to kill before my appointment. Looking though the window of a bookshop, I saw some English titles and, heart beating a little faster, stepped inside.


Up until 1993, the National Book Distribution Company ran the secondhand-book shops in Budapest. Óbuda Anitkvárium was the one that served the III district. It began a new chapter as a private business under the guiding hand Gábor Pécsi and is now run by his son, Balázs.

Balázs took his apprenticeship seriously, initially spending time in the ‘company of the broomstick more often than the books’. The shop is designed to suit all tastes, whether you’re a bibliophile or a leisure reader. And if you can’t find what you’re looking for, you can order it and Balázs will do his utmost to find it for you. He buys a lot of personal libraries which makes for an interesting collection. And it’s nice to think that books go to a good home once their owners have passed on. The wall space that can’t hold shelves is given over to myriad prints and photographs which are also for sale.


Travel by public transport and you’ll increasingly see commuters reading from a tablet or a kindle or an iPad. I can’t see me ever crossing that line, although it would be a lot simpler to bring a virtual library on holiday than a real one. Yet for me, reading is as much sensory as it is visual. The touch, the feel, the smell of old parchment. The fleeting wonder at a pencilled note in the margin or why a particular word was underlined. That mystery conjured up by a dedication – To Agatha on her 18th birthday, September 1935 – is Agatha still alive? Where did she live? What did she do? And yes, I know you can annotate and highlight electronic text – but it just ain’t the same.


Sadly, I see bookshop after bookshop after bookshop closing down in the city. I visit apartments and flat that are devoid of books, though the residents might be avid readers. I worry about the fate of the printed word and the old-fashioned notion of reading for pleasure. We have so much we have to read – reports, textbooks, reference books – that the joy of leaving this world temporarily and travelling to another for a few hours in the company of a set of characters who have things to do is something that is becoming increasingly valuable, not least because it’s more and more difficult to find the time.

Treasures like to Óbuda Antivarium will only survive with custom. Balázs has merged the old with the new with an online market and ordering service. I, for one, hope that the online part never takes over to the point that my armchair disappears and the half-hour I spend there once a month or so is no longer an option.

If you’re in the vicinity, drop by. III district, Lajos utca 49/B