Though the UK gets most of the attention when it comes to Harry Potter-inspired tourism, it’s a little known fact that J.K. Rowling actually started writing the series in Portugal. In the early 90s, the author lived in Porto as an English teacher for two years.
There are varying accounts of just how much Porto influenced the story, much of which is hearsay. But as documented by biographers, when she left Porto in 1993, she had at least three chapters of what would later become Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.
J.K. Rowling is known for her habit of writing in cafes (aren’t all writers?), particularly later when she lived in Edinburgh. According to local rumor, her coffee shop of choice in Porto was Majestic Café. The gorgeous café opened in 1921 on Santa Caterina Street, where it has sat ever since. The café’s interior features the kind of decor you’d expect to see in a king’s dining room, all marble, carved wood, and mirrors.
As a starving writer slash English teacher myself, I have reason to doubt that Rowling could afford to eat regularly at Majestic Café, where a ham and cheese croissant will cost you 5 Euro. (Don’t get me wrong, it’s worth every penny.) But one thing does lend credence to the story: the tea. Though the Portuguese are very proud of their coffee, it’s hard to come by good tea around here. But Majestic Café serves the fine TWG Tea from Singapore. So if a starving writer slash English teacher was going to splurge on anything, it would be good tea. Plus, the atmosphere of the place certainly serves up plenty of inspiration.
Slytherin: The house of Portuguese dictators?
Perhaps tenuous at best, another theory about Harry Potter’s connection to Portugal is the name Salazar Slytherin. One of the founders of Hogwarts in the books, the cunning Salazar gave his name to the most morally ambiguous house, Slytherin. The worst one of all (or best, depending on who you ask), but certainly the one the churned out some of the most villainous, treasonous bastards in the series.
And perhaps it’s no coincidence that house founder Salazar Slytherin shares his name with Portuguese dictator, Antonio de Oliveira Salazar, who ruled for several decades in the 20th century. The fascist ruler’s policies were aimed to stunt literacy in Portugal, something that would, of course, irk an English teacher and writer. So it’s indeed curious that the face of misguided evil in her series shares his name with the real life villain of Portuguese history.
Inspiration around town
Whether intended or not, even when you’re writing fiction, your surroundings tend to bleed onto the page. So it’s no surprise that some people believe that Porto’s Livraria Lello inspired the fictional Flourish and Blotts of the wizarding world of Harry Potter. The library’s classic interior features a stunning red spiral staircase that takes you to the second floor. But realistically speaking, this could be one of thousands all around Europe.
However, you could still argue that stepping out into the meandering alleyways and cobbled streets of Porto might feel a bit like Diagon Alley. You might even stumble upon the Escovaria de Belomonte, a real-life broom shop where they make handmade brushes using all kinds of different materials. It’s doubtful that you’ll find a flying broom here, though.
When I first visited Porto this year, clueless about J.K. Rowling’s connection to the city, I was surprised and delighted to see groups of people walking around in cloaks. Confused, thinking there was some kind of Harry Potter convention, I took to Google only to find that the cloak is part of the uniform at universities and is used to denote students’ status. It’s typically worn for special occasions, so you might see many more of these around during graduations.
The cloak tradition is such an old and important part of Portuguese culture that port wine-maker Sandeman appropriated the university cloak for the look of its icon, the Sandeman don. It was established in 1790 and has been featured prominently on the bank of the Douro River ever since.
So if you’re walking around Porto and you start to feel like you accidentally stepped into the world of Harry Potter, maybe… just maybe, it’s because the world of Harry Potter came out of the streets of Porto.