J.K. Rowling moved to Porto, married a Portuguese man and gave birth to a baby girl. When she wasn’t working her job as an English teacher, she liked to sit in the Majestic Café and write stories. After her marriage broke down, she packed up and returned to England with her child. Her stint in Porto was brief. She left with a failed marriage and a hungry young mouth to feed; joblessness and depression would soon follow. But Rowling also left with three chapters of a little something she had been working on in the cafés of Porto, the beginning of a series of books that would make her one of the wealthiest and most celebrated storytellers of our time. Porto cast its spell – the rest is history.
Walking around the city, one could imagine that the conception of the Harry Potter world owes as much to Porto as it does to such iconic settings as the Elephant House and Alnwick Castle. Students at Porto’s university wear long, black robes like those worn by the students of Hogwarts, and tourists can hitch a ride around town on a cutesy road train that is not entirely unlike the Hogwarts Express. Even still, you don’t have to be a Harry Potter fan for Porto to charm you; even the McDonald’s is fancy.
The city definitely seems to favour the artistic types, even if plenty of business is conducted here. There is a certain magic in Porto’s air that entraps you and urges you to create something, a poem, a painting, a song or a story, just as so many have done before. You will find your mojo in Porto’s energy while you lose yourself to its charm. It is a place of passion, of feeling, at once a haven for the lovestruck and refuge for the heartbroken, where Port emerged from a dimly lit cellar to grace dinner tables worldwide, and where the pages of its history lie beneath the weathered exteriors of buildings, some ornate, some nondescript, waiting to be unearthed and pored over by searching eyes.
It is easy to imagine that soaking in the city’s energy would get Rowling’s creative juices bubbling. There is beauty aplenty in Porto and it resonates around the whole city, through its monuments, ornate buildings and even its ramshackle side streets. It is in poking around these lesser-known side streets – the ones the travel agencies neglect to mention – which wind their way in a tangled network through town, that you may unearth Porto’s real gems. It can’t be by chance that the Escadas das Verdades (the Steps of Truth, formerly known as the Steps of Lies) led me to a bakery where I had one of the most delicious chocolate cakes of my life.
The quality of the food extends far beyond chocolate cake, with the many eateries around town seemingly locked in a perpetual struggle to outdo one another. Porto is a great place to eat, and there are few streets in the city centre where you will not be enticed by teasing wisps of cooked meat or fresh pastry. Though there is plenty on offer by way of fine dining, there are also bargains to be had. Break from the crowds of tourists and ask around among the locals for insider tips on where to find quality, reasonably priced Portuguese cuisine. By all means swing by the McDonald’s to take a photograph, but in Porto you’d be a fool to waste your money and appetite on poor quality, overpriced food (insofar as it can be considered food at all). Instead, head to the Raiz, halfway between the São Bento train station and the Clerigos Tower, where you can enjoy fresh vegetable soup and succulent pasta carne with a large glass of port and round it off with an espresso, all for less than a Big Mac meal. If, however, you cannot resist indulging in a calorie overload, stop off at any one of Porto’s cafés and eateries and ask for a Francesinha, a sandwich comprising meat, egg, cheese, tomato, beer sauce and some more meat for a truly artery-clogging concoction that might leave you blowing smoke rings out of your backside but, as far as food goes, is as quintessentially Portuense as it gets.
Once your appetite is satisfied, there is plenty more to see. A city wall once constructed to keep out Spanish invaders who never showed up now serves as a superb vantage point to check out the riverside views. This and other curious leftovers from its history give Porto a distinct and peculiar image, like that of a city that was dragged kicking and screaming into the 21st century, but the architecture on show and the energetic vibe of the place suggest that the city has found the perfect balance between holding onto its past and embracing modernity. It is a city to be taken seriously even if it does not take itself too much so, and in addressing the past it comes across as both proud of its highlights and mindful of its darker episodes. A plaque on a wall by the waterfront commemorates the collapsing of the Ponte das Barcas which killed around 100 people fleeing from French invaders in 1809, and sits right near a spot where daring youngsters leap off the Ponte D. Luis I and into the river for fun.
Fun certainly seems to be the modus operandi here. A leisurely walk around the city gives you plenty to smile about, even if it is not as obviously alluring as Paris or Rome. While there’s no Eiffel Tower or Colosseum here, it’s a city of simple pleasures and good vibes. You can get drunk on port and romance at the riverside, or if you want to get high (that is, seek higher ground) then follow the sloping streets upwards and look back at how the land cascades downwards to the river and rises up again on the other side. It’s an attack on the eyes: where the terrain of flatter cities will stop the eye from drifting too far, Porto offers crowded, intoxicating vistas that are more than enough to tie up the afternoon for the street artists and the sightseers.
But if you really want to feel the love, plan your trip around late June to take in the Festa de São João (Festival of St. John the Baptist). Taking place annually in Porto, this is a shindig that has long outgrown its pagan origins, and there seems no corner in the whole city which is not swept up in the party fever once midsummer rolls around. Officially a festival of love, it revolves mainly around identifying the object of your affections and clopping them on the head with a hollow plastic hammer, which is available for purchase at one of the myriad street stalls set up around Porto specifically for Festa de São João. But the passing of time and the increasingly relaxed attitudes towards religious observance seem to have weakened the love theme, even if the party spirit appears to have survived the centuries intact. This doesn’t dampen the festival, but means quite simply that hammer-wielding partygoers tend to be pretty undiscriminating in their choice of target, so watch out. But, as with everything else in Porto, just go with it. Bring your sweet tooth, lots of energy and a sense of humour and let Porto do the rest. And don’t worry, the hammer doesn’t hurt.
First published at http://www.WayfaringStudent.com
Images courtesy of Bastien Morel