HARRY POTTER’S PORTO – CHARMED CITY WHERE THE BOY WIZARD WAS BORN
PORTO OWES A lot to Harry Potter. Or as the locals would have it: Harry’s story owes a lot to Portugal’s second city. And that’s because if you spend more than a day or two in the place you’re going to trip over a claim or two about how key bits of the-boy-with-the-thunderbolt-scar-on-his-forehead’s story came from here.
And it may well be true.
Ask any of the flock of tourists queueing up everyday to get inside Livraria Lello – a neo-gothic bookstore in the centre of town, said to be the inspiration for the Hogwarts library and/or Flourish & Blotts bookstore – and the Potter phenomenon is the likely reason they’ve paid the three Euro entrance fee.
Pass a group of university students in their Hogwarts-esque black capes and you start to give creedence to the idea that this is another key thread from the books inspired by the town.
Then if you saunter down any one of the narrow, steep and ancient alleyways (especially if it’s in the grip of one of the morning sea mists that are common) you’ll be fully ready to be convinced that J.K. Rowling did indeed take more than a little of the atmosphere and the inspiration for elements of her classic tale from her teaching days in Porto.
And the truth is that Rowling did spend time in Porto teaching English from 1991 until 1993. It was here that she fell in love and got married to a local and it was here that she continued work on the first Potter book in earnest.
“In those first weeks in Portugal,” Rowling says on her official site, “I wrote what has become my favourite chapter in The Philosopher’s Stone, The Mirror of Erised …”
The British author was writing in the mornings and teaching in the afternoon and evenings and big chunks of the first book were imagined and drafted in the town. Indeed she “had hoped that, when I returned from Portugal, I would have a finished book under my arm”.
As it transpired the marriage didn’t work out and she moved to Edinburgh, with first child Jessica, to complete volume one of what would become the best-selling book series in history.
It was here that J.K. Rowling fell in love and got married to a local and it was here that she continued work on the first Potter book in earnest.
All that said, fun as Porto’s Harry Potter links are, they really only add up to being a minor diversion in a place built on centuries of complex and layered history.
With its remnant 14th century walls, 12th century cathedral and housing dating back as far as the 15th century, Porto, on the banks of the Douro River, is one of Europe’s oldest and most picturesque cities. Its historical centre was proclaimed a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1996.
Porto is a compact place, sophisticated but friendly, with an easy, down-at-heel charm. It has a wealth of traditional and hipster bars and restaurants and chic clothing boutiques and food and drink are super cheap.
More traditionally the town is noted for its salted cod (bacalhau) and tripe (tripas) along with it’s gut-busting sandwich the francesinha (literally the “little Frenchie”), an infamous hangover cure. Modelled on France’s croque monsieur, the sandwich is an artery-stiffening assault of layered pork, smoked sausage, bacon and medium-rare steak, topped with a fried egg and a thick coating of melted cheese and dark sauce.
Also on the less appetising end of Porto’s menu, is a McDonald’s outlet more worthy of a visit than most. So elegant is it (beginning life in the 1930s as the Imperial Cafe) that more than half of the people that cross its portals leave only with a couple of images of the chandelier and the stained glass, rather than a value deal or a Big Mac and fries.
Porto’s other, more celebrated, local delicacy is its port wine, grown in the vineyards of the Douro region. Plenty of other countries produce the fortified elixir – Australia, France, the US, Canada, South Africa, India and Argentina among them – but only the product from Portugal is officially entitled to call itself port.
You can visit a host of port wineries, if that’s your tipple (and it isn’t mine) by walking across Porto’s 19th century bridge, designed by a student of Gustav Eiffel’s, to the opposite bank of the river from the main town.
At 44-metres off the water it’s best not attempted by those without a head for heights.
Luckily the bridge also offers a low road. The upper deck is for pedestrians and a local tram; the lower for cars, buses and people on foot with a feeling for a more grounded means of river crossing (or a skinful of port or a francesinha on board).
LIKE WHAT YOU SEE?
Keep abreast of our latest features with a fortnightly newsletter. We’re positive you’ll be visiting us often anyway, but this way you can be sure you’re not missing out on a thing. (We won’t share your email address with anyone and you can unsubscribe at any time).