If you’re a super fan of the Harry Potter series, you’ll probably already know of Rowling’s inspirations in the UK – for example, Edinburgh and Exeter. However, did you know that much of what initially inspired Rowling lies in Portugal, where she lived with her first husband?
The city of Porto, famous for port (the fortified wine, not the harbour), is the place where Harry Potter’s legacy began. Located in the north of Portugal, the coastal city houses a number of sites that inspired Rowling.
Cafe Majestic has an elegant Art Nouveau interior, and was once a meeting point for Portugal’s elite artists and intellectuals. Rowling was a regular customer in the early 90s, and it was here on one of the marble tables that she wrote her favourite chapter in the Philosopher’s Stone, ‘The Mirror of Erised’. Today, the Majestic is on Portugal’s cafe trail.
One cannot miss the Lello Bookstore (Livraria Lello Porto), which has been recently restored to its former glory. This UNESCO store has a pretty facade, but step inside and you’ll see its true architectural masterpiece: the stairway. Immediately, you’ll realise that it is a spitting image of ‘Flourish and Blotts’, the bookstore in Harry Potter where young sorcerers buy their magic manuals. Painted in red, the curved staircase almost resembles the number ‘8’ when viewed from above. Climbing it is an interesting experience! While this is a functioning bookstore, you’ll need to get a €3 entry ticket (which will be credited against anything purchased there).
Nearby, the Clerigos Tower (Torre dos Clerigos) resembles the Astronomy Tower where Hogwarts headmaster Albus Dumbledore met his end. Today, you can climb the 240 steps to the top of this UNESCO site, and get an amazing view of Porto.
When you visit the student town of Coimbra (just south of Porto), you’ll find that the old town is dominated by the university which occupies much of the hills above town. It’s easy to see the resemblance to Harry Potter’s Hogwarts at the University of Coimbra; established in 1290, it is one of the oldest educational faculties in the world and has some of the most unique traditional practices still intact. For example, you can step on the University of Coimbra seal to gain wisdom.
The gem of the university is undoubtedly the Joanina Library (Biblioteca Joanina). With breathtaking frescoes, intricate carvings and gold-leaf touches, it’s one of the most ornate libraries in the world. It’s also architecturally brilliant: to access books at the very top of the bookcases, ladders are cleverly hidden within the architecture, and the double walls – which double as reading rooms – keep the temperature and moisture constant. But most unique of all is its method of handling book-eating insects: bats! About 20 bats live behind the bookshelves and come out at night to control the insect population (the furniture are protected with a leather cloth after the library closes).
Once outside, you are free to walk around the university – some visitors have even sat in on lectures! – and there’s a real mystical feel about the place. Paintings on the walls seem to follow you with their eyes with every step you take, and students sometimes wear Hogwarts-style black capes around campus.
In fact, capes are worn by uni students all over Portugal. Trivia: look closely and you’ll see cuts at the bottom of their capes; the left side is reserved for family members, the right for friends, and the middle for a significant other. If they break up, the cut is sewn up; it’s sort of like a medieval Facebook.
Even if you’re not a fan of Harry Potter – or perhaps grown out of it – these UNESCO sites are definitely worth visiting for their architecture and history (and for Instagram, of course). If you’re already studying in Europe, Coimbra University is listed in the Erasmus programme.