|Centrale Bibliotheek in Amsterdam.|
EUROPEAN cities are feet-on-the-pavement destinations, where many of us find ourselves trudging along familiar routes with hordes of tourists just like us. To take a break, we are likely to stop at the cafes and museum gardens already overcrowded with fellow travelers.
But relief could be at hand, in the guise of cities’ libraries, which are often ignored by visitors. Here are some of my favorites.
The Centrale Bibliotheek
The 10-story structure — as bright and intellectually stimulating a space as it is massive — was completed in 2007 and is the new crown jewel of the Dutch public library system. Anchoring the redeveloping historic wharf district and just a five-minute walk from the Central Train Station, it is ideally situated for the traveler. Extremely family friendly with areas designated specifically for children, the Centrale Bibliotheek is also a great place to spend a few hours on a rainy day. For adults there are numerous places to read, along with art and photography exhibitions to visit. For children, there is a reading area with two-story circular bookcases and overstuffed reading chairs.
When hunger strikes, head to the top floor, where the cafeteria provides a broad choice of salads, sandwiches and hot food alongside a rare view of the city. And a cafe with an outside terrace is just off the library’s main entrance, where one can have coffee or pizza. This may be the only library in the world that has parking places for 2,000 bicycles.
The National Library of Ireland
The Trinity College Library may be the best-known library in Ireland, but the lesser-known National Library of Ireland, which is also near the city center, offers a combined treat in architecture and Irish literary history.
Founded in 1877, the library is intimately connected to some of Ireland’s greatest names. Richard Irvine Best, its first Celtic scholar, started working at the library in 1904 and became its director in 1924. (James Joyce, an acquaintance, depicted him in “Ulysses.”)
But it is William Butler Yeats, whose work and life are so extensively displayed here, that makes the library unique. Yeats’s widow, George, began donating his papers to the library soon after his death in 1939, and his son, Michael, and daughter, Ann, later made additional contributions.
A Yeats exhibition that opened in 2006 will continue for another year at least in the galleries that adjoin the library. Visitors can relax and listen to a dozen Yeats poems read by prominent actors, writers and even Yeats himself, who recited in a surprisingly sing-song tone. striking in its oddness.
In a series of alcoves one can see short films about Yeats’s life, his political efforts, his romantic relationships and his involvement with the occult.
The library’s main reading room, completed in 1900, is decorated with a floor mosaic at the entrance that has the emblem of the owl and the motto “Sapientia,” the Latin word for wisdom, signifying the library as a center of learning. Though visitors to the domed-ceiling reading room are asked not to disturb readers, they can certainly look inside. Every Saturday afternoon there is a history and heritage tour of the library, which includes the reading room.
2 Kildare Street
Bibliothèque Nationale de France
If you want a break from days in the Louvre or shopping on the Faubourg St.-Honoré on the Right Bank, you are only a short walk from the Bibliothèque Nationale de France.
It was created at the impetus of the royal family, originating in 1368 with Charles V’s manuscript collections. Since 1537, by law the library must have a copy of every book printed in France. That means there are numerous branches, but the Parisian location most central to tourists is on Rue Richelieu.
There is a small garden, and while the imposing circular reading room is not open to the public, the library does have its own museum: the Cabinet des Médailles, which features antiquities (such as the cameo pictured), coins and gems that belonged to the royal family until the French Revolution, when they were made part of the country’s national treasures.
58, rue Richelieu
Admission to the library and to the Cabinet des Médailles: free.
Musée des Lettres et Manuscrits
While not technically a library, this lesser-known museum is devoted to the written word, and history lovers (even those who don’t speak French) will revel in its collection of historical documents in all languages.
Because no particular thread binds the collection, browsers have the pleasure of perusing papers from world leaders throughout history. A recent visitor discovered a 1789 manuscript of Louis XVI’s speech to the États Généraux in which the embattled king tried to justify his conduct: “Messieurs, Je crois avoir fait tout ce qui était a mon pouvoir pour le bien de mes peuples”(Sirs, I believe that I did everything within my power for my people).
Nearby was a document signed by Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower on May 7, 1945, from the Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force, saying that the mission “was fulfilled.” The document was sent just one hour after 2:41 a.m., when Nazi Germany surrendered.
Not all papers are as ripe with historical drama. A letter from Catherine of Russia, empress and autocrat of all Russians, to Ferdinand I, king of the Two Sicilies, chats about the impending marriage of her grandson Constantine Pavlovich to Anna Feodorovna, a Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld princess. Such correspondence, according to accompanying notes, was one way of keeping relationships close among political and royal allies.
After a visit to the museum, stroll down the Boulevard St.-Germain for coffee at Les Deux Magots.
222, boulevard St.-Germain
Admission: 7 euros or $9.80, at 1.39 euros to the dollar; children under 12, free.
Strahov Monastery and Library
For a broad panoramic view of Prague, take the steep walk up to the Strahov Monastery and Library just outside the center of the city. Built nearly 900 years ago by the Premonstratensian Order, it has had a perilous history, surviving Joseph II’s effort to abolish monasteries in part because of its research value to the state. Nearly two centuries later, when the Communists clamped down, it became a museum.
Fortunately, the monastery, which houses two of the grandest library halls in Eastern Europe, reopened in 1989 after the fall of Communism. Philosophical Hall, which was created in part to house books from monasteries that did not survive Joseph II’s decrees, features imposing walnut bookcases that ascend to an ornately frescoed ceiling. The paintings are based on the “Intellectual Progress of Mankind” theme and follow developments in science and religion as they have evolved over the centuries.
Nearby Theological Hall features a series of elaborate globes that line the corridor, along with its book collection.
Today the monastery is closed to the public, but the libraries are open to all: a dramatic change from earlier periods when women were rarely permitted entry.
Strahov Badviru 1
Admission: 80 Czech koruna or about $4.75, at 16.80 koruna to the dollar.
Archivo General de Indias
For those fascinated with the history of the discovery of the Americas, there is no better library than the Archivo General de Indias, which conjures up the mysteries of exploration that have prompted thousands to seek new lands and treasures. In the center of Seville near the Alcázar and the Seville Cathedral (which houses the tomb of Christopher Columbus), the Archivo is an imposing building that had previously been a trading exchange and is now a Unesco World Heritage Site.
Created in the late 18th century when King Charles III had all Spanish documents relating to the Indies collected for the archive, today it includes more than 80 million pages and 43,000 volumes, along with drawings and letters from Christopher Columbus, Hernán Cortés and others. Among its holdings are Columbus’s journal, maps and plans of colonial American cities and the Bull of Demarcation Inter Caetera of Pope Alexander VI, which divided the world between Spain and Portugal. Average visitors cannot use the books, but anyone can enter to look around.
Avenida de la Constitución 3
Austrian National Library
In the heart of Vienna near the Albertina and the Spanish Riding Academy, the Austrian National Library is one of the Hapsburg dynasty’s more opulent confections, with its frescoed ceilings, marble statues and ornate bookcases. While not a place you would want to take your 4-year-old, it is a trip back to the glory of the Hapsburgs, avid collectors of books and manuscripts.
Albert III, who died in the late 14th century, was a bibliophile who assembled hundreds of illuminated manuscripts. Other emperors added to the collection, but it was under Charles VI that the extravagant library, which is 255 feet long, was built. It was completed in 1726.
The emperor decreed that it should be open to the public including “ignoramuses and gawkers” at a time when a library for the masses was very unusual.
Other notables presented the family with impressive gifts, which went on to become part of the collection. The museum complex includes a separate home for a vast array of texts on papyri, parchment and other material, the bulk of which came as a birthday gift to Emperor Franz Joseph I by Archduke Rainer in 1889.
Admission: 7 euros; families, 12.50 euros.
from: NY Times